Susan Chin, Gareth Smit, Paul Moakley, Monica Valenzuela

Photo: Ozgur Gungor

How can the arts help Staten Island in a time of transformation? Multiple development projects are underway on the borough’s North Shore waterfront, home to hundreds of artists and arts organizations. This diverse community faces challenges in planning for cohesive, quality public space. We had a conversation on May 12 at Cooper Union, as part of the NYC Design Talks during NYCxDESIGN week.

The panel, moderated by Design Trust executive director Susan Chin, included Gareth Smit, our Future Culture Photo Urbanism Fellow; Paul Moakley, Deputy Director of Photography and Visual Enterprise, TIME & Caretaker and Curator, Alice Austen House; and Monica Valenzuela, Deputy Director, Staten Island Arts. Huge thanks to Ilene Shaw for organizing this conversation series!

Check out the highlights from our conversation below. You can follow Gareth Smit’s photographs on Instagram @GarethSmit #PhotoUrbanism

Susan Chin: When we talk about the culture on the North Shore of Staten Island, how broad of a perspective are we talking about?

Monica Valenzuela: As far as the work that we do at Staten Island Arts and how we approach artists, I can say that the cultural landscape of Staten Island is very broad, and also complex. A lot of times when you think about artists and art, you think of just visual art and gallery space. Our cultural community extends beyond visual art to music, performance, and more.

In our folk life program, we work with immigrant communities who do art forms that you can not necessarily learn in school. We meet people at their jobs, churches, senior centers, or community centers. The scope of the cultural practices in Staten Island is not limited to one art form or art project. We see it as establishing a network.

Susan Chin: How do you discover these folks who are interested in the arts? Do they come to you? How do you find that rich panoply of arts organizations and individuals who are out there? Most borough arts organizations are geared towards groups and organizations, not necessarily individual artists, and you do both.

Monica Valenzuela: There's no silver bullet to find artists. When folks call us and say "we've got some artists,” we need to backtrack and figure out first what kind of art in what neighborhood, and to what end it is.

In a 2014 survey, we asked artists how much they make from art and what they do for a living, to which there was so much complexity. People wrote, "I'm a writer, but I support myself financially by being a court attorney." Another artists owns a bed and breakfast, and another one is employed full time by the Department of Education in a non-art related field. But they are all self-identifying as an artist and have an artistic practice. 

To discover artists, you have to start with a specific area or neighborhood, and get to know people – much like the practice that Gareth probably does, when trying to go into a community and meet people. It takes a long time.

Susan Chin: Paul, what do you see as the opportunity for the arts in building social and physical connections to and within the rapidly developing waterfront?

Paul Moakley: I’ve lived on Staten island since I was one year old. I really began to discover the Staten Island arts community through Staten Island Arts, which was called COAHSI at the time. As a photographer and a documentarian, it felt as if I was working in a vacuum for awhile, and Staten Island Arts connected me to a much larger community through their big public events like LUMEN Festival and grants.

I make a living as a photo editor, and the Alice Austen House is a really big part of supporting my photographic pursuits. I live in the Alice Austen House – I mow the lawn, I clean up the house. When I look out the window, I see people enjoying the park in so many different ways. I see photographers, young and old, exploring the house and taking pictures. I see painters on our lawn all the time. I see so much potential through our small public space and how it provides such a sanctuary to these people who are relaxing after a long day of work, or taking a break from the monotony of their home lives.

Susan Chin: Gareth, we know from your work in Tompkinsville documenting the community after Eric Garner's death, that you were able to connect with people and develop relationships over time. How will you build a relationship with the community in your Photo Urbanism Fellowship with us? Talk a little bit about what you hope to discover and explore.

Gareth Smit: I spent the last year looking at the community of Tompkinsville on Northern Staten Island, trying to follow the aftermath of Eric Garner's death. I was photographing a community at a very particular point in its trajectory. Relating to what Monica was saying about trying to understand this notion of cultural community, it's quite a complex idea. A community is not limited only to public space. The kind of work that I'm interested in making rests on relationships with people, and the human story behind a lot of the elements that cumulatively make up the cultural community.

Much of the work that I'm doing right now is not necessarily visual yet. I'm having conversations with the partners in the project, but very importantly to me, I'm talking to the people that live in the areas that I'm looking at, who live and work there, who commute to there, or who live there and commute elsewhere. I'm trying to build relationships, and it takes a lot of time. People who haven't been exposed to documentary photographers find it strange that you just kind of "hang out." "What do you do all day?" and "Shouldn't you be working?" are the questions that I get the most.

It's such a blessing to have the opportunity to do this work. In the contemporary world of photojournalism and documentary photography, it's very rare to find the opportunity to spend the time that this kind of work really takes. It is only through grants and multi-partner support like this that you can take the time necessary for building the relationships you need in order to make the photographs that speak to people.

