Biking Seattle’s Redlining: An Interview with Merlin Rainwater

Redlining Map of Seattle from 1936

“The policies that created segregation have been so successful, that if you live in a white world, it’s kind of hard to see out of it. You just have to learn to see it.”

-Merlin Rainwater

Consider the following language. When was it written? Where was it written?

No person or persons of Asiatic, African or Negro blood, lineage, or extraction shall be permitted to occupy a portion of said property, or any building thereon; except domestic servants may actually and in good faith be employed by white occupants of such premises

No residence property shall at any time, directly or indirectly, be sold, conveyed, rented or leased in whole of in part to any person or persons not of the white or Caucasian race.

Tracts or parcels of land in this plat shall be used or occupied only by members of the white or Caucasian race, excluding Semites, and no other persons shall be permitted to use or occupy said tracts or parcels, except employees may occupy the premises where their employer resides.

From the 1920s to the 1940s, this language was widely written into deeds in housing stock not in Detroit, or Chicago, or St. Louis, but rather in Seattle. Now documented on the “Racial Restrictive Covenants” section of the Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History project at the University of Washington, much of this language—although outlawed by the 1968 Housing Rights Act—still exists on today’s home deeds, acting as a vestige of the racial restrictions that pervaded Seattle in the early 20th century. Despite that past ubiquity, many Seattle residents remain unaware of the ways in which the city was (and arguably still is) systematically racially segregated: through these restrictive covenants (private agreements made by white homeowners to exclude non-white and ethnically white residents), and through redlining.

Redlining, as many have documented, was the system begun in the 1930s by which the federal government worked with banks to spur the economy during and after the Great Depression. They did so through homeownership; in particular: racially restrictive homeownership. Banks drew up color-coded city maps based on existing and desired racial segregation. Banks then offered white residents seeking homes in white areas (areas drawn on the maps in green and blue) the best mortgage rates, and contrastingly, black residents seeking homes anywhere, but especially in black areas (drawn in red — hence the naming redlining), either no option for home loans, or exorbitantly high rates. Redlining took place in 239 cities across the U.S.; the process was backed by the federal government, invested money and wealth-making property into white people and neighborhoods, and divested from black and other non-white people.

Many residents of progressive-ish Seattle remain unaware about restrictive covenants redlining and their effects on the city today. Due to the growth of Amazon and other companies, Seattle has been the fastest growing city of the last decade. But that population growth took place without equitable urbanist policies in place. As such, many residents have dealt with drastically increased rents, lack of protections for vulnerable residents, displacement of non-white neighborhoods of color including the historically black Central District, and increased homelessness (an estimated 41% of Seattle’s homeless population is black). These changes and their racialized impact dialogue with past urbanist practices that dispossessed people of color from neighborhood space.

Merlin Rainwater, a Seattle-born resident, has been trying to change how Seattleites—in particular mostly white Seattleites—understand the history of race and racial dispossession within Seattle’s neighborhood spaces. Earlier this year, she launched the Red Line Rides, a bike tour (and subsequent walking tour) of redlining in Seattle. So much of her tours are about teaching white residents to, in her words, “learn to see” how and where white Seattle was built by systemic and racially restrictive practices, and the strong residues of those practices today.  I interviewed her to learn more about the what, when, why, where and how of the tours.

Interview edited for clarity. 

JASMINE MAHMOUD: Tell me about your history in Seattle. Where did you grow up? What are your initial memories of the city?

MERLIN RAINWATER: I was actually born in Seattle, but I grew up mostly in a little town … about 16 miles out of Seattle: Edmonds. We belonged to the Quaker meeting that met in Seattle, so I had a strong connection with the neighborhood around the University [of Washington], the University District. Both of my parents were born in Washington State. My father’s grandparents on his mother’s side were pioneer settlers outside of Seattle. And my mother’s parents homesteaded in Eastern Washington.

When I moved back to Seattle in 1974, Seattle was in the middle of a major recession, and it was pretty cheap to survive here. When I got married, my husband and I were able to buy a house, a very reasonably priced house in an area that had been redlined and that was on the margins on the Central District, the historically black part of Seattle. Looking back on it, almost 40 years now, we were really the first wave of white gentrifiers moving into the historically black part of town.

Central Area and Mount Baker from Beacon Hill, 1955 (seattle.gov)

MAHMOUD: What was the Central District [historically African-American neighborhood] like when you moved there in the 70s?

RAINWATER: The neighborhood had been very hard hit by the recession. I had a girlfriend who bought a house nearby in 1976 for $3K. [Before she bought it], it had been repossessed and had stood empty for several years, and there were a number of other houses in similar conditions that young, liberal, white people had been able to buy. So by the time we bought our house, the neighborhood had stabilized quite a bit. … The people who’d lost their jobs … were gone. It was just a cusp of a boom in this area. So a couple of years after we bought our house, I counted 14 new houses that had been built within a three block area that were all fill ins of these undeveloped blocks.

MAHMOUD: Around what year was that?

RAINWATER: That was 1986 to ‘88 probably, when those houses were filled in. And when we moved here, probably about half of the families on the block were black, and then little by little those people left, moved out, sold their houses. As all these new houses were built and new people moved in, all of the new neighbors were white. One black family moved in next door to us, the year after we moved in here, but that’s the only black family that’s purchased a home. We have a long block with probably 30 houses. so it’s been a gradual but dramatic change. So when you’re in the middle of it, you don’t really see it.

Looking back on it, I recognize that one of the things that really struck me as I’ve been was trying to educate myself about all the issues related to segregation, I realized that my family and I have directly benefited from both the impoverished and the disinvestment in this neighborhood that happened over many years. Then the legislation that the city council passed in the 70s to outlaw redlining so by the time we were ready to buy a house in a previously redlined area, we were able to get a nice federally insured loan. Yeah, so that’s been a challenging bit of learning from the work that I’ve done.

