Recalibrating Queens is a digital history and activist scholarship project focused on publicly excavating and exploring the past century of development and change in western Queens. It’s centerpiece will be a series of interactive, web-based maps that draws on statistical, spatial, and archival data and research to illustrate changes (in housing, population, business, and zoning) and contestation around development decisions over time. This project is a direct response to the recent and rapid changes, intensifying development pressures, and swelling community organizing in the region. And its goal is is to destabilize mainstream understanding and expectations around land use, development and progress, and provide another counterpoint for understanding contestations around development while illuminating alternative pathways forward. In short, Recalibrating Queens aims to re-examine the past, re-situate the present, and re-imagine the future.
This project was conceived alongside my resident-based organizing efforts with the Justice For All Coalition over the last 2.5+ years, and the development of my dissertation proposal as a student in the environmental psychology program at The Graduate Center, CUNY. Prior to the onslaught of the COVID-19 crisis in NYC, the central ambition of my dissertation research was to reframe the housing crisis plaguing our city around residents’ experiences, perspectives and alternative visions for the development of their neighborhoods and city — a process I call re(sident)-centering. This feminist activist ethnography centered on the Justice For All Coalition, and involved interviews with members about their personal histories of housing, development and activism, and participant-observation of the group’s collective efforts. While the latter is continuing — as we as a group continue to organize, education and support our neighbors during this time — the former has been halted indefinitely. In-person interviews are not possible in a time when life is dependent on social distancing. Digital tools and methods could be employed; however, the loss of intimacy and connection is a major concern given the personal nature of the interview.
Given these circumstances, I am pivoting. Recalibrating Queens has been expanded beyond its original conception and will be the centerpiece of my scholarly work for the indefinite future. The goal of the project remains the same — to destabilize mainstream conceptions of notions of land use, development, and progress; to re-examine the past, re-situate the present and re- imagine the future. However, the scope has been expanded. This project will excavate and publicly explore the creation and maintenance of the geography we call “Queens” from the time just before European contact to today. This undertaking will rely on primary and archival resources by the regions various communities over time. For example, thus far I have been reading histories told by the area’s former native inhabitants, as well as histories told by European settlers. My own history and JFAC’s history too will be integrated. The goal is for Recalibrating Queens to tell a thick, pluralistic history of development in the region; to bring different perspectives into conversation with one another. To destabilize that which we take for granted today, by complicating the historical narrative of “Queens” which is leveraged to determine our shared future.
Telling a complete history is a perhaps a life’s work. Thus this telling of the history of Queens is narrowed by an interest in understanding the ongoing processes of settler colonialism and racial capitalism in the making of the borough over time. This interest will guide the historical moments that are attended to, and that which is reflected on, and how. Already, I have generated a list of themes that I believe will be threaded throughout the inquiry, and a list of historical moments that will likely be of interest (see below). These are subject to change and evolve based on the inquiry, as they should, but also offer a road map for moving through the project, which is useful at this juncture.
Another important commitment of the project is its public and educational nature. This project grows from my activist endeavors, and intends to be useful in that endeavor. Much of activist work is about changing the narrative to change structures and conditions, so this project is aligned with those goals. Same as its original conception, digital tools and methods will be employed curate primary and archival resources and my secondary interpretations into a multi- media, public-facing digital environment through which users can explore this pluralistic history of Queens. Features will include a series of maps that can be layered atop one another, timelines of events, vignettes summarizing narratives and reflections and more to create a rich, interactive interface.
For me, the process of creation is as important as the product; as the process continues to disaggregate and re-aggregate data and information in ways that will provide me with meaningful and novel insights. Towards the larger social justice aims of the project, the product ideally will be of use to other activists as well, so that we collectively can use this deeper, pluralistic history to inform contemporary and future land use and policy decisions and contribute to just futures for all. Such a project feels even more meaningful to me now in the time of COVID-19, where the ills and inequalities of the current political economy are hyper- exposed, and the need for alternative futures feels evermore pressing.