Category: Culture

New York City is full of isolated locations of deviance and crisis, what French philosopher Michel Foucault called heterotopias: fixed spaces that reveal cultural contradictions, where people are often excluded from ‘normal society’ and yet still tolerated. It is this idea of tolerance that I contemplated as I crossed the bridge from northern Queens to Rikers Island on my first day of a six-week workshop inside the city’s main prison complex, where I taught the Bill of Rights to the facility’s incarcerated juveniles, aged sixteen to eighteen.

Roosevelt Island once had quarantine facilities for smallpox, insane asylums and prisons. Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island just west of Rikers Island treated those with leprosy, venereal disease and drug addiction. Both facilities were abandoned in the 1950s and 60s — probably no coincidence as the philosophy on medical treatment shifted from isolation towards rehabilitation. But Rikers Island remains in use.

There is only one way to access the island — across the Rikers Island Bridge. The island facility is comprised of ten jails with a total capacity of 17,000 all-male inmates. It technically is as part of the Bronx, but is part of Queens Community Board 1 and has a Queens zip code. Hazen Street, which begins in Queens at the Grand Central Parkway, continues onto Rikers Island and bisects the space. The MTA runs the Q100 bus over the bridge, but private cars require a permit.

These connections mean that, unlike the restricted North Brother Island, Rikers Island is far more ambiguous in terms of its accessibility, especially if you are just looking at a city map. In fact, over the years, the MTA has both included and omitted Rikers Island from its maps as if undecided as to how public or private the place truly is. In practice, the island is open to people who are visiting prisoners, employees of the Department of Corrections, or inmates — not exactly the average New Yorker.

Every trip to Rikers Island comes wrought with bureaucratic hurdles. Through Fordham Law School, we are officially sanctioned to run the legal workshop, but the prison system in New York City is so massive that our entry process each week does not become more efficient over time. Rikers is its own subsystem within the Correction Department — a veritable city in its own right. Invariably, each week an officer would ask where we would be going and we’d get the answer, “The RNDC (Robert N. Davoren Center)? Oh, that’s far.”

When we arrived at the RNDC, we’d get our IDs checked for the third time, sometimes verified against a list of names they had, sometimes not. After handwriting our names into a logbook along with the number on a plastic badge given to us earlier, our belongings would be passed through an X-ray and metal detector. Then we would be ushered into the next room, where after showing our IDswe again we would exchange our plastic badges for a yellow laminated badge. We’d then be led to another security station where we’d have to show the yellow badges.

At this point, the architecture abruptly changes. Before this, you might have convinced yourself you were inside a school — the light blue paint, the photos on the wall, the American flag, the offices. But now, a long hallway stretches seemingly indefinitely before us punctuated with retractable prison bar walls, sanitary beige paint, and defunct x-ray machines. Natural light floods the corridor, but the view outside is of barbed wire.

About halfway down is an incredible mural, but we’d walk by it so quickly every time that I could only absorb the expressionist style
of the brushstroke and the contrast it makes with the linearity of the hallway. But I remember there being women in the mural, one thing that this prison clearly lacks (except for the female correction officers).

After the mural, the architecture shifts again as we’d descend a staircase into a freezing extension of plywood walls. This opens onto a narrow concrete walkway with impossibly high fences and barbed wire, conjuring up scenes from The Shawshank Redemption and Le Prophet intent on giving a clear message about the futility of escape.

Across a large asphalt recreational area is the building where the juveniles stay. We called it the ‘greenhouse,’ an apt name because it consists of two cavernous but well-lit rooms — think of inflatable indoor tennis structures filled with beds neatly lined in rows — that distinguish these inmates from their cell-confined adult counterparts. Even though they may be tried as adults, it’s nice to know the system differentiates the youth at least in terms of treatment. Still, there have been reports (and an ongoing lawsuit) that this configuration may not be necessarily safer than the traditional.

When we arrived, half of the kids were usually still asleep and it was our job to round them out of bed. We held the workshops in a semi-circular community space at each end of the sleeping halls. The acoustics of the “greenhouse” made it almost impossible to hear one another, so you’d sit close together. This facilitated discussion but there was usually a group that refused to participate and created noise in the background.

