Contested Public Space
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Swing Low also reveals something else in its geographical location. First, the statue resides in the same space as the NYPD 28th Precinct, a non-descript monolithic concrete building that dominates the neighborhood with its presence. To have Harriet Tubman face the 28th Precinct day-in and day-out would have been a visual challenge to the NYPD. At the time that the city installed the monument, the NYPD was under intense scrutiny for engaging in practices of targeting African Americans and Latinos through its stop-and-frisk policy (2003-2013). The severity of the building, the NYPD’s actions, and the rising crime statistics in Central Harlem mean that the monument exists within the scope and pressure of 24-hour police presence. It seems likely that Alison Saar and city planners chose deliberately to omit a pistol or rifle from Tubman’s side because of the location of the memorial across from the police department and the long and difficult history of policing and violence in the once predominantly black neighborhood.
Second, since the mid-1980s and with acceleration in the 2000s, Harlem has undergone a radical transformation through gentrification that has displaced black residents. The neighborhood itself has become a contested space. In 2010, the New York Times reported on the radical shifting demographics: “In greater Harlem, which runs river to river, and from East 96th Street and West 106th Street to West 155th Street, blacks are no longer a majority of the population . . . By 2008, their share had declined to 4 in 10 residents. Since 2000, central Harlem’s population has grown more than in any other decade since the 1940s, to 126,000 from 109,000, but its black population . . . is smaller than at any time since the 1920s.”
Directly across from Swing Low, is 2280 FDB, with condo units selling for over $1 million, effectively pricing out long-time black residents as access to affordable housing diminishes in Central Harlem. The irony of Saar’s sculpture is that it was installed in Harlem because it was a historic African American neighborhood. Yet, the neighborhood has completely changed. This raises interesting questions about the “work” and “after life” of the statue. Does the statue still function as an icon of resistance with the rapid gentrification and transformation of Harlem?
In 2016, documentary photographer Harriet Dedman created a series of images, entitled “In the Shadows of the Precinct” to underscore the uneasy transformation of Harlem. Dedman writes: “My series of photographs starts to draw on concepts of police surveillance, documenting a community constantly living in the shadow of a growing police presence.” See “In the Shadows of the Precinct,” Text and Photos by Harriet Dedman, Magnum Foundation, January 21, 2016, accessed April 4, 2018, https://www.magnumfoundation.org/magnumfoundation/in-the-shadows-of-the-precinct-text-and-photos-by.
Sam Roberts, “No Longer Majority, Harlem is in Transition,” New York Times, January 5, 2010, accessed April 5, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/06/nyregion/06harlem.html.