Geographies of Katherine Dunham’s Dance Activism: an interview with Joanna Dee Das

In 1930s Chicago, she choreographed for Run, Little Chillun, the first black show to take place in the city’s downtown Loop theater district, and brought dance to the city’s New Negro Movement. In 1940s Kansas City, Louisville, and Baltimore, she—a black choreographer—confronted and challenged racist laws often while performing to all-white audiences. In the 1950s, she choreographed Southland, an “anti-lynching dance drama” (12); her company performed the work in Santiago, Chile and Paris, France, but never—due to State Department pressure—in the United States (in fact, the FBI keep files on her for two decades). When she danced abroad in places like San Paulo, Brazil, she was often both refused hotel rooms and applauded for her choreography. In the 1960s, she traveled to and lived in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and Dakar, Senegal, engaging with local—and black diasporic—aesthetics and politics. In 1967, she moved to East St. Louis where she opened the Performing Arts Training Center, bringing dance to thousands for the rest of the 20th century.

The life of Katherine Dunham (1909 – 2006), choreographer and activist, was in many ways a life of dance urbanism and dance geography. Dunham choreographed works in dialogue with the aesthetics and sociality of, and against racism that, permeated cities where she traveled, choreographed, and lived. But how? How did her choreography engage with the 20th century development of cities?

I asked these and more questions of Joanna Dee Das, Assistant Professor of Dance at Washington University in St. Louis. Das’s new book Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora (Oxford University Press) chronicles Dunham’s life, choreography, and engagement with anti-racism, aesthetics, and politics in 20th century U.S. and global cities.

MAHMOUD: Your book opens with an anecdote about Katherine Dunham furiously performing at a segregated theater in Louisville for a whites only audience. You write:

In Louisville, she emerged at the end of the performance wearing a sign that a company member had stolen from a segregated train car saying “For Whites Only” attached to her backside. After bowing, she turned upstage and danced a triplet step, moving her feet quickly form side to side causing the sign to swing back and forth from her hips for all to view. When the bows finished, she read a speech in which she announced that she would not return to the theater until it integrated. Her words made national headlines, and she received fan letters from across the country applauding her stance. (9)

Dunham was often booked in, and then later, refused to dance in racially segregated venues in cities such as Kansas City, Louisville, and Baltimore. How did her performances and later refusals dialogue with racism, and hope for anti-racist politics, in those cities?

DAS: So these are all urban Southern cities. Kansas City you could say is mid-west, but in a way it’s a part of the South also. She had to negotiate a tricky balance there, as these cities had growing black populations at the time, the Great Migration is still technically happening. There’s still more and more African Americans moving from the rural South to the urban South, and more and more of them want to come to her shows. So she always has to make a decision in each city, “Do I perform in a segregated venue because I want people to see my shows? Do I refuse and take a stand? What do I do?” In each place she makes kind of a different decision.

In Louisville, she decides … The first time she goes there she performs and doesn’t raise a protest, and the second time she does. She says she won’t return until the theater is integrated because there are so many African American citizens in Louisville [who] want to see her shows.

In Baltimore, she again, at first, is willing to perform in the segregated theater because she has never been there before. She says in a letter to her friend, “I think it’s important to have your audiences get to know you first before you make any strategic decisions about protesting.”

I think what she’s in dialogue with in these urban centers is a growing African American population that is interested in urban entertainments. She wants them to have access to her shows. So sometimes she decides that that access means accepting segregation, and sometimes if she’s already popular there and already well-known then she’ll take a stand. It’s a very strategic move, even though whenever people interview her she always said that she responded intuitively to injustice.

Joanna Dee Das

You chronicle Dunham’s performances abroad in South America, Europe, and West Africa. How did that work influence ideas of Americanness?