MAHMOUD: How did you learn about redlining?

RAINWATER: We have a really wonderful project based out of the University of Washington called the Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project. They have a great little slideshow on Segregated Seattle, so I was aware of the general history, then I was aware of the campaign for open housing that had taken place in the mid sixties, but as a white person that knew about that, I was a rarity. And so when I went to visit the Douglass-Truth [Seattle Public] Library, which houses the African American collection and is located in the middle of the Central District, the historically black area, and I saw this nice display about the open housing campaign. I thought it’s great that they have this display, but this is not where it needs to be, people who live here and come to this library, they already know that. [Rather], it’s the people who benefited by the established by the fact that huge areas of Seattle were over 90% white until quite recently in its history.

If you look at population maps. Often, they are colored so that the presence of people of color shows up in more dramatic colors, but seeing a series of maps where what’s highlighted is the areas that are high percentage white, and it’s pretty much dramatic to look at all the parts of Seattle that were over 90% white until … If you weren’t white, you had no choice [where to live].

And so, people that lived within that little [redlined] sliver were forced into that part of the town. They knew what was going on. But if you were white and you lived in the vast rest of the city, you could be completely oblivious. Most people still are. Most white people still are.

MAHMOUD: Your tour animates what scholars like sociologist George Lipsitz (author of How Racism Takes Place) and urban planners J. Rosie Tighe and Joanna P. Ganning point out: that divestment in neighborhoods of color has long accompanied investment in white neighborhoods. You have said: “I thought, you know, this is information that really ought to be in Laurelhurst. It should be in Broadmoor … Because black people in the Central District, they know this history. It’s the white folks in the segregated white parts of the city that need to know that there was a struggle for open housing in Seattle.” What connections do you see between white and black areas in Seattle? How are these ideas animated on the tour?

RAINWATER: The section of the redline that I feature in the walk is an area on Capitol Hill, where there is actually quite a dramatic boundary between the affluent white, by racially covenanted north part of Capitol Hill, north of Roy and Aloha, and the redlined area to the south.

The area of Capitol Hill that’s south of Roy Street, basically, the character of the housing stock is not that different as you move east to west. There are modest, middle-class, pretty nice houses, but east of Roy Street, it was redlined and the only excuse for considering that area a bad investment was that black people lived there. The only thing that the surveyors bothered to point out was that there’s black people here. So on the one hand just a lack of contrast and they’re still fairly similar on both sides, but the lack of contrast is interesting.

Then as you go further north, the north of Roy and Aloha, a huge number of those lots had racially restricted covenants on them. And the sense that you get is that … and the houses are generally much larger and they look affluent. The fact that so many of the white folks in that part of town were afraid that black people might infiltrate, that they went through the trouble of getting together with all their neighbors and hiring a lawyer and drawing up a covenant that says “no Negroes can ever live in this place.” That’s dramatic. So to see the contrast in actual investment … I mean, the Central Area it’s sustained a very vibrant, middle-class black community that was mixed in with people of all economic conditions, but it wasn’t a terrible, general hell hole. So people had to work really hard to hold onto their properties and maintain their properties.

But at the same time, the investments that allowed white people to move out of the city and into the suburbs, you can’t actually see that when you’re standing on the line, I guess is what I’m trying to say. And I think that really is the challenge because the policies that created segregation have been so successful, that if you live in a white world, it’s kind of hard to see out of it. You just have to learn to see it.

MAHMOUD: Where did your idea for this tour come from? Why did it first start as a bike tour?

RAINWATER: So I started doing a series of bike rides that I call SLOW rides, Senior Ladies On Wheels, which is a fabulously brilliant acronym–

MAHMOUD Yes, it is.

RAINWATER: –because I have always used a bike as my main transportation, and I think it’s really the only sensible way to get around. I don’t understand why the rest of the world doesn’t always agree with me. I was looking for a way to create an opportunity for tentative bike riders to learn how easy it is to get around on a bike in the city, and so I developed SLOW rides through the Cascade Bicycle Club Free Group Rides Program. I wanted it to also be a way for people to learn about the Central District and the history of the Central District.

And so I start all my rides at the [Northwest] African American Museum, and that way, if anybody who comes along … now they know, we have an African American museum which many white people don’t know. I did a ride called “An Introduction to Seattle Black History Through Parks,” so you go to a about dozen different parks that are named after important figures in black history and learn a little bit about them. [Figures include musician Jimi Hendrix, director of Urban League Edwin Pratt, Seattle’s first black female pediatrician Blanche Lavizzo, editor and reporter Susie Revels Clayton and Horace Roscoe Clayon, Mount Zion Baptist Church Pastor Rev. Samuel Berry McKinney, entrepreneur Prentis Frazier, second black settler in Seattle William Grose, dermatologist Homer Harris, musician Powell Barnett, children’s advocate and talk show host Flo Ware, and legislator Sam Smith.] So looking for ways for the rides to be subtly educational and I was just looking for another theme for a ride and I came across an article about the redlining maps that had just recently been made available online. And I thought, wow. That sounds like an interesting bike ride.

So when I first did it, I really tried to ride along the big section of the line, which made for kind of a challenging bike ride, and I had marginally too many people show up, and I was really not sure how to … I really wanted to do it again, but I wasn’t sure how to go about it. But just the fact that it attracted a lot of interest the very first time that I did it made me want to do it again and refine it. Also, it’s just by coincidence, one of the people that I know through the biking advocacy realm is a personal friend with the student who had written the essay on racially restrictive covenants for the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History project.