Susan Chin: You’re capturing a moment in photography, and then it will pass on. The photography space is mutable. Things change just even during a day or an hour. How do you see that constantly moving element of time?

Gareth Smit: The big challenge, and something that I'm looking for, is capturing pictures that can say something about that moment two years later, three years later, 20 years later. And often you don't know, especially at this preliminary stage in the project, which pictures matter and which don't. My goal is to capture a photograph that not only speaks to its current reality, but speaks even beyond that.

Susan Chin: How do you see the work of the Fellowship as a civic tool within the broader Future Culture project?

Monica Valenzuela: Well, to add a cliché to it, a picture is worth a thousand words. We constantly talk about changing perceptions, when we are planning programs or helping artists. The majority of the time that you see Staten Island in mass media, it's coming with a negative connotation.

This goes back – most recently with Eric Garner, but you also have Hurricane Sandy, Michael Grimm, the Mob Wives, the Fresh Kills Landfill, and so on. On a global level you're dealing with a narrative taken from images, and Gareth’s images could work toward changing that.

For example, Joel Sternfeld’s photos of the High Line worked as an advocacy tool for a space that was totally un-revitalized, misunderstood, and there were conflicting ideas of what it should be. Our goal here is to have an exhibition. There's also a newspaper component to Future Culture to weave in actual stories with photographs.

Gareth Smit: Journalism plays a very crucial role in civic action. Sometimes that is advocacy perhaps, but I really did try to approach the Eric Garner project not as an activist, but as a reporting journalist. In my heart I'm a journalist, a storyteller. I'm talking about what is there and sharing the overarching themes that people can relate to.

Susan Chin: Paul, as a curator, what do you see in Gareth's initial images as the emerging themes?

Paul Moakley: I do see the journalism in Gareth's work and I think what you want this project to do, as Gareth said, is to transcend a lot of things. You want it to be lasting and have a lot of resonance.

I grew up in the middle of Staten Island, in Oakwood. Moving to the North Shore after college, I came to the other side of Staten Island and noticed a very distinct difference between the two sides of the island. It felt like a segregated place. On one side of the island, you're always inside, in houses or cars. When you move to the North Shore, you're seeing people commuting, you're seeing a lot of people on the streets; it's a very different feeling for the community.

Gareth is picking up on some of those themes. When you see the construction worker driving through the neighborhood in his big truck, you're seeing just literally some of the transitions, the possibilities of what is going to happen in the neighborhood. When you're seeing the people on the street, you're seeing a lot of humanity. You're starting to think of everyone as individuals, and that's really important for this project. I know that one of Gareth's goals is to immerse himself and get much closer to the people, and show much more of that humanity.

Another emerging concern when looking at Gareth’s preliminary images is the inconvenience of transportation in Staten Island. The busses are very packed, people don't like to walk or ride bicycles. It's very hard to ride a bicycle on Bay Street, a little dangerous actually. There are very empty, dead spaces in the middle of all this. These between-spaces are part of the landscape with all the highways, roads, and use of cars on Staten Island. There is also a lot of beautiful architecture. It makes me wonder how we we're going to consider what to preserve and what to renovate.

Gareth Smit: The Photo Urbanism Fellowship works in parallel to the Future Culture project in looking at those kinds of big questions about development on the North Shore. Perhaps we'll only know the answers to those questions that the photographs raise about space and people, much later down the line. It's an opportunity for the photographs to meditate and embrace all those concepts.

Susan Chin: Let's open up to questions from the audience.

Audience Member 1: Gareth, can you talk about the themes of public and private space that pop up in your photographs?

Gareth Smit: I would love to answer that question at the end of the project, but I'll try to answer it now as well. There’s an incredibly diverse community in Staten Island including large immigrant populations, and it’s changing the whole time. People that I grew close to in the time that I was there last year, have since left, or new people have come in. There is a diverse degrees of difference between public and private spaces in Staten Island. It depends on each community and place.

On the broad spectrum of the North Shore as a whole, I’d have to say that there's a very strong sense of community both inside and outside. People know each other very well. They frequent the same stores, know exactly who owns that store and build relationships. It's a very different understanding of the interpersonal relationships that I've experienced at home in Cape Town or in Manhattan.

Monica Valenzuela: To add to that, around 78% of the self-identified artists who took our survey worked out of their home workspace as an artist. In relationship with Williamsburg and Queens, artist home ownership was also much higher. Close to 60% of artists who took the survey were homeowners. These were independent houses, not apartments or lofts. When we're talking about gentrification, and how this would change a community, and what public space versus private space looks like, the dynamic in Staten Island is different than other parts of New York City.

Audience Member 2: This project is using the artist community to bring a political change and impact development, holding on to public space. Ok, we've got data, talked to people, did walks, workshops, and had an exhibit. Then what happens next? What are some of the expectations we can have for this project, or maybe other projects?

