I'd like to take a post and talk a little about focus. This won't really inaugurate a change in direction for Architextures, but maybe rather a raising of awareness. I've had the great honor of associating with people who care about these things, and who care to talk to me about them. One major force has been the great friend of mine who showed me around Philadelphia, who's very intimately involved with issues of social justice. For sure little traces of it have crept into my posts over the years, but I think it's about time that I faced more of my responsibilities, universally speaking.
What I hope for the future of this blog is to gravitate more toward a conversation about the ways that topics of art, architecture, and design intersect with issues of the marginalization of certain groups in society. Architecture, most especially, has long been and continues to be a suspiciously white male profession. Why is that? How does that impact the way that our spaces define a certain prototype of interaction we have with the built environment? I think it's long past due that we start examining these things. Most certainly women and people of color have been thinking about it all along, but I'd like to enter the dialogue in as much as I remain able to recognize when to shut my mouth and just listen.
One thing I've noticed in my own work at Lincoln Center is that, almost across the board, when I even begin to touch on the topic of architecture, the eyes of young women I address begin to glaze over with boredom so strikingly more and so much more quickly than the young men. I've been overjoyed by the opportunity more recently, with the appearance of Liz Diller, to be able to use female pronouns. With all of the greatest respect to Ricardo Scofidio and Charles Renfro, the difference in the interest level amongst many of the young women I deal with when I use those female pronouns has been subtle but quite noticeable. I lament the fact that Davis, Brody & Associates had not yet welcomed in the late African-American architect Max Bond when they designed LC's Rose Building; there is a connection, but it's not nearly as direct and is more difficult to work into the story.
I want to discuss here the non-profit organization that has been brewing in my mind for many years now. The idea springs from two things. First, that many low-income neighborhoods have absolutely beautiful old architecture that its citizens are unprepared to appreciate (as most people are, actually, who aren't architects or artists), and have neither the resources nor, most importantly, the privilege to step back and fall in love with it. The other is that I have always felt that those who accurately, faithfully restore and protect the products of their cultural heritage--old cars, old houses, motorcycles, paintings--are involved in the most noble of pursuits. All of the greatest of our achievements as human beings might crumble into dust if not for the efforts of these people.
|1014 East Hoffman|
In looking for images for this post, I was surprised to discover one city that seems overwhelmingly plagued by this kind of unfortunate situation. Google searches time and again brought up examples from Baltimore. Maybe my having spent so much time there is the reason this imagery is so seared in my mind.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a city whose architecture is as exquisitely beautiful as it is tragically neglected. Please don't misunderstand me, in no way do I believe that the people of that city are in any way to blame for the state of things. I'm absolutely certain that there are much deeper, systemic and economic causes far more complicated than I could hope to summarize here.
To fund this project, I'd love to find people from these neighborhoods who have earned a crazy amount of money by their hard work, skills, and great talent. There are so many of them who triumphed over insurmountable poverty, and many of them are prominent faces in culture who might be smiled upon by a great many people for giving back to the communities that helped form them. Possibly as many as half of the wealthiest African-Americans turn out to be from Chicago or surrounding areas (and we all know the person at the top of the list is). I doubt it would be too difficult to start there.
|1900 Block West North Avenue 3|
|2400 Block Druid Hill Avenue|
In terms of a bigger picture, I suspect that the appearance of one or two or three perfectly pristine houses and lawns with a few nice flowers on a forgotten street could do everything to encourage a sense of pride that other residents might see as a sort of call to competition that could revitalize the beauty of a block. In other words "we care about our block, maybe you should, too." I've seen neighborhoods in Brooklyn where the residents each take great pride in having the most beautiful, glorious flowers possible in front of their houses. That sense of competition has produced the greatest outpouring of beauty and care. The very care I believe--and maybe this is naive--encourages an upward spiral of respect for one's community. Anyone might toss a used soda can onto an overgrown, weed-riddled, badly-maintained brown lawn. Only a very ill-bred, badly raised individual--of which I think there are actually very few in any community--would do so to a nicely-kept, proudly-maintained yard of one of his or her neighbors. Self-respect begets respect from others.
|2500 Hollins Street|
At this point, newly restored houses could be traded evenly with neighboring homeowners, their broken down residence for this newly restored, pristine one (landlords need not apply, for obvious reasons). Their old home could become the subject of the next restoration, and so on.
|710 East 21st Street|
The point would be, though, to not encourage a bunch of yuppie, white, middle-class folks to take over the neighborhood and yet again force people of color or lower-income residents to relocate elsewhere, but to leave it in the hands of those who have molded those neighborhoods in the first place. Allow them to regain the pride in their space that they deserve and make it theirs.