MAHMOUD: Oh, wow. Yeah.

RAINWATER: Her name is Cat Silva, who is now in Berlin, Germany, unfortunately, but anyway, she got real excited about the idea of these rides, and she mapped out for me where many of the properties with covenants on them are. So that’s really a great prop to have for the tours, to be able to show people where the covenanted properties are. I also had a request from the Plymoth Congregational Church that were just fans of my SLOW rides and they heard about the redline ride, asked if I would do a version just for their intergenerational study group, so I did that and simplified the ride a little bit to really make it for anybody to participate.

[See here for “Segregated Seattle Visualized: Patterns of Enforcement in the Central Area” by Cat Silva.]

My daughter went to preschool with the son of a woman who is the president of the Seattle Black Heritage Society, and we’re still friends and neighbors, so she and I would get together, talking about what we were doing. She mentioned that there was going to be a major exhibit of photographs of the Central District at the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) – the photos of Al Smith. The photo collection belongs to the Black Heritage Society, but is housed at the Museum of History in Industry, and so Carol and I were talking about this exhibit and the work she’s doing with the Black Heritage Society. I kept telling her about my bike rides, and at some point we kind of went, “oh, the museum is looking for community activities in conjunction with the exhibit, so maybe you could do a bike ride in conjunction with the museum.” So I met with the people from MOHAI I met them … Carol was with me. We all thought that doing the redline ride would be a good thing to do, as part of public activities connected with that exhibit.

They asked me to develop a walking version, so I said, okay. We worked this out in October [2017] and the tours were scheduled for March [2018], in the weeks following a town discussion on segregated Seattle, from redlining to gentrification. And I think they probably posted the events in early February, and within just a matter of days, all the … So I did two bike tours and two walking tours and everything sold out instantly.

MAHMOUD: Wow.

RAINWATER: And we were all really surprised it was so popular.

MAHMOUD: What were some of the reactions to the tours?

RAINWATER: I haven’t got a lot of really direct feedback, other than that people just find it thought provoking. Since then, several people have contacted me, interested in the tours, and have asked me to do repeats and one organization that contacted me was Zillow, the online real estate [company].

MAHMOUD: Oh, wow.

RAINWATER: And they actually approached me through the Northwest African American Museum. And arranged for me to do the walking tour three times in order to accommodate almost 50 of their staff. They’re doing an educational series around the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act. And they have recently started an equity initiative in the company. So anyways, the first time I did the tour, they had asked me to shorten it a little bit. I said it was going to take two hours, they wanted it to be an hour and a half. I asked for feedback and the only feedback I got was, well, you spent too much time in the wealthy areas. And I think they were expecting to see desolation or something? So I tried to be more clear about what I was intending to show them in the wealthy parts of Capitol Hill.

MAHMOUD: Right.

RAINWATER: And I didn’t change where I went, I just changed a little bit how I talked about it. Also, when they asked me to shorten it, I had left off a section by the site of the Liberty Bank, the black owned bank that was founded in ’68, and there had been a big controversy about attempts to preserve the building that had housed the bank. That’s a really interesting part of the whole learning about segregation and disinvestment, but in order to shorten the tour, I left out the Liberty Bank, and just mentioned the bank, and they said, well, you should have said more about the Liberty Bank. Okay, so I put that back in. But that’s the most direct feedback I’ve got. And there’s people during the tour expressing their surprise at things they didn’t know anything about.

Liberty Bank in 1968. Credit: libertybankbuilding.org/liberty-bank/

MAHMOUD: What are some important moments of places to you on the tour?

RAINWATER: So, I think the most dramatic place on the tour is the corner of 19th and Madison where the Mount Zion Baptist Church is located, because it’s not only right on the margin of the redline, it’s also on a boundary between two redlined areas that the surveyors described differently. So, to the east of 19th, there’s an area, both north and south of Madison, is the area that the surveyors described as “this is the Negro area of Seattle.” That was all that needed to be said. And to the west of 19th, there’s a band that was redlined, but included on the racial map Jewish, Oriental, and Italian residents, so from that corner on 19th and Madison, it’s an opportunity to talk about that, but the fact that parts of the Central District really had been a combination of different minority and undesirable groups, that’s such a complicated, fascinating history.

Mount Zion Baptist Church

Anyway, so there you are on this corner of redlined area, and then west of 19th and north of Madison is a section of the map that’s colored yellow, that the surveyors described as, “this is the twilight zone.”

MAHMOUD: Oh, wow.

RAINWATER: And so an area that really felt it was under threat by undesirable populations. Diagonally, across the street from Mount Zion, two entire blocks that in the [19]20s, the homeowners got together to establish a racially restrictive covenant. So Mount Zion moved to that location in 1920, to 19th and Madison, and this is an eminently respectable, historical institution in the black community. The neighbors diagonally across the street are terrified and hire lawyers to make sure that no Negros ever move into their block. That’s just really dramatic. I think that’s the most dramatic point of the tour.

When I do it as a bike tour, I also take people down into Madison Valley, and we look at the storm water management project down there; that’s an example of disinvestment, because in the 1970s, the city got a bunch of federal money to do various kinds of projects and they routed storm water from Capitol Hill down into Madison Valley. And there was supposed to be another component to the project that would take the storm water out to Lake Washington, but they ran out of money, and they ran out of interest in this whole thing, and for many, many years, once or twice or four times a winter, Madison Valley would flood and the sewage would back up into people’s basements.

MAHMOUD: Wow. Wow.

RAINWATER: Madison Valley was probably more than 90% black neighborhood. Very poor, very modest little houses down there, and people were having to deal with these sewage soaked basements, year after year after year. And it wasn’t until white people started moving into Madison Valley that it started to get the attention of the city. They ended up purchasing an entire block of houses to create a storm water retention facility, and they invested a huge ton of money. It’s a really lovely, lovely part, this storm water retention pond. But it didn’t happen as long as the neighborhood was entirely black.

