St. Louis Map Room

How do maps reflect a place and its culture? How do maps inscribe meaning into place? What do maps conceal about a space and its culture?

This week, my class engaged these questions at the St. Louis Map Room. The Map Room is a temporary exhibit located at Stevens Middle School, a shuttered St. Louis Public School in Vandeventer, a North St. Louis City neighborhood. We entered the school, walked down a hallway, and then turned right into the gymnasium. There we saw dozens upon dozens of huge maps (about 15’ by 15’), most of them hanging vertically in two rows. On a platform at the center of the room, another huge map rested. Another smaller map appeared on the t-shirt of a staff member. All maps were of St. Louis.

Maps in the St. Louis Map Room

We met Emily Catedral, a teaching artist and site coordinator for the Map Room. She led our engagement, first giving a pointed lecture about the role of maps in history and culture. She displayed, via a top-down projector, various world maps. There was the version seen by most Americans that centers the Atlantic Ocean. There was a version often used in non-Western countries that centers the Pacific Ocean. There was an “upside down map” created by an Australian high school student sick of being told he was from “down under.” Catedral asked us questions about each map: What countries did each map center and decenter? What colors were apparent? What places were included and what places were missing?

Emily Catedral

Various World Maps

From this display, Catedral presented her thesis: maps are subjective. They do not reflect universal truths. Rather as constructed representations of space they do not and cannot accurately portray everything a space has. In what they do portray, they influence readings of space and of the world. (I could not help but think of last week’s news, that Boston Public Schools dropped the Mercator projection maps, which have for the last 500 years drastically diminished the representational size of South America and Africa).

After displaying world maps, Catedral continued her talk on topics including “Borders and Names,” “Politics and Biases,” “St. Louis,” and “Personal and Community Mapping.” She gave examples of how politics—international, national, and local—influence maps. When using Google Maps, for example, the border of Crimea changes based on whether one is in or outside of Russia. More locally, she asked our group about the most popular places in St. Louis. We responded: the Arch, Forest Park, and Blueberry Hill. These places often appear on St. Louis maps but not wholly reflect places meaningful to St. Louisians.

Her talk led us through maps used in St. Louis past and present, such as redlining maps from the 1930s that marked certain white areas as non-risky and ripe for bank loans and investment, and marked black areas as risky and thus prevented substantial loans and investment. She toggled between redlining maps from nearly a century ago to current demographic and income maps to reveal the racial, economic, and infrastructural impact of those past racist zoning policies.

Redlining map from early 20th century

Income by zip codes in the early 21st century

A description from the Map Room’s website reads: “The Office For Creative Research, in partnership with COCA, is taking over a shuttered school in St Louis to make the St. Louis Map Room: a community space for creating and exploring original, interpretive maps of the city that reflect the personal stories and lived experiences of its residents.” COCA, the Center of Creative Arts, a non-profit arts organization, serves St. Louis City and County with arts classes, exhibitions, and performances. The Office for Creative Research is according to its website a “hybrid research group, working at the intersection of technology, culture and education,” based in New York City and co-founded by Jer Thorp, a former COCA artist in residence. According to COCA, “During his 2014 visit to St. Louis, Jer was struck by the city’s divided geography and began to explore the role that map-making has on the identity of communities and its residents.” St. Louis Public Schools loaned the space of Stevens Middle School, which closed a few years ago, to the project.

Interior entrance to the Map Room

Stevens Middle School exterior

What are the functions of maps? Many use maps everyday for navigation and also for discovery. But maps often do not reflect one’s personal experience in a city—meaningful places, routes taken, names (official and otherwise) assigned (many from the St. Louis region call the major interstate “40” rather than its official name “I-64/ Route 40”). The Map Room seeks to counter this: Catedral closed her presentation discussing the maps hanging in the room, maps made by local community groups. From COCA’s website:

The St. Louis Map Room combines theatrical set design, sophisticated interactive experiences, and facilitated workshops to bring members of the community together. Over the course of a month, a diverse set of community groups–spanning students, activists, historians, artists, public servants, and more–will convene to make large-scale maps that express their experiences in the historically divided city of St. Louis.