The range of personalities is pretty close to what you would find in any classroom: the outgoing ones who get into the discussion, the reserved ones who prefer to observe, the withdrawn ones that sit at the outskirts, and the troublemakers in the back of the room. Some seemed to eagerly anticipate the class, asking what we will go over that day as they peruse the law textbook borrowed from the prison library. But sometimes the noise becomes overwhelming and reserved kids begin to withdraw.

We taught them the Bill of Rights, culminating in a mock trial on the last day. During the mock trial, we were all impressed with the material they retained, their excitement level, and their desire to perform well for their peers.

After building a bit of a rapport with some of the kids, they started to tell us not only their experiences within the correction system but their hopes for the future. For me, the most rewarding moments came from a few specific kids who I will call Chris and Michael. I met them on my first day. They were both active in the discussion and we talked about our neighborhoods and immigrant family backgrounds.

Chris told me he anticipated being released soon, but on the last day he was still there. He seemed less involved this time and I was concerned until he told me that his case had been dismissed and he was going home the next day. I wondered if Chris was worried about his future outside of Rikers but we didn’t get a chance to really chat about it.

On the last day, Michael chastised me for not showing up the previous week (there was a slashing, so the prison was on lockdown) before asking me if I would visit him between Christmas and New Years. Michael’s court hearing has been postponed several times and is now scheduled for this May. By then the seventeen year-old will have been in Rikers Island for over eight months.

As a planner, I wondered about the difference between prisons as heterotopic islands of “deviance” versus the many in New York City that are right within our midst. What impact does location have on the inmate and on the public’s understanding of the correctional system?

On Rikers, an island within a city of islands, the jail is both visible and invisible to the surrounding city. We tolerate Rikers Island likely because few of us even know it exists. But if we hope to reintigrate the incarcerated residents of the jail with the rest of ‘normal’ society, a good first step might be to address the role of place and space in our city’s prison system and in our own consciousness.

By Michelle Young

In an online discussion, CCCP student Albert Lopez philosophizes with friend Tom Haviv about technology’s increasing weight–for better of worse–in the physical social realm.

Albert Lopez:

With the emergence of digital technology as a community-building tool during the last decade, actions in the digital world are increasingly effecting changes in the physical world. A website once used to organize college house parties is now being partially credited by the media and scholars for its effects on the recent string of popular uprisings throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Though the impact these tools have had on these revolutions is still being analyzed, it is becoming an accepted fact that digital access will continue to aid in the democratization of spatial and structural organization.

What we do not know, however, is how the concept of democracy itself will evolve in this age of virtual connectivity that continues to make “freedom of expression” a reality, rather than an abstract concept.

Tom Haviv:

Instead of democracy, I would instead call it anarchy, since “democratization” of information seems to imply responsibility, centrality and a social good.

Moreover, the horizon-less field of data-generation — information’s anarchization — has unpredictable results. The mere pinprick of attention can inspire a wave of hundreds of thousands of hits by going “viral” on YouTube. Yet viral thinking has its limits: it lacks the imperative to galvanize transformative action within our real, lived communities.

We are filled with anticipation over the promise of social networks. This anticipation stems from this mystery: the amount of time we spend on Facebook is disproportionate to the material or emotional rewards it produces and arguably less than our experiences in the physical world. Facebook becomes a life-sap.

To remedy this is to create a social networking platform that recognizes — even exalts — our physical communities. I would propose a geography-based community-networking platform that helps us reconcile, with greater accountability, the virtual and the physical.


You bring up an excellent point here by mentioning that users spend a good deal of time entertaining themselves on the Internet. Though entertainment in itself can, at times, have a productive purpose, more often than not it is used as a diversion.

Stemming from this is the question of democratization (or anarchization) for whom? This problem is particularly salient as we analyze who is utilizing these online tools to restructure their spatial and political environments. For instance, to what degree has recent development been the product of an empowered or simply a hyperactive and digitally savvy community?