MAHMOUD: You have said: It really is white people’s history. White people were the actors that developed and implemented the policies that led to segregation. And it’s really inappropriate to, say, segregate those aspects of history that black people suffered under, and label those ‘black history’ as if they weren’t relevant to the rest of us. How do you frame your own racial positionality as a white person in the making of this tour? What have been the reactions of white attendees? Black attendees? Folks of other races? How you see this tour as that, as part of a white people’s history, or as framing whiteness in Seattle. How is this tour in dialogue with that?

RAINWATER: Well, it’s really the focus of the tour. And I have to say, when I first did the tour, there were two women of color I of the 20 people who came, everybody else was white. And I was a little bit, almost apologetic, about being a white person talking about this, but I was talking about that with one of the black women on the tour, and she said, “oh my God, I’m so glad that you’re doing this.” She said she’s a university student in a class where she’s the only person of color, and she just hates being the one that everybody turns to when ever anything comes up that has to do with race as if she’s the only person that has a race. I’m just fed up with that. This whole idea that the United States has a “Negro problem.” Well, no, we don’t. We have a white people problem. And I’m so glad that the Lynching Museum finally opened, because that visualizes, that makes it concrete. You know very well that the reason that those stark monuments are hanging there. It’s not the black people that did that, you know?

MAHMOUD: Right.

RAINWATER: And that’s something that our country just has not come to terms with. It’s been very easy for white people to turn their backs and say, “no, this doesn’t affect me, this isn’t about me. I might feel sorry for those poor people that have suffered so much, but it’s not about me.” I just don’t agree with that. I think I mentioned … Or maybe I didn’t mention, that my senior year in high school, I spent in West Berlin. And at the time, the people around me really did not know how to talk about the Holocaust and the Nazi period and everything that had happened during that time.

Just a couple of days ago, I got a package in the mail from one of my friends in Berlin, with a brochure that describes the Stolpersteine project, the stumbling block project. It’s a project of identifying and memorializing the individual Jewish people that were deported and murdered during the Nazi era, by creating little brass plaques the size and shape of paving stones, and these little brass plaques are embedded in the sidewalks in front of the homes that people were forced out of.

And each little block, each little brass plaque has the name of the individual and a brief summary of when they were born, where they were deported to, and when they were murdered. And these are just embedded in the sidewalk. The brochure that I got discusses just one street that’s two blocks long in West Berlin and it contains about 25 of these little blocks.

And this is just one tiny component of a project that’s placed about 5,000 of these blocks in Berlin alone, and thousands others in other cities. And I just think it’s important. This project, this little stumbling blocks, they don’t tell you to do anything, they don’t pretend to fix anything. They just remind you that you’re walking through a landscape that contains this terrible history. I just think it’s important to acknowledge that and live with it.

MAHMOUD: I’d love to about your passion for biking and non-driving forms of transportation. Why do you feel it’s so important to emphasize them?

RAINWATER: I guess that the really fundamental reason that I think it’s important is that keeps us contact with a place, that if you’re walking or biking, you can stop and notice things, and you don’t have to look for a place to leave your two-thousand pound box that you’re carrying around with you, and you can interact with people and the environment. I think that the world of cars has taken something really important away from us in these tiny every day interactions that people have when they get around on foot.

Merlin Rainwater during the “Red Line Rides.”

And I’ve also found a really fun community of other people who love to bike and love to walk and are working to make the city safer and better for human beings. Bringing these interests into my commitment to racial justice and my passion for walking and biking, they don’t always easily mesh, but that’s what I’m trying to do.

MAHMOUD: Are there any other thoughts you’d like to share about this tour?

RAINWATER: Well, it’s really been a learning experience for me and just right from the beginning, just looking at the map, and walking and biking around this neighborhood, where I’ve lived for 40 years, and looking at it through that lens has been very thought provoking. I’ve thought for a long time, I’ve been curious about the people who were forced to leave this neighborhood before I moved here, and wondering who they were and what happened to them. And this has given me some more motivation to really explore that. Why did they lose their houses? What kind of financial arrangements had they used in order to be here in the first place? A lot of questions like that. I have these very general assumptions about what was going on at that time, but I haven’t tied them to the individual stories that they’re connected to. That’s an interesting next step.

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Port Urbanism, Blackness, and the Shipping Crate in ‘Collapse: Works by Dewey Crumpler’ — a conversation with curator Sampada Aranke

Dewey Crumpler, Untitled 3 (2017). Photo by Yosef Chaim Kalinko, Seattle University.

“He would do these walks along the port, and see these shipping containers come in and out, and became particularly interested in the way that was shaping his relationships to the walk, to these meditative zones that are supposed to be about taking in nature and enjoying the stunning views of the Bay. It’s in the shadows, these giants cranes.” –Sampada Aranke

Scattered everywhere are green bananas. In the foreground, bunches of the unripe fruit iteratively sit upright and lie sideways on the damp, cold sand of a beach. Snails and crabs also reside on this beach. Their burnt sandy color almost camouflages the shell creatures within the sand as they move among the bananas: this fruit is their feast now. A large gold-yellow shipping crate sits centered, mid plane and suggests this feast was intended for human beings. But now shipwrecked, the looming crate sits stuck in sand, broken with an horizontal fracture at its side, with its goods—the tropical fruit from elsewhere—spilled in this location where the sand meets the sea. Something has broken this crate, this beast, this large, heavy symbol of global trade and consumerism. In the distance, three other crates meet worse fates. They, too, are even more stuck in the low-tide beach, almost submerged in the damp, dense, heavy sand water. They, too, are broken with cracks that empty out their contents: more green bananas. Hundreds of the green bunches line the sand as it turns into the sea. Some bananas have a hint of ripeness—a hint of yellow—that echoes the yellow color of the crate, and hints at the global processes, and people, that have imperfectly brought these goods from someplace else to here.

