Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Revitalization Project

The Changes

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.

The Non-Profit

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
What I would love to do is to form an organization that could go into beautiful old urban neighborhoods, purchase houses for fair market price that are completely boarded up and dilapidated, and restore them to the glory of when they were first built, from around 1870 to 1920 or so. Keep in mind that the picture I have in my mind is this typical, five-story, red-brick row-house found especially in Philly, DC, and Maryland, in New Haven maybe with a prominent front porch, in the Bronx maybe built of brownstone, but it's a distinctly urban type of building. That's not to say that similar neighborhoods all over the country couldn't benefit from this kind of attention. For one thing, I myself have spotted countless Victorian farmhouses of immeasurable charm across the countryside with trees growing out the windows.

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.
American Brew

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.

Catherine Street
Quite the contrary, it was in Baltimore that I found someone who appears to love the architecture of his city as much as I love the architecture in mine. I regret not being able to connect with someone like this from Cairo. Kevin Mueller said he isn't a professional photographer. In fact, he confessed =) to me that he's a Roman Catholic priest. But he has an incredible eye and has documented the city where he has lived for fifty-one years with such obvious love and respect. His images resonated most for me, I think, because he embarked on his journey to photograph Baltimore for reasons very similar to why I write this post, realizing so much about the city he loves was falling into disrepair and being lost forever. All the images in this post are of Baltimore and are the work and property of Kevin Mueller.

The Plan

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
Next, I'd like to recruit workers from the neighborhood where the buildings are located, maybe from within a few blocks, depending on the density of the neighborhood and potentially, hard-working people who've found themselves undeservedly out of a job. The best thing would be to bring in experts in accurate historical architectural restoration and train these workers in the skills needed to both reconstruct a building built from the 1890s (or whatever), but also give them a skill that will be entirely marketable in the workforce. This would not only give them a pride in the effort to revitalize their own neighborhood, but also the pride of a new skill gained for themselves. Great care could be taken to both recycle every building material and reclaim materials for subsequent projects to minimize waste and ultimately cut down on costs. These homes could be rebuilt in a way that not only celebrates their historical architectural integrity, but also makes them as self-sustaining and green as possible.

2400 Block Druid Hill Avenue
Though greenery is limited in these row-house neighborhoods, landscape is crucial, as well. It's the public presence that a home on streets like these present, the most crucial to the inherent social nature of the street. The porches and stoops made them so very vital and also safe from crime and mischief, and resistant to neglect and uninvited litter.

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
Then, I'd like to find a family from the same neighborhood and offer them a residence of appropriate size for their needs in these newly remodeled homes at the same rent they're currently paying. Their monthly payments could be applied to a sort of mortgage in the same way. Perhaps community organization to assist with the move would grease the wheels a little. At first, of course, this would be a losing proposition, which is where conscientious investors would come in. But with enough units consistently earning rent and feeding into the system, eventually it would be enough to support the costs of each new building restoration.

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
First a few basics. Perlman is one block running north to south between Sinclair Lane and East North Avenue. An around one-hundred-foot snippet continues on the other side of E. N. Ave, but the avenue is a rather large barrier, so Perlman is effectively only a single block long. To the west, North Collington Avenue runs parallel to Perlman with an alley in between, to the east, North Patterson Park Avenue with an alley between. At the Sinclair Ave. end is the active Laurence G. Paquin public school which, oddly, appears to accommodate students from pre-kindergarten to twelfth grade. There's a huge high school to the north of Paquin, and what appears to be a public pool to its west. This means that these houses were perfect for families on the one hand, and that Perlman should have been teeming with vibrant street life on the other.

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
If it weren't for the fact that this one block is so long, I'd suggest banning vehicular traffic altogether. As it is, dropping off passengers and larger items to all these buildings exclusively through the alleys would be unrealistic. In any case, I would ban parking (not stopping) on Perlman completely and be sure to allow for ample parking opportunities on the alleys, particularly for the residents and the occasional visitor. If long stretches of the buildings' rooftops were converted to accessible gardens and terraces, the loss of a few backyards for parking would be less troublesome. I'd also make Perlman a one-way street if it weren't already, repave it, and install speed bumps at regular intervals. If the street were not already so narrow, I'd widen the sidewalks (although maybe a foot or two could be gained), but the rather narrow sidewalks would be less problematic anyway if vehicles were drastically impeded. For sure I'd repave the sidewalks, perhaps even with patterned brick, install benches, trees, plantings, and more ample and attractive lighting fixtures. Some of the more attractive flowering plants that have naturally taken root there--and are therefore relatively indigenous and hearty--could simply be replanted in better spots. If there isn't already a bus stop at the end of this block, I'd petition the city to add one until I lost my mind.

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
As for the buildings themselves, I don't believe I have some superhuman powers of imagination that are allowing me to see just how wonderful and charming these little houses were when pristine. Looking at various views, you can take a remaining door pediment from one, the frieze from another, and the cornice from yet another and piece them back together again fairly easily, in my opinion. And please use your imagination to remove that horrid fake stone facing. Why anyone would cover such lovely red brick with fake stone made out of plastic or whatever the hell that is, I have no idea, but I suspect the 1960s are to blame. But look at the first floor window. It's huge. It must be practically the entire floor-to-ceiling height of the front room. Imagine beautiful multi-paned double-hinged windows opening up to the fresh air and sunshine, curtains blowing in a soft spring breeze, flowers in a box attached to the sill underneath.

Patterson Park Avenue 1
I'd like to create a multitude of variety here. While the architecture of Perlman might seem a little bland or monotonous compared to the exuberance of some of Baltimore's other streets, its uniformity actually allows for a great deal more possibilities. The ground floors of all the corner buildings--including on the pedestrian pathways--and a couple in the middle of the block would be dedicated to businesses. Little stores of different kinds, a laundry, grocery, internet cafe, maybe a small pharmacy, day-care center, ice-cream parlor, newsstand, a restaurant or two. For a larger business like a restaurant, the ground floor of two adjacent buildings could be combined to create one large space. In those buildings with ground-floor businesses, second floor apartments would be entered through the back from the alleyway. This would also add more pedestrian activity to the alley making it busier and therefore safer. They could be studio apartments, or the second floor of two adjacent buildings could be combined together. Two entire houses could also be combined without any businesses to create double-sized homes. All in all, a diverse street for people with various different incomes and households of many different sizes.

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.


The Disclaimers

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
His favorite building in Baltimore, he told me, is the Baltimore Trust Building (1929, now Bank of America) by Taylor & Fisher.
Fulton Street 7

All text ©2011, Ryan Witte.