Previously, the economically and socially disadvantaged fell on the other side of the digitally empowered divide due to a lack of access to hardware, and later, connectivity. With the increases in mobile internet use, it’s questionable whether this is still the case. According to a July 2010 poll by the Pew Foundation, 51% of Latinos and 46% of blacks are using their phones to access the Internet, in comparison to only 33% of whites; communication by email and the access of social media via phone is also significantly higher in these groups.

In other words, minority groups hold the potential to become the largest productive force in both digital and physical space. But whether this has more to do with cell phones facilitating more distracting uses and the continued barriers to owning more expensive — and productive — hardware like a laptop remains to be seen.


Connecting historically marginalized groups should be an essential goal of a geographically-based online network oriented toward local community engagement.

In this imagined network, users would be able to collectively identify points of civic failure and evaluate relations within geographic space by divulging a matrix of contingencies and cultural multiplicities. A complex identity may form, one that resists superficial “hometown tagging” and cruder forms of territorialization, such as unilateral gentrification and wall-building.


Its potential as a tool for unification and the breaking of existing social barriers is perhaps the key to its success, not only across neighborhoods and classes, but also within the divisions that exist in these marginalized groups themselves. Arguably, by blurring lines between the intercultural differences that exist within the larger ethnic groupings, as well as the making visible of similarities that they possess will aid in the union of a common culture, or at least a more fruitful dialogue between the distinct cultures.

There still exists a threat that perverts this potentially liberating system and could ultimately lead to a sort of herd mentality where a group resorts to indirect representation of its most intelligent or cunning member. Education, the politicization and the digitalization of this growing body of users must inform their social-physical action to produce the abundance of good fruit that the virtual tree has been prophesied to bear: a more active citizenry.


Today, we need a conscious reevaluation of the qualitative. Oral histories of daydreams and spatial discomfort may lay the groundwork for communal upheaval. Affect and emotion foment change. To collect, and share, the subjective experiences of local residents is to validate experience and encourage action. If the vocalizations of activists and casual worriers are metastasized in digital space: the psychology of a city may emerge.

By Albert Lopez & Tom Haviv

Space is both devoid and charged with meaning. Elements of the built environment suggest uses, and cultural norms protect their sanctity. In our society, a sidewalk connotes pedestrians, a roadway cars, and a dog run dogs.

While these spaces have clearly defined purposes, they are not immanent or immutable.

The revolutionary uprisings that have engulfed the Middle East and North African region demonstrate their malleability. Tahrir Square in Cairo is the most prominent example of how a space, once the crown jewel of Egyptian tourism and public life, was quickly converted into a site that fomented the ouster of the country’s ruler, Hosni Mubarak.

Cyberspace, specifically Facebook and Twitter, may have received the credit for catalyzing these revolutions, but public spaces have been the true battlegrounds. While one might convincingly argue that these revolutionary spaces resulted from calls to demonstrate from cyberspace, without a physical place to assemble, it’s impossible for people to unite and attempt to depose their rulers.

The example of Bahrain stands out from the other uprisings because it has no Tahrir squares. According to media reports, Manama, the capital city, lacks public spaces altogether.

Without space to assemble, Bahrainis were barred from protesting their government. Undeterred, Bahrainis took their fight to the streets: they transformed a mundane piece of road infrastructure into a site suitable for revolution.

The Bahrainis decision to redefine the purpose of Pearl Roundabout and Monument was a stroke of genius that revealed how easily space could be reprogrammed, redefined, and reinterpreted. By removing drivers from the roadway, the roundabout was no longer recognizable as a place for cars. Protesters turned it into a stage for protest.

In response to this recasting of Pearl Roundabout and Monument, the government bulldozed it and forcibly removed protestors and the tent city that sustained the

demonstrations. To further clamp down on the opposition’s ability to gather and draw more attention to their cause, the government introduced restrictive curfews, bans on public assembly, and solicited the heavy hand of a regional military.

No one knows how these revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa region will unfold and alter the course of the future. We do know, however, that people can still exert pressure on their governments from public spaces. In the case of Bahrain, we continue to witness how quickly space can be reprogrammed, redefined, and reanimated by new users.

Such is the power of urban space. If a mundane piece of infrastructure can launch and sustain a revolution, any sidewalk or street contains the seeds for the next one.

By Eric Goldwyn

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