This course entitled “The Transforming Role of Public Art: Contextualizing History and Redefining Public Space” challenges students to re-imagine the Manhattan Civic Center as an African-American Historic District. The Manhattan Civic Center has long been the gateway into New York City. The Civic Center is at the heart of our municipal government and occupies land at the intersection between Chinatown, Lower Manhattan, Two Bridges and Tribeca. Thomas Paine Park in Foley Square is located at its geographic center and due to its proximity to City Hall has become a gathering place for social, cultural and political activism. In many ways the space is becoming an unofficial “Town Square” where large groups of citizens gather spontaneously to voice their opinion publicly.
Most New Yorkers do not realize that City Hall Park and Foley Square both sit within the African Burial Ground and Commons Historic District. The district was designated as both a New York City Historic District and a National Landmark in 1993. To the south of the district, City Hall Park, once known as “The Commons” served as New York’s Village Green in the early 19th century. To the north of the district the 18th Century African Burial Ground once known as The Negroes Burial Ground is the site where an estimated 15,000-20,000 free and enslaved Africans are buried.
Two prominent monuments, The Triumph of the Human Spirit and African Burial Ground Memorial currently mark the historic significance of the African presence and impact of slavery upon the evolution of New York City. In recent years, the contributions of people of African descent have become more prominently acknowledged throughout the district. Most recently, a co-naming of Centre Street as Black Lives Matter Boulevard and a large mural memorializing the struggle against institutionalized racism was established. The mural was the result of a collaboration between artists, architects, planners, government officials and community activists coming together to symbolically transform the public square in a manner that acknowledges society’s commitment to stand against historic injustice and inequality.
Students will develop and present master planning strategies using public art and cultural activities in a strategic manner to transform the Lower Manhattan Civic Center into a vibrant Historic District. The class will participate in discussions with and present their ideas to local stakeholders representing key government, cultural, business and community organizations. As a final urban design project, students will prepare a Master Planning proposal for a Historic District with emphasis upon expanding the narrative of underrepresented communities.