The Case Study
I found one block in Baltimore to be particularly haunting: Perlman Place. I stared at these photos for a very long time and couldn't seem to get the imagery out of my head. House after house after house, just...dead.
|Perlman Place 16|
|Patterson Park Avenue 2|
I use the past tense because pretty much the entire block has been razed since these photos were taken. Residents of the area were understandably uncomfortable with the idea of school-age kids walking up and down this ghostly street every day with potential hazards on the street and lurking inside the buildings. My solutions for Perlman Place, therefore, will forever remain a lost opportunity. Nevertheless, I think they could be applied to plenty of other similar streets.
|Perlman Place 17|
Next, N. Collington is interrupted by two cross streets, Cliftwood Avenue and East 20th Street. I'd do everything possible to demolish the buildings on Collington, Perlman, and Patterson Park on axis with these two streets (perhaps offering those tenants/building owners newly restored homes in return), and create nice landscaped pedestrian pathways through the blocks west-to-east. This way, pedestrians coming from every possible direction would have reason to use Perlman, rather than it being this long, isolated stretch of street. Openings for large windows or doors would be broken through all the now-exposed party-walls to look out onto the pedestrian walkways, and residents adjacent would be encouraged to keep all views unobstructed by trees or bushes in order to discourage mischief. The pathways would also make parking on the alleyways more realistically accessible.
|Perlman Place 14|
|Patterson Park Avenue 1|
I'd love to think that the businesses could all be co-ops, operated and staffed by residents of the neighborhood. This would accomplish so many different things. Mostly it would fully glue the community together. They could be social gathering spaces where many different interactions could take place. Because space would be rather limited in the storefronts, it would allow them to stock exactly what people in the community want and need without waste, and would ensure that residents had no reason to drive to some big generic store across town. Dollars would stay inside the community. Residents could work full time or share shifts with their neighbors to add a little income to that from an outside job. Retirees with unsurpassed skills in the kitchen could work a couple of days at the restaurants, staying active and making sure the younger folks are eating right. Plus, I've met a few grandmothers in my day who wouldn't let a teenager get away with any nonsense whatsoever. You know the grandmothers I mean.
With all the businesses, this could have great educational benefits as well. The high school kids could learn how to manage a small business, bake a perfect cake from scratch, or make some extra cash watching kids at the day-care center, which they might have had to do for free for their younger siblings after school, anyway. I suspect they'd be less disgruntled to work, for instance, at the internet cafe on the block than they might elsewhere, because they'd essentially be getting paid to hang out where all their friends and neighbors are. Even something requiring more qualifications, like pharmacy or dentistry could be combined with a local community college program to offer training to the neighborhood's young adults, earning them valuable credits.
Eventually it would be nice to just pass the non-profit over entirely to a person (of color) who has lived in a neighborhood like these, so the whole organization could be by and for the benefit of the people affected and not me, a relatively fortunate white guy. As a white man living in America, I fear I may be stepping over a line in discussing this at all. To sort of paraphrase things Tim Wise has said, people of color have done just fine without my help for centuries and made remarkable achievements in a culture of oppression and will continue to do so without me. At the same time, it goes without saying that much damage has been done over that time in the interests of further marginalizing certain groups of people. So I don't see this as "charity" but rather doing what is Right to make this the world that I would like to live in: a world where people help one another, regardless of their differences.
I think I do know a few people who would be eager to help with an endeavor like this. They're the people who I respect the most in my universe. But if anyone else reading this has anything else to offer, please do comment. I'm not convinced that I'm strong enough to undertake it, and certainly not alone, but I would love to make it a reality.
In thanks to Kevin Mueller for the use of his photographs, here are some of his own favorites.
|Poplar Grove from the North|
|Fulton Avenue 4|
|Fulton Street 7|
All text ©2011, Ryan Witte.