I viewed Untitled 3, 2017 (acrylic and mixed media on oil canvas) last month as part of Collapse: Recent works by Dewey Crumpler at the Hedreen Gallery in Seattle, WA. Dewey Crumpler is a Bay Area-based artist and Associate Professor of Painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. A description for the show reads:

Collapse considers the beauty and terror of financial systems and their ecological, social, and aesthetic impacts. These works take on the disturbances of potential catastrophe, rendering the container as the locus of awe, wonder, destruction, and fear. In these works, Crumpler asks us to consider how goods transported globally via ships and ports might open up other histories of destruction and creation. By citing aesthetic practices that range from religious iconography to dreamscapes of ruin, Crumpler lays bare the connective tissues between past, present, and impending futures of collapse.

The shipping crate centers all works in the show; the crate acts as a concrete signifier of port urbanism and an abstract lens to the processes and aesthetics of global capitalist processes and of blackness. To learn more about the exhibit, I spoke with its guest curator, Sampada Aranke, Assistant Professor in the Art History, Theory, Criticism Department at the School of the Art Institute, Chicago.

Dewey Crumpler, Untitled 1-5, 2017, installed at Hedreen Gallery, Seattle, WA. Photo by Yosef Chaim Kalinko, Seattle University.

JASMINE MAHMOUD: A main motif throughout the exhibition is the shipping crate. In Untitled 3, the gold yellow crate sits centered, midplane and endlessly surrounded by unripe green bananas. In Untitled 4, stacks of crates in red, green, purple, yellow, blue, grey—stacks that appear like rectangular bunches of yarn—sit piled in rows in a ship sinking a stormy sea. And in Untitled 5, perhaps an aftermath of the previous work, crates of blue, orange, and brown splash and sink (and perhaps float) into the sea. How does the motif of the crate dialogue with urban, spatial, and geographic claims that Dewey Crumpler makes in his work?

SAMPADA ARANKE: I call the show Collapse, and the series actually doesn’t have a unifying title or a kind of gathering conceptual umbrella except for the crates that keep coming up. That really comes up with Dewey … taking these walks along the bayfront in Oakland and Berkeley, and the port being this really dominant place. Dewey writ large has always been … he’s within the Black Radical Tradition, he’s has a really engaged critique of capital and of commodification, and that’s been a vibrant tenor in his work for years.

These crates, for me, the reason why they’re so compelling when I first saw them is they’re an immediate signifier, they mobilize a very vibrant, understanding: we know what it is. But they also, in different paintings, vary in their legibility. Some, in the bananas Untitled piece, it’s very clear what we’re looking at. And then in the gold foil pieces, it’s a little bit more abstract.

Dewey Crumpler, Untitled 1 (2017). Photo by Yosef Chaim Kalinko, Seattle University.

I think that really does characterize how, in these works, I think Dewey is making certain kinds of claims around place and placelessness, groundedness, the ways that global financial systems and the moving of goods; the commodification of pleasure, desire, and food systems—these big, systemic questions, how all of these questions actually rely on a force of transport. We could ship bananas, which we can’t grow in a particular place, to places that can’t grow them.

In terms of geography, in terms of the question of place, I think Dewey’s always been kind of concerned with groundedness and placefulness or placelessness in his work, and this is a way that those two interests around capital and place come together.

The container becomes a mobilizing factor for both of those things. On the one hand, it’s an object that is meant for stacking and carrying and transportability. One shipping port in San Francisco has the same system for packaging and moving goods as a shipping port in Los Angeles. The container is the thing that everything is organized around. It brings a real sense of consistency. On the other hand, the container is this portable fluid object that can move with ease globally. I think that kind of ambiguousness about the container is precisely why it is such a rich motif, a rich subject in all of these works.

MAHMOUD: That’s great. Tell me about your curatorial process. How did you come upon Dewey Crumpler’s work and decide to curate this exhibition? What aspect did you focus on in your curatorial process?

ARANKE: I had the pleasure of working with Dewey when I was at the San Francisco Art Institute. I’d come across Dewey’s work actually because I started to take on a research project that was thinking about Black West Coast Abstraction, particularly American. Right before I got the job at the San Francisco Art Institute in 2014, and I was eager to work with Dewey. Dewey came up in the 1960s and 70s with figures like Raymond Saudners and Jay DeFeo (who isn’t Black). I was thinking about this milieu in the Bay Area, mostly painters and some sculptors in the 70s and 80s. It really struck me that there wasn’t a lot written about Dewey.

So when I went to the Art Institute, Dewey and I became fast friends also because we were both … He is incredibly well-read, incredibly well-versed in the very kinds of aesthetic questions, cultural theories, theories of capital. With Cedric Robinson and his call to Black Radical Tradition really loosely, we had these conversations that just kind of were so seamlessly enfolded in what he was doing.

I asked him to give this artist talk for this event I was doing on campus, and he gets kind of shy about presenting his work in that way. He was like, “I have some new work, can I add that in?” I was like, “Of course.” I remember seeing this new work and just asking Dewey, “What the fuck is this? This incredible work!” It was incredible and he was just doing it in his studio, he’s just so dedicated to making the work.

