The Right to Rikers


A field: to seed, or not to seed

Volume 6, Issue 03
October 7, 2020

Long ago, the question of whether to seed or not to seed when it comes to new development in New York City was answered yes, always to seed. Where there is an opportunity to build, there will be a race among developers and investors scrambling to infuse their capital and make a profit, as evidenced by private-public partnerships for Brooklyn Bridge Park, Governor’s Island, and Hudson Yards.1 The city’s neoliberal land-use economy runs on deregulating financial transactions, speculation, and real estate markets; the unshackled elite own and profit from the spaces overwhelmingly occupied by the working class, the poor, and the homeless. The feedback loop of investment and profiteering makes investing in projects irresistible to the donor class, and it forms the subsoil of how a surprising number of projects in New York City become seeded.

No plot of land goes fallow. As soon as one becomes available for development, it is subjected to the conventional real estate economy with virtually no input from those who need the space and infrastructure. Public spaces, commodified and reduced to their market value, do little to alleviate the compounding issues of the city’s poor and working-class residents: dilapidated and scarce public housing, wage stagnation and rising costs of living, rapid gentrification of the outer boroughs, over-policing of Black and Brown neighborhoods, and destructive coastal climatic events.2

Unfortunately, New York City is consistently starved for land to implement projects that meaningfully address these issues. However, the closing of Rikers Island by 2026 – a plan approved by the New York City Council in October 2019 – offers a significant opportunity to change that.3 Since the early 1900s, Rikers has been home to one of the largest and most abusive jail complexes globally, currently managing a daily population of over 9,000 inmates, and processing tens of thousands of inmates a year.4 As of 2019, the city spends roughly $925 a day per inmate at Rikers, totaling more than $2 billion annually; herein lies an unprecedented chance to re-appropriate that money to transform a carceral landscape into a space that recognizes the island’s egregious history and advances racial, economic, climate, and social justice issues plaguing the city’s most vulnerable populations.5 How we seed Rikers for future development is critical: Rikers cannot get absorbed into the grinding machinery of land speculation, closed-door rezoning, and private stakeholder investment. It is difficult to pinpoint a time in recent history when 413 acres of land – comparable in size to Prospect Park – became available to the city. This opportunity must not be wasted.

In the past, several infrastructural reuse and public space projects, like Union Square and Bryant Park, have fallen short of this challenge.6 Instead, they have contributed to reconstructing architecture and parks as neatly packaged commodities – emphasizing corporate power, culture, tourism, and mass consumerism – rather than democratized places of gathering and civic freedom. Therefore, we can call spaces like these “monuments”: spacialized representations of the people, narratives, and hegemonic structures that own them. Henri Lefebvre, a Marxist social theorist, defines these monumental spaces as a “collective mirror…[that] offers each member of a society an image of that membership, an image of his or her social visage…under the conditions of a generally accepted Power and a generally accepted Wisdom.”7 The accepted “Power” of contemporary public spaces is trending away from public agency ownership and toward corporations and private landowners; the “Wisdom” is that we are mostly free to occupy these spaces, so long as our behavior and socioeconomic statuses are acceptable to those in power.

If all space in New York City is bound to be seeded and designed, from now on, it ought to be done to subvert our monuments, redistribute resources, and uplift struggling and disenfranchised populations. Where there are monuments, there must be counter-monuments to “produce public memorial artifacts that would neither erase nor appropriate the memory of violence in an anesthetizing closure that shores up the current order.”8

In this way, Rikers will be a counter-monument that is antithetical to monuments that fetishize power.9 Seeding Rikers through collective action is to claim a right to it, much like social geographer David Harvey’s claim to the right of the city, or “some kind of shaping power over the processes of urbanization, over the ways in which our cities are made and remade, and to do so in a fundamental and radical way.”10 Several design firms have already put forward proposals for a post-carceral Rikers, including commercial centers, amphitheaters, wetland restorations, multi-family housing units, and an extension of LaGuardia Airport’s runways.11 Rikers’ physical disconnect from the city, and its proximity to LaGuardia Airport, make it an inconvenient location for private residences and an inappropriate one for public housing. A handful of proposals put forward one or two of the aforementioned designs, but the majority offer an “all of the above” smorgasbord approach. Conversely, superior proposals are calling for the transformation of the entire island to city infrastructure and renewable energy: solar panel fields, sewage treatment, and composting.12

If we dedicate just 100 acres to solar power infrastructure, that will reduce the need for about a dozen peak power plants in low-income communities hit hard by environmental racism.13 For the other 300 acres, we have the chance to use collective action to reclaim this space and create something meaningful and helpful for the people of New York City. Seeding Rikers Island in this way can promote healing, reparations, and civic responsibility, similar to what artist Jenny Odell calls “manifest dismantling…undoing all of the damage wrought by Manifest Destiny.”14 Here is an opportunity to put an end to the relentless acceleration of building, creation, and innovation that takes power away from the people and threatens our communities and ecologies. To re-seed Rikers is to reckon with the violence wrought on our public lands and on the bodies of so many of our citizens, as much as it is the chance to design for justice through collective, public power.

  1. Jim Walden, interview with Leonard Lopate, “Selling and Giving Away NYC Parks,” The Leonard Lopate Show, WNYC, April 13, 2013, ↩︎
  2. Winnie Hu, “New Public Spaces Are Supposed to Be for All. The Reality Is More Complicated.,” The New York Times, November 13, 2018, ↩︎
  3. New York City Council, October 17, 2019, Council Votes on Historic Legislation to Close Rikers Island, ↩︎
  4. Independent Budget Office of the City of New York, August 22, 2013, NYC’s Jail Population: Who’s There and Why?, ↩︎
  5. Ben Chapman, “New York City Jail Costs Reach Record Level,” The Wall Street Journal, December 8, 2019, ↩︎
  6. Cathryn Swan, “Privatization of the Commons in Mayor Bloomberg’s New York — Part II: Who Has Control?,” Huffington Post, April 26, 2013, ↩︎
  7. Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, Ltd., 1991), 220. ↩︎
  8. Basak Ertur, “Barricades: Resources and Residues of Resistance,” in Vulnerability in Resistance, ed. Judith Butler, Zeynep Gambetti and Leiticia Sabsay (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016) 97–121. ↩︎
  9. Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, “Alien Relationships with Public Space,” In Transurbanism, ed. Joke Brouwer and Arjen Mulder (Rotterdam: V2_Publishing, 2002), 139–160. ↩︎
  10. David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (London and New York: Verso, 2012), 6. ↩︎
  11. “Rikers Island Reimagined,” Crain’s New York Business, February 28, 2016, ↩︎
  12. Jonathan Lippman and Costa Constantinides, “What to Build Next on Rikers: Make it a Hub for Renewable Energy,” New York Daily News, July 13, 2019, ↩︎
  13. Lippman and Constantinides, “What to Build Next on Rikers.” ↩︎
  14. Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (Brooklyn and London: Melville House, 2019), 188. ↩︎

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Volume 6, Issue 03
October 7, 2020