This oral history project seeks to harmonize the widely told stories of housing and neighborhood restructuring in the city with the voices of all New Yorkers whose organizing efforts have shaped the city and its history. It aims to honor, amplify and preserve the voices, stories, and movements that have changed how we live and relate to each other in the city. It focuses particularly on the efforts of immigrants and people of color that have used community organizing, cooperativism, and coalition building to not only fight against profit-driven development, gentrification, and displacement but also to envision in collectivity new policy platforms and development approaches leading to the production of non-speculative housing and social space for the benefit of all. At the same, this project intends to underscore the struggles against the environmental injustices that have plagued Brown and Black communities for centuries.
In addition to honoring the voices of those fighting for the right to housing and the city, this oral history project seeks to visualize where those voices and stories take place and make those narratives accessible to everyone through an interactive digital cartography serving as a permanent archive. Lastly, in solidarity with local efforts that advance social and spatial justice, the project intends to build long-lasting community-university relationships through community advocacy.
These goals will be realized through the following interconnected actions and in close collaboration with communities and narrators.
1. Co-designing and conducting localized oral history projects to compile individual voices/stories and emphasize the powerful collective memories, views, and imaginaries that animate past and current struggles for social and spatial justice in New York City.
2. Co-developing a critical cartography exposing these narratives — an online interactive spatial repository that connects these histories — with images, maps, audio recordings, and knowledge-sharing tools.
3. Disseminating community advocacy outcomes and reflections to different audiences through publications and public discussions that promote cooperation and knowledge exchange.
WHAT IS ORAL HISTORY?
A method and a field of study involving the collection, preservation, and interpretation of voices and memories of people and communities. It is the oldest method of sharing knowledge, predating the written word. The practice of oral history offers the opportunity to question historical modes of information gathering and knowledge creation and to critique extractive research methods.
There is a long history within Western Euro-American academic traditions of exploiting Black, Brown, indigenous, immigrant, and poor populations for the purpose of research. Responding to this, Black, Indigenous, and feminist historians have embraced approaches to oral history that complicate the researcher-research subject binary and allow for more open, caring approaches to collective knowledge creation and sharing. Within this framework, narrators and interviewers create a historical narrative together, one that emphasizes the identity, story, and life experience of the narrator. This method of interviewing weakens the distinction between “researcher” and “participant” in favor of a more honest relationship based on mutual responsibility, trust, and care. Oral histories are preserved in archives and shared in order to provide a direct, lasting benefit to popular knowledge.
WHAT IS RADICAL CARTOGRAPHY?
For centuries, maps have been drawn from the perspectives and interests of those in power, such as governments, militaries, banks, and corporations. Organizing space into territories and borders underlies a history of colonization and genocide of Indigenous people’s places and knowledges. This process structured the violence of chattel slavery, Jim Crow, and redlining, enshrining the segregation and dispossession of Black people. Today, the city’s stubborn zoning maps carry forth these legacies of dispossession and marginalization into their current forms, such as the gentrification of Black, Brown, immigrant, and working-class neighborhoods throughout the city.
Radical cartography is a mode of questioning the power and knowledge that maps produce as common sense, a way of understanding the limitations and violence that maps enact in our daily lives, and a tool for organizing collective, community-based struggles towards ambiguity, porousness, and connection within and across mapped boundaries. While maps made by the powerful aim to collapse the complexities of a place into neat borders and new marketable neighborhoods, collective and community-driven mapping practices excavate the messy, entangled social histories and material ecologies of a place. This radical, relational approach positions communities to remap the places where they live according to their own identities, experiences, and histories and build movements of resistance to the colonizing legacy of top-down cartographies through community plans and other collective practices.
WHAT IS COMMUNITY ADVOCACY?
Community advocacy is an approach rooted in principles of empowerment, inclusion, human rights, self-determination, and collective action. It addresses the interconnected and unwavering struggles of marginalized communities against state-sanctioned neglect and violence and towards liberation from those systems of oppression. Community advocacy relies on the knowledge and experience of marginalized and oppressed communities as a primary source of information. It empowers communities in research processes leading to action by bringing them together and making them participants in elaborating a collective project based on their aspirations. In this case, we understand this collective work as a crucial framework for transforming community, urban, and housing development practices.
We see community advocacy as an alternative approach to community engagement promoted by governments and experts, which often resorts to hierarchical and top-down methods by default. Working directly with communities, this methodology often involves a self- reflective process through mutual engagement with the dialectical tension between community members and community advocates. This tension is the main source of dynamism in the process of mutual transformation between the researcher-practitioner and the members of a community. Community advocates do not monopolize knowledge nor impose a way of working but respect and combine their own skills with a community’s own knowledge, taking them as full partners and co- researchers.
In summary, oral history is our chosen method for locating, gathering, and preserving stories collaboratively and in community with the narrators who share them. The radical cartography as a living archive builds on these histories by highlighting connections and forging relationships between each narrator’s story, providing an archival space that allows for discovering additional layers of visual, material, and narrative complexity. Community advocacy and public education programs serve as the educational and practical anchor for these co-creative initiatives, stewarding the historical archive and ensuring its accessibility to any community, individual, movement, or organization struggling
toward just housing policy. Taken together, these three elements can lead to innovative practices and theories of change while producing powerful popular knowledge promoting social and spatial justice.
ORAL HISTORY PROJECT TEAM
Gabriela Rendón, Assistant Professor of Urban Planning and Community Development
Mia Charlene White, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies
Kevin McQueen, Adjunct Professor Schools of Public Engagement.
Cartography and Oral History Project Online Platform
Eric Brelsford, Part-Time Assistant Professor School of Design Strategies.
Oral History Advisor and Mentor
Lynn Lewis, freelance oral historian, author, educator, activist, and consultant with 40+ years of experience in a range of social justice work.
Diana Zacca Tomaz, Postdoctoral Fellow at Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility
Jiray Avedisian, Parsons’ (MS) Design and Urban Ecologies candidate
Maria Llona Garcia, Schools of Public Engagement’s (MA) Creative Writing.
This multi-year project has been developed with the aid of a Parsons School-Cross Fund and a generous grant from the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility.
ONGOING ORAL HISTORY PROJECTS
We are building the Oral History and Cartography online platform where you will be able to access the interviews of the ongoing oral history projects for research, pedagogical, and organizing purposes.
- Cooper Square Oral History Project
- Voces Ciudadanas Oral History Project
- Community Action for Safe Apartments Oral History Project
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