Image from Brooklyn's Sweet Ruin by Paul Raphaelson.

Domino in the Longue Durée (17971-1883): Racial Capitalism & the Urban Question

In 2014, nearly a decade after the closure of the Domino Sugar Refinery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, artist Kara Walker’s site-specific installation piece, “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby: an Homage to the unpaid and overworked artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant” was opened to the public. The central sculpture, a 75-foot long white sphinx encased in 40 tons of sugar, depicted a caricatured representation of a “Mammy” figure juxtaposed with an exaggerated sexual figure. Walker’s sculpture, which foregrounded the contributions of “unpaid and overworked artisans,” serves as a poignant heuristic to connect the site to the legacy of plantation slavery. My dissertation project explores the complex and understudied historical connections between the urban built environment and the political economy of slavery. This research builds on the conceptual insights of the fields of Black geographies and racial capitalism and contributes empirical research to the geographic relationship between the plantation and the factory. 

The central question of my dissertation project asks, to what extent did the political economy of slavery contribute to the design and growth of cities in the early nineteenth century? Historians of capitalism have elaborated on the insights of racial capitalism by closely examining the processes that produce race and capital at different scales. Meanwhile, scholars of Black geographies have illuminated the ways in which the plantation serves as a spatial blueprint to control and exploit Black life through the present day. Despite much excellent work on themes such as plantation geographies and the spatial continuities of violence that have been reproduced in urban contexts, there is significantly less empirical research that focuses on the earliest production of these related geographies and their mutual development during slavery. As a result, geographic and historical scholarship on both urbanization and plantation slavery tend to grapple with these issues separately. This reproduces a conceptualization of the city as an isolated and independent spatial entity that is disconnected from the global networks of capital, goods, and labor that shaped its development. 

My dissertation remedies this gap by exploring the history of the Domino Sugar Refinery from the vantage point of the Caribbean sugar plantations that supplied its raw inputs during the nineteenth century. Despite the notoriety and prominence of Domino, an exemplar of these relationships, there remains no comprehensive academic historical accounting of the building and its dense connections to the political economy of slavery. I build on the critical insights and methods of Black geographies and racial capitalism to reevaluate conventional approaches to understanding the historic production of urban space.

Image from the New York City Department of Records & Information Services

Bodies in Transit: Speculation and the Biopolitical Imaginary

This project explores the Bodies in Transit archive, an artifact of mid-nineteenth-century public health administration in New York City. The ledgers, which tracked the transit of every corpse that moved through the island of Manhattan between 1859 and 1894 and categorized entrants by their cause of death, nationality, and occupation, present a unique lens through which I explore the intersections of speculation, biopolitics, and urban space. I first establish a conceptual framework of “speculation” by dissecting its etymological genealogy, the roots of which share a preoccupation with vision and sight. I note that in practice, the abstracting and rationalizing tendencies of speculation operate by envisioning, calculating, and coercing specific outcomes into realization. I apply this framework to Bodies in Transit to historicize the ways in which biopolitics, the means through which the state forms, represents, and manages populations, are indexed to speculative economic practices. I read Bodies in Transit through the framework of speculation to articulate a field of meaning that illuminates the complex material and epistemic conditions surrounding its implementation and utility. As I argue, the ledgers were a response to the acceleration of real estate speculation in Manhattan, a trend that incentivized property owners to disinter burial grounds to relocate corpses to rural areas, and thereby connected the speculative logics of real estate to those of public health, spatial order, and surveillance. By thinking across and through the layered meanings of “speculation,” this essay illuminates how the state’s economy of knowledge is intimately related to biopolitical practices of surveillance and abstract representations of financial value in the modern city. This essay was published in the March 2023 issue of American Quarterly.

Recover and Remix: Digital Humanities, Heritage Preservation, and Black Geographies

A research framework developed with the University of Pennsylvania's Center for the Preservation of Civil Rights Sites.

This essay explores the tools, methods, theories, and possibilities of digital humanities (DH) through the lens of CPCRS’ mission. Our focus is on sustaining the “sites” (real and virtual) of Black heritage related to the long Civil Rights movement by pushing back against the structural and ideological forces of erasure, ignorance, and forgetting. How can digital humanities support these political and scholarly efforts? What are its possibilities and limitations? As this review will show, we are optimistic about the creative, empowering, and generative potential of digital humanities to foster and sustain collaborative preservation work and push against the boundaries of how place-based heritage is or could be defined.

Fixing the Accessibility Gap in Municipal Procurement

How can minority- and women-owned businesses overcome structural disadvantages to building wealth through entrepreneurship? In this article, Nicholas Shatan and I assess minority- and women-owned business enterprise (M/WBE) procurement policies in New York City and show that while these programs are designed to generate equitable access to business growth, M/WBE participants are not receiving enough contracts—however, if implemented more strategically and equitably, such policies have the potential to make the economic and social ecosystems within neighborhoods of color more resilient. This research extended from the capacity-building efforts of the Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative, where I worked as a policy and planning lab intern in 2018.