We unfortunately can’t share the full report – a beautiful site our web team created on Glitch – because we’re obligated to maintain the privacy of our partners and other interlocutors, but we can share the introduction, where we discuss our process, as well as a few screenshots!
The Power of Place: An Ethnographic Exploration of Open House New York
Creators: Yasmin, Omar, Leticia, Angelica, Olivia, Lilah, Zoe, Tori, Mariah, V, Noemi, Shannon, Ruby, Collin, Guin, Caleb, Lavannya, Ririko, Tee, Rafaela, Kelly [first names only to maintain students’ privacy]
The Design Ethnography Workshop would like to thank its 21 members for generously and patiently contributing to this collaborative, often improvisatory effort. We are also grateful to the Terra Incognita team ethnography project – especially Mona Sloane, Jordan Kraemer, and Stephen Sullivan – and to Alexandra Crosby, Krista Harper, Colin Rhinesmith, and Gavin Weston, for sharing their experience with us. And finally, we owe a great debt of gratitude to our countless interlocutors in the field – OHNY partners, volunteers, and fellow visitors – and to Pamela Puchalski and the staff of Open House New York for making themselves available to us, for opening up the “backstage,” and for candidly sharing their successes and struggles.
Since the beginning of the year, New York City eagerly anticipated a great autumnal urban re-opening – a return to school, to the office, to the theater, to some semblance of the “normal” we knew before the COVID-19 pandemic. And Open House New York Weekend, in mid-October, was to celebrate that renaissance, reintroducing residents and visitors to the city’s vibrance and resilience, reminding them of the “power of place.” The previous year and a half had tested New York and the nation, revealed and exacerbated many long-standing rifts and inequities, and steeled many organizations’ and individuals’ resolve to plot out a recovery that would simultaneously address many of those issues: racial, ethnic, economic, civic, and environmental. OHNY was committed to that larger mission, too: in opening up the city, it planned to open up an inclusive platform for engagement with these critical concerns.
While OHNY had historically focused on the political and pedagogical power of people being co-present in place, the pandemic has demonstrated to everyone that “openness” and inclusion are not only matters of place-based presence. They also rely on networked connectivity. The pandemic has taught us many lessons about digital inclusion that will ideally last well beyond this time of crisis, enabling robust hybrid modes of engagement. The 2021 OHNY Weekend sought to layer physical and virtual experiences to provide multiple points of access to, and invite more diverse communities to engage with, the “open city.”
The Design Ethnography Workshop at The New School, a team of 19 students and two instructors representing a variety of fields and disciplines – anthropology, art practice, art and architectural history, biology, communications strategy, cultural and media studies, curatorial studies, design research, digital art and design, economics, gender studies, graphic design, industrial design, journalism, liberal studies, photography, politics, publishing, service design, strategic design and management, and urban design – partnered with OHNY throughout Fall 2021 to observe, through ethnographic research, if and how OHNY met its goals.
We began the semester by soliciting a brief from OHNY to assess their key critical concerns and their understanding of how ethnographic methods might inform their own self-assessment. We then sought to develop a research agenda that merged OHNY’s interests with our own concerns and methodological and ethical commitments. We created a “Concept Library,” where we each contributed critical concepts, theoretical frameworks, and references – from “situated knowledge” to “design justice” to critical disability studies – that could conceptually guide our research questions. We then generated a long-list of roughly 20 research questions that reflected our various concerns, and ultimately filtered those questions down into three overarching queries:
- How are (in)access and in/exclusivity idealized, operationalized, practiced, and measured in all stages and facets of OHNY Weekend: its planning; its execution; its promotion, its visitor, partner, and volunteer experience; its post-event evaluation, etc? What or who is left out? Why?
- How does(n’t) OHNY serve as a bridge or connector between various geographic regions of the city, within communities, between communities and external visitors, between high-profile capital-A Architecture and quotidian spaces? How else might we characterize the institution’s role, as it’s conceived internally or externally? As a promoter? Tour guide? Gentrifier?
- How does OHNY function as a platform for public pedagogy? What does it teach about the city? To whom, for whom, how, and why?
Over the course of the semester we conducted regular semi-structured interviews with OHNY Executive Director Pamela Puchalski, attended OHNY volunteer training sessions, observed OHNY staff meetings, explored the organization’s collaboration on cloud-based platforms, examined OHNY survey data, and collectively engaged in roughly 200 hours of participant observation and informal interviews throughout OHNY Weekend. To structure our selection of Weekend sites and events, we developed a sampling scheme that maximized our geographic spread, our range of event types, and our mix of online and on-site experiences. We also collectively designed a set of field methods and documentation protocols. We tailored Notion, a project management platform, to serve as our field note repository.
After completing our field-based research, we read through one another’s notes to create a preliminary list of recurring experiences, coded our individual notes, then iteratively clustered those codes until we settled on three key themes – wayfinding, experience, and community – which constitute the three main sections of this report. We also agreed that “access” and “pedagogy” were critical threads that we would weave throughout the report. We aggregated our individual field notes into collections that corresponded to our three key themes and divided ourselves into three thematic groups, each of which combed through its corresponding collection of aggregated notes, identified patterns, and ultimately settled on core arguments for each theme. Those groups then outlined their analysis and drafted their sections of the report while some members broke away into separate teams focusing on design and graphics. Rather than simply “writing up” our report, we determined that its structure and aesthetic should reflect the multimodal nature of our fieldnotes and the design sensibilities of OHNY itself. The report is intended to activate our findings and recommendations.
Those findings and recommendations are elaborated in the sections that follow. In short, as we found our way to and through OHNY Weekend, engaged in its various physical and virtual experiences, and observed the communities present at – and absent from – those experiences, we appreciated the many ways OHNY opens up the city to its residents and inhabitants. Yet we also came to recognize that openness is not an inherent good, nor is it a quality that is uniformly enjoyed. Rather, openness is situational, contextual, cultural, and political, and its cultivation requires attention to myriad manifestations of access and inclusivity.