To make a map, each group picked the geographic area of St. Louis they wanted to focus on; using digital mapping software, Catedral imprinted canvases with a basic map reflective of those chosen boundaries. Upon that, each group gathered to draw places meaningful to them.

We viewed, displayed in images below, maps from University City High School students (University City is a St. Louis County inner-ring suburb city adjacent to St. Louis City); a migration map; a Homelessness and its History in St. Louis Map; a trails map; a redlining map including the home at the focus of the 1948 Shelley vs. Kraemer Supreme Court Case that made racial covenants unconstitutional; a Diversity Awareness Partnership map; a map created by those from St. Louis Children’s hospital; and a Foodbank map, created by the St. Louis Area Foodbank. Each is an example of community maps made by community mapping.

Map by University City High School Students

Migration Map

Homelessness and its History in St. Louis

Trails Map

Redlining Map including on home at the center of the Shelley vs. Kraemer Supreme Court case

Diversity Awareness Partnership Map

Map from St. Louis Children’s Hospital

Foodbank Map

The St. Louis Map Room, located at 1033 Whittier Street, St. Louis, MO, is open until April 11, 2017.

Advertisements

The City Outside the Window

By Gareth Millington

Recently I have been thinking about two images. Gustave Caillebotte’s painting Young Man at his Window from 1876 and Jeff Wall’s colour photograph A View from an Apartment from 2004-05. In both works, the city (Paris and Vancouver respectively) is framed by an interior window within a domestic setting. Caillebotte’s painting is especaillebottecially significant for its time because it is an urban rather than a ‘natural’ scene that can be seen through the window.  The painting portrays Caillebotte’s younger brother René rising from his chair to nonchalantly stare, hands-in-pockets, at a female figure in the street (at the intersection of rue de Miromesnil and rue de Lisbonne). Rapetti (1995: 148) states of Caillebotte’s painting that it ‘stage[s] a confrontation between interior and exterior’. Moreover ‘[…] the modern world, and not only its exterior aspect: modern iconography was to go hand in hand with a modernity of feeling, with evocations of the effect produced by the new environment on individual human lives’ (ibid).

 

Jeff Wall’s photograph (below) also stages a combination of inside and outside.  It produces two pictorial worlds in a single image: the domestic interior occupied by two women, one reading a magazine in chair and the other attending to domestic chores; and the panorama of the port of Vancouver that is seen through the window. The household objects that are scattered, or cluttered, around the room provide the picture with a sense of everydayness that contrasts with the view from the window. As Wagstaff (2005: 18) comments, it is a ‘commonplace scene that functions as a quiet iconography of modern life’.

wallThese images are fascinating because they offer an insight into the relationship between the interior of urban homes and the boredom, desires and despondencies that are intertwined within this private space and the city outside—an element of urban enquiry I have come to think is under explored. More importantly I think, these two images, produced over a century apart, offer a remarkable mediation upon presence or being in the centre of the metropolis. In this way, interiority gains a triple meaning; the subjectivity of the lens and the actors, the domestic interior and its geographical location in the heart of the metropolis buttress each other to provide glimpses of an existential space; a haven that is a retreat from the modern world outside, but is also itself modern. These two images are not, at least relatively speaking, products of the gaze of the alienated; of a flanêur who is confined to the margins. The quiet, everyday quality of the presence depicted in these images is, as we now know, historical; it is no longer something to be complacent about, such are the centrifugal effects of rising rents and staggering property prices, not to mention forced relocation and dispersal from great metropolitan centres. There is also the issue of a generalised urbanization that has slowly erased the distinctiveness of the city and the metropolitan experience. Each image—Caillebotte’s in the style of high modernism and Wall’s photographic invocation of a late modern ‘urban lifestyle’—provides a reminder of an epoch of urban modernity that, we might argue, is eroding before our eyes.