Her performances abroad made people very interested in African American life because she was one of the first performers … You have to remember when she goes to Europe in 1948, Europe is still recovering from World War II. There aren’t many people performing there, and this is for them … it’s building upon exposure of Josephine Baker in Paris, and things like that. She’s really one of the first African American performers to go abroad that people glob onto to say, “Teach us about what’s going on in America.” There’s increasing news coming out of Russia about stories of segregation and racism in the United States. So people in those urban areas in Europe and Latin America are asking her to respond to those stories and her take on those stories.

She has to walk this delicate balance: she wants to keep performing abroad, she doesn’t want the U.S. State Department to shut her down, but she also wants to speak out. She negotiates this pretty well until she decides to perform an anti-lynching ballet.

That’s Southland?

Yes, that’s Southland.

[Southland was first performed in December 1950 in Santiago, Chile. Das reveals how the State Department “pressured [the U.S. embassy in Chile] to take the dance drama off the program, arguing that it ‘clearly follows communist line propaganda and serves to create ill feeling toward the United States’” (157). Later State Department officials accused Dunham of “anti-Americanism” and censored Chiliean press coverage of the work” (160).] 

Another part of her engagement in these urban cities abroad is she connects to new parts of African diaspora. She had been to the Caribbean, but in Europe she connects to people from Africa, from the continent itself. That produces a new rich, cultural, and intellectual exchange. I think of Brent Edwards’s work about Paris as a kind of center of transnational diasporic creation. Paris is where she meets Léopold Senghor, first president of Senegal and creator of Negritude. So in Paris and in London she meets a lot of African intellectuals, and that helps enrich her understanding of the diaspora in a lot of ways.

Dunham spent nearly the last 40 years of her life in East St. Louis. How would you describe her influence in East St. Louis and the broader St. Louis metro region? Why did she choose East St. Louis?

The reality is she needed a job. Her brother-in-law worked at Southern Illinois University and said, “I can get you a job here.” She needed money. She came in 1964 to Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, which is 100 miles away [from St. Louis]. She hated it. She’s used to living in these cosmopolitan urban centers: Paris, London, New York City. She fled, she went to Senegal for two years, but then she came back [in 1967]. She decided to stay because she just saw that there was a lot of need for some kind of cultural programming in the area. There was not even a movie theater in East St. Louis, the movie theater had shut down in 1959. There were very few opportunities for arts and culture. So she felt that she could make a difference.

The question about whether culture can solve systemic racism and poverty, it obviously can’t. When you look at statistics about East St. Louis, crime statistics or poverty statistics, those don’t change as a result of Dunham being here, but she changed the lives of many citizens here. People attest to the quality of their lives improving, and also helping people get out. Again, the question is, does that help the city? But it does help the citizens of that city. She helped a lot of people find a new path in life.

There is this concept I love: “performance geography.” In DanceHall: From Slave Ship to Ghetto (University of Ottawa Press 2010), Sonjah Stanley-Niiah uses performance geography:

to refer to a mapping of the material and spatial conditions of performance: entertainment and ritual in specific sites/venues, types of systems of use, the politics of their location in relation to other sites and other practices, the character of events/rituals in particular locations and the manner in which different performances and performers relate to each other within and across different cultures.

There is also the level of spatial philosophies that govern systems of use, boundaries and boundarylessness, gendered spaces, and the urban, and that form part of the rubric of performance geography. How do performances imprint themselves on space? What spatial identities do performances bear? How is the performative self to be defined in any given space? Are there distinctions to be made between the local and the global self in performance? (33)

How does this concept resonate with Dunham’s work?

I think of her performance geography as genuinely diasporic in the sense of living in the space in between. I think it would be very hard to replicate it today.

Why?

Because I think that today she would be accused of cultural appropriation. In order to give this very expansive sense of diaspora she had to choreograph so many dances that she set in places she had never been, and invoking dance forms she had never studied. At the time it was so much better than what was out there that it was totally okay, but today when … For example, I show students a piece of choreography called Batucada set in Brazil. She had not been to Brazil, she had not studied Brazilian dance. The musicians sing in Spanish instead of in Portuguese, for example. And I think that today that kind of performance would be seen as a version of cultural appropriation across national boundaries. But at the time, Dunham did it to create this broad vision and show the richness and wealth of the diaspora culturally.

