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What Being a Rock Star Teaches You About Practical Urbanism

The Magnetic Fields cellist Sam Davol applies insights about learning in public spaces, picked up on the road, to New York and beyond.

Sam and Leslie Davol push a crate underneath a highway overpass while setting up a pop-up site for the Uni Project
Sam Davol and his wife, Leslie, acting as roadies to set up a portable reading room for the Uni Project in Queens. (Courtesy of the Uni Project)

Sam Davol’s perspective on cities changes often. This is literal: as a cellist (and, er, circular saw player) with the whimsical indie pop band The Magnetic Fields, he’s currently on tour to support the latest album, 50 Song Memoir. It’s also figurative: as the co-founder of the Uni Project, a nonprofit that runs educational pop-up events, Davol often re-examines ideas of how to help make urban public space work for everyone. Here are a few things he’s picked up along the way:

Learn from other cities

Davol’s interest in placemaking was partly inspired by several decades of touring with The Magnetic Fields. “The things I have seen in Europe in particular over the years have deeply influenced the ways I wish New York could be,” he says.

Spotting a library in a Stockholm metro station or at the Amsterdam airport planted a seed of recognizing that “what you put in public spaces matters.” Specifically, he’s wondered, “we talk a lot about education and active learning in the United States—but when I look around I don’t see it, and how could I change that? I’ve gotten a lot of great ideas from traveling and touring.”

The Uni Project’s pop-ups include plazas and under-utilized spaces. (Courtesy of the Uni Project)

Play well with others

Drawing upon Davol’s observations from his travels, the Uni Project—which Davol runs with his wife, Leslie—will be ramping up operations in this, its seventh year. They’ll install pop-up reading, drawing, and problem-solving stations all around New York, where their docket currently includes at least 200 events, including temporarily pedestrianized streets under the aegis of partners such as the Department of Transportation and Department of Parks & Recreation. The city doesn’t offer financial support to the Uni Project, but provides storage space where possible, waives permitting fees, and helps to publicize the events, explains Meghan Lalor of NYC Parks.

The Uni carts pop up predominantly in low- and middle-income areas. These are often neglected spaces or high-need areas, marked by above-average poverty levels and a growing population. The carts are often installed in parks and plazas, but can also find a home in less expected places, such as spaces under viaducts. It’s in neglected areas Davol feels the organization can have a greater impact, in contrast to the higher-profile public space projects (such as the High Line) that tend to attract more attention. One or more staff members or volunteers, often Davol or Leslie, is present at all Uni stations, inviting community residents to share ideas.

For the first time in the nearly 30 years since The Magnetic Fields formed, Davol will absent himself from some shows. But he’s excited about the challenge these new projects present. In some of the neighborhoods that historically haven’t been very pedestrian-friendly, Davol says, “people aren’t quite used to having a public space, and they sometimes haven’t exactly figured out how to use them. And so we’re kind of like an early weed that’s growing out there to get things going.”

A visitor checks out the books at the Uni Project’s portable reading room in Diversity Plaza. (Courtesy of the Uni Project)

Understand your audience

Diversity Plaza, in Queens’s Jackson Heights neighborhood, has partnered with the Uni Project, and presents one example of what it might look like to rethink pedestrian spaces. In 2011 the Department of Transportation pedestrianized the space as part of its mission to make open space accessible to all New Yorkers, and the unofficial name Diversity Plaza—appropriate for a majority-non-white neighborhood—was formalized in May 2016.

Shekar Krishnan, a public-interest lawyer representing local tenants and a member of the volunteer group Friends of Diversity Plaza, calls the plaza “the town square of the neighborhood.” It’s used for protests, community gatherings, and educational activities, including the Uni Project’s pop-up reading rooms, which appear over the course of a month every summer and feature materials in Spanish, as well as South Asian languages. The pop-up has been especially useful for people who might not have libraries nearby, or may find it difficult to meet the registration requirements for a library card.

Krishnan says the model of the space serving different functions at various times is replicable in other low-income immigrant neighborhoods. In communities with limited public space, Krishnan is particularly keen on partnership models that retain locals’ voices, rather than those decisions being made by a bureaucratic structure that doesn’t have its ears to the ground in the same way.

Two generations flip through offerings at the pop-up at the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston. (Courtesy of Courtesy of the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy)

Remain open to critique

An open question is whether a nonprofit like the Uni Project is taking on civic responsibilities that should fall to city officials. This is especially pertinent in a place like Boston’s Chinatown, one of the 28 locations outside of New York that have started rolling out Uni carts.

Chinatown doesn’t have a public library. To fill the gap, the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy installed one of Uni’s literature carts on the vertical park. Based on local requests, this Uni includes Chinese and Spanish books, as well as Boston-specific ones. The Conservancy’s Play Coordinator, Katherine Levesque, notes that many of the Chinatown residents using the Uni were reading in pairs—for instance, with a child and an adult reading the same book over multiple weeks, and communicating about it in two languages. The Conservancy started stocking more books with lots of pictures to aid with learning across generations.

The Uni is useful in its adaptability and simplicity, but it’s a far cry from the resources of a formal library. Jesse Brackenbury, the Conservancy’s Executive Director, rejects the idea that the portable Uni library in Chinatown is letting city authorities off the hook for not establishing a brick-and-mortar space. In fact, Brackenbury argues, the popularity of the Chinatown Uni “demonstrates the hunger for a proper library.”

Davol sees the Uni Project as just one player attempting to bolster a culture of inclusive public spaces and learning experiences on streets. In his view, “there has to be an ecosystem that works as a combination of city agencies with other nonprofits.”

Helping to turn open space into a genuinely shared resource is a constantly shifting undertaking, sort of like playing to a different crowd every night. “It’s a little bit like going on stage and taking 90 minutes not for somebody who decided to come to the show, but just for the people walking by,” Davol says. “What are you going to put out there that you can feel good about?”

About the Author

  • Christine Ro is a writer and editor based in London.