I’m sure this contention will be too strong for some, such is the enduring vivacity of the city-image in common sense, popular culture and political discourse; a trend I have recently called ‘cultural cityism’ (Millington 2016). And yet, the easy, commonplace attitude of ‘nothing much in particular’ that pervades these artistic works—which prioritise interior tension over the exterior, materialist tension of ‘dialectical urbanism’ (Merrifield 2002)—provides a deep sense of uneasiness (that strange mix of desire and melancholy that Walter Benjamin saw combined in the ‘wish image’) when contrasted with the increasingly exclusive rights to urban inhabitability that are predominant in cities today; which is, of course, the place from where we view these images today. And yet, I am often wondering how the privations of our current urban age are being/ will be depicted. The nagging doubt, as Marshall Berman (1982: 24) once put it, is that maybe we have ‘lost the art of putting ourselves in the picture, of recognising ourselves as participants and protagonists in the art and thought of our time’. I’m not an art historian so I would genuinely be interested in receiving recommendations of art works from the last few decades that do convey a contemporary sense of displacement, loss or the new blossoming of urban life in unexpected places.

 

Berman, M. (1982) All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. New York: Verso

Merrifield, A. (2002) Dialectical Urbanism: Social Struggles in the Capitalist City. New York: Monthly Review Press

Millington, G. (2016) ‘Urbanization and the city image in Lowry at Tate Britain: Towards a critique of cultural cityism’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 40 (4) 717–735

Rapetti, R. (1995) ‘Paris seen from a window’ in Distel, A, et al (eds) Gustave Caillebotte: Urban Impressionist. Paris: Abbeville Press

Wagstaff, S. (2005) Jeff Wall: Photographs 1978-2004. London: Tate

The Other Berlin Zoo: The Tierpark Friedrichsfelde

The impact of some forty years of division on the city of Berlin manifested itself in interesting ways in terms of cultural, recreational, and social activities. While most people think immediately of the physical barricade in the form of the Berlin Wall as it impacted traffic patterns and cut through streets and neighborhoods, the division also forced both sides of the city to create mirrored recreational and cultural opportunities. For many cultural institutions that existed in the East such as museums and opera houses, West Berlin needed a cultural equivalent. But what about recreational areas? The Berlin Zoological Garden is a well-known tourist destination and beloved by Berliners as well. But, Berlin actually has two zoos: The Tierpark Friedrichsfelde was founded in 1955 on the grounds of the Friedrichsfelde Palace as an attempt by the East Berlin city magistrate to provide recreation for East Berliners, and thus also encourage East Berliners to remain in their half of the city, for at the time, the borders between East and West were still fluid. Deutschland Archiv has published an interview with the journalist Jan Mohnhaupt about the competition between the two zoos. You can read the full interview here.

“It takes the hood to save the hood”: Art and culture against gentrification in the San Francisco Bay Area

The San Francisco Bay Area faces perhaps the most severe housing shortage in America, putting tremendous strain on low income neighborhoods, many of which are home to longstanding communities of color, of immigrants, and refugees. Two neighborhoods – the SoMa area of San Francisco and the San Antonio area of East Oakland – face different waves of the gentrification process. Tax breaks and high-rise construction have transformed SoMA (South of Market) into the city’s tech-hub, home to Twitter and many smaller companies. East Oakland, meanwhile, is seeing the slow encroachment of more affluent residents who are looking for affordability, and an upcoming BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) line (in addition to the existing BART line) will likely intensify this process.

SoMa has traditionally been home to a large homeless community, many of whom live in the SRO’s (single-room-occupancy [cheap] hotels) in the area and are drawn to the public services located nearby. There is also an older, working-class Latino community, especially closer to the Mission and Potrero areas. San Antonio, Oakland, is home to a diverse potpourri of African American, Latino and Asian residents, including many immigrants and refugees from areas like Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Philippines.

These two communities are home to unique organizations that are using art and culture to build community, to maintain local identity, and to combat market forces and mediate – if not stop – the gentrification process.

The University of San Francisco, as part of “Urban Studies Week” (sponsored by Urban Studies and Urban and Public Affairs)  hosted two leaders from these non-profit organizations: Misha Olivas from “United Playaz” in San Francisco, and Prishni Murillo from Oakland’s “Eastside Art Alliance”. In a forum entitled ‘Art and Culture Against Gentrification’ (moderated by Professor Diane Negrin), Misha and Prishni discussed their approach to community building.

Artists

Too often, art and culture are seen (at least in urban theory) as harbingers of the gentrification process: artistic pioneers colonize under-valued urban space, sometimes de-populated former industrial zones, sometimes home to extant low income communities; followed by galleries and trendy parties; followed by cafes and shops and then by mainstream, more affluent residents and destination restaurants – ultimately resulting in the ironic displacement of the artists. At least, so goes the usual story (Zukin, 2011 for example).