Her performance geography was always trying to be as broad and inclusive as possible, and find spaces in between and celebrate the differences as well as similarities. She didn’t make each piece similar. It couldn’t be replicated in the same way today. I think the version that people do today is they do dialogic exchanges, so Urban Bush Women does a collaboration with Jant-Bi, a Senegalese dance company. They work together, they collaborate, they create what I would consider a diasporic performance through a collaborative model.

More broadly, how did Dunham’s choreography dialogue with her geographies and the politics of those geographies?  

She gets her start in Chicago, and the big thing she is doing there is bringing dance to the New Negro Movement, or the Chicago Black Renaissance. There is a growing little theater movement, there is obviously a great music scene in Chicago. This is the 1930s. As you know, kind of like Harlem Renaissance in 1920s and Chicago starts to get this creative artistic energy a little bit later coinciding with the Great Depression. So therefore it’s also slightly more explicitly political in orientation because the National Negro Congress that meets there is in dialogue with the Communist Party. There’s a little bit more of an activist bent to it explicitly. Obviously, the Harlem Renaissance is also political, but in this movement of the 1930s, out of which in the 1940s will come Richard Wright and Gwendolyn Brooks. Dunham is bringing dance to the conversation. That’s how she is influencing Chicago urban culture.

In New York City in the 1940s she is challenging the whiteness of Broadway, not only through her shows, which are on Broadway, but also by putting her dance studio in Broadway’s theater district. Everyone expected her to put it in Harlem. She refuses. Then she is challenging what is considered the center of what you should do for your training in Broadway performance. It’s not just dancers who go to her dance studio in New York in the 1940s, it’s a lot of actors and other performers. Everyone who’s anyone in theater and dance scene. The founder of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, Arthur Mitchell, said that it was just the “it” place to be in the late 1940s and early 1950s. So she’s really bringing in kind of Afro Caribbean culture, particularly to urban culture in New York.

A group of Katherine Dunham Dancers shown in mid-rehearsal in New York, Library of Congress, 1946

Had she gone to the Caribbean by then?

Yeah, she had gone to the Caribbean in the 30s and then went to Cuba in 1946. She’s obviously not solely responsible for bringing Cuban music to New York, but she is part of what helps popularize things that leads to the Mambo craze and things like that.

Those are the big two. Then, as we talked about, in Paris and London she’s engaging in these dialogues, then in East St Louis shes making these changes in the 60s.

Your own dance geography influences this book. You began your preface, writing:

I never met Katherine Dunham, but she shaped the course of my life. At age nine, I began to take jazz at the Center of Creative Arts (COCA), a community arts center in University City, an “inner ring” suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. I had only a vague awareness that my theater, Lee Nolting, doubled as the ballet mistress for the Katherine Dunham Children’s Workshop across the river in East St. Louis. After taking a Dunham Technique class at age twelve with Lee’s husband, Darryl Braddix, I realized that many aspects of my jazz dance training, including our arm positions during warm-ups and our body-part isolations, came from Dunham Technique. … I was part of an organization with a mission to create community and challenge racial segregation” (5).

You grew up in St. Louis, lived in New York, and traveled to Haiti, Italy, and Maryland as part of writing the book. How did these urban localities, sometimes not urban, influence the writing of the book?

Well, going to Port-au-Prince, Haiti was very instructive because … I think that it might be one of the major differences between my book and previous books on Dunham is I am coming of age as a scholar at a time when there is a call for more diasporic thinking and thinking about the ways in which an American centric perspective can erase other perspectives. Going to Port-au-Prince and talking to people in Haiti, where I did a lot of interviews, was very helpful because there is a narrative from America about how important Dunham was for Haiti, how much good she did for Haiti, how wonderful she was, how much of an activist she was there, and that’s not necessarily the perspective of Haitians living there. I was clued into this by Mario Lamothe. He was the one who first told me, “You should really talk to Haitians about their perspective.” And so going to Port-au-Prince and actually talking to people of multiple generations was really helpful to see how she was perceived as an American, not always already as a fellow person of African descent. That was really helpful, and it helps give the book a slightly different frame rather than an America only frame.

Then I would say going to Carbondale, Illinois, which is where the archives were, was also very interesting because I could see why Dunham felt kind of panicky living there. It feels very rural, and it actually feels very Southern. Though Illinois technically was a free state, [southern Illinois] feels like the South, very much is the South. When I was living there for the summer, people wore Confederate flag belts. There has been documentation that there was actually slavery in Southern Illinois even though it was technically a free state. It helped me understand why Dunham at first felt kind of panicky being there. That was very helpful to understand her mentality and why East. St Louis is such a unique urban area. For anyone who hasn’t been there, it feels like it combines rural poverty with urban poverty.

What can we gain pedagogically from your book?

I’m hoping that it’s a model for how you can try to tell a broader story through one person’s life. That can always be tricky. Sometimes biography is seen as an old fashioned way of scholarship, or narrow, and I think that you can learn a lot about the nuances of a social movement or a historical question by looking at an individual person.

What might people interested in dance activism and art activism learn from Dunham’s work?

One thing they can learn is that you have a lifetime to achieve these goals. She lived at a time when the phrase self care was not around, but she engaged in a practice of knowing when to step back and let her creative spirit regenerate, and when to fully engage. There’s a point at which it gets too exhausting to fight racism and sexism every single day of your life while you’re on tour, while you’re trying to be creative, while you’re trying to find beauty in things. It can be really, really draining, and so having a generosity with yourself of finding ways to engage in activism, knowing when to give yourself time to regenerate your creative spirit, I think is something that is really important that I talk about in the book.

Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora (2017) by Joanna Dee Das is available from Oxford University Press.

A Weeping Elephant

In the central Brussels neighbourhood of Ixelles, a fifty-metre-tall elephant has been introduced to Place Flagey. The place is an open square where people gather, young children splash around in water fountains, and each weekend a vibrant market transform the square to bustling, throbbing mass of colours, smells, and textures. The sculpture is called a weeping elephant and has been positioned in the northern corner of the place across from the imposing Flagey building that houses a cultural centre and the school of architecture from the Université libre de Bruxelles. The elephant is part sculpture, part performance art, and part provocation and will stand in position from July 12th until September 22nd 2017.

 

Images courtesy of Anna Plyushteva

 

The elephant is part of a series called Ode to the Wilderness by Dutch artist Jantien Mook who has been fascinated by rhythms and patterns from childhood. Her love of nature and animals is part of the rationale behind the weeping elephant, looking to explore the subtleties and movements of the natural world. The weeping elephant is a sculpture of an African elephant, made of beech stems, patterns in steel, segments of bark and knots for the eyes.

 

Jantien Monk explains that the sculpture ‘travels around the world and appears in cities, she ‘weeps’ to make her presence felt’. The elephant provokes the public to think about the daily presence of such creatures and the interactions between nature, animals, and humans. At the same time the weeping elephant is an interesting object that draws attention. Children will play with the sculpture, people sit at the elephant’s feet, and others just enjoying taking pictures as the colours change in sunlight.

 

The elephant certainly brings about changes in the felt atmosphere of the square, at the same time it helps to make a direct and daily confrontation to people’s awareness and appreciation the role urban places have on the wilderness and wildlife. The elephant will travel around Europe till the end of the year, instigating daily confrontations and atmospheres.

 

For more see: http://www.hln.be/regio/nieuws-uit-brussel/weeping-elephant-vindt-plek-op-flageyplein-a3207588/

 

 

On Good v. Bad Urban Government, City-States, and Cultural Symbols: Reflections from Fallen / Falling Empires

On a recent trip to Italy, I had the pleasure of visiting the cities of Rome and Siena. Rome, the “Eternal City”, enchants with its multiple layers of history. The modern city super-imposed on several earlier urban texts: Mussolini’s functional and monumental fascist infrastructure on top of the Baroque city of flourishes and curves; the neo-classical Renaissance city on top of a messy Medieval street grid; Medieval housing blocks on top of ancient Roman foundations, which in turn sit upon even earlier foundations (Greek, Etruscan, etc.). A shopkeeper informed me that beneath her shop was an Egyptian temple.

Siena, one of the powerful and wealthy Renaissance city-states, arguably the Frankfurt of its time in terms of its banking dynasties (Monte dei Paschi di Siena is still one of Italy’s largest banks), sits atop a hill crowned by a marble-clad cathedral.

I have visited Italy before, most recently in 2009 and before that, studied one undergraduate semester in Rome (in 2004). But this summer’s visit felt especially timely and powerful, given the stories that these ancient cities tell about the waves of history and the rise and fall of empires. It is perhaps cliched to compare Rome’s rise and fall to Pax Americana and / or the rise and fall of the global capitalist empire, but it is hard to avoid such comparisons (at the time of this writing, a controversial play portrays Donald Trump as Julius Caeser, widely considered Rome’s first dictator). The Colosseum towers above the crowds with its numbered entries, as global cities build and destroy sport arenas constructed in the same way. The market (or shopping malls of its day) of Emperor Trajan (below) crumbles beneath modern retail advertisements, as modern retail itself creatively destroys itself with Amazon and drone-delivery. History is always present.

20170628_162658

In particular, I was struck with three thoughts while meandering through cobblestone streets.

1. Urban Governance as “Bad” or “Good”: Both the ancient Roman urban world and the Renaissance Italian era had very strong and well-developed concepts of “good” v. “bad” urban government, that are directly relatable to our contemporary era. 21st-century urban governance is fraught, difficult, and increasingly characterized by divides and schisms within the new global populism. “Good” urban mayors emerge as global superstars (in popular imagination, LA’s Villaraigosa or Bogota’s Penelosa come to mind); while “bad” mayors seem determined to destroy, rather than to build, urban best practice (Toronto’s Rob Ford one recent example). In an urban world where an increasing majority of humans live in cities, and cities compete globally in an interlinked economy, the difference between good and bad urban governance has huge implications.

This was starkly the case as well in 14th century Siena. While touring Siena’s medieval city hall, I came across three frescoes dating from 1338-1339, painted by Amborgio Lorenzetti, representing the allegory of “good and bad government” (see below). 20170622_154044

“Bad government” (above) features the devil-like horned tyrant, while the captive figure of Justice lies bound. They are flanked by the figures of Cruelty, Deceit, Fraud, Fury, Division, and War, and above, float the figures of Avarice, Pride, and Vainglory. These figures, according to an advice book for city magistrates of the time, were considered to be the “leading enemies of human life” (Skinner, 2009). Surely these same character flaws apply to many vainglorious modern mayors, council members, civic leaders. 20170622_154033Meanwhile, in the allegory of “good government” above, there are six crowned, stately female figures: Peace, Fortitude and Prudence on the left, Magnanimity, Temperance and Justice on the right. “Peace”, however, sits upon a cache of weapons: a city maintains its peace but must not surrender its strength if attacked.

In the new populism, cities around the world are maligned, otherized, and blamed for many of society’s ills (e.g. the anti-urban language of New Yorker Donald Trump, or the anti-London rhetoric of the pro-Brexit discourse in Britain). Siena’s leaders understood the power of good urban governance as a tool to placate the people, a lesson relevant today.

2. City-States as a Natural Political / Economic / Cultural Organization

Medieval and Renaissance Italy was not a unified nation (that wouldn’t happen until the 1870s), but rather a competitive collection of powerful, autonomous City-States that gained commercial, political and cultural dominance at different times. Venice, Genoa, Florence and Siena are just four examples of this territorial organization. Each city maintained a powerful army; had a powerful economic competitive advantage usually centered around one or a cluster of specialized trades; and also cultivated a unique sense of self and culture through the patronage of art and architecture. Time also cultivated a distinctly local, rather than national sense of belonging; unique customs and traditions, and in many cases even distinct dialects and languages.

The 19th century through the end of the Cold War was a period of national unification and amalgamation, as unique cities with centuries of history were swept up into the re-ordering of empires and joined into (often artificial) nation-state boundaries. “Italy” and “Germany” came into being; and “Yugoslavia” was just one example of the blurring of smaller boundaries into a larger whole. The advent of the European Union in the late 20th century is perhaps the most prescient example of the collapsing of the city-state layer of government into a broader sense of global region. Many other national and supra-national clusters emerged, from NAFTA and MERCOSUR to ASEAN and OPEC. Urbanism was envisioned by theorists as increasingly “planetary” (see Brenner, 2014), embedded in relational global flows and networks and no longer tied specifically to particular geographies. Harvey (1989) predicted this new global urban geography in late capitalism, as global supply chains and labour flows circulated more rapidly in an increasingly flat world.

However, more recently, the failures of the 19th and 20th-century conception of the “nation state” or even “global region” seem to point again to the primacy of the City-State as a rational, and even utopian, scale of global territorial governance and organization. One can point toward the (economic) success of City-State models such as Singapore, or to the increasing dominance of mayors and urban leaders in terms of global governance and policy. Localism has challenged notions of state, nation and region from Brexit to the continued attack on Federalism v. State in the United States (by the right-wing); cities in the Global South are emerging as command centers for larger and larger hinterlands as rural to urban migrations continue from Africa to China. Indeed, some argue that in certain contexts, effective national governance is becoming nearly impossible. Britain continues to devolve power to locally-elected mayors (following the American model). As the United States rejects global climate change accords, its mayors commit their cities to CO2 reduction.

Amidst the flows of the current populist Balkanization (which also manifests in cyberspace), we may be returning to an age like that in which Siena fought for dominance with its urban counterparts.

3. Cultural Symbols as Essential to the Old, and New Nationalism 

20170629_163545Somewhat contrasting the observations above, I had another thought while meandering through the ruins of the Roman Forum. The most poignant artifact I encountered was the Temple of the Vestal Virgins (above), where beautiful statues of the Vestal Virgins have miraculously survived the millenia. The Virgins guarded the “Sacred Fire of Vesta”, Rome’s eternal flame, and its most poignant and holy cultural symbol. Popular lore stated that should the flame be extinguished, so would Rome’s heart. Entry to the Temple was strictly forbidden, save for a select few.

As the Roman Empire slowly collapsed due to both internal and external forces, splitting into two (with the power center moving East to Constantinople) and sacked / burned several times by marauding intruders, still the flame burned.

Finally, in  394 AD, by order of the Christian Emperor Theodosius I, the rites of Vesta ended and the fire was extinguished. A collective sigh resonated through Rome’s chattering classes, chronicled by Roman historians. The weight of this symbolic act was apparent, even then.

This anecdote was chilling to me. I began to think about what our contemporary cultural symbols are: what is the metaphorical “fire” that burns at the heart of our civilization? What is the eternal flame that maintains human light, hope, development? What will it look like were it to be extinguished, and it what ways might this happen?

Has our eternal flame already been extinguished, and will future historians be able to point to an event that has already occurred, to events occurring all around us today?

As we continue to lament the fall of many of our institutions (in America, for example, bipartisan government; public education; a non-partisan judiciary, just to name three), we may be too distracted to notice when indeed, the fire is put out. Let’s hope we keep it burning.

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More on Grenfell

By Gareth Millington

Following on from my Grenfell related post yesterday I have compiled some of the most useful articles on this tragedy. Many in the UK will be familiar with these but I’m aware that most readers of the blog are from outside the UK and will be interested to read more about a terrible event that many agree is emblematic of the failings of neoliberal and austerity urbanism.

The first article tell the story of how The Labour Party won the North Kensington seat in West London just a week before the fire. This victory, seen by many as unlikely, was in large part due to urban tensions in the area.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jun/12/labour-kensington-general-election-london?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter

The second article, published just days after the fire on The Sociological Review blog, is by David Madden, an urban sociologist based at the LSE. He sees parallels between Grenfell and Hurricane Katrina.

https://www.thesociologicalreview.com/blog/deadly-cityscapes-of-inequality.html

These two articles are from the City journal blog. Paul Watt has been charting London’s struggles over social housing for the last decade.

http://www.city-analysis.net/2017/06/23/those-people-in-there-like-the-phoenix-shall-rise-from-the-ashes-the-truth-shall-come-out-debbie-humphry/

http://www.city-analysis.net/2017/06/23/this-place-is-post-something-londons-housing-in-the-wake-of-the-grenfell-tower-fire-paul-watt/

The following articles are by the excellent architectural writer Owen Hatherley. The first talks of the institutional contempt shown for the diverse and generally poor residents of Grenfell. The second addresses predictable commentary from the right that focuses on the architectural design of London’s high-rise homes and argues that towers should be torn down. As Hatherley states, such a view is of course concomitant with the discourse of ‘regeneration’, whereby estates are demolished or made derelict by local authorities, the land sold and residents dispersed outside the city to make way for middle class residents.

https://www.dezeen.com/2017/06/16/grenfell-tower-fire-lethal-failure-oversight-opinion-column-owen-hatherley/

https://jacobinmag.com/2017/06/grenfell-tower-fire-uk-housing-safety

Here is an article, which I drew upon yesterday, by the critical criminologist Steve Tombs, concerning the increasing removal of protection from legislation under neoliberalism.

https://oucriminology.wordpress.com/2017/06/15/undoing-social-protection/?utm_content=buffer030f7&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

The final two articles are more visual in focus. Both powerfully capture the human extent of this tragedy and the solidarity that has been shown by residents—from across London—in its aftermath.

https://plutopress.wordpress.com/2017/06/28/grenfell-tower-a-photo-diary-from-activestills/

http://www.redpepper.org.uk/a-beautiful-message-to-the-grenfell-community-from-the-housing-estates-of-east-london/

 

Running Plan: encouraging running in cities

Running is a burgeoning activity in cities across Europe. In some cities, it is a prominent activity while for others it is a nascent practice. In all cities running speaks to the desire to encourage citizens to adopt healthier practices as well as being part of a suite of ideas to foster more sustainable urban places. In Brussels, recently there have been calls for running to feature more prominently within the city. In the Brussels Parliament, Flemish Socialist politician Jef Van Damme introduced an initiative that brought together a broad coalition of colleagues to propose the implementation of a running (or jogging) plan. The idea is to help to promote running as an everyday practice by improving visibility and availability in public spaces. In addition, the plan will aim to make Brussels the running capital of Europe. Brussels has several parks that are popular for running this includes the Bois de la Cambre and Parc Cinquantenaire. The plan aims to improve running in places that are not as picturesque or attractive to runners. In recent years, the city authorities have renovated Parc Josaphat and the pathways around the Ixelles lakes which has opened these areas to more runners and people wanting to use the spaces to relax. These spaces are now friendlier for families and people of all ages with the addition on new surfaces, lighting, and regular maintenance. The aim of the plan is to encourage city authorities to improve public running infrastructure. This would entail providing signs for routes, improving lighting, and providing toilets, lockers, and fresh drinking water. If the plan is adopted it could become a blueprint for other cities across Europe.

http://www.lesoir.be/96346/article/2017-05-27/un-plan-jogging-pour-la-capitale

Brussels Runner Canal.BE

Photo courtesy of Canal.Brussels

On handshakes and aliens: two pedagogical lessons for the urbanist classroom

When you observe two people sitting at a park bench, or walking down a block wearing suit or a dress or jeans – what assumptions do you attach to their bodies? How do these assumptions inform how you read people in urban space?

When you think of a city you’ve visited or lived in, what adjectives do you think of? When you think of a city you’ve never visited before (I, for example, have never been to Cape Town, South Africa, and Berlin, Germany, and Buenos Aries, Argentina, and Hanoi, Vietnam, among many other cities) what adjectives do you think of?

I ask these questions to frame two brief pedagogical lessons for the urban cultural studies classroom. Each asks how discourse – produced knowledge that circulates – attaches to (urban) bodies and ideas of cities.

I learned the first exercise at a 2013 ATHE conference (panel: “The Games We Play”) and came up with the second exercise a few years ago. I have taught both, and shared and further developed both exercises earlier this month with input from other participants and under the direction of Professor Carrie Preston at the Mellon School of Theater and Performance Studies at Harvard University which had the theme: “Research, Pedagogy, Activism.” I offer these exercises here as in-progress pedagogical tools.

Handshake Exercise: “What do you see?”

Goal: To have students identify the type of assumptions attached to bodies and roles people play in urban space.

(pre-step). If possible, go to an urban setting such as a park bench or an area near a bus stop.

1. Ask for two volunteers from your class — lets call them A and B. When they come up to front of the classroom (or to the park bench, etc.), ask the two to shake hands.

2. As A and B shake hands, ask the other students “what do you see?” or “what type of assumptions might we make if we saw these two people shaking hands here?”

3. As A and B continue to shake hands, listen to responses from the class.

4. After a few moments, substitute out one volunteer for another such that A and C are now shaking hands.

5. Again ask, “What do you see?” and listen to responses.

6. Repeat this exercise several more times, such that different pairings of students are shaking hands (C and D shake hands, D and E shake hands, E and F shake hands, F and A shake hands and so on), and with each pairing, ask the rest of the observers “What do you see?” The combinations are often such that two men shake hands, or two women shake hands, or two people of the same or of a different race shake hands, or of similar or different ages shake hands, or similar or different heights shake hands.

7. When the exercise is over ask your students: “what didn’t you say?” The exercise ultimately asks what meanings do we have and make about raced, gendered, aged bodies, and combinations of those bodies, in urban spaces?

Alien Exercise: “What does it look like?” “How do you know?”

Goal: To explain the concept of discourse, and have students think about how and where knowledge about concepts (such as cities) is produced and circulated within society.

1. Ask students: “Draw an alien.” (Give students about 2-3 minutes to do so).

2. Next ask students: “Share your alien.” Give willing students a few moments to describe their alien.

3. Then ask: “Have you ever met an alien?” “How do you know what an alien looks like?” “Where have you seen aliens?” Use this prompt to make students name the specific sources where they’ve seen aliens (television, movies, magazines) that have influenced their ideas of what aliens look like.

4. Use their naming to introduce the concept of discourse. (Here are some sources: The Chicago School of Media Theory, University of Chicago; Michael Foucault, “Discourse on Language”; Social Theory Re-Wired, Routledge.)

5. Re-explain this concept of discourse, now through meanings we attach to cities. Ask students to describe cities they may or may not have been to: “How would you describe New York City?” (or another city if you teach in or near New York City).

6. Then ask students, “Raise your hand if you’ve been to New York City.” For those who didn’t raise their hands, ask, “where have you learned ideas of New York City?” For those who have been to New York City, ask, “how do those ideas compare to and contrast with what you’ve experienced in that city?”

7. Repeat with other cities.

8. Discuss how discourses of cities circulate in dialogue with and beyond the embodied experience of a city – and what this means for power/privilege (how discourses of cities center and privilege certain people and knowledge over others) and what this means for various methods (ethnographic, archival, aesthetic) of studying cities that may or may not address those differences in power and privilege.

I used this exercise last semester in my Urban Ethnography class, linking it to Michel de Certeau’s ideas of place and space.

What exercises do you use to have students think about how meanings are produced and circulated in urban spaces?