Mapping sound in a contested area

I’ve been interested in the conflict that surrounds eminent domain since I read about the case, Kelo v. City of New London. Eminent domain gives the government the power to take private property (that is economically blighted) for public use with the requirement that the government provides “just compensation”


Eminent domain is typically used to build highways and other forms of infrastructure, however in the case of Kelo v. City of New London the city intended to lease the land to a private developer who would build a research center / office park for the drug company Pfizer as well as a hotel and new apartments. Susette Kelo was one of the 15 people whose home was threatened by eminent domain; she became a spokesperson for the case.


The Institute for Justice, that represented the homeowners, argued that despite the fact that the development would increase the tax base that would benefit the public, the development was still an abuse of eminent domain because it enabled a private economic development and did not directly benefit the public. I never thought I would agree with Clarence Thomas, but he summed up the plan pretty succinctly. Thomas described the cities case for eminent domain as: “A costly urban-renewal project whose stated purpose is a vague promise of new jobs and increased tax revenue, but which is also suspiciously agreeable to the Pfizer Corporation.”


The case was brought to the Supreme Court that ruled in favor of the city. Sandra Day O’Connor, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, voted against the city. Sandra Day O’Connor wrote, “”The government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more.”

Although the city won the case, Pfizer walked away from the deal and left a gutted neighborhood and the city lost 1400 jobs. You can read about the case here.

That is how I became interested in eminent domain, a complicated topic that primarily affects the poor and disenfranchised, it threatens to radically re-draw our cities and homes. To quote O’Connor “The specter of condemnation hangs over all property. Nothing is to prevent the state from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory.”


Columbia University

Columbia University recently won its long battle to build a satellite campus in western Harlem using eminent domain. The contested area is a mix of gas stations and auto body shops; a bus depot and a giant storage company. Columbia University has promised that the new campus will benefit the community and the students. The move has been contentious because although the “expansion” will bring more money to the area it will also displace businesses and drive up the rent and change the fabric of the neighborhood.

When I began this project I was adamantly anti Columbia but some business owners were in favor of the campus because it would bring more money to the area, and make it “safer,” however at least one woman was concerned the expansion would drive up the rent in an area that is already struggling to provide affordable housing. One thing was clear the building would change the area.


My project

I decided to create a sound portrait of the area before the new campus changed the landscape. I spent a Saturday walking along the border of the redevelopment plan and recorded sounds and brief interviews with store owners and anyone who would talk to me. I tried to keep It simple, I just asked them to say their name, where they live and what sounds they associated with the area. A few people talked about Columbia university’s extension plan but it wasn’t a subject people wanted to address directly which is probably why I ended up focusing on asking them what sounds they associated with the area. Sound is such an innocuous subject but it reveals a lot about a persons background and personality. I’ve always thought that a neighborhood is so much more than the buildings; it’s also the sounds that people associate with that place.

Guy Debord described this idea more comprehensively when he coined the term psychogeography. Debord defined psychogeography as, “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” Debord merged the two different factors of ambience that determine the urban landscape: soft ambience, which is sound, light, time and the association of ideas with the physical structure of the area. I didn’t intend to create something that reflected his theory of psychogeography (and only read about it after I started editing) but the theory really echos what I am interested in and what my project was trying to convey.

When I edited my clips I decided to take the sounds that people had described and mix them with the sounds I had already recorded. I think I based some of my edits on the 1970’s movement called “Original Sound” which is an experimental form of documentary radio. My edits were non linear and grouped by theme: sound associations, changes to the neighborhood and then some reactions to Columbia University.



Sounds of urban blight


How has the neighborhood changed?


How will Columbia University change the neighborhood?



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Categories: Reflective Posts

Author:miranda shafer

Miranda Shafer is a freelance producer for the podcast, "How Do We Fix It?" In January 2015 She graduated with a Masters in Media Studies from The New School. She has worked for WNYC as a production assistant for Selected Shorts and as a producer for the series "Talk to Me." She likes hot media and cold weather.

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