Pratt Center

July 25, 2019

In Conversation: Envisioning a Community Hub for the Lower East Side

When Keena Suh uncovered photographs from the 1930’s and 40’s of Lower East Siders playing ping-pong and making crafts in Sara D. Roosevelt Park, she immediately saw the potential for the photos to reconnect the community with their local park. Suh, an Associate Professor of Interior Design, was awarded Pratt Center’s Taconic Fellowship in 2018 to create an exhibition with these photographs to inspire community engagement in reclaiming an underutilized Parks building. We sat down with Prof. Keena Suh, a 2018-2019 Taconic Fellow, to catch up on her project.


Can you tell us a little bit about your project and the inspiration behind it?

The Community Photo Album project revolves around the Stanton St Building, an underutilized building in the Lower East Side’s Sara D. Roosevelt (SDR) Park. Constructed in 1934 and converted into a community center, it was closed during the 1970’s economic downturn, and later became storage space. For decades, neighborhood organizations have advocated for the City to reopen it to the public.

When I first took an interest in this building, I found photographs in NYC Parks Department Archives that date from the 30s and 40s, and some from the 70s. All of the previous photos I had seen of the building only showed its exterior. These photographs showed the building’s interior life and revealed how the community gathered for games like ping pong and crafts. 

I wanted to highlight these amazing photographs, and use them to reconnect residents to the park by reimagining this building as a community hub. 


What was it like to work with your community partner?

I couldn’t have imagined a better partner than Sara D. Roosevelt Park Coalition. Their struggle to revitalize has been decades-long so they had an amazing breadth of experience working with organizations and public officials. 

I involved one of my Fall 2018 studio classes in this project, and the coalition members provided unbelievable support and critical feedback to the students. They shared their knowledge, but also modeled what committed, tenacious, hard-working, and articulate advocates looked like.


What do you hope your students carried away from this experience?

One of the takeaways is the far-reaching impact designers can have beyond what you see in a typical portfolio presentation. We also saw the importance of process and embracing the challenges of collaboration, which can be contentious and difficult. But that dialogue and process often yields stronger solutions. I also wanted the students to challenge their assumptions about what multifunction design means. In this project, we had to consider the homeless population, and interrogate how we think about the needs of different types of people.


Where is the project now, and what are your hopes moving forward?

The class is over, but the students are committed to presenting their work in upcoming meetings, and hopefully those discussions will prompt questions and help make progress toward reactivating the building. While the studio was happening, the Parks Department announced it would construct public toliets. Restroom construction has begun, but the removal of storage has not, so now is the time to reimagine the interior, and get the community excited and involved. The photography is also ongoing. We continue to look for residents in the community who have photographs of life inside these buildings sitting in some shoebox in their closets that can be shared to help strengthen our investment in the park.


What are other ways you can see interior design intersecting with community development? 

I think there’s this perception that interior design is purely aesthetic, but it’s more than that. Interior designers translate ideas about program—the ways people use their spaces—into meaningful, well-designed, healthy environments that respond to complex situations. We work with creative partners, urban planners and architects throughout the entire process, not just at the end. Lastly, interior designers can help raise discussions about environmental justice and responsiveness to inclusion.


Pratt Center's Taconic Fellowship Program, made possible by a grant from the Taconic Foundation, provides financial awards to Pratt faculty for projects that align with Pratt Center’s urban planning and policy work in support of sustainable and equitable community development. The goals of the Fellowship are to connect Pratt Institute's diverse disciplines to community development work while supporting Pratt's commitment to collaboration, interdisciplinary projects, and service learning. Click here to learn more.