Andrea Marpillero-Colomina

Come as you are and as you want to be - an interview

Andrea researches the intersection of infrastructure, policy, and place. Her work has taken her to Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Italy, Jordan, and across the US. She taught hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students in courses of her own design, at both public and private universities, and was awarded course development funding by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. She holds an MS in Urban Planning from Columbia University, a BA from Sarah Lawrence College, and is a PhD candidate at The New School, where she is an Isador Lubin Fellow.

After drawing a two-card cross in Andrea’s tarot card reading, Parsons ADHT’s Casey Haymes sat with Andrea to learn more about Integrative Seminar I and II and her Urban Planning experiences in New York and at The New School.

I wouldn’t be a New Schooler if I didn’t ask you what it means to be a Native New Yorker. I’ll refrain from italicizing the word Native, even if grammatically expected.

I was born and raised in New York. My parents are both immigrants. My mom is from Spain and my dad from Italy. They both came here for graduate school, studying architecture at Columbia, and then stayed. The longest I left New York: in college I went to Westchester, and I studied abroad in New Jersey, ha, no, I studied in Cuba and Italy and worked in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, and Jordan. And I actually have to tell you the vast majority of my friends are Native New Yorkers, not only because one of the big secrets about New Yorkers is that we’re actually all very provincial, and none of us really leave and we all hang out with our moms all the time, but also we understand each other. I’m 32, so I’ve watched the city transform in many ways. And there’s something special about having that shared history and knowledge.

What borough did you grow up in?

Since I was four I’ve lived all over lower Manhattan on the west side. My parents have lived in SoHo or Tribeca or the Flatiron or in Chelsea.

Do you have a driver’s license?

I’m on my second learner’s permit. I have taken the road test twice and failed. My boyfriend is from Tucson, Arizona and calls me the subway Rain Man because pretty much wherever we’re going, I say, “We have to stand by this door on this car to get off the train more efficiently.” I was like this by the time I was 14. I had poles in stations that I was intimate friends with because I stood next to them every morning. When they started removing pay phones from stations, it was very disorienting.

At least three pieces of advice for incoming Parsons students new to New York City that they haven’t heard yet?

  1. Acquire at least one article of clothing that is animal print; Everyone knows that that is the real urban safari neutral.
  2. As early as possible, find ways to incorporate the city into your coursework, like, the best way to learn about the city is to have to go out and investigate it, and it can be anything from photography to examining facade materials to taking a poll on a fall day of how many people are wearing jean jackets. Seriously. It tells you so much about the place where you are.
  3. Get lost. Don’t get too lost. But go for a walk and don’t really know where you’re going and don’t have your phone out, and you’ll probably find something pretty magical at some point. This is my fifth year teaching integrative seminar, and since my first year—which was also the first year of the curriculum—I’ve always had a field-based class in Williamsburg. I spend as much time as possible in the field. I’ve had students ask, “I’ve never been to Brooklyn. Is it dangerous?” Students can trust we wouldn’t be sending them out into a haze of bullets. In terms of getting lost, start small. Just walk up 1st Avenue. There’s plenty to see.

What is a Sagittarius at her best and worst in the classroom, both as student and educator? Does astrology come up in class discussions a lot? Factor into lessons and process?

The best and worst thing about a Sagittarius is that learning is not a destination; I always want to learn more. I always want my students to learn more. A lot of the times they remind me they’ve already done the project. The best is that I’m always excited for the journey of learning. Sagittarius is a mutable sign, which means that we’re pretty flexible. I don’t have a problem when a student, in a constructive way, derails my lesson plan with their own idea they’re excited to share with other people. It’s just the journey. I always have some students who are lovely, but they ask, “What can I do to get an A? What do you want?” And I say, “I want you to go on a learning journey!”

Sometimes astrology comes up in class discussions. My first day icebreaker with my seminar class was sharing astrological signs, but it also turned into talking about cats, which was an added bonus. But I find that some people personally don’t enjoy it. But the majority of people do. I try to accommodate both. In my Seminar class this semester I noticed in particular there was a strong trend of Earth signs, and i took that into consideration. So I’ve been doing some things with this class, probably much to the consternation of some of the fire signs, who usually prefer to move faster, that require them to spend a little more time thinking about something in-depth. Processing it. Feeling like they have time to come to terms with it.

Also, for every project in my class that requires them to hand something in for a grade, if they get a B or lower, they can redo the assignment and I’ll take the higher grade. I’m not here to torture people. It’s not just about them getting it right the first time. And there’s no reason to cheat them on the process side of things. Otherwise they could shut down with failure or limit themselves because they’re focused on just getting the highest grade. I had a great student email me last week, and she said, “Why did I get a 19/20 on this assignment? And a 20/20 on this other assignment? What demarcates the difference?” I said, “Girl, that’s a 95. Don’t get carried away trying to get a 20/20. That’s not the point. I would rather that you’re braver in the thing that you produce.

How do the power dynamics play out in your relationship with your cat, Captain Hamilton, v. your friends? Students?

Astrologically? Or in general?

Your choice. Wait, what is Captain Hamilton’s sign?

Unfortunately it’s unclear what his sign is. I think he’s a Scorpio/Sagittarius cusp because he has this sort of free spirit. He’s also really social. But sometimes he’ll hang out a large portion of the day by himself then get mad when you leave, which is a pretty big Scorpio move. Generally I love creatures furry and human, but I would say I’m really interested in, everywhere in my life, people and creatures that are excited to interact and learn from other creatures.

What are the circles of a Venn Diagram that form the center that is you?

How does running a half-marathon in Brooklyn relate to your work? Was this intentionally two birds, one stone: exercise and research?

I’m writing my dissertation, so sometimes when I’m engaged in a big project I get into this sort of like state of feeling like I can’t set goals and reach them. I signed up for this marathon in January. At the time I could comfortably run five or six miles. So I set a goal for myself. I was going to work up my stamina to run a half. And it was a really wonderful experience for myself, not only in terms of setting a goal for something I wouldn’t normally set a goal for, but also sort of teaching myself that you can set goals and meet them and that’s it. Also, running in itself was amazing because they clear all the streets of cars. The last six or seven miles of the half, we exited Prospect Park and were running down Ocean Parkway and we briefly were running on the Gowanus Expressway And then we were running down Ocean Parkway, which they’d completely cleared of cars. Ocean Parkway is so wide that the 27,000 runners weren’t even taking up the full width of the parkway. And there were all of these kids playing in the margins of the race. As an Urbanist I thought of how this space could be used better by people if there weren’t all these cars parked everywhere.

What is your study focus?

I have a masters in Urban Planning and I’m getting my degree here at Milano in Public and Urban policy. My dissertation is about the Bedford Avenue bike lane, and the conflict between the Hasidic Jews and the hipsters around the installation of the bike lane in 2008. And it’s removal in 2009, and how that specific conflict fits into the larger conflict and history of conflict in that neighborhood that goes back hundreds of years.

How do you break the mold? The stagnant? The silence of a classroom? How do you work with silence rather than oppose it?

It’s taken me some time to embrace the silence. In some early evaluations—I always give a midterm evaluation that I administer internally because I think that one of the flaws of course evaluations is that they’re at the end of the class, and there’s nothing anyone can do in response to feedback when the class is over. A couple of times, some of the evaluations said, “Sometimes you’ll ask a question, and if nobody answers immediately you’ll move on. Maybe if you (it was mostly earth signs in this class) gave us some more time then you could let us think about the question.“ Frankly, that was a great point.

Are you seeing any difference generationally?

If you were born in 1996 – 2012, you’re iGen. iGen folks basically don’t remember life without the internet, but specifically life without social media. They’re very interested in talking about that. So I found this semester that if I get stuck, I throw that into the conversation, and they have a lot of really interesting things to say. I’ve learned a lot about social media from them. That’s something too. With this generation, it’s clear they know how to have an opinion and comment and like things. They’ve been doing it their whole lives. They watched their parents do it. They understand participatory everything from marketing to democracy to discussion boards. So I often have to reframe something that may seem intimidating as part of a classroom context to something that is more familiar to them. They really are natives of that sphere.