Misha and Prishni presented a slightly different – and intriguing – twist to how art and culture can be utilized in a community as deliberate mediators within / against the gentrification process, rather than as facilitators of upscale neighborhood change and displacement.

In SoMa, United Playaz owns and operates a “clubhouse”, which serves as an anchoring point not only for neighborhood-based art groups,  but also an important home base for one of the poorest communities in the city. In a city where land and building ownership is elusive for so many, the leveraging of city resources to buy property – and become a permanent neighborhood fixture – sends a powerful message.

clubehouse

United Playaz Clubhouse, SoMA, San Francisco (From UnitedPlayaz.com)

Meanwhile, in East Oakland, the Eastside Arts Alliance is helping to curate a strong, intersectional neighborhood identity and a sense of permanence amidst the forces of change. Their mission statement encapsulates Oakland’s long history of activism, empowerment and liberation: “We are an organization of Third World artists, cultural workers, and community organizers of color committed to working in the San Antonio and other Oakland neighborhoods to support a creative environment that improves the quality of life for our communities and advocates for progressive, systemic social change.”

In addition to providing a physical space for the grassroots arts, Eastside Alliance also helps bind disparate and sometimes awkwardly-juxtaposed groups into a sense of shared belonging: one anecdote given was the example of an event, where a “Cambodian youth with gold teeth” mixed with “community elders in a traditional dance.” On March 11, the Alliance hosted a “Feast of Inter-generational Resistance”, featuring an open mic night and curated events relevant to the Vietnamese-American community, both young and old. But topics also included discussions on anti-Black racism, LGBTQIA themes, tools for grassroots activism and the experience of immigrants, among others.  By providing a platform for such intra-generational and intersectional experiences – as well as intersections for various racial, ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural histories to intermingle and co-exist – the Arts Alliance helps cement Oakland’s unique diversity and identity within the broader constellation of a fast – changing Bay Area.

There are practical applications within the City Planning sphere as well – the Arts Alliance, which has a presence at Oakland’s government’s table – has been pushing for “cultural plazas” as part of the new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) route through the neighborhood. These will serve as neighborhood markers, but also, as educational tools for newer residents to say “we are here, this is our history”.

Murals curated by the Eastside Arts Alliance, Oakland

The pressures of the Bay Area economy and the shortage of housing and community space will continue, and the waves of change will reshape Oakland and San Francisco. But within these processes, groups like United Playaz and Eastside Arts Alliance are demonstrating the possibilities for alternative, and emancipatory, conversations and productions of urban space and self. As Prishni Murillo said in her closing remarks, people “cannot live their essence” under the oppression of (market forces, authoritarian government, racism, classism, any ism). Therefore, the arts provide an avenue for liberation; art-produced urban space is thus liberating urban space. In Murillo’s words, “as power pushes one way – it is our obligation to push back”.

 

Spatial Impacts of Office Buildings?

Urban space is shaped and re-shaped by many competing forces. Global cities have been marked to varying degrees by the grand ideas of planners, the whims of political will, and the machinations of capitalism. David Harvey (1985) is a prominent voice in theorising the spatial effects of capital. The essence of Harvey’s contention is that during periods of over-accumulation in capitalist production a shift occurs whereby capital moves from production into the production of the built environment. This occurrence is a method of diverting surplus capital and a means to deter a larger crisis (Christophers, 2011).

 

In London, during the reign of the previous Mayor (2008-2016), a shift in desire and thinking took hold, one that argued that London needed an iconic skyline of imposing skyscrapers. The city soon ‘boasted’ a cheese grater (The Leadenhall Building), a walkie talkie (20 Fenchurch Street), a Shard (Shard London Bridge), and even a gherkin (30 St Mary Axe [formerly Swiss Re Building]). This is not to mention City hall which is either an ‘onion’ or ‘testicle’ depending on your point of view. However, as Harvey suggests capital in times of crisis focuses on the production of urban space. For London, this has been combined with the desire for skyscrapers that offer premium office space in boom times and bust.

