Spotlight on Open House New York: Part 2— The Relevance and Revelations of OHNY’s Spaces of Justice

February 14, 2019

Many New Yorkers recognize Open House New York for its annual OHNY weekends, opening up some of New York’s richest architectural gems to the public—but fewer people realize this organization holds a number of different programs year-round. Among the most intriguing is its Urban Systems series, a program which takes a year-long look at different aspects of the infrastructure and systems that keep this amazing city functional. The latest in the series, “Spaces of Justice,” explores the architecture and infrastructure of NYC’s justice system and joins the ongoing conversation about the future of this system. In this second installment of our spotlight on OHNY, we talk to Executive Director Gregory Wessner about the details and highlights of this remarkable program. 

Your 2018-2019 Urban Systems series is Spaces of Justice – can you tell us more about the program and its importance?

“Open House Weekend is obviously what we’re best known for, but throughout the year we try to use the Open House platform to look at issues in the city that have some kind of critical importance. With Spaces of Justice in particular, there have been a lot of conversations and debates around the future of Riker’s Island and related topics. The crime rate in New York City has dropped dramatically over the past 30 years—by some estimates, upwards of around 80 percent. Considering this drop in crime over the years, along with other factors, the fact is we have a criminal justice infrastructure that was designed and built for a different time. Given the openness to thinking about new ways of handling these kinds of issues, given the debate around Riker’s Island, and given the drop in crime, we thought it was a good opportunity to ask questions about what justice looks like in New York City today, and what it could look like moving forward.

I think that’s what is powerful about OHNY, because it’s taking people into these spaces.  Sometimes they’re beautiful buildings that are historic and lovely and wonderful to appreciate.  Sometimes it has nothing to do with the architecture, but it has to do with how those spaces function within the city. The Spaces of Justice series takes a look at these spaces that are obviously critically important to the health of the city and say a lot about our values as a community. The series is about getting people in to see what the spaces of justice look like, and at the same time, starting a bigger conversation about what they could be as we go forward. There’s a lot of conversation not only about closing Riker’s Island but also what could replace it, including this network of borough-based jails that the mayor is talking about. Ultimately, to have these kinds of conversations, we need to be informed. That’s what we’re trying to do: to deepen that conversation so we all have a better understanding of what all of this means, what it looks like and how we make choices about the future.”

What have been some of the high points and key takeaways of the series so far?

“Honestly, every single program has been incredibly powerful. It launched in May with a presentation by the Director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, Elizabeth Glazer. She gave a broad overview of where the city is right now. She explained the past three decades’ drop in crime, where we’re at now, and what this means for the future. The drop in crime is why we can even talk about closing Riker’s Island. As bad as Riker’s is, the daily population there is half of what it used to be, so it really opens up possibilities for doing something innovative and more humane.

Every program has been amazing. We did a screening of a documentary by Bill Moyers about Riker’s interspersed with a panel discussion on the topic. Two of the panelists had been incarcerated at Riker’s, so hearing their firsthand experience made this the most powerful program I had been to in my entire life—and I don’t say that lightly. It really opened everyone’s eyes to just how bad things are. We talk about injustice around the world. We think New York is this beacon of liberty, freedom, and openness, but right in the middle of the East River, there’s what is essentially a horrifying penal colony.

Another key part of this series were the places that we went to that are operated by the Center for Court Innovation. There is a lot of really innovative and interesting work being done around issues of social justice and how to address crime, rehabilitation, and restorative justice. It was a sort of back and forth between seeing, at the one end of the spectrum, how bad some of the conditions are, but at the other end, the amazing people in this city that are doing inspiring work. It gave everyone a sense of optimism about the possibilities for the future.”

How much longer will the program run?

“The people who did the Bill Moyers documentary are doing a follow-up documentary which is in production right now. It’s about not just the plans to close Riker’s, but also the plans to replace it with this network of borough-based jails. I’m told that the documentary is supposed to be done by mid-March, so we would screen that documentary with a panel discussion, and that would probably be the last program we do for this series, leaving the public with the question: Where do we go from here?”

What can you tell us about the next Urban Spaces series?

“We are working on it right now. It will deal with the issues of transit and transportation—a topic I think everyone will appreciate. The inspiration had a lot to do with the L train construction plans, but the truth is the entire subway system is a bit of a mess. Remember when they were calling it the summer of hell? When that happened, I think everyone began to realize, ‘Oh, the city can’t really function without a functioning transit system,’ and you begin to realize how it impacts everything.

At the same time, there are so many interesting things happening in the transit world—things like CitiBike, Uber and Lyft, the New York City ferry system and so on. So, the series is going to look at how we move around the city. We have an aging infrastructure, but, at the same time, we have all of this innovative technology coming down the line, so we’re looking at how all these things work together. It should be fun.”

If you’d like to learn more about upcoming OHNY programs, including Urban Spaces, you can receive regular updates by joining their mailing list via their website.