Rules to break v. follow, both inside and outside the classroom? 

My number one rule in the classroom is to disagree with ideas not people. I’m really careful, I want to protect the more sensitive classroom participants, and also show the other students if they disagree with something they’re not disagreeing with a person. The person isn’t stupid. It’s the idea that maybe they wish they had articulated differently. Or they have a different idea.

Pretty much every other rule is to break. Rules are, ideally, structures implemented so that we can all get along and society can be relatively organized. I think it’s really up to every person to decide what their values are and how those square with the rules that they’re being told to follow, and also their understanding of the consequences of those rules. For example: I have a no technology rule in my classroom. for the most part, unless we’re doing a specific activity, that my students don’t have their computers open. They’re taking notes with a pen and paper. I tell them, especially in Seminar I, “We’re together for two hours and forty minutes a week. I’m not here to see the back of your laptop screen, and neither are you, so put it away.” I also ask that I don’t see their phones. We all have people we could be texting. I’m not okay with them hiding it either. I say in my syllabus…I’ll just read it…(you always have to have a copy of your syllabus with you: “Students may not at any time use their mobile phones in class. If you are experiencing a personal emergency and are expecting a phone call, please notify me at the start of class. Students using their phones in class will be asked to leave. And receive an unexcused absence for that day.” Also, on the first day of class, when we walk through the syllabus, I have them sign the last page of the syllabus and give it to me. You’d think this would be cut and dry. 

Are you following through with the rule?

A: Usually in September I give some really generic warnings, then in October, I’ll say something like, “Casey, put your phone away. I see you; you see me. We’re all here together, right?” I would say I’ve had a student leave class once, and that was because it was pretty egregious: The student was holding the phone on the table and swiping through Instagram. If you’re really that bored, I thought, then you should go. Because clearly I’m not doing it for you. The rules are really clear, and all of us are deciding whether we want to follow them or not. We have to accept the clearly communicated consequences.

I’m a high school senior who skips school to visit art museums. I hide from my friends the fact that I watch documentaries on artists and famous painting forgeries more than explosions, zombies, and romance. I’m applying to Parsons, looking at First Year courses. We meet on a subway. What would you tell me about your Seminar course? What wouldn’t you tell me about your Seminar course?

My seminar course is really about getting to know yourself in the context of the art you want to pursue, so let’s say you come to Parsons and say you want to do Fashion Merchandising or whatever, and then by the end of the semester, you’re like, I want to be a graphic designer. I would say, “Come to Parsons with your passions, but also be ready in my class to be able to articulate the choice you’re making. Why are you watching these documentaries on artists? What if we watch this documentary on this different artist and it blows your mind? What will you do? In my seminar class you also have some time built into the curriculum on purpose that will facilitate your ability to make friends. And hopefully you will find other budding young Parsons students who also watch documentaries on artists and learn about famous painting forgeries and then you can be pals. I wouldn’t tell you specifics, ie, a reading list. I wouldn’t tell you to be really concerned about your grades. I would tell you show up and be ready to think.

What is your relationship to the written word? Dating? Married? Seeing other people right now? Single?

 I’m seeing other people right now. Since the 2016 presidential election it’s been really hard for me to read the news. I’ve started to listen to podcasts, which are delivered in such gentle tones. I’ve always been an avid NY Times reader, online mostly, while commuting. I don’t do that anymore, unless I’m looking for coverage on a specific thing. So I’m definitely seeing other people. At the same time I’m becoming a little bit more of a monogamist with New York magazine, which has always been a great love of mine. But they’ve changed their formula recently, so now they’re only bi weekly. And they’ve hired a couple of…a range of sort of longer form journalists, or folks who do long form. In terms of other written word, I read a lot for research. I’ve been hanging out a lot at the Brooklyn Historical Society, where their full collection—you can’t check anything out; I’ve been hanging out, reading some books. But in terms of books that I read for pleasure, I mostly read in the summer. And on vacation.