Images courtesy: CityAM, Architects’ Journal, Skyscrapers News

The EC3 postcode, in the heart of ‘The City’, is home to the major headquarters of the leading insurance companies. It is a district that is spatially configured and development to the tunes of the insurance sector. However, as new buildings are completed they are standing empty. The Financial Times reported recently that One Creechurch Place which is a modest 17 floors and boasts 272,00 square feet is completely unoccupied. New developments including the 59-floor tower at 22 Bishopgate and 24 floor 60-70 St May Axe with the sobriquet of “Can of Ham’, among others, are being completed without any pre-letting. Some of this due to more efficient use of space or changing working patterns and some is due to nervous businesses reacting to uncertain times. The search for new tenants is hampered by business rates, declining interest of banks wanting to be in this area, and new tech companies preferring a location closer to ‘Silicon roundabout’.

This leads to questions of the possible spatial impacts of Brexit and how this will play out in urban space. If companies move or working practices continue to be increasingly flexible then these high-rise projects could stand temporally as indicators to the uncertain flows of urban capital. However, as Harvey suggests, the tendency for destructive creation in a capitalist economy means that maybe these building will be more ephemeral than expected. At present the show still goes on. The Scalpel (Lime Street/Leadenhall Street) is under construction and two further buildings, at 22 and 100 Bishopgate respectively, are part of a projected extra 4 million square feet of office space that will available by the end of the decade. How much of this will stand empty and what will happen if they do are questions that will soon to be answered.

Christophers B. Revisiting the urbanization of capital. Annals of the Association of American Geographers. 2011;101,6:1347-64.
Harvey D. The urbanisation of capital:  Studies in the history and theory of capitalist urbanization. Oxford, Blackwell. 1985
Ralph O, Evans J. City of London skyscrapers rise just as demand heads down. Financial Times. 2017: https://www.ft.com/content/15cab8e6-f511-11e6-95ee-f14e55513608

Looking for intentional monuments in Berlin

Last week, I was exploring the topic of resistance during the Third Reich with my students in a German conversation and composition class. One student brought up the question of gender differences in the resistance movement, and explained a research project that she had worked on a few semesters ago about the Rosenstraße Demonstration (1943). In February 1943, police gathered some 2000 Jews (mostly men married to non-Jewish women) and held them in the Jewish community building at Rosenstraße 2-4. The partners feared that the men would be deported to one of the concentration campus. Over the course of several days, some 200 non-Jewish Germans demonstrated outside the building, calling for the release of the inhabitants. Ultimately, all but 25 of the prisoners were released. The protest was the topic of the 2003 film Rosenstraße (dir. Margarete von Trotta), which may have served to popularize it, but it is still relatively unknown. None of the other students in the class had heard of it.

Coincidentally, I have been rereading Svetlana Boym’s The Future of Nostalgia (2001), particularly the distinction between restorative and reflective nostalgia. Boym draws on Alois Riegl’s concepts of intentional and unintentional monuments. Both sets of concepts present an interesting framework for my research on the construction of monuments in the city of Berlin. There is a monument that commemorates the Rosenstraße demonstration, on a small side in the former Jewish quarter street near the Hackesche Höfe and in the shadow of Alexanderplatz, both of which are popular tourist destinations in Berlin.

During summer 2016, I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Berlin, and the view from my hotel room looked out onto the Rosenstraße memorial. Despite its proximity to popular attractions, traffic to the site is minimal. This prompted me to ponder why and reflect on what kind of memorial this might be.

As Boym explains it, an intentional monument tries to mark a specific moment in time and make it meaningful for the present. By contrast, an unintentional monument occurs does not seek to commemorate. Certainly, the Rosenstraße memorial is intended to mark a specific event from history. But the visitors I witnessed last summer did not seem intentional. Rather, it appeared that they had stumbled upon the site by accident. Nonetheless, I also witnessed their desire to learn and engage with the monument as well.

I invite readers to share their experiences about monuments and Berlin or their other favorite cities and to consider if these monuments do imbue the present with meaning.