Susan Chin: The Design Trust process is all about building coalitions and building constituency. In this particular project, we’ll focus on revealing who the arts community is and bringing them together. We’re also working with the area developers and city agencies – Department of City Planning and Economic Development Corporation. As the process rolls out, we’ll have an opportunity to fold in Gareth's work, as well as what we discover along the way. Everyone will have a voice in creating a robust cultural plan for the area.

Monica Valenzuela: We came to the Design Trust after two years of working with the cultural community around this. During the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) after the Hurricane Sandy happened, we got the cultural community together and walked through the entire sixty-page ULURP document. We reported on issues related to lighting and intersections that should be considered in this land use review. We also did a visioning project before Future Culture even existed. We gave everyone colored pencils and asked them to imagine what the waterfront should look like. A fruitful dialogue opened up among the participants and everyone expressed their needs in the neighborhood.

For the Future Culture project, we’ll continue our conversations with the community members and developers. At a time when New York City is undergoing a cultural planning process, we're going to be responsible for reporting Staten Island's cultural needs to the rest of the city. This project is very timely, as we're literally bringing artists to the table to shape the redesign of public space.

Susan Chin: I also want us to think about what makes Staten Island unique and how we can create something that will be authentic to this constantly changing area. Drawing on the local talents and the character of this place, and what Gareth and our other Fellows will discover as well, is there going to be something that can give people civic pride, while improving the public realm? Is it beautifying a place with art, is it a planting, is it providing an amenity like seating or a café? All that will be part of the discovery process in our project.

Audience Member 3: I'm a Staten Island based historian. Much of the discourse in photography and documentary for the almost fifty years that I've been working has had to do with the question of the distinction and value of outside observation of a community, versus observation that comes from within. This dialogue has ended up in various forms of community empowerment, giving cameras to people within a community, working with photographers who are already embedded in the community, versus outsiders, however well meaning, coming in and basically parachuting in for The New York Times, and then leaving. We have a number of photojournalists and documentarians on Staten Island who are already well embedded within the Staten Island community. So for me, the elephant in the room in this conversation is your Photo Urbanism Fellow being from Cape Town. I'm not clear as to the logic of having this project oriented toward working with someone who is from South Africa.

Monica Valenzuela: It’s important to have both insider and outsider contributions for this initiative. There will be four other fellows on this project that will be a mixture of Staten Islanders and non-Staten Islanders. A Participatory Artist Fellow, specifically designed for a Staten Islander who is embedded in the community, will be responsible for doing a lot of the organizing and community building. A Graphic Design Fellow will be helping to design a lot of the collateral that comes out of the project. A Policy Fellow, who will be someone with real estate experience, will look at what recommendations we can make to make the overall process of public space integration easier. And an Urban Design Fellow will analyze the physical space. Building a team that reflects citywide, and even global issues, is really important to this project.

Susan Chin: We had a lot of discussion about this during the selection process for the Photo Urbanism Fellow. Paul, as the chair of the jury, can you share some of the insights?

Paul Moakley: Gareth wasn’t just somebody who was coming at Staten Island in a completely fresh way. He had an incredibly concise body of work about Staten Island and the community in the aftershocks of Eric Garner. Gareth had spent a long time developing that work and had a real investment in a particular story. Also, his application had a clear conceptual plan for looking at the community for the Future Culture project. He’s very sensitive to the way that he is engaging and immersing himself into the community. There is so much to benefit from the perspectives of both insiders and outsiders.

Susan Chin: And I hope that you and others will participate in our stakeholder meetings and help guide us.

Audience Member 4: Gareth, what are some of the topics that you’ve started to see emerging from your process in this fellowship so far?

Gareth Smit: I come to the table with very little other than my research and my own experience. I have a lot of catching up to do. But there is a positive element to the fact that I have come to this with fresh eyes. I don’t have stereotypes and preconceived ideas about the place. For me, that was a really important way to approach this project.

I was immediately struck that there were many misconceptions about Staten Island outside of Staten Island, but also within Staten Island. There are all those jokes about Staten Island that we really shouldn't be making, because they reinforce a stereotype, while in our heart we actually know that they are not true.

In the contemporary world of photojournalism and documentary photography, it's very rare to find the opportunity to spend the time that this kind of work really takes. It is only through grants and multi-partner support like this that you can take the time necessary for building the relationships you need in order to make the photographs that truly speak to people.

Gareth Smit, Future Culture Photo Urbanism Fellow

Photos (4)

Photo: Ozgur Gungor

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Susan Chin introduces the panelists Gareth Smit, Paul Moakley, and Monica Valenzuela.

Photo: Ozgur Gungor

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Staten Island Arts Board President Diane Kramer

Photo: Ozgur Gungor

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Monica Valenzuela

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Paul Moakley