What is it that makes the post-graduation world “real”? University life a bubble life rather than the real world? Brooklyn and NYC are often described as bubbles… Where do we live/thrive outside a bubble? What are the terms for popping bubbles inside the classroom?

A: I’d say a lot of people think of the post-graduation world as being real because you have to get a job and pay your bills, but I also think that is an assumption about college students and the privilege of people going to university and pursuing university life. Many universities have been set up so that with the classes and the cost and the time and everything about college life, you can, for the most part, only succeed as a college student if you have the means to only be a student. And I increasingly, at every institution I’ve worked at, have had students who work. Last year I had a student who was completely putting herself through school as an 18-year-old First Year. She worked a full-time retail job. She wasn’t living in a bubble. She was a great student, too. She had the flu for ten days in early November because she worked a retail job in which she was forced to stand outside and give out samples in 40-degree weather without a coat on. But that wasn’t her fault; they needed to see the logo of her apron. Brooklyn is often seen as being in a bubble. Okay, but sure, Brooklyn also has some of the most rich diversity in the world in terms of population by race, age, religion, housing typology, modes of transportation, ecology, so is the bubble about it being urban? Is the bubble that the real estate market is really high?

In the post election time, I’ve been thinking about what reaching across the aisle looks like. The extreme example involving Neo Nazis… What is that conversation supposed to do? Should the violent Nazi agenda be given equal consideration?

If we’re defining the bubble as, you live in a bubble because you don’t understand how there can be all of this intolerance and lack of understanding because as a person living in New York City you’re constantly surrounded by people who are different than you, then aren’t the other people in homogenous neighborhoods, cities, and rural areas the ones living in the bubble? I think listening is really important, but I also think there’s been this mistake made among the democratic party, and with liberalism as an institution and with intellectuals throughout history, that you can explain your way into having someone agree with you. Sometimes they’re just not going to agree. And what’s more important is that you draw a line in the sand and say no when it’s necessary. There hasn’t been enough action taking. In politics I think there’s a whole other problem of people being driven by outside influences, e.g., money. For elected officials, it’s a fear of not being re-elected. First of all, everyone should have term limits. But that also affects the bubbles. Some people working in universities believe they’re impossible to fire. So they’re not motivated by innovation but by holding their ground.

Given the market reality of New York, how do you reach with research the imbalance of access to infrastructure and create mobility? Who are the actors? What is the range of change? Is anyone listening who needs to listen for improvement to be felt by the marginalized and displaced and forgotten? Who authors the infrastructures? How does this work inform your pedagogy?

In terms of infrastructure and creating immobility, we’re all actors. Everyone from the person in a wheelchair to the mayor. We all have a different role to play in terms of thinking about how infrastructure can really change the opportunities for everyone, including the marginalized, displaced, and forgotten. In terms of creating mobility, I think one thing that’s really interesting about New York, which is part of the reason that thinking about mobility and infrastructure is so interesting to me, is that everyone is always talking about it. So we know everyone cares, right. Because you got to get to work. You got to go to your friend’s house. Trains, bikes, CitiBike, Cars, Lyft… New Yorkers are always going somewhere, so they’re always talking about the experience of getting there or not getting there, or how much it cost. I think that shows how driven we are as New Yorkers to move, and to increase our access to not only economic experiences like jobs and school but social experiences. The range of changes is as big as we want it to be. I think there’s a lot of fear among people with the most power of pissing off the people who elected them or the people that fund their institutions, so if we get the people with the most power to be less scared, then we’ll make the most radical change.

