Rikers Island: Territorial Empathy and Reimagining Civic Engagement

Rikers Island: Territorial Empathy and Reimagining Civic Engagement

The NYC Civic Engagement Commission (CEC), Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA), the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City and Public Artist in Residence (PAIR) Yazmany Arboleda officially kicked off The People’s Festival. This five borough series of outdoor events featured live performances, interactive workshops, and community information and resources. The festival was anchored by The People’s Bus, a retired city bus formerly used to transport people detained on Rikers Island.

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Courtesy of NYC Municipal Archives

The People's Bus was transformed with input from New Yorkers into a community center on wheels to engage people in NYC’s civic life. After a comprehensive community engagement process, Territorial Empathy worked with Yazmany Arboleda to identify key design needs. It features a hatchback aperture on one side that opens the bus up to the community and acts as a performance space, a gallery wall, podcast studio, and data wall that showcases maps with important information such as COVID infection and vaccination rates.

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Courtesy of Territorial Empathy

The People's Bus was formerly used to transport people detained on Rikers Island from 2009 to 2021. The beaded mural on the ceiling is a collaboration between Mujeres en Movimiento and local community members, based on the drawings from “We Color Our Future” done by residents during the rank choice voting tour of The People’s Bus. Graffiti, left by those detained on the bus in its previous life, was incorporated into the mural in gold. The women of Mujeres en Movimiento noted that there are 8.8 million recycled beads, one for each resident of New York City.

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Courtesy of Territorial Empathy
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Courtesy of Territorial Empathy

Territorial Empathy led the architectural transformation of the People’s Bus inspired by an intersectional engagement process with the People’s Fellows. The intent was to create an adaptive, sustainable, and inclusive space that suspends the disbelief of its former oppressive state. The “Rainbow Chrome” exterior finish is an homage to NYC’s first artist-in-residence, Mierle Ukeles Laderman, who, in 1983, created a mirrored garbage truck titled “The Social Mirror.”

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Courtesy of Territorial Empathy
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Courtesy of Territorial Empathy

The site selection process for the People's Bus Festival, the resulting five borough presentation of the bus to the public was based on Territorial Empathy's research, Segregation is Killing Us. Neighborhoods most affected by COVID-19 were prioritized for the festival. The People's Bus features a 6' LED Map of NYC that highlights urban inequities exacerbated by the pandemic. This digital exhibit was developed in partnership with the Illuminate Cities Project.

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Courtesy of Territorial Empathy

Zarith Pineda, Director of Territorial Empathy, noted that, "Territorial Empathy is honored to have led the design process for People’s Bus, festival, and digital exhibition. As our investigation into the disparate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color, Segregation is Killing Us suggests, our city has been carefully designed to hoard resources for the privileged at the expense of the marginalized. The People’s Bus challenges this painful history to demonstrate that participatory design can facilitate community healing and joy. It is our hope that all New Yorkers feel seen and celebrated by an element of the festival – an aspiration that is shared by the intersectional team of architects, engineers, craft and tradespeople who made this powerful transformation possible.”

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Cite: Eric Baldwin. "Rikers Island: Territorial Empathy and Reimagining Civic Engagement " 12 Oct 2021. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/969980/rikers-island-territorial-empathy-and-reimagining-civic-engagement> ISSN 0719-8884

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