Publication Date



Barbara Adams


Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance


Harlem, New York’s first major black residential and business center and birthplace of the Harlem Renaissance, finds itself an increasingly polarized environment in the midst of its most recent wave of disruption. Once recognized as the bastion of black American culture, the artistry produced in the crucible of struggle can be understood as a form of resistance and demonstrates the potential for excellence when cultural expression is given space to manifest. The artistry of the Harlem Renaissance was grown and nurtured in spaces where kinship bonds were formed, from shared experience, and the tenuous safety of a shared community.

Over the course of a century, systemic political, economic, and educational inequities, engendered by pathologies of neoliberal proscription, have converged to create a new era in Harlem, one that is marked by spatial exclusions, cultural erasure, disenfranchisement, and relegation of a storied history to artifacts for consumption. Referencing concepts of kinship and reflecting on forums for communitas—spaces where people can exist together without strong hierarchy—this paper considers Harlem’s use of public space as an incubator for action and creation in the pursuit of happiness and freedom.

Drawing upon the works of Michel de Certeau, bell hooks, Hannah Arendt, and Jane Jacobs, this thesis traces the changing character of Harlem’s polis, locating and examining public spaces of social interaction and creativity. It traces the sites of strengthening and nurture in Harlem, relying on bell hooks’s conception of “homeplace.”

Employing a genealogical historical approach, this research revisits Renaissance Harlem’s public arts and art practices located within the historically black community. It considers performance and social practices in public space, such as street performance and Reid ii street play, and examines spatial configurations such as open-air markets and other forms of public assembly. The research explores the significance of these sites and their functions in enriching the community as opportunities for performance and expression of culture.

This thesis reflects on what we might learn from a historic view and also examines the current production of Harlem’s public spaces, their cultural development, and the capacity of these spaces to foster communitas. It considers the contemporary state of cultural policy at the local level and power strategies that manifest in the form of spatial exclusion, obstacles to access, privatization, and the normalization of military-style security measures, which seek to maintain order in public spaces through spatial encroachments that negatively impact the civic, social, and cultural rights of all the inhabitants of Harlem.

The work considers space as operative: not simply there but fully bound up with power, something that not only contains but has productive power. For instance, the power of a street reserved for children’s play lies not in the sum of its area or its ability to banish vehicular traffic, but in the wide-reaching learning and creative production that reserving such space enables.

Finally, the research asks what possibilities exist for participation in these spaces, how participation is shaped by particular values, and how these values are made actionable through tactical and strategic efforts. The need for democratic spaces, practices, and unifying projects in Harlem is clear. Spaces for the public must be maintained and made available for action and creation. The need to create and produce does not dissipate as a result of having been regulated; it, in fact, responds, reproduces, and manifests itself elsewhere, as artistry without space for release is wont to do.

Available for download on Monday, June 01, 2020



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