When I saw this work, I started talking to him about it because it’s so striking and yet it’s still compositionally and formally … it makes sense in relation to his broader practice. I became really interested in an artist who has dedicated his entire life and practice teaching at an art school, continuing to make work, and now kind of switching up the game in terms of his practice, really working right at the intersection of abstraction and figuration. Whereas before, so much of his work was really working in abstraction more clearly for the audience. I think Dewey would probably push against that, but I think that’s my assessment. We’d built this trust between us, and I was like, “Dewey, I want to curate this show!”

Dewey Crumpler, Untitled 4 (2017). Photo by Yosef Chaim Kalinko, Seattle University.

By the time I started doing the research process around this—talking to Dewey, doing studio visits, looking at some kind of major questions that come up globalization in the early 2000s throughout the idea of a fourth iteration of global market systems—I couldn’t get Dewey’s work out of my head.

So when Molly Mac called me and was like, “I just got this position at the Hadreen here in Seattle and it’s the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party” because that’s my area, she was like, “I just wanted to know if you had any ideas about shows that you might want to do here?” I was like, “Ding ding ding,” because Dewey also has this really incredible political history, where he was in conversations with Emory Douglas and the Black Panthers, but of course he worked in abstraction and he didn’t want to follow the revolutionary representational mandate. He’s made all these murals all around the Bay area, he was a social realist muralist, and I was like, “He’s the perfect kind of figure, and the perfect person.”

I’m also interested in a late career artist, somebody who’s making work, continuing to do work in a consistent way. So all three of those things really converged around these works for me. So in terms of what aspect I focused on, I really thought a lot about this critique of capital that keeps emerging in these paintings, but also the use of religious iconography, the humor and playfulness that’s operating, and of course the question for me that’s always going on in the back of my mind is, “This is a kind of Black aesthetic critique that’s being mobilized, and yet in these works, Blackness as we’re used to seeing it isn’t in the foreground.” To me, it just made the most sense.

MAHMOUD: This is brilliant. I’m curious, you talked about West Coast Black abstraction. I’m curious how you’re thinking about Dewey Crumpler’s work in dialogue with his geography, as Black artist who grew up and continues to live in the Bay Area?

ARANKE: Dewey was born and raised … He’s lived his entire life in the Bay Area. He has been in the Art Institute for I think close to 30 years. He’s at the Art Institute, he got his MFA at Mills [College in Oakland, CA] and worked with Jay DeFeo. Actually she was like, “You should come to Mills, get your MFA,” which is incredible. He has continued to make work in the Bay in a way that’s really remarkable. I was so humbled when I first got an invitation by Dewey to do a studio visit with him, and the amount of work that he has is just illustrious.

Dewey Crumpler, Untitled 2 (2017). Photo by Yosef Chaim Kalinko, Seattle University.

The Bay is always in his person. It comes out in the work, but I do think that his latest fleet of work really does imbed the Bay Area in the DNA of the work in a different way, and so much of that I think is about Dewey’s … like I said, he would do these walks along the port, and see these shipping containers come in and out, and became particularly interested in the way that was shaping his relationships to the walk, to these meditative zones that are supposed to be about taking in nature and enjoying the stunning views of the Bay. It’s in the shadows, these giant cranes. And that really does make its way into the work. I think not just with the local of the container, but also the idea of these goods that are spilling out on these landscapes, or the making of these landscapes that are stunning and they’re just overflowing with these objects.

MAHMOUD: I am curious about this show in Seattle: the city has become so expensive and many dialogue the high cost of living with the political economy of Amazon and other corporations headquartered in the area including Microsoft, Starbucks, and Boeing. I have been thinking about Seattle as this late capitalist, neoliberal, even austere city with so much wealth and also so much unaffordability and homelessness. How did you think about this show in dialogue with the city of Seattle and the political economy and other global networks that take place in Seattle?

ARANKE: That’s a great question. What’s interesting for me is, I lived in the Bay before I moved to Chicago, I lived in the Bay for about nine years. And during that time, everybody is always … the word on the tip of their tongue is gentrification. Another word on the tip of their tongue is tech, or the Google bus, or the work campus, or whatever the thing is. That makes me very sensitive, not only to your own financial precarity, but also the ways that that dominates the cultural atmosphere. There’s all these ways that every cultural institution in the Bay is trying to feed after Facebook, or Google: invest in us, give us money, invest in artists. There’s a disconnect there, it’s not happening. Tech people don’t want to give money to artists. I don’t know else how to say it. They want to spend $500 on their meal.

I’ve always had a little bit of a cynical, at best you could call it a pseudo-feminist Marxist critique, at worst you can call it a cynicism. I’ve always been kind of cynical about the relationship between these big giant global corporations, and the way that they acculturate, not to be ironic, but the way that they acculturate or don’t to local places that they’re in, and how cultural institutions should re-think how we posit value, and the kinds of ways that we make critiques.

In terms of Seattle, what became really interesting for me is the way that that conversation that I was having today was totally vibrant and happening, has been happening in Seattle for a long time, too. It was a perfect pairing to put this—what I think can be read as a Bay Area conversation—into a context where it’s so relevant. But I think that it’s also a bigger vision for me that I’ve been thinking about with this show, in an ideal sense, I would love to travel it to all port cities on the West Coast that are facing similar things. Seattle, to me, was a tipping … the perfect first place for the show, and I would love to see it go to Portland, I’d love to see it go to the Bay, I’d love to see it go to Los Angeles, because there is something about port cities as—

MAHMOUD: —even Vancouver [BC].   

ARANKE: Totally. The content of this show is modeling the ways in which these questions are so urgent and relevant, and yet so familiar. You can actually drag that history all the way back to a post-WWII moment, and having to relocate this port relationship to the economy, to shift it from a war-time economy towards a goods place economy. I think Dewey’s work really shines the light on the way that that shift is indicative of all the things that we’re living with now.

MAHMOUD: I’d love to hear more about your own research. How does your work engage with urbanism and with geography, especially in dialogue with how you think about and think through Black aesthetics?

ARANKE: It’s a great exercise for me to think about. I focus on post-1960s Black American art. I’m thinking specifically of the intersection between abstraction and figuration in re-shaping and re-thinking the political. I think there’s such a way that in my own work, I take the question of place for granted, but in some ways I’m really trying to reconfigure that.

Dewey Crumpler, Untitled 5, Untitled 1 2017, installed at Hedreen Gallery, Seattle, WA. Photo by Yosef Chaim Kalinko, Seattle University.

I’m working on this project right now on David Hammond … He did this performance in 1981 where he pissed on a Richard Serra sculpture in New York City. I’ve been thinking about that work as a kind of intervention around place and placelessness. That being this very deeply embedded Black American critique. By activating an abject, corporeal relationship to this monument, I think that what Hammond is getting us to—and Glenn Ligon has really opened the door in a lot of ways in his writing about Hammond—getting us to re-think how we consider bodily proximity in relation to Blackness, and how that is very much entrenched in relationship placelessness.

That’s one area where I’m really dipping my toe in to see what that relationship might be, and really devoting myself to becoming a student of people like Katherine McKittrick, Rashad Shabazz, and Kemi Adeyemi who’s working on this in such a radically incredible and imaginative way. I feel like I’m just dipping a tiny little bit of my toe into it.

MAHMOUD I think that’s really rich is how you conceptualize Black aesthetics in dialogue with these questions of place. In some ways, you might not directly be thinking about urbanism or placelessness, but your focus on aesthetics gives us a different way to think about place, if that makes sense.

ARANKE: That’s really humbling.

**

COLLAPSE: Recent Works by Dewey Crumpler Guest Curated by Sampada Aranke runs March 15, 2018 to May 19, 2018 at The Hedreen Gallery in Seattle, WA.

On April 12, 2018, the following event will take place: COLLAPSE in conversation with Dewey Crumpler and Sampada Aranke at Seattle University. Public Conversation 6:30-8pm, Publication Release Reception 8-9:30pm. In collaboration with Capitol Hill Art Walk. Visit the gallery’s website for more information.

‘Priced Out,’ ‘Erased,’ and ‘Eminent Domain’: Voices from Portland, Kansas City, and Saint Louis – Part Two

How do we best document those displaced by pernicious, dehumanizing forms of urbanism?

In October, I attended “We Lived Here!,” a panel at the Griot Museum featuring residents—all black women—displaced by processes of eminent domain in St. Louis, MO and Kansas City, MO. As detailed in this previous post, each described eminent domain as an ugly, hurtful, demeaning process used as the reason to take her home and displace her mostly black neighborhood and as a tool for economic development that only benefited a few.

Image from “Eminent Domain/Displaced” exhibit at the Griot Museum, curated by Lois Conley and Matt Rahner.

The panel took place as part of events for the “Eminent Domain/Displaced” exhibit at the Griot Museum of Black History. Described on the Griot’s website, the exhibit is a:

[m]ulti-media installation of place, portraiture, landscape, and appropriated space that explores how the use of eminent domain contributed to the disappearance of three Missouri communities: Wendell-Phillips (Kansas City), Mill Creek Valley, and St. Louis Place (St. Louis). Salvaged objects, oral interviews, archival materials, photographs and more explore the impact of displacement.

Matt Rahner, a photographer and Assistant Professor of Art at Missouri Valley College, and Lois Conley, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of The Griot Museum, curated the exhibit. Conley’s own history and the museum’s location only amplify the exhibit’s meanings. Conley “was a teenager when her parents lost their Mill Creek neighborhood home to eminent domain. A portion of her former backyard became Market Street after the city leveled the area in the name of progress.” The Griot Museum “sits across the street from the site of the future National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, in a demolished area that was part of the St. Louis Place neighborhood.” (The above two quotes are from an interview with Lois Conley about the exhibit, found here.)

Image from “Eminent Domain/Displaced” exhibit at the Griot, curated by Lois Conley and Matt Rahner.

How do we best document those displaced by pernicious, dehumanizing forms of urbanism? I talked the exhibit’s co-curator, Matt Rahner, for more about creating work that documents deleterious urbanization.

Jasmine Mahmoud: How did you begin putting together this exhibit and photographing displaced neighborhoods?

Matt Rahner: I’ve always been a documentary photographer and as an artist I’ve always been interested in real world things. In August of 2012 I read an article in The Pitch [free alternative weekly newspaper of Kansas City] about eminent domain and the city’s plan to tear down the neighborhood of Wendell-Phillips and replace it with a new police station and crime lab. The article grabbed my attention, and I became interested in the process, the neighborhood, and the residents.

The article raised more questions than answers, so I decided to contact Ameena Powell, who was mentioned in The Pitch story. Ameena became a central figure in my series, and was integral to making the work. One of the most important photographs from my series, Eminent Domain, is a photo of Ameena on the steps of the Jackson County Courthouse. She had just left the courtroom where her home was condemned by the city, as one of the final steps in the Eminent Domain process. Ameena stands in front of the courthouse with bags of paperwork, defiant in the face of a city that has forcibly, yet legally, made her move from her home. The city had decided this was going to happen, and there was really nothing Ameena could do other than fight for more just compensation for her home. Her goal was to save her house, but everything was stacked against her. There really was no way she could have done that.

Ameena Powell standing on the steps of the Jackson County Court House after her condemnation hearing in 2012. Credit: Matt Rahner.

JM: What other subjects have you documented in your photography?

