Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California


Streetnotes bannerUC Davis


Streetnotes is a peer-reviewed journal for the interdisciplinary study of the city, its lifeways and social relations, with a special concern for the cultural and aesthetic forms that arise through its traffic.

New York City in Transformation

Issue cover
"New York City in Transformation," edited by LinDa Saphan and Jennifer M. Pipitone, profiles urban transformations in New York City, broadly defined and ranging from mundane daily rhythms of the city to the extraordinary. Together, nine academic and artistic selections highlight the myriad ways in which urban transformations can take place: at varying scales and speeds; at varying levels of visibility; and at the hands of different stakeholders, actors, and agents of change.



Credits: Layout: LinDa Saphan. Photos by authors. Top left: Seth Tobocman and Tamara “Tornado” Wyndham, “NYC Story,” 2022. Middle left: Amy Zhang, “Colors of Sunset Park” Patterns Identification and Development, 2022. Middle right: Sruthi Atmakur-Javdekar, “Across the Bridge,” 2015. Top right: Angelique Vieira, Untitled, 2021. Bottom: Javier Otero Peña, “Free style Guerrilla Gallery, showing aesthetic empathy,” October 31, 2019. Background: Kelly Yu, “Sketch H1”, 2022.


Introduction: New York City in Transformation

The editors of Streetnotes 29: New York City in Transformation provide an introduction to the issue and its content.

Being-with-ears: How Christian Benning Opened my Ears to the Soundscapes of New York City and Beyond

This writing explores the phenomenology of everyday urban sounds, some generic, others more place specific sounds to New York, or particular places within New York with samplings from Manhattan, the Queensboro Bridge and Queens. It takes the perspective of a walker and Environmental Psychologist, a commuter on the way to work. The experience was inspired and made possible by a recital by multi-percussionist Christian Benning that introduced listeners to different sounds and music. In this writing “New York City in transformation” refers to the transformation of sounds via the experience of walking, and the transformation experienced through a newfound aesthetic and meaning to sounds as my ears had been opened: everyday sounds that previously escaped my attention, sounds that I have taken for granted, or considered as a nuisance, have transformed from noise to sound (from Krach to Klang). Being-with-ears can be a way of being more present and taking more delight by being attuned to the sounds and potential songs of one’s everyday environment.


Tree with Moons

The sculpture began with wanting to process grief. One of my brothers passed away in his sleep (unrelated to Covid) in 2020 after pandemic travel restrictions made it impossible to gather for a funeral. Over the course of my making, which is process-based – an intuitive approach to materials and methods – the form evolved into a tree with three moons. The tree is a cross-cultural symbol of loss and renewal. Each month we can observe, too, the moon appearing and disappearing from view, a metaphor for the ephemeral nature of existence.

The mind struggles to accept the notion of death as inevitable, coming to all. The Vietnamese Zen monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, has written that when we are alive, we are part of the sky, the earth, the clouds. When we pass, we continue to be part of everything. I look up into the trees and the sky and know the spirit of my mother, my father, and my brother continue.

Poetry has always been an informing influence in my studio production. In the process of welding Tree with Moons, installed in Maker Park, Staten Island on October, 2021 (through April 2022), I communed with the poetry of Joy Harjo, Emily Dickinson, and Anne Waldman among others.

Maker Park is an abandoned lot at the corner of Front and Thompson Streets that has been transformed from an abandoned lot strewn with burnt-out cars into a sculpture and community park that hosts poetry readings, yoga, raku workshops, Maker Park Radio, Shakespeare theater and a small apiary of beehives in addition to a yearly sculpture exhibition supported in part by the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs.

A Daily Practice in Memories of a Lived Experience: Bridging Pune and New York City

What happens when the present (perceived or real space) is ‘conceived’ (as artwork) from memories of a lived experience?

According to Lefebvre, ‘representational space’ is space as directly (or lived) experienced by users through “associated images and symbols” (p. 39); one that is passively experienced or felt – “a space which the imagination seeks to change and appropriate” (1974/1991, p. 39).

Like New York City and perhaps other cities in urban India, Pune has been experiencing rapid transformation where the urban landscape is dotted with high-rise developments in residential, industrial, institutional and commercial sectors. However, Pune has a unique urban landscape given its geographical locational advantage of being nestled in the rich and biologically diverse Sahyadri mountain range or the Western Ghats. As a result, the city boasts of small hills that are marked by urban planners, technocrats, and those in power as bio-diverse areas - spaces where no urban transformation may be permitted. This leads to a type of development that constantly struggles between accommodating the demands of the influx of migrants from other towns and cities and Pune’s natural landscape.

