Photo description: Southward view from the boardwalk of Domino Park. The sun sets as it illuminates the silhouette of downtown Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Williamsburg Bridge, and the beautiful East River.

The Design Trust Equitable Public Space Fellowship Program supports the next generation of urban designers, architects, landscape architects, and planners in contributing to complex public space challenges in our global city. Fellows have the opportunity to have a real impact on New York City’s public spaces through Design Trust projects, gaining public exposure and cross-sector experience. Below is a blog post written by our current EPS Fellow Catherine Betances reflecting on their independent research around Afrofuturism, memory, and waterways.

"I want to write a poem the size of the waters

so that in every stanza, the world does not 

forget what happened to the Black Cuban 

who did not make it past the rafts; the trans 

Algerian sisters who did not make it past 

the Spanish checkpoint; the eleven-year-old 

Afro-Salvadoran twins who promised each other 

that at least one would live past El Rio grande;

 and the Jamaican couple who chose the ocean as 

home because what other options do you have 

when living as forever displaced?"   

-Excerpt from the poem “the catastrophe of the illegal negro was/is planned” in the book to love and mourn in the age of displacement by Alan Pelaez Lopez

Before I begin, I want to take a moment to express my gratitude to all of my teachers, past, present, and future — particularly my ancestors and their loved ones. When I look out to the sea, as the waves crash against the shore, I think of those beloveds who were lost across the Middle Passage. I think of you fondly, and please know that the diaspora is holding you close. You are safe with us.

Afrofuturism goes beyond speculative science fiction; it is time-bending. According to one of the architects of the term, the late Greg Tate, Afrofuturism connects “the dots of people, cross literature, film, music, politics and historical events in the [B]lack community.” Afrofuturist creators imagined many underwater worlds and cosmologies, including Drexciya, dikenga, submerged Black towns, and other “Black Atlantis dreamscapes,” where “the metaphor and the lived reality of submergence offers a fluid and unrestricted future as well as world-building and self-determination that a deeply grounded or firmly landed life cannot always afford” (Reservoir Noir: Dreaming through Submergence - Morgan P. Vickers). 

A new movement of academics, poets, and artists — inspired by the mythological Drexciya and other African and African Diasporic worlds — are proposing an international ocean memorial for the 1.8+ million people who died on ships that carried enslaved Africans, the seabed being their final resting place. 

“All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was… Like water, I remember where I was before I was straightened out.” 

 -Toni Morrison

Memorials can take many forms in public space, often working as the “public record of memory in the city.” But memorials don’t only have to exist literally with a street name, statute, or monument. While those historical markers are important, they often “impose themselves on public spaces and those who occupy these spaces” (Contested Histories in Public Spaces). 

Memorials can also be practices, bending time and bridging memory between the past, present, and future. When bodies of water are preserved as memorials, they can act as spaces of ritual and commemoration. A few years ago, Reimagine End of Life put out an open call for water rituals, including this list of rituals from many traditions, “A Manual for the Momentary: DIY Rituals.” Others, like Golden Drum, hold ceremonies to honor and give gratitude to the bodies of water themselves. Artist Ayana V. Jackson’s exhibition, Take Me to the Water, moves memorialization further, using nonlinear memories and archives and connecting them to Afrofuturism. 

When we advocate for equitable public space, that must include the waters. When we don't consider them, we miss opportunities to improve recreation, address environmental injustices, support equitable economic development, and design sites for cultural, historical, and spiritual (re)connection. New Yorkers suffer the consequences of these policy choices, like in the Port Morris-Mott Haven community. 

A few weeks ago, I visited Domino Park for the first time. Even on a cold, windy March evening, it was filled with people — couples, friends, and families with little ones. I spent a lot of time just looking out to the water, seeing all the lights in the Manhattan buildings turn on and off, the ferries shuffle by, and the cars and trucks cross the Williamsburg bridge. I lay my eyes on the waves and the shimmering light on the river’s surface. It was so beautiful, and it filled me with so much sorrow. And in holding this moment, I felt a spiritual connection.

Huge thanks to the Design Trust programs team for supporting me in this research. 

I am deeply grateful to Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Dr. Njelle W. Hamilton, Ayana V. Jackson, Dr. Yuko Miki, and Morgan P. Vickers for all their teachings during the panel, “Aquatic Space: Water in the Afrofuturist Imagination,” part of the Claiming Space: A Symposium on Black Futures - Past, Present, and Potential, a series on Afrofuturism from the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. I HIGHLY encourage you to watch each of their video presentations, too! I also want to thank the Preservation Side B team (who presented at the 2021 Hindsight Conference) for introducing me to the work of preservation and memorials.

Catherine Betances (she/they pronouns) joined Design Trust in September 2021 as one of the Equitable Public Space Fellows, supporting in program management and development. 

The Equitable Public Space Fellowship is made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts.