Spaces now available: ‘City Maps’ PhD workshop with Benjamin Fraser

Benjamin Fraser, Executive Editor of the Journal of Urban Cultural Studies, is leading the next City Maps doctoral training workshop, funded by CHASE, which will take place on Friday 28 June 2019 at Birkbeck, University of London.

While places in this workshop series are in the first instance reserved for students funded by CHASE, or studying at a CHASE institution, the organization is pleased to make available a limited number of places for doctoral students studying at other institutions for the next workshop, co-led by Benjamin Fraser (University of Arizona) and Mari Paz Balibrea (Birkbeck).

The description of the workshop is below. If you would like to participate, please send the following information to Mara Arts ( by no later than 14 June 2019:

  • Name
  • Email Address
  • Institution
  • Working thesis title
  • Summary of your doctoral research (400-500 words)
  • Dietary requirements
  • Other requirements

City Maps Workshop Series: Navigating the Urban Object Across Disciplines

Workshop 5

Urban Cultural Studies: Getting Oriented, Getting Published

Prof. Benjamin Fraser, U. of Arizona

Friday 28 June, 2019

10.00 Arrive/coffee

10.30-12.00 Urban Cultural Studies Method

A talk by Benjamin Fraser on the methodological questions involved in conducting urban cultural studies research. This includes a brief look back at the development of cultural studies, discussion of previous confrontations and intersections between the humanities and the social sciences, and exploration of the current (inter)disciplinary landscape of journal publishing. A range of cultural texts are mentioned including literature, poetry, theatre, film, comics, popular music, performance, painting, video games, and architecture. Emphasis is on the blending of textual analysis, cultural context, and theoretical ground. Examples given from the speaker’s own research and from the pages of the Journal of Urban Cultural Studies.

12.00-13.00 Lunch (provided)

13.00-14.45 Task 1 – The Interdisciplinary Publishing Landscape

This session will be led by both Benjamin Fraser and Mari Paz Balibrea and will help participants reflect on their own work on cities and how it fits in the landscape of urban studies scholarship. Fraser and Balibrea will provide opening remarks about the state of the interdisciplinary publishing landscape in order to capture the breadth of research venues interested in urban-related submissions. Participants will be divided into groups in order to discuss where their intervention best fits in the field, with the goal of identifying the most relevant journals and publishing houses. This session will involve both small-group and large-group Q&A, with the possibility of 1×1 conversations as time permits.

14.45-15.00 Break

15.00-16.45 Task 2 – Transforming Your Thesis into a Book

This session will be led by both Benjamin Fraser and Mari Paz Balibrea. The 15 participants will divide into groups of 3, and each group will compile and discuss a list of questions they have about the process of turning your thesis into a book. All questions are welcome. Among other topics, participants might consider: publishing and the academic job market; dos and don’ts when turning a thesis into a book, how to identify a suitable publisher, organization of a proposal, submitting a proposal, suggesting possible readers of your proposal and manuscript to a press, communication with acquisitions editors, how many proposals to send out at one time, whether to publish articles/chapters separately that might be included in the book, the peer-review process, the revision process, proofing your book, indexing your book, identifying prospects for promotional blurbs and endorsements on the book cover, promoting your book pre- and post- publication.

Groups will have 15-30 minutes for internal discussion driving the creation of their list. Each group will then share their list with the larger workshop group, after which collective exploration of the themes raised will begin with the most common questions first.


On ‘Ballast’, black geographies, and gathering in: an interview with Quenton Baker

our escape then/
a hinterland

Oversized in white text on a translucent mesh screen, these words appear as if broadcast on and through a television suspended from the ceiling. Broadcast through, these words, and their permutations, find other temporary homes including the wooden floor beneath the screen, and the walls parallel to it. Those permutations include fragments from the poem, such as letters “e s” or “a” or “n t” stretched and flipped in ways that both undo and imbue different meanings.

Soon, these words disappear from the screen. Their fleeting presence directs the eye elsewhere. On white walls are vertical black blocks. On closer inspection, these blocks are paragraphs where most words in once-written text have been blacked out to create erasure poems with only a few words visible. From old paragraphs new meanings appear such as “this wound, this public instrument.” Meanings continue to oscillate: upon closer inspection, the blacked out paint is not opaque but translucent, allowing a strained reading of the original text.

This work comprises Ballast, an exhibition by Seattle-based poet Quenton Baker, which runs at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, WA through February 3, 2019.

Ballast, “examines,” from language from the Frye’s website, “the 1841 slave revolt aboard the brig Creole, using the event as a kaleidoscopic lens through which to consider the position of blackness and the ongoing afterlife of slavery.” More from the Frye’s website:

The Creole revolt occurred when a group of enslaved persons, led by Madison Washington, commandeered the ship en route from Virginia to Louisiana, and steered it toward the British island of Nassau. Britain abolished slavery in 1833, meaning that no authority could be exercised over any of the enslaved who landed on English soil, and 135 people gained their freedom as a result. It is the only successful large-scale revolt involving U.S.-born enslaved people in American history.

Ballast then centers the slave revolt on the Creole, a scantly written about event, through two main aesthetic orientations, Baker’s “erasure poems—made using pages from the Senate document detailing the Creole case,” and Baker’s poems in invented form that appear and disappear in segments on screens throughout the space. As such, Ballast aesthetically uses poetry to, in Baker’s words, “resolve … without speaking for people, because that’s impossible and demeaning … to create a language in the void” of silences and erasures of black life. Ballast asks viewers to consider new languages, absences, and presences as an imperfect way to center the lives of black people chronically devalued in and erased from archives. “I want them to feel gathered in,” Baker told me.

What follows is more from our conversation. (Interview edited for length).

JASMINE MAHMOUD: I’d love to hear more about your background, especially the influence of geography. You are from Seattle, you have an MFA in Poetry from the University of Southern Maine, and just debuted this show inspired by a slave revolt from Virginia to Nassau. How do the various geographies with which you dialogue influence your work?

QUENTON BAKER: Geography is an interesting one for me. I was at Cave Canem this summer …

MAHMOUD: What is that?

BAKER: A retreat for black poets.

MAHMOUD: Where is it?

BAKER: It’s held … they’re based in New York, but it’s held in Greensburg, Pennsylvania on a satellite campus for Pitt. It’s run by Cornelius Eady and Toi Derricotte. They started twenty some years ago.

So at Cave there’s 34 fellows per … all black poets from across the world really. I was talking to Dante Micheaux about where I lived and moved … born in Seattle, grew up in Seattle, lived in Seattle for most of my life. Moved to Portland, Oregon when I was rapping, and that was where that career took place and then I went to Portland Maine.

He was curious, he was like “those are obviously all like really not black spaces … but with your work, knowing what I know of your work, it makes sense that you would choose those places, because you don’t have a provincial focus, or because you’re focused on these broader themes.”

That made me think about it, because that was the first time I really thought about geography in my work. I think because of how black folks are positioned globally, but specifically here in Seattle, there’s just this extreme isolation. Even of course, even if you have a community, even if you have folks, just the way that the city is oriented and created. It’s meant to … even in community, you’re meant to be isolated from so many of the broader moves and most of the city. And I think that influences me, and influenced me, my experience in the city, but also as a writer. Essentially it dictated my internal landscape, so much. So for me it’s less about the external geography. As a poet of place, I really consider myself to be a poet of the interior. So, it’s the ways in which these places have created and folded into that interiority.

So really I think I’m drawn to places where I am externally isolated, because that matches the isolation that blackness as a position inhabits within civil society. And where I can retreat in some ways to work, and still have community when I do venture outside, but really … because when you write in New York, or San Francisco or like the Bay … the city becomes a character in some way and you have to attend to that. But, here I felt like I can think and write broadly, using my understanding of how civil society enacts itself through the lens of Seattle, but without having to attend to the physical geography or topography in anyway.

MAHMOUD: How did you first learn about the Creole and how did your engagement with the revolt influence your process?

BAKER: While I am a poet of the interior landscape, I’m also a poet of research and history. I was writing a project about the Negro Leagues, Negro league baseball. One of the directions I ended up reading about was the secondary slave market. Partially it was also because I had just gone to New Orleans for my sister’s wedding. She got married in New Orleans and … the barracoons are just right there. There’s still slave markets and shit. The slave pens are still right there. Which of course, that was my first time in the south, so that was like damn. So then I wanted to read about those.

Soul by Soul by Walter Johnson is a fantastic book and [Johnson] mentions it just briefly, and I was like, “wait what? A what?” Because I was under the impression that there were no large-scale revolts that succeeded. So I started tracking down more information, which was difficult because it’s very sparse in comparison with something like the Amistad of course, which got Spielberg treatment. Coming across this story, and feeling like there was something there, that was worthy of looking at, was really what grabbed me.

MAHMOUD: In the exhibit you do blackout poetry on the US Senate document that details the Creole case. What was your process with engaging with that text? And also, how were you thinking geographically about Virginia, Louisiana, Nassau?

BAKER: You have to think geographically when you’re thinking about chattel slavery, for so many different reasons. Geography influences life outcomes, potential for escape, family, kinship ties, everything. The geography becomes… it’s such a determining factor, you can’t help but think about it. When I first came across it and started reading about it, I really thought I was going to do a straight narrative, maybe persona work. I just really thought it would be pretty straightforward, just like I’m going to write about this thing because this thing I think deserves more attention.

It’s emblematic of a certain kind of reification of black non-being or black non-existence. The way we can be banished to no place instantly. So that I just wanted just to look at it. To give it time. It’s like Claudia Rankine says [to paraphrase], “bring forth the forgotten bodies, the forgotten names.” I just wanted to do that. But, it really changed a lot, because I also assumed there’d be more material to engage with.

MAHMOUD: How much was it? What does the archive look like?

BAKER: Fredrick Douglass wrote his only piece of fiction, he wrote a novella about this.

MAHMOUD: Oh wow, I didn’t know that.

BAKER: Yeah, it was one of the first things he ever wrote, and the only piece of fiction. It was essentially an abolitionist tract. So, what I found was that most of it was turned into like pro-abolition propaganda, basically, which felt like a different kind of erasure. And, a frustrating one. Obviously, the abolition movement was so problematic. No one was interested in making an engagement with how the slave position was entangled with social death. No one was interested in resolving that, because of course it would mean the complete demolition of the social structure. So, abolition became this call for etiquette basically.

So Madison Washington. The leader of the revolt, there’s some things that we know: we know he did escape slavery and ended up in Canada. And we know that for some reason he went back. We know he was a skilled laborer, but we know very little about him. What Douglass — and there were some other people who wrote novellas about this abolitionist — they all hit on the fact that he was going back to save his wife, and there was variations, sometimes the wife was on the ship, and then he saw her and decided to–

It’s always this very clean narrative, and then a very clean sort of delineation of a kind of agency, which is ahistorical and obliterating in a lot of ways. And so it was at that point, I was reading the narratives of these other people, and of course their novellas are fiction. But that really set me off the concept of … that made me have a really long, still ongoing session with myself about what it means to engage with this kind of material. What it means to consider the slave … to really have a really really solid understanding of what chattel slavery and modern anti-blackness mean in terms of how black people and blackness are positioned within civil society. That became paramount, so that really changed everything. Mainly being so aghast and offended because the most frustrating thing was Douglass. Because I’m like, “bruh, you are in the Bahamas, you’re in Jamaica, you’re in all these places. You could have gone to Jamaica and talked to these folks, but you didn’t.”

No one did. The fact that no one, 135 five people, five of them went back to New Orleans, 130, I think one or two died. I mean 128 people who mostly all went to Jamaica, you wanted to find them, you could of found them. You wanted to write about them, you wanted their story, you toured with it, you orated, you gave all these talks but you didn’t go, no one went and talked to them.

That was so frustrating for me. So I wanted to resolve that without speaking for people, because that’s impossible and demeaning. But I wanted to speak. I wanted to find a language, I guess, to create. In my mind, the way that I could approach redress, of course I could never succeed, but was to create a language in the void. It wasn’t going to be their language exactly. It’s not going to be my language exactly, but there is a void, there’s these and other, all these voices, all these interior spaces missing and, in that elision I can put something. It won’t be perfect… it’ll be something I hope, that’s the hope. So, that’s how I came to … so my methods really just did a complete shift over the process of researching and thinking through it.

MAHMOUD: I want to talk to you about the aesthetics of the show itself. How did you make the decisions about what Ballast would look like, and how it would dialogue with the meanings you were making as a poet?

BAKER: The erasure stuff … I started writing this in 2015 and then adapted it for the show. So, all the erasures existed already on the page in similar formats.

MAHMOUD: So you would put the blackout text on a page?

BAKER: Yeah, so that’s part of the manuscript and then it was just a natural fit, so then it was, okay let’s find a way to adapt these. So they’re not exactly the same because I painted them in.

MAHMOUD: In that space?

BAKER: In that space. Then also thinking more about they’re gigantic now, so how do I maintain a level of visual interest that maybe isn’t necessary or possible on the page? I think it comes back to wanting to dig underneath that obliteration, because when I read the … I originally just got the Senate document just for research, just because it was a primary document. You want to get your hands on everything that you can. As many primary documents, as many secondary sources as you can.

I was reading it and got very angry. The Senate document is a back and forth between the US Consulate in the Bahamas and the British Consulate in the Bahamas, and it’s very political language. It’s very polite but also they’re super mad at each other.

And, then it’s testimony, sworn affidavits from the white crew members. It’s for the United Stated Senate, so it’s hard to layer more hegemony in one document than what’s there already. Essentially the US … he’s trying to get the United States’ property back, but he’s also trying to make a point about how Britain is overstepping their … because this whole thing. Most of the reason why there is any record of this is because it was a political kerfuffle. Because the United States and Britain were about to go to war, potentially. They were at odds and then this was another thing, and so it was just … and of course this still happens all the time now but just to have your existence, your life, which of course isn’t really considered that at all.

To have it be a chess piece, like a strategic move, because you see them making strategic moves against each other, you see the game being played at a very high level, but what it’s being played over. It’s just this constant paving over of what’s actually happening, what’s actually occurring when we’re talking about … So it really became just out of anger, I just wanted to … it just felt like digging into a very deep grave to just toss back all of these layers of soil to get at anything that wasn’t that.

Just to find any echo, anything that could … to find in their language, in this language, anything that could speak or attend to what was important there. What actually happened there. Of course, yeah it was a successful revolt and that’s good, it is, but it’s also so inconsequential because there’s no freedom from social death. There’s no freedom from non-being. There’s the ways in which, as the unimpeachable Saidiya Hartman says, we give ourselves redress, we give ourselves these flawed victories. And so to think that this fantastic and wonderful flawed victory was still so hidden and still so paved over, but then also that we would have to do so much work just to pay homage to essentially a wonderful failing also fuels the anger. So that’s what the erasures became about for me, just a way to attend to — however inadequately or unexpertly — to attend to just what was lost and alighted and what an elision for your whole existence, and the existence of everyone that you could possibly care about to be able to be like in elision is, of course these theorists in chattel slavery and of course the experience in our modern moment as well. And so it was just, “how do I attend to that within this document?”

MAHMOUD: Have you read Saidiya Hartman’s “Venus in Two Acts”?


MAHMOUD: I was just thinking about that these girls, you know girls who were horribly abused and murdered, that their only life is documented in a footnote.

BAKER: Yeah, that attends to the same issue.

MAHMOUD: What does this exhibit mean for Seattle? Many have written about the role of restrictive covenants and redlining (and more broadly the spatial dispossession of black people and other people of color) in the making of Seattle, as a city, that despite its reputation for progressiveness, was founded on the dispossession of indigenous people. What does your exhibit – engaging a slave revolt nearly 200 years ago – mean for Seattle today? How is this show resonating with Seattle for you and also from what you’re hearing from people?

BAKER: Yeah, there were a lot of previews. One of the previews was mostly black and brown folks and so the questions that they had for me, specifically black folks. … I felt like how they were engaging with the work made me feel like what was being communicated was on point, like that’s what I wanted, the kinds of questions they were asking were the kinds of questions that I would want.

MAHMOUD: Do you remember what some of those questions were?

BAKER: Yeah, so someone asked me about … so it was this younger cat, I mean he’s probably 20 something and he just walked me over to one of the pieces and he was like “I don’t get this.” And I was like “that’s cool. You ain’t got to get it necessarily,” but I took him through what I was thinking about it and he was like, “oh damn.” He’s like, “I never really thought about that, but that makes sense.” And that’s really like … I want black folks or people who have an investment and care for black life outside white imagination … I want them to feel gathered in, in a way. Like I’ve done all this work so that when people encounter my work, they can feel seen and called to expand if they want to. Because that’s how I felt and that’s how I feel when I come to the work that changes what I think is possible or inspires me or expands me in some way. So that’s what I want to do, I don’t know if my work is doing … obviously I’m conditioned to not think of myself very highly. But I want … ideally in a community we expand each other.

Even if we encounter something that we already know, in encountering it over and over again, we’re expanded. Encountering it in a new space or even just to see ourselves again, considered. Just for people to feel like they’re … that they were attended to, in some way is what I got from the questions.

Someone asked me about the title of the show Ballast. And I gave them the real answer. … I want people to walk into the show, or read the book, when and if it comes out — to know what they are. There’s a way in which … we all value each other’s survival. We all value the way we create under constraint and provide what we can for one another but we also live in like a civil society that in no way attends to our actual entanglements. In no way, can call on or make visible our interiority, so of course it’s on us to make it visible for one another. So that’s all that I want, is just for that to take place.

MAHMOUD: What does the title mean?

BAKER: Ballast. For me there’s something … what I think is so unique about chattel slavery but really the position of blackness is like a historical and current force within the way that American social life and global social life is ordered, is that the ways in which black people are made to be the counterweight to their own destruction.

And so obviously with Ballast, it’s the counterweight that a ship carries before it on loads its cargo and then it’s offloaded at the port; well now they use water but back in the day, bars of iron and take the bars of iron out, leave them at the port and load in any of the cargo. Of course, sometimes it was humans, sometimes it was tobacco, sometimes it was molasses, whatever. But just the ways in which black people were like the semiotics that we engage with, the kind of myth-making around blackness, the way that whiteness only coheres through violence against black flesh and blackness as a concept. Like of all those ways that we’re made to perform our own death until then when we actually die.

And I think like … to me this comes up in police brutality a lot, like shootings … it’s always that the black person was scary and aggressive. There’s a way in which the black people are made to perform that aggression, and you’re made to perform that aggression for an exact moment. The ways we have to, no matter how hard we try not to, we have to hold the space for what undoes us. … There’s no way for the ship to run without that weight and there’s no way for the ship to return to port without its cargo. There’s no way that the whiteness [in] America civil society functions without blackness and black flesh as both counterweight and property.

MAHMOUD: What I really liked about the projections was the way they cascaded. You saw a phrase and then words disappeared. Which kind of mimicked a performance of reading, or a performance of listening. Because it made me pay attention to words, so I appreciated that.

BAKER: I was really happy with how it turned out. That was a challenge to– the inventive form poems are on the page, are very spread out and they’re meant to be read like in any direction.

There isn’t really a way … there maybe is a way, but with what else was going on in the show, there really wasn’t a way to like demonstrate that, so yeah, we settled on like … then let’s really have people consider this but also try to get some of that, I guess autonomy of each couplet or image or thought. So that was one of the challenges. But it’s funny cause it’s kind of an inversion in the ways … in the manuscript view, the erasure poems are like pretty straightforward and then the invented form poems are much wider and sprawling and then in this space you can choose any direction to go with the erasure poems and then the inventive forms are like pretty determined.

It was a weird flip, which I wasn’t necessarily like … when I set out, I wasn’t intending that but I liked how it ended up.

MAHMOUD: Do you have any other final thoughts you want to add?

BAKER: Well, you asked me what does it mean for Seattle, I don’t think I answered that. I hope what it means is that some folks who would never go to a museum, or would never go to a museum and think that anything was in there for them, I hope that those folks will go and see the show. And feel like something was for them. Maybe not for like a museum, not for like anything, but just somebody was thinking about you and somebody made work for you.

This work and all my future work really is for people who are able to think about black life free from the white imagination because it’s so damaging when people can’t … and living in that and within that, it’s traumatizing and horrifying and there’s no reprieve and no let-up. And I don’t think that my work will be a reprieve but I just think it’s part of those flawed victories.

Quenton Baker: Ballast runs at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, WA through February 3, 2019.

‘Tales of the City’ Turns 40: as the World Burns

40 years ago (in 1978), the first of Armistead Maupin’s ‘Tales of the City’ installments appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.


The ‘Tales’ would eventually be published as 9 novels, from the first ‘Tales of the City’ to 2014’s ‘The Days of Anna Madrigal’. Maupin, who came of age as a young gay man in San Francisco during the halcyon pre-Aids golden age of the 1970s, chronicled a changing city through vignettes surrounding a cast of memorable characters. These characters are archetypes of the San Francisco of-then, and according to Maupin, all bits and pieces of the author’s personality, a sort of dramatized autobiographical sketch. Maupin, hailing from a conservative North Carolina dynasty, found liberation in San Francisco. But alongside liberation, much quirkiness, whimsy, satire, and yes, darkness.

What is most remarkable about the ‘Tales’ series is the way it captures the essence of a vanished world. San Francisco at the turn of the 1980s, just before AIDS decimated gay life in the city and forever transformed the relationship of gay men to urban space. But also, before San Francisco’s first tech boom (which ramped up in the mid-late 1980s) and began the violent cycles of gentrification that continue today in ‘web 2.0’. San Francisco before the murder of Harvey Milk, Mayor Moscone and the mass-suicide of the ‘Jonestown’ cult, (which all happened in November 1978). San Francisco before the neoliberal and growth-friendly leadership embraced whole-heartedly the Manhattanization of downtown and oversaw the replacement of the South-of-Market district from a working-class, artist and LGBT enclave to the playground it is today. The San Francisco captured in ‘Tales’ is weird and rough around the edges, yet endearing.

In Maupin’s ‘Tales’, sexuality is non-binary and interwoven, with several characters (straight, gay, bisexual) enmeshed in various liaisons. In ‘Tales’, San Francisco is inexpensive and smart phones are non-existent. Dates happen at the roller skating rink or the bath house. There are no Apple Watches or Alexas.

The earnest young gay man, spreading his social (and sexual) wings for the first time, encapsulated in Michael Tolliver or ‘Mouse’. The naïve and white-bread Midwest newcomer, opening up to West coast libertinism and hedonism, in the form of the young woman, Mary Ann Singleton. The mysterious, elegant and avuncular Anna Madrigal, landlady with a secret (and a ready bowl of pre-rolled joints), ultimately one of the most memorable and perhaps earliest significant transgender characters in popular culture. The carefree and bohemian (and bisexual) Mona Ramsey, who takes Mary Ann under her wing.

And a supporting cast of San Francisco types: the WASPY socialite DeDe Halcyon (of Pacific Heights) and her scheming, bisexual husband Beauchamp Day. The lothario Brian Hawkins. The rough-as-tumbleweed Momma ‘Mucca (from Winnemucca), who runs a Nevada desert brothel but has complex ties to the urban characters.

This San Francisco is quaint and small-town, and yet, one can still find these stereotypes around the city, recycled for new generations. Despite the city’s changes, encroaching mono-culture and sanitized urban spaces, it retains a powerful gravitational pull for the adventurous, the queer, the questioning, the naïve, the young.

‘Tales’ was made into a successful TV miniseries in the early 1990s (starring Olympia Dukakis as Anna Madrigal and Laura Linney as Mary Ann Singleton) and is now being again made into a series (with Linney attached to the project) updated for the millennial age, produced by Netflix.


Characters ‘Mouse’, ‘Mary Ann’ and ‘Mona’ in the TV Series ‘Tales of the City’ (Channel 4 UK, PBS/ Showtime US)

If there is a critique of what ‘Tales’ captures / captured, it would be in the things absent. Maupin had a deep window into white, WASPY and gay San Francisco and dissects that personality spot-on, but there are few to no characters of color and San Francisco’s Asian and Latinx cultures are seen as supplementary appendages and not as the central motifs that they are (alongside Gay culture, WASPY old Pacific Heights, the Hillsborough set, etc.) But Maupin’s world did not extend to the city’s edges nor are ‘Tales’ meant to be a sociological analysis of class, race and ethnicity in the Bay Area. Rather, they are snapshots of a certain time, a certain place, and a certain magic in a city that at least historically has been a place of awakening, self-knowledge, and above all, love and freedom.

The geographic center of the series is ‘Barbary Lane’, the garden-filled mews high on a steep hill, often shrouded in fog, within ear-range of the ubiquitous fog horn, where Mary Ann Singleton, Anna Madrigal, and several other characters live. Barbary Lane was based on the real ‘Macondray Lane’, located in Russian Hill.


Macondray Lane in Russian Hill, stand in for ‘Barbary Lane’ in ‘Tales of the City’

This collection of characters living together on such a picturesque mews is, too, a relic of history: it is highly unlikely today that such a quirky assemblage of bohemians would be able to afford Russian Hill, let alone anywhere in the city. Mary Ann Singleton after all came to San Francisco from Cleveland without a job! (But quickly found one, thanks to the kind patriarch and advertising executive Edgar Halcyon, father of DeDe Halcyon, but then, I digress into spoilers..).

So, looking back 40 years, and with ‘Tales’ about to be re-released by Netflix, I have mused on what a ‘new’ episode might be like, given today’s San Francisco. I will close with a bit of mock dialogue-cum-fan fiction, of what a synopsis of the episode ‘November Smoke’ might contain.

II. Fictional Episode of ‘Tales of the City’: 40 Years on – ‘November Smoke'” (Courtesy of Jason Luger). wildfires.jpg

Scene: November 11, 2018. The air in San Francisco is thick with smoke and ash particles from record breaking wildfires hundreds of miles away.

Mary Ann Singleton, from Cleveland, arrives in the city with hopes and dreams and some training with Microsoft Office Suite. She is ‘ok’ with Excel, in her words.

Mary Ann has heard about an apartment open house in Russian Hill. The apartment is 400 square feet with a shared bathroom with two other units, but it looks cute in the photos. Mary Ann saw that the price said “$4,500 per month” but assumed it was a mistake – surely it was $450 a month, still more than such a unit would cost back home in Cleveland. She walks up a steep hill and almost doubles-over in a coughing fit – the air is hard to breathe. The smoke is so thick that Mary Ann doesn’t notice the Coit Tower, which would be visible straight ahead on a clear-air day. Mary Ann stops half-way up the hill to take a rest, and notices a woman sitting on the curb to her right. The woman does not appear to be wearing pants, and is furiously scratching herself, and Mary Ann notices there are open sores covering the woman’s legs. ‘My goodness’, Mary Ann catches herself saying aloud.

Upon arriving at the address she has written down on a piece of paper in her pocket, Mary Ann knocks on the door of the apartment, and a friendly man opens it. Mary Ann sees that there are 20 people already inside, taking pictures. All white (like her), but much younger – they seem to be in their early 20s (Mary Ann is almost 30). Mary Ann sees several of the others hand packages to the man (who must be the landlord) – credit histories? Bank statements? Employment references? Mary Ann has none of those things. Dejected, she leaves.

Luckily, Mary Ann has a friend she can stay with – a gay man named Michael. Mary Ann meets up with him, and they head to lunch in a trendy neighborhood (having looked at the menu, Mary Ann isn’t sure how she’ll pay for her meal – but hey, she has just arrived, should treat herself). Michael seems distracted, though. He keeps checking his watch (one of those fancy Apple-watches, Mary Ann notices), and barely makes eye contact with her.

“Let me show you this guy who wants to meet up with me”, Michael says, and shows Mary Ann a photo on his phone of what appears to be a man’s torso – no head. “You can’t see his face?” asks Mary Ann. “Face? Lol.” says Michael, “I can see his 6% bodyfat and I’m interested”. Mary Ann doesn’t know what “bodyfat” is, but doesn’t want to ask since that might make her seem unsophisticated.

After brunch, the two stop at a Cannabis store and buy some chocolate snacks. Mary Ann eats one, and says goodbye to Michael, and goes for a walk to Golden Gate Park. She starts to feel strange: is this what pot makes you feel like, Mary Ann thinks? Time seems – slower, but also faster; the grass seems a bit greener. She falls asleep on the grass, under a Monterey Pine. When Mary Ann wakes up, she is freezing: the fog has come in, blowing away the smoke. She forgot a jacket.


A few days later, Mary Ann finds an apartment. Well, not so much an apartment, as a room in an older woman’s apartment. But it is affordable, and she’s told, in a good location. Meanwhile, Mary Ann has found work as a caterer (on the weekends), and a waitress at a Peruvian restaurant downtown. She has not had any replies yet from office jobs.

The woman’s name is Anna Madrigal, and she is kind, if a bit mysterious. She and Mary Ann find themselves sitting in Anna’s living room, which Mary Ann now shares. Anna seems upset.

“What’s wrong?” Mary Ann asks.

“Well -” Anna Madrigal begins, “it’s just that the President – Trump – he’s going after transgender rights again. He is trying to get the Justice Department to basically nullify the definition of transgender as a third sex and thus force us into binary understandings of gender.”

Mary Ann is confused, but listens. Later, she Googles “transgender”.


DeDe Halcyon, eldest daughter of business titan Edgar Halcyon, is packing up her last boxes. She and her husband Beauchamp are moving. Having lived in Pacific Heights for decades, they finally decided that she and Beauchamp should make a new start in Nashville, Tennessee (and Beauchamp is from the South, anyway). It will be nice to be closer to family and oh, the things they could do by saving $10,000 a month on rent.

On the way out of the city, crossing the Bay Bridge in their Subaru, DeDe takes a look back at the smoke-filled sky; the new Salesforce Tower standing watch like a sentinel. In Oakland, DeDe notices a tent city under the elevated freeway – she had not seen this before. And further along, a row of what look like tiny dog-houses. She wonders: are people living there, or animals? This is her last thought as the Subaru leaves the urban sprawl and heads East, toward the Sierra Nevada (now engulfed in flames); toward Nevada; toward Nashville.





Internment’s rural racializations: an interview with Rita Brogan, co-curator of ‘Joy and Heartache: Japanese Americans on Vashon Island’

“People need to be reminded of the consequences of anti-immigration hysteria.  America is getting precariously close today to repeating the injustices of yesterday.  We cannot allow this to happen.” — Rita Brogan

Suitcases from the ‘Joy and Heartache’ exhibit. Photo by Zack Elway, August 2018

White luggage tags mark a pair of battered, tan hard-cased suitcases. These tags indicate the suitcases’ owner, Tsuma Yoshima. But they also mark something more pernicious: internment, the forced government removal of Japanese-Americans from their homes. “So this was Executive order 9066,” Rita Brogan tells me speaking of these suitcases. “People were given two days’ notice and were allowed two suitcases,” she continues “so that’s why we have these suitcases here.” During World War II, President Roosevelt signed the executive order, forcing Japanese-Americans out of their homes and onto internment camps, and decimating once-thriving communities up and down the West Coast.  “Every family got a number matching the tag on the suitcase and a tag that topin on your clothes so they would know what belonged to what,” Brogan continues. She tells me of a Japanese-American student at Vashon High School who was “the valedictorian in 1942,” but “evacuated 13 days before graduation so he was, of course, never able to give his valedictory speech.” She also describes how “people wore many layers of clothing because they were only allowed what they wore plus two suitcases. It was really hot.”

Rita Brogan is a Japanese-American business owner and longtime Vashon resident, who has been a long-time activist in and around Asian-American affairs and civil rights in the Pacific Northwest and nationally. Brogan recently co-curated Joy and Heartache: Japanese Americans on Vashon Island, an exhibit at the Vashon Heritage Museum, which runs through Spring 2019.

Rita Brogan in front of the entrance to the ‘Joy and Heartache’ exhibit. Photo by Zack Elway, August 2018

Vashon is an island the size of Manhattan with a population of 12,000, and is about two miles and a 20 minute ferry ride from Seattle. In 2015, the island was declared the “most liberal place in America” (many contested this declaration). The rural island is arts-rich, queer-friendly, and in 2017 was described by a Los Angeles Times writer as “one of the region’s experimental laboratories, a place where new strains of environmentalism and progressivism flourish, unencumbered by mainland reality. It presents an increasingly rare constituency: rural but not red.”

A 20th century map of Vashon Island from the ‘Joy and Heartache’ exhibit. Photo by Zack Elway, August 2018

In Seattle, internment wiped out Japanese-American businesses at the famed Pike Place Market, which by the early 1940s, represented 80% of the market’s business. Although internment often conjures an idea of Japanese-Americans removed from West Coast urban centers, Joy and Heartache reveals the rural dimension of the devastating and dehumanizing forced removal of U.S. citizens. It brings to life stories of chickens and strawberries on Mukai farm, of Vashon Japanese-Americans planting cherry trees and curating dances and other cultural programs, and of anti-Japanese violence by white residents. I interviewed Rita Brogan who co-curated the exhibit, to learn more about the central role of Japanese-Americans on Vashon, and to think through the impact of internment, and racialized spatialization, in a rural area.

“Mama-san in the Strawberry Field” (2018), metal sculpture by Miya Sukune at the ‘Joy and Heartache’ exhibit.

JASMINE MAHMOUD: How did you get involved with curating Joy and Heartache? What were some ideas and themes that you wanted the exhibit to communicate?

RITA BROGAN: I got involved because I have many decades of activism around Asian-American issues, Japanese-American issues and Asian-American studies and I had already been doing some pro-bono work with the Mukai Farm [& Garden] on Vashon Island on branding and outreach. The Mukai Farm is on the National Registry of Historic Places and has been called the best existing example of a Japanese-American farmstead in the United States, and it was an important community center. Through this, my interest grew in the larger historic role of Japanese-Americans on Vashon. I wanted to find out more about why Japanese-Americans played such an important role in the economic and social history of Vashon Island but also what happened to them. I got involved because there was a group that wanted to do an exhibit of Japanese-American history on Vashon, but they really felt the need to engage people of Japanese-American ancestry in creating the exhibit.

MAHMOUD: What’s the importance of having this exhibit on Vashon and what does the Japanese-American presence and then displacement mean for the history of Vashon and the Puget Sound area?

BROGAN: We wanted to cover the entire history of Japanese presence on Vashon Island. That presence changed significantly with the disruption caused by internment during World War II. The first Japanese settlers were mostly young Japanese males who were trying to find economic opportunity in America. That period of time at the beginning of the twentieth century and the latter part of the nineteenth century was a period of major economic upheaval in Japan. Many Japanese young men became intrigued by the idea of creating a new life in a new world, but also were being recruited as labor for various projects in America.  

We organized the exhibit around five stages of the Japanese socio-cultural evolution in America, which we called: Hope, Struggle, Trauma, Resilience and Identities. That first phase, when the young men first came to Vashon Island, we called Hope.  They and the picture brides they subsequently brought over, all had great hope for life in the new world. What occurred on Vashon, as was true in other communities as well, but particularly true on Vashon was that the Japanese-Americans community—despite major discriminatory laws such as the Alien Land Law, anti-immigration harassment and anti-immigration laws—began to make a life for themselves. They were very successful in farming. Their families placed a great deal of emphasis on education and on community, both involvement in the Japanese-American community but also involvement in the larger community. By the time that World War II came around, there was a really significant Japanese-American presence in Vashon Island society and Japanese-Americans in many ways dominated the agricultural economy. Of course, that changed overnight.

Image from ‘Joy and Heartache’ exhibit. Photo by Zack Elway, August 2018

People were given two-days’ notice that they were going to be evacuated from Vashon to a place unknown. Besides the clothes on their backs, they were allowed two suitcases a piece. Unlike other Japanese Americans, Vashon evacuees were moved around frequently during the period of internment.  Some Vashon Japanese-American families moved up to five times. Vashon’s Japanese-American community was pulled apart in the process, moved to different locations throughout the United States. Only a third returned to Vashon after the war.

Luggage tags at the ‘Joy and Heartache’ exhibit. Photo by Zack Elway, August 2018

Even though many wanted to come back to farming, their farms had been neglected for four years and only a few could be restored. Also the agricultural economy throughout the nation changed because the interstate system which made it much easier to get produce from California. So even the those who were trying to make it in agriculture were ultimately not successful.

Image of an internment camp from the ‘Joy and Heartache’ exhibit.

MAHMOUD: Why is it important for people who often think about Internment only affecting Japanese-Americans in cities to also think about Japanese-Americans on Vashon and on rural areas?

BROGAN: It’s important to understand that everyone who lived on the West Coast was affected and what the disruptive impact of internment in rural areas was, I wouldn’t say that the rural experience was worse than the disruption for urban Japanese, but it did have a more significant impact for the island economy. It was bad for everyone, but sometimes people just don’t think about rural people.

Map of internment camps. Photo by Zack Elway, August 2018

MAHMOUD: The exhibit had so much great photography, art, and poetry. How you did you think about those artistic aspects? What did this art communicate in the exhibit?

BROGAN: Photographs were particularly telling. For example if you look at the picture of an elementary school class in 1939 there were more Japanese-American students than whites. When you look at the class picture 10 or so years later there are no Japanese students.  This is a poignant example of how the evacuation changed the world for Japanese Americans on Vashon. We also included some of the anti-Japanese cartoons of the period, created by people like Dr. Seuss; a lot of people don’t realize how anti-Japanese he was. I think that the historic photographs certainly help bring the stories alive.

We also had a terrific opportunity to involve visual and spoken art. We asked Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma to create a poem on the exhibit and so he organized his poem around the themes: “Hope,” “Struggle,” “Trauma,” “Resilience,” and “Identities.” [See this video for Pruiksma reading from his poem “Here” written for the exhibit.] His poetry brought so alive the issues that Japanese-Americans were dealing with, both culturally and politically. We also got a grant from King County’s 4Culture, and Miya Sukune, one of the Japanese-American artists on Vashon, was able to use that to develop six metal panels that depict the lives of the Matsuda family on Vashon Island such as having bon odori dances at the Tule Lake internment camp. There arts played a really meaningful role in communicating and message and making a visceral impact.

Image of a Miye Sukune’s metal sculpture “The Dust Storm (Mary and Ardith)” at the “Joy and Heartache” exhibit. Photo by Zack Elway, August 2018

MAHMOUD:  What is the most interesting thing you learned from the process of curating this exhibit?

BROGAN: I would say that I had not really known or even thought about how the internment fundamentally changed both Japanese Americans who were evacuated, but also how it fundamentally impacted the entire Vashon community. Going through the sources really gave me a much more in-the-moment appreciation for the experience.

MAHMOUD: I’m curious what this history that you’ve excavated means for present day Vashon.

BROGAN: This has been the most popular exhibit that’s ever been shown at the Vashon Heritage Museum. It’s gotten a lot of attention on Vashon as well as off-island. There are a lot of people in the larger Japanese-American community who have come to Vashon to see the exhibit. It’s gotten great media attention as well.

This means many things. One is an appreciation for the historic experience of Japanese-Americans on Vashon Island, but a very current message about the continued discrimination against immigrants and people of color in this country.

MAHMOUD: Do you have any other thoughts to add, Rita, or any other closing thoughts?

BROGAN: Well we didn’t really talk about the stages that much: “Hope;” then the “Struggle” phase went through the hardships that people had to endured in order to make their way in America. “Trauma” refers to the evacuation and internment. “Resilience” refers to the period right after World War II where Japanese-Americans tried to reintegrate into society and in doing so tried to become more American than American and more white than white. Many tried so hard to prove that they were not only equal to but that they had to be better than white Americans. And a lots of that thinking changed during the 1960s and 1970s, with the cultural disruption of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and the Third World Movement, where so many younger Asian-Americans were saying “no we need to be proud of who we are.” So that’s why the last stage is called “Identities.”

An excerpt from the program translated in both Japanese and English. In September, Brogan hosted a homestay with the Japan-American Society Grassroots Summit, a U.S.-Japan exchange that brought dozens of Japanese citizens to Vashon and the Pacific Northwest. With the exchange, many Japanese visiting the Pacific Northwest toured the exhibit which was translated from English to Japanese.

The Japanese-American community today on Vashon is very different from the Japanese community before World War II. The Japanese-American population on Vashon today includes few of the original farming families.  Today the community includes people who have moved to Vashon because of the schools; it’s made up of war brides, retirees, commuters– folks who haven’t had the same experience as Vashon’s Japanese-Americans prior to World War II. And yet we continue to face and combat discrimination and racism. For the “Identities” section of the exhibit, we tried to debunk the idea that the Asian-Americans are “model minorities.” We document continued discrimination, but also celebrate the fact that there are some really wonderful ways in which our culture is being embraced by younger generations.

People need to be reminded of the consequences of anti-immigration hysteria.  America is getting precariously close today to repeating the injustices of yesterday.  We cannot allow this to happen.

The Coit Tower, and All it Represents, Turns 85

San Francisco’s Coit Tower, a jewel in the legacy of art-deco architecture and social-realist art, turned 85 this week.

coittowerThe landmark has graced one of San Francisco’s tallest hills (Telegraph Hill) as a testament to art, architecture and design and is one of the most iconic images associated with the city, towering over the Bay and visible from many points around the Bay Area.

In the current highly-divided, hyper-partisan era where once again, right-wing populist and authoritarian movements, imbued with nationalist and nativist sentiment proliferate across many global urban environments, it is worth looking back to the 1930s in a moment of reflection.

Originally opened in 1933 as a monument to those who died in San Francisco’s earthquakes and fires, the tower’s lobby was painted by 27 artists commissioned as part of Franklin Roosevelt’s ‘Public Works of Art’ project, an early New Deal Program (which would morph into the larger Works Progress Administration, from 1935-1943).

Most of the artists were students and faculty at the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA), and the murals are peppered with left wing political motifs and symbols.

Maxine Albro’s mural of California Agriculture and Ralph Stackpole’s ‘Industry of California’ mural depict both the industrial and agricultural dynamism of the state but also hardship and pain, in the style of social realism that was a popular outlet for Marxist artists in the 1930s.

1280px-Coit_Mural_Agriculture(Above – Maxine Albro’s ‘Agriculture of California’)

(Below – Ralph Stackpole’s ‘Industry of California’)

1280px-17_30_126_coit_towerA visit to the Coit Tower, therefore, is both an aesthetic and political experience, immersing the visitor into the ‘structure of feeling’ (to borrow from Raymond Williams, 1977) of the mid 1930s against the backdrop of present-day San Francisco. This is a study in contrasts. San Francisco, wealthy then, but now the golden and somewhat dystopian center of the global technology industry, beckons from the tower’s windows. The murals, however, produce an affect of simultaneous darkness and optimism, and one steps into the uncertainty, dread, hope and electric energy of the 1930s when entering the tower’s lobby.

Of all of San Francisco’s towers, from the Ziggurat-like new Salesforce Tower (the city’s tallest) to the abstract and mid-century Transamerica Pyramid, the Coit Tower arguably has and will age the best. There is a timeless quality to it. It stands as a beacon to the possibility of urban beauty at the nexus of philanthropy, state spending, politics and art. There is nothing banal about it, nor is it vulgar or out of scale. The political questions raised, and arguments made, are as prescient now as was the case in depression-era 1933, with the world facing the rise of dangerous nationalist despots and revolutionary movements.

The Coit Tower also stands as a sort of left-coast mirror to another ‘Tower’ on the East Coast, perhaps the modern equivalent: the 1980s, reflective glass, golden monument that is Trump Tower. If the Coit Tower is an emblem of urbanism in 1930s America, then perhaps Trump tower is emblematic of cities today. But the Coit Tower is more than just an architectural relic: it is a blueprint for a possible return to, or even a new golden age of government-commissioned art in the public realm. At a time of renewed radical politics and hope mixed with despair, a new Coit Tower is needed as an urban, political, and cultural beacon.

CFP Urban Cultural Studies – AAG in Washington DC April 2019

Call for Lightning-Paper Presentation Session Participants:

Session Title: Urban Cultural Studies I & II

Where:  American Association of Geographers meeting in April 2019, Washington, D.C.

Cities have been increasingly at the forefront of debate in both humanities and social science disciplines, but there has been relatively little real dialogue across these disciplinary boundaries. Journals in social science fields that use urban studies methods to look at life in cities rarely explore the cultural aspects of urban life in any depth or delve into close-readings of the representation of cities in individual novels, music albums/songs, graphic novels, films, videogames, online ‘virtual’ spaces, or other artistic and cultural products. On the other hand, while there is increasing discussion of urban topics and themes in the humanities, broadly considered, there are very few journal publications that are open to these new interdisciplinary directions of scholarship. This session is open to scholarship from any and all linguistic, cultural and geographical traditions. Presentations will cross the humanities and the social sciences while giving priority to the urban phenomenon, in order to better understand the culture(s) of cities.

This Urban Cultural Studies I session is affiliated with the double-blind peer-reviewed Journal of Urban Cultural Studies (,id=225/) and the accompanying blog Although the journal is open to many specific methodologies that blend humanities research with social-science perspectives on the city, its central methodological premise of the journal is perhaps best summed up by cultural studies-pioneer Raymond Williams – who emphasized giving equal weight to the ‘project (art)’ and the ‘formation (society)’. We are particularly interested in presentations that achieve some balance between discussing an individual (or multiple) cultural/artistic product(s) in depth and also using one of many social-science (geographical, anthropological, sociological…) urban approaches to investigate a given city. Lightning-paper participants will ideally address both an individual city itself and also its cultural representation in a very brief 5-minute talk. Following all of the 5-minute presentations, discussion will be opened to the audience.

If you are interested in sharing a current or future project in this Urban Cultural Studies session at the AAG 2019 in Washington D.C., please contact the Executive Editor of the Journal of Urban Cultural Studies, Benjamin Fraser (Professor at the University of Arizona) at This session is open to scholarship from any and all linguistic, cultural and geographical traditions. Presentations will cross the humanities and the social sciences while giving priority to the urban phenomenon, in order to better understand the culture(s) of cities. Lightning-paper participants will ideally address both an individual city itself and also its cultural representation in a very brief 5-minute talk.


Touring Project Row Houses: Lessons on Arts as Anti-Gentrification Urbanism in Houston’s Historically Black Third Ward

On this block sits a one-story shotgun house with a modest “A”-frame structure. Two parts comprise the home’s street facing façade: a window centers the right half, while the left half indents inwards towards a front door. White paint unites the entire house’s exterior; this paint also covers and accents the horizontal wood beams that adorn this house.

Nine other nearly identical replicas—more one-story white “A”-frames—surround this house. In this near uniformity lies a story about the inception of these homes, and their continued meaning making in Houston’s Third Ward neighborhood.

These homes sit along Holman Street less that a quarter mile from a mammoth interstate intersection, and some two miles south of Houston’s Downtown. They are part of Project Row Houses. Founded in 1993 by artist Rick Lowe, Project Row Houses is, as described on its website, “a community platform that enriches lives through art with an emphasis on cultural identity and its impact on the urban landscape.”

I toured Project Row Houses (PRH) in late May 2018 as part of this year’s Association of Arts Administration Educators (AAAE) conference. What most impressed me: PRH’s unwavering commitment to centering the needs of its mostly African-American community and residents (the majority of whom are marginalized due to race, gender, and income) amidst gentrification threats.

The tour included a welcome from Executive Director Eureka Gilkey and a neighborhood tour by McKenzie Watson, Guest Services and Membership Coordinator. Days later, a plenary at AAAE featured an interview with founder Rick Lowe and Director of Strategic Partnerships Tamika Evans. Essential lessons from them close this post.

Much has been written about arts and gentrification. Notably, sociologist Sharon Zukin researched artists in 1980s New York City lofts in then-fringe neighborhoods and Richard Florida has written about the role of the creative economy in the neoliberal growth of cities. But in these discourses, there is often an unstated link between mostly white artists who move to and make work in mostly non-white urban margins, and the role of that racial difference in sparking gentrification.

More recently, the term “artwashing” was coined to describe “the work and presence of artists and creative workers is used to add a cursory sheen to a place’s transformation,” and to attend to race and racist processes of gentrification involving the art. [More on artwashing here and here.] Journalist Peter Moskowitz has also been more explicit about that link between white artists gentrifying non-white urban areas. He does so through redlining, writing in 2017:

Redlining not only depressed the economies of inner cities, it created an entirely new kind of people in the suburbs—the white middle and upper-middle classes. For the first time in American history, the majority of white people were living largely privatized lives in single-family homes, without many community spaces or diversity, a lifestyle that reinforced the ideal of the nuclear family, with a stay-at-home mom and a working father. When the children of that economic and cultural experiment we now call “white flight” looked around, and decided they didn’t like what they saw, they began moving back to cities. In the 1970s, New York, San Francisco, and every other major urban center began experiencing an influx of a new kind of white person—one raised with the aesthetic, economic, and spatial values of the suburbs.

[…] suburbanization unleashed on cities a deluge of artists who cared more about marketable aesthetics than about art that could create social change.

In the 1930s, the racist process of redlining (whereby government backed home loans provided top rates to whites, and abysmal rates and denials to blacks regardless of financial healthy) racially segregated Houston, as it did in a majority of sizable U.S. cities. [See the unparalleled Mapping Inequality for more.] Through redlining, white bankers and governmental officials marked a majority of Houston’s Third Ward (a mostly African-American neighborhood) in red, that is, as “hazardous”; a yellow mark meant “definite declining” and delimited the remainder of the area. They did so solely due to race, because the neighborhood was mostly black. In redlining, those banks and officials denied mortgages and/or gave black residents the worst mortgage rates solely based on race, and thus divested from black people and black spaces. They also, in lining white areas blue and green, subsidized white neighborhoods with the best mortgage rates and investments.

Texas Map & Blueprint Co. (1930): Street Map, City of Houston, Texas, circa 1930.

Through Moskowitz, we can make an argument linking aesthetics and race (as I’ve written about before), about how dense, redlined, and non-white urban areas that were once economically devalued due to governmental racism became, in the late 20th century, attractive to white artists who grew up in green-lined (and thus white and economically valued) suburban areas. U.S. gentrification narratives often narrowly focus on white artists entering non-white neighborhoods. Linking redlining to gentrification—whereby the presence of white artists in non-white neighborhoods attracts neoliberal capital and in turn displaces existing residents of color—then, more robustly animates how aesthetic and racialized values have been differently attached to white and black bodies because of past and continued racialized urban investments, and frames work by existing residents to confront dehumanizing neighborhood change.

Now a neighborhood of 15,000 residents, Houston’s Greater Third Ward currently has a population that is about 64% black. From 2000 to 2013, home values nearer downtown have risen over 176%, displacing many long-time residents. Project Row Houses centers historic and existing black residents, and humanizes those made most vulnerable by contemporary neoliberal development, and past redlining. From my tour, I learned that it does so in at least three ways.

First, PRH uses its resources to respond to the needs of the community, including confronting racial policies that have long dispossessed black residents in Houston. During her welcome, Executive Director Eureka Gilkey told us how PRH centers the question “How can we use our resources to respond to the needs of the community?”

Eureka Gilkey introducing Project Row Houses to our tour group

Some answers in the organization’s 25 year history include:

-Preserving housing stock. PRH started one of the first affordable housing programs in the neighborhood and more recently purchased 20 units from a slumlord, renovating them to become safe and quality places to live.

-Bringing back small businesses along Emancipation Avenue, which runs by Emancipation Park. Emancipation Park is the oldest park in Houston and in Texas. Bought in 1872 by former slaves who pooled together $1,000, the park celebrates Juneteenth, the day commemorating the emancipation of slavery in Texas on June 19, 1865 (two years after the Emancipation Proclamation). In the 20th century, Emancipation Avenue had myriad of black-owned businesses that acted as a refuge for black residents denied entry into mainstream businesses elsewhere in Houston. In the past few decades, real estate prices have jumped from $5/sq. ft to $100 sq. ft. PRH has helped to anchor small businesses including NuWaters Co-Op, a food market.

-Working with University of Houston and Texas Southern University, universities located in the greater Third Ward, to hire residents who live in their zip codes.

-Using the majority of their annual budget of $2.6 million (which is mostly foundation funded) to sustain these structures.

Ultimately Gilkey emphasized how the work of Project Row Houses recognizes the complex the racial and classed effects of gentrification, and fights against how long-time residents have been displaced without recourse and resource. She detailed city policy issues, including the fact that if you are a renter in Houston, you cannot be part of your neighborhood’s civic organization and are threatened by same day eviction. However due to PRH’s community-engaged work, by 2018 some 22% of land in the neighborhood was owned by non-profit and churches, organizations that do not adhere to capitalist development plans.

Second, PRH invests spatially in its community. During our tour, McKenzie Watson revealed how the structures that define Project Row Houses – the row houses, but also homes for single mothers — all invest spatially in the marginalized community. Here are some of PRH’s spatial work:

Young Mothers Residential Program“The purpose of YMRP is to empower low-income single mothers and their children in achieving independent, self-sufficient lives. YMRP has supported roughly 100 mothers and their families, some of whom have gone on to earn doctorates, law degrees and become community leaders and entrepreneurs.”

Murals across from the Young Mothers Residential Program homes

Row House CDC: “Project Row Houses and Rice Building Workshop collaborated to create a series of row house-inspired duplexes to provide affordable housing for people in the community. In 2003, Row House CDC was created to act as a sister organization of PRH to manage the Affordable Housing Program.”

Cookie Love’s Wash n Fold, a laudromat for PRH residents named after a neighborhood resident

Small Business Incubation: “PRH’s Incubation Program provides space, time and/or mentorship to artists and creative entrepreneurs working in the early stages of project development. The incubation program affords creative entrepreneurs the opportunity of operating within a close-knit community of artists and activists in addition to operating on a neighborhood level with members of the Third Ward community and beyond.” Many businesses are begun by former PRH residents.

Inside Crumbville, TX, a vegan bakery owned by Ella Russell (center) incubated by Project Row Houses

Inside NuWaters Co-Op with a member-owner

Inside NuWaters Co-op

Many incubated businesses are near Eldorado Ballroom, owned and renovated by PRH, the historic home where 20th century black audiences, denied from white-only theaters, were able to see traveling black musicians.

-Space for Art: From Public Art, to Residencies, to low-cost studio space, PRH is spatially thread by and led by art.

A stretch of row houses on Bastrop St used for art installations including radio broadcasts

“Neighborhood Fantasies” exhibit

Third, PRH animates an artistic thinking about its mostly black neighborhood. The AAAE plenary featured Rick Lowe (founder) and Tamika Evans (Director of Strategic Partnerships) in conversation with Sixto Wagan (Director of the Center for Art and Social Engagement at the University of Houston). Rick Lowe detailed the inception of Project Row Houses; how high school students visited his studio and questioned the greater goal of his work. As he detailed in 2006:

I was doing big, billboard-size paintings and cutout sculptures dealing with social issues, and one of the students told me that, sure, the work reflected what was going on in his community, but it wasn’t what the community needed. If I was an artist, he said, why didn’t I come up with some kind of creative solution to issues instead of just telling people like him what they already knew. That was the defining moment that pushed me out of the studio.

At the plenary Rick Lowe also made us think about the relationship between art and the community, even admist neoliberal displacement, saying “in a market economy, we exercise our role in the market as well,” “you loose things when you scale up,” “as an artist, you make something and you think about it,” and “having an expansive mindset integral to the whole thing.” Lowe suggested framing residents as artists, as those with expansive and creative mindsets, is integral to the work that Project Row Houses does.

Sixto Wagan, Tamika Evans, and Rick Lowe at the 2018 AAAE Plenary

Tamika Evans, director of Strategic Partnerships, also expansively revealed how through centering arts, “PRH had the capacity to dream” and to “empower people and engage community through direct action.” She also incisively queried, “What does it mean to be a in a community with another human being?”

By thinking artistically, by working artistically in its neighborhoods, Project Row Houses makes an expansive space for its community and confronts the spatial dehumanization of black people. Especially in urban processes like redlining and gentrification, black people aren’t given multitudes of meaning. They are just marked in redlines as “hazardous” or through development as “to be displaced.” By contrast, Project Row Houses has allowed for multitudes of meaning to be re-attached to black residents from animating Emancipation Park, to housing single mothers, to making space for black businesses, financial aptitude, and of course, art.

Unless otherwise noted all images are by Jasmine Mahmoud.