This informs my pedagogy, both in my own research and as a teacher. I push my students to not only think about issues of equity and accessibility and for whom and why but also to think big. What is the dream? and let’s work backwards from the dream, e.g., if your ideal is that every subway station is ADA accessible, that’s a big ask—I think they all should be, but it’s a big ask based on where we’re at right now—so that’s the dream. So what do we need to do to get to that dream? Oh, we have to make 500 subway stations ADA accessible. Ok. Let’s throw in an additional set of parameters. We can only make five stations in each borough ADA accessible every year. Pick them. Why? And then people prioritize a station because it has the most riders. Or this one because it’s near a hospital. They really start to think, this isn’t something with one layer, this isn’t a scone; this is a croissant! You rip it open and there are a 100 layers and you have to figure out how they’re all intersecting, and maybe how some layers of the croissant are collapsing, and why, and what kind of croissant is this anyway. Is it almond? Did I know it was almond. And how does that determine the way that we make decisions? Now that I know this is an almond croissant, what do I do? Do I give half away?

Most surprising lesson learned from students? Something you thought about it on the way home.

The most surprising is the resilience and resistance to being hardened. This year, I have a student who was a three-season athlete. In high school he had cardiac arrests and was basically told he couldn’t be an athlete any more. He had to rebuild his life. And he just told all of us that on the second day of class. He was provoked, though, by a writing assignment about a major shift in their life. I had a student who is Korean and she had always had a big passion for art, but in Korea the standard for art school for children is that you teach them only to draw realistic line drawings. So she was really good at drawing rope realistically. But she hated it and felt her creativity was stifled. Then she went to an arts high school in Thailand and was encouraged to think beyond what she’d been told was the only way.

These students really roll up the sleeves and they do it and they work really hard. Many of them have experienced their families being broken up in different kinds of ways. And they bring that all to the classroom in the most elegant and forthcoming way, and already as 18-year-olds are tying it to their work. Part of it is Parsons: it’s a demanding school to get into. And it’s also a specific kind of student, right. You have to, in your heart, say, I want to go to a different kind of college. There are no frat parties here. No quad. They’ve chosen this path where they’re really bringing themselves into their work, and they’re really thinking. Whether they’re doing it consciously or not, they’re really thinking about and engaging with their own vulnerabilities when they’re really young. I don’t remember being that brave at 18. It’s really impressive. The fact that this is an institution that attracts so many nontraditional students also tells you something. It means that there’s something about the ethos of this school that tells you, it’s okay to be you. We’re all here being us. We’re all gonna come to it with our own experience, and that’s cool. That’s great. We don’t want you all to be wearing the same leggings. Come as you are and as you want to be.

Perceptions of you that students share with you that are correct? Surprising?

They will pick up on the fact that I’m paying attention to them personally, and that I care about them. They’ll say, “Oh, I notice that you always notice what I was eating for breakfast, and you say something.” In a way that tells them that I care about them, which I do; I not only care about their work but care about how they’re doing. When I started teaching, I was pretty young, and I was always fearing they were going to figure out I was ten years older than them. They were going to really care and think I was a fraud.

Laundry tips for new New Yorkers?

If possible live in a building with laundry inside. But be aware that all of that laundry time is active time. There is a crazy person in your building who will take your wet clothes out of the washing machine the second the load is done, so stand by. If you don’t have it in your building, if the price difference is negligible, just have the people at the laundromat do it for you. The other thing, you need to wash your clothes less than you think you need to. Underwear and socks are obviously different, but you don’t don’t need to wash your sweater. You can air it out. You can make a great spray bottle of water and essential oil and spray it on your clothes and it’ll smell amazing. It’s much better for the environment and much better smelling than Febreeze, which is disgusting.

Spaces of respite on campus?

The courtyard between 11th and 12th. In the University Center library, the corner of 5th and 14th has windows on two sides, and it’s a beautiful view.

How do we work with–rather than against–differences in perception?

Textiles are always good for a metaphor. Wool can be really itchy but it can also be really stretchy and malleable. Can something that is uncomfortable at first come to fit you better?

How is learning from mistakes valued in your classrooms, both for students and yourself? 

I think that mistakes are the best part of being in a classroom. I think one of the beautiful things about educational institutions and pedagogy is the fact that you’re supposed to make mistakes, and also, What are mistakes? There are no mistakes; It’s just part of the learning journey, and we’re all here to figure out what we’re doing, what we want to do, what our aspirations are, and how we’ll get to them. Things that don’t turn out the way that we planned are the beautiful byproduct of that. We should love them.