A new public art project is drawing attention to the over-development and demolishment of historical sites in the Pennsylvania Station neighborhood. In the early morning hours of Friday, September 22, the “Keepers” — silent, slow-moving, moss-covered beings that maintain the sacred balance of nature — appeared on West 32nd Street outside culturally significant sites like the Gimbel’s Skybridge, the Church of St. John the Baptist, and the ruins of the Hotel Pennsylvania to spotlight these areas and the dozens of other historic buildings that would be destroyed under the state’s Pennsylvania Station Area Civic and Land Use Improvement Project. Under Empire State Development, a consolidation of the New York State Urban Development Corporation and the New York Job Development Authority, the proposed plan to expand Pennsylvania Station and “revitalize” the Midtown area would effectively displace over 2,000 residents and eviscerate more than 1,300 small businesses housed in the neighborhood, according to data compiled by community organizers.
Beginning at 6:30am in the back of the historic church, the performers moved around the neighborhood outside the massive train station throughout the morning, garnering the confused looks and curiosity of hurried passersby. Beside the performers, community organizers carried signs protesting the state plan.
Commissioned by the nonprofit Preservation League of New York State on a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts, The Keepers is the work of Ed Woodham, the director of the long-running public art festival Art in Odd Places (AiOP), which takes place annually during October in Lower Manhattan. Originating in 2013 when Woodham brought AiOP to Australia’s beaches in the site-specific performance “Numb and Number,” The Keepers is a public art project that combines performance with photography to bring awareness to issues of gentrification, environmental threats, and the over-development of urban areas. In their fictionalized history, they are otherworldly protectors that live “on the border between animal, plant, and human consciousness.” In past editions of The Keepers, the project has put a spotlight on a variety of sites threatened by gentrification and mass development, including Woodham’s former neighborhood of Gowanus in Brooklyn; Jackson Avenue in Long Island City, Queens; and Asbury Park in New Jersey, as well as several sites in Australia and Poland.
“In this particular iteration of The Keepers, we are hopefully bringing attention to the gross demolition of the Penn Station neighborhood, the historical buildings, and also to the urban fairytale propaganda of a luxury city,” Woodham explained to Hyperallergic. “The infinite growth that’s happening right now is a complete disregard of the infrastructure and the natural limits of urban density.”
This project is also in collaboration with the Empire Station Coalition, a group of civic organizations opposed to the government’s plan, instead proposing to renovate and repurpose the existing infrastructure to create a more inclusive, sustainable public atmosphere. In late 2022, the coalition, along with several other groups, sued the State of New York, alleging that the State violated the State Environmental Quality Review Act by separately proposing its Penn Station redevelopment plan, which coincides with Amtrak’s multi-billion dollar Gateway Program initiative as well as Vornado Realty’s own plans to build several new luxury high-rises, according to the Architect’s Newspaper.
Hyperallergic has contacted Governor Kathy Hochul and Empire State Development for comment on the suit and the development plans.
“[These developers] don’t have any idea of how urbanism works and they, and they’re dragging the neighborhood down,” Sam Turvey, one of the coalition’s coordinators, told Hyperallergic. “They are the generators of the blight, not the neighborhood itself.”