In this context of urban transformation of Pune city and my personal journey of moving from New York City to Pune in 2013, I use painting as a medium to unpack my decade long personal journey of change. In total, there are five artworks, where each piece reflects ‘representational space’– i.e., space as directly experienced by me using vivid colors and abstract shapes.

The five paintings are chronologically positioned based on the year of completion. As a result, when viewed in order, the artworks tell a story of change – of crossing over (the bridge) from a life of a graduate student /researcher /lecturer in New York City to a life of a PhD scholar/ mother/ wife/ daughter/ working professional in Pune city. Through each art piece, I lean into the theme of ‘urban nature’ to share my subjective experiences. When you look closer, each art piece, much like Pune’s demanding urban landscape, represents a story of change, challenge, acceptance, and resistance.

Outdoor Dining and the Transformation of Public Space in New York City

New York City’s streetscapes have undergone a dramatic transformation as a result of the city’s Open Restaurants program. Established in June of 2020 to uplift the restaurant industry out of economic turmoil brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the program led to outdoor dining structures sprouting across the urban landscape. Due to its overall success, the city is currently preparing to launch a permanent program, which has led to conflicts between some of the city’s stakeholders as the space used for outdoor dining overlaps with public spaces such as sidewalks and streets. Drawing from urban planning and environmental psychology students’ research projects, this paper explores the ways in which outdoor dining has transformed public space in New York City using Lefebvre’s spatial theory as a guide. Over the course of a semester, students analyzed city blocks in the Bronx and Manhattan using multiple methods including historical analysis of block changes and field observations. Analysis of 45 open restaurants across 15 city blocks suggests the following: the increase in outdoor dining structures is widespread; there is high variability in outdoor dining structural design and aesthetics regardless of neighborhood median income; and impacts on mobility and accessibility warrant further research. In discussing these findings we consider the ways in which outdoor dining space is socially produced through conceived, perceived, and lived space to better understand the current state of affairs and reveal the dialectic of urban life. Lefebvre’s spatial triad is a useful tool for socio-spatial analysis on this scale; its relational structure affords the opportunity to consider conflicts as generative moments that can lead to a reimagining of public space that is more equitable, accessible, and participatory.

Buzzing Calligraffiti

This series of artworks explore the human perceptions of space, presence, belonging, communication, movement, resilience, and regrowth during the ongoing pandemic in New York City. In a dynamic spatial ontology, past-present-future palimpsests exist as our spatiotemporal perception of reality. Current pandemic trapped humans (including myself) in situ, and, in a way, recontextualized human social spatiability and psychogeographic perception of space, adding layers of introspection. During lockdowns, as the only means to communicate with other people was via digital technologies, entire life (work, school, religious service, exercising, entertainment, socializing, dating, etc.) moved online. This new spatiotemporal reality emerged as a form of resilience and solidarity in the time of crisis. New York City, the city that never sleeps, started to buzz again. In a dance between the real and the imaginary, the transient and the permanent, on and off screen, the virtual and the real, online and in-person, between here and there, appears the space in between, populated with traces, imprints, voices of the voiceless, and opportunities for regrowth. This newly created mashwork inspired my painting series “Buzzing Calligraffiti” where multiple realities, spaces, cultures, and points of view coexist in a buzzing harmony. These paintings (painted with natural and manmade pigments - acai juice, ink, color pencils, and blue watercolor) are a bridge between cultures, aesthetics, and points of view (calligraphy and graffiti), as well as a bridge between nature and the city.  The work represents a unity in difference - at the same time a cultural unity and a unity where non-human and human nature coexist in harmony.

Playing Chess in Public: Recreational Traditions in a Time of Crisis

Based upon a series of ethnographic vignettes, interviews, participant observation, and archival research, this article profiles public chess playing in Greenwich Village, New York City.  I focus upon the famed public spaces for chess players like Washington Square Park and Union Square, and the atmosphere of anxiety and unrest due to the Covid-19 Pandemic and systemic racism surrounding the protests of the summer of 2020.  The long artistic and revolutionary history of Greenwich Village provides an intriguing context for public chess playing and the informal economy of hustling.  As the majority of the chess enthusiasts and table hosts are African American men and, given the metaphoric explanations of “chess as life,” sociopolitical context is critical.  In particular, political artistic displays and protests against police violence and systemic racism are no mere backdrop for chess playing, but intimately felt and entangled within the sense of place and public participation in downtown Manhattan.

As New York City, during 2020 and throughout the Covid-19 Pandemic era, faced multiple crises along with their sociopolitical responses; iconic staples of Greenwich Village life embodied by the area’s chess enthusiasts persist.  In order to illuminate the everyday life of chess playing in public, I focus on two players: Mr. Black in Washington Square Park and Alfred in Union Square.  These ethnographic vignettes reveal downtown chess playing as an activity inseparable from its urban context – uniquely and importantly a New Yorkers’ pastime and entangled within the socioeconomic, political, and artistic landscapes that color downtown New York City.