 

Grey Matters: Urban Cleaning and Graffiti on the Streets of São Paulo

Here I will refer to some recent events in the city of São Paulo, Brazil, and the public backlash as street graffiti is erased by the recently elected Mayor João Dória. The decision started as part of a larger project called “Cidade Linda” [Beautiful City]. Consider some the video below showing some of the images of the art on the walls of the city (in Portuguese): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LE2HyBMy4NU

Screenshot 2017-03-11 15.52.41

São Paulo, a grey metropolis with high skyscrapers, has a history of street art dating back to the 1980s: please refer to Marcelo Pinheiro’s blog in brasileiros.com.br on the relation between graffiti, Hip-Hop, and the empowerment of the young generations from the poor suburbs of São Paulo, or the distinction between graffiti and pichação in the Cities Project, created by the Guardian with support from the Rockefeller Foundation. The relationship of the city with graffiti has also led in the past to a series of events called Bienal Internacional Grafitti Fine Art, in its third edition in 2015, and which brought about 60 artists from all over the world to the Parque Ibirapuera, in São Paulo.

My goal is not to initiate a dialogue on artistic merit of graffiti versus street writing, as many have already done (see the books Street Art: The Graffiti Revolution, Graffiti Worlds, Protest Graffiti, for example), but to probe the models of urban resistance that have been occurring since these very recent events. By cleaning the city center and eliminating undesired art forms, these institutions are initiating a strong process of commodification of protest art, specifying areas for that purpose, as well as “authorized art courses” to teach what the government is defining as such. Thus, the governmental discourse is engaging in a dangerous dynamic that determines that art needs first to be appropriated by mainstream discourse before being “allowed” on public space.

As background information, “Cidade Linda” [Beautiful City] was announced by the new Mayor João Dória on December 30th, 2017. A recent court decision from February 14th, 2017, will prevent Mayor Dória from erasing any more grafittis without authorization from Conpresp (Municipal Council on Heritage)(Gonçalves do Carmo, 2/14/2017). What the events have been pointing to is a perception of art, street art, and cultural intervention contributing to political programs of urban gentrification.

His twitter post erasing some walls in the city, dressed up in an orange jumpsuit, has also brought national attention, in this case due to the performativity (or excess) of the political action.

To further complicate how the decision-making of erasing the graffiti was done, in later justifications the Mayor equates street intervention artists with criminals:

“A prefeitura não vai ter tolerância com pichador. Não há diálogo com contraventor. Todo pichador é bandido. (…) Pichador não tem nada a ver com grafiteiro. A prefeitura vai gastar o que for necessário para proteger a cidade”

[The government will not have any forgiveness with street artists. There will be no dialogue with transgressors. Every street artist is a bandit. (…) We should not confuse taggers with graffiti artists. The city will spend whatever is needed to protect the city] (Folha, 2/17/17).

It is clear that a clear-cut distinction between certain forms of urban wall intervention called pichação (graffiti writing or tagging) from grafiteiros (graffiti murals) is being drawn. But as a result of the first interventions, “Secretary admits that Avenida 23 de Maio became ‘too grey’” (my translation, Diógenes, 1/24/17), now considering redoing other graffiti and promoting a festival to go along with it.

As a response to the erasure of the graffiti, another intervention was done on January 24th on Avenida 23 de Maio. This time, instead of the tagging of the street artists, we find an ironic joke with the signature of the Mayor, the artist behind the grey artistic intervention. It is unclear how the rest of “Programa Cidade Limpa” will affect public space, and whether the criminalization of graffiti will be carried out. What we know so far is that the decision is leading to a larger discussion that begs further examination of the relations between street interventions, public space, and city gentrification under the lenses of urban studies.

Further Reading:

Gonçalves do Carmo, Sidney. “Justiça proíbe Dória de cobrir grafite sem consultar órgão do patrimônio.” Folha de São Paulo. Feb. 14, 2017. Web. Feb. 25, 2017.

Folha de São Paulo. “Doria diz que pichadores são possíveis ladrões de celulares e serão vigiados.” Cotidiano. Feb. 17, 2017. Web. Feb. 25, 2017.

Diógenes, Juliana. “Secretário admite que a 23 de Maio ‘ficou muito cinza.’” O Estado de S. Paulo. 24 Jan 2017. Web. 15 Feb. 2017.

Juliana Luna Freire (Ph.D). is an Assistant Professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Framingham State University.