The Guerrilla Gallery: A Rapid Ethnography about a Collaborative Public Art Installation in East Harlem

In the heart of East Harlem, New York City, a collective of artists called the Harlem Art Collective created the “Guerrilla Gallery”: A collaborative public art installation on a construction fence, to give residents a place to express themselves through art and messages. While East Harlem is characterized by murals depicting Puerto Rican flags and political causes, these symbols were absent in the Guerrilla Gallery, which instead exhibited predominantly Mexican cultural and political symbols. Was a territorial contestation taking place through art, a sort of identity negotiation to determine who “belongs” in the neighborhood? (Zukin, 1995) This article presents an ethnographic and photographic narrative of the Guerrilla Gallery and what it means to the people who live in the neighborhood. Using rapid ethnographic assessment procedures (Low et al., 2005), coupled with photographic cartography (Ulmer, 2017), this study presents the findings of interviews and the Guerrilla Gallery. The analysis revealed that, although there were instances of aesthetic conflict occurring in the gallery, these were not exclusively related to national cultures; gender and racial conflicts were also observed. Strong expressions of aesthetic empathy were also identified in the artwork. The Guerrilla Gallery became a meaningful space for the community in East Harlem, who not only appreciated it because of its aesthetic value and the possibility of expression it offers, but also because residents were able to connect with their roots, strengthen their local identity and pride, express empathy and solidarity with other social groups in the neighborhood or in faraway places, and resist changes or policies that affected their everyday lives.

New York City Story

This comic strip is my response to hearing that mayor Eric Adams has called for an 6% rent increase for New York Cities’ rent stabilized tenants. The rent stabilization laws protect a large number of NYC tenants by limiting the size of rent increases a landlord can charge on the renewal of a lease. In recent years those increases were about 1% or 2%, but the new mayor has proposed 6%, a significant escalation.

Many justifications have been advanced for this increase. The rising cost of gas. The fact that the previous administration kept rent increases to a minimum. The two-year moratorium on evictions during COVID. I felt that the only way to explain how devastating this reversal in policy was going to be, was to present the overall trajectory of the housing situation in NYC, not over years, but decades.

When I came to NYC in the 1970s it was pretty easy to find an affordable place to live, even if you were poor. It was a city where someone could start at the bottom and work their way up. This is not true anymore. Many longtime residents have been forced to leave, and many young people, starting out, are locked out of this city.

This transition did not happen easily. It involved violent clashes, evictions, demolitions and riots. I have often compared this to a war. This was a traumatic and injurious process. To increase rents further at the end of such a process, is to ‘add insult to injury. to “pour salt in our wounds”. At a time when people really need healing and compensation for their losses, they are instead suffering further abuse. I think that, when viewed in the proper historical context, the policies of the Adams administration appear to be quite reactionary and at odds with the lived experience of many New Yorkers. We should not stand for this. We deserve better.

Identities of Self and Place in Sunset Park: The Unmaking of the Gowanus Expressway

This project explores the intersecting qualities of place, time, and identity through the work of a graduate design studio at Rice School of Architecture. “Identities of Self and Place in Sunset Park: The Unmaking of the Gowanus Expressway,” challenges students to activate a residual urban space through a broad reading of its surrounding cultural, physical, and programmatic site conditions. The project site, located beneath the Gowanus Expressway in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, is a typical example of how transportation infrastructure of the past bifurcated communities and sent neighborhoods into decline. Architecture designed through the lens of Place, Time, and People can produce responsive spaces that address historical injustices while allowing for multiple readings and experiences.

Students began their research with a design methodology based in both direct and remote observation of the project site. They examined the local conditions and expanded into the surrounding neighborhoods, searching for patterns in the constructed environment that reflected a community ethos, or a shared sense of belonging. Responding to the context, students identified and isolated found patterns that held potential for development as spatial experiences.

These exercises became the basis for the design of a community center annex for the Center for Family Life in Sunset Park. Using the spatial patterning developed through their research, the students articulated different facets of their selected patterns to generate a range of spaces and conditions—intimate and communal, private and public, interior and exterior. The designs expressed a cohesive reading of the project that emphasized the experience of shared community within a complex and diverse urban environment.

Images from the studio’s final projects, including photographs, sketches, renderings, and architectural drawings, will be presented along with the students’ written descriptions to convey their specific design intent and personal methodology within the broader course framework. The products of the studio’s work over the course of the semester show a clear relationship between the methodologies employed and the resultant synthesis of identity, place and structure. The work highlights the possibilities available to designers and architects in working to transform aging infrastructure into spaces of social interaction and community.