MR: Eminent Domain was my Masters of Fine Arts thesis project. Before that I was just a photographer of the world. I had documented people who stay on the side of highway exits holding signs and got to know their stories. However, Eminent Domain was my first real in depth documentary project.

JM: How did you meet the residents of St. Louis?

MR: I was connected with Lois [Conley] at the Griot through Robert Powell who owns Portfolio Gallery in St. Louis. Robert is actually the uncle of Ameena [Powell] so Ameena contacted Robert and said “hey, Matt just made this project, I don’t know if you’re interested in it or if you know somebody who is.” It just so happened that Lois had gone through eminent domain herself growing up in the Mill Creek Valley neighborhood. On top of that, her museum, the Griot Museum sits right on the border of the NGA site. Lois had been wanting to do a project on eminent domain herself, and it seemed quite pertinent and a great time to bring our two projects together. Her project Displaced and my project. 

JM: What were you trying to communicate in the exhibit?

MR: In the photographs I wanted to communicate how the residents felt about the process of eminent domain because they didn’t have a choice in the matter and they had to move. They had to leave behind a house they’d lived in for 50 years.

My photographs aim to communicate the way the residents felt. Their reaction to eminent domain. As I took the photographs my camera became a stand in for the city and their presence in the photograph was more a reaction to the city. There are definitely pictures of defiance but also I was trying to give the residents a voice, give them agency over the situation … because no one really listened to what they wanted or to how they would have liked to see things handled differently.

A note scrawled inside an upstairs closet in a home of a long-time resident of Wendell-Phillips. 2012. Credit: Matt Rahner.

And with the exhibit my goal was to transform the space of the white wall gallery into a homelike space. I wanted to create an intimate environment where my photographs could reside on the wall with objects from the homes and neighborhood. I decided to recreate wallpaper that I had found in one of the homes and use it to transform the space of the show. On top of the wallpaper, I hung my photos as well as found paintings and prints that came from Wendell-Phillips.

I used objects that were left behind, and I was never sure why they were left behind. Some of them were damaged beyond repair and I could understand why people threw those away. But the objects allowed me to access the past and to understand the neighborhood better than I could have in the time that I was there.

For example, one of the main found sculptures in the show is a pile of bricks that came from one of the homes after it had been demolished. I chose to bring the bricks into the gallery space to speak to my experience of watching this place be torn apart. As I was documenting Wendell-Phillips, it was a common sight to go back to the neighborhood and find a new house had been torn down, until eventually all of the homes were razed. The pile of bricks in the gallery represents the essence of these homes and the devastation brought onto this neighborhood by the city. The bricks are physically in the space, and you have to walk around them, you have to bear witness in your own way and have your own experience of this place. The bricks on the floor relate to the photographs on the wall, so they tie together the past and the present.

As I organized the plethora of objects I had collected, I realized there were specific arrangements that became more potent than my photographs in terms of communicating the story of the neighborhood. I arranged the objects for the viewers of the show to be astute and to pay attention to the clues hidden within the arrangements. My hope is that viewers saw the connections between the objects and how they can describe a larger narrative of the history of Kansas City and this place in particular.

JM: What were some of those objects that were more potent than the photographs?

MR: The family photographs that I found were really potent. I was an outsider going into this neighborhood as it wasn’t my neighborhood, so I was really respectful of that. My photographs were from my point of view, as an outsider, but the family photos come from a different place. They are insider views on people’s lives, and something I wasn’t able to access as a documentarian.

Found object assemblages installed in the exhibit Eminent Domain. Credit: Matt Rahner.

Many of the items in the exhibit were given to me. One resident’s family lent me this incredible document that goes back into the 1800s that shows every transition of ownership on their land and house. It’s an incredible object, visually, and the history of the neighborhood can be read in the creases and folds of this document. It’s powerful that way.

In the show I wanted to draw comparisons between the treatment of this neighborhood and the history of the United States. Obviously Native Americans were here first and were pushed out by settlers. From day one in America there is a history of taking, and systemic racist ideology. These practices have been perpetuated in urban America, and continue to happen in cities like Kansas City and St. Louis. Practices of redlining, block busting, white flight, and racially restrictive covenants have left negative effects on cities and neighborhoods. I believe that this particular eminent domain project is an extension of systemic racism, it was an extension of all of these things that had been in place since our country was founded. I wanted to talk about this in the show, and I used the objects to tell that story. Specifically, I used a print of Jesus on the cross, hung next to a velvet painting of a Native American Indian. Each story (of Christ and Native Americans) deals with taking. Interestingly, in the print of Jesus, his wounds are visible on his torso, hands and feet, and on the painting I found of the Native American the velvet canvas was pierced and had holes in the figures torso, hands and feet. I put these two pieces in the show to specifically raise the question of power and authority, and of who is able to “take” from whom. Often it is the powerful wielding influence and taking from the powerless. I saw this correlation in the history of the neighborhood up to the use of eminent domain.

A found velvet painting of a Native American, installed in the exhibit Eminent Domain. The wall paper the painting hangs on is recreated from one of the homes within Wendell-Phillips. Credit: Matt Rahner.

A found print of Jesus Christ on the cross, surrounded by two angels. This print was found hanging on a wall in a home in Wendell-Phillips. Credit: Matt Rahner.

JM: Did anything surprise you while putting together this project and/or once it was displayed?

MR: I think the surprise came when I had everything in the gallery, and I was like wow, the installation, with my photographs and the found object felt complete. That was actually a surprise for me. I’ve been surprised as well by how Eminent Domain has resonated with people. My goal was to tell “A” story of the neighborhood and not to write “THE” history. I wanted to tell the story of eminent domain in a compelling way and hoped that people connected with it, which I think they have.

While making the work, one thing that was more appalling than surprising was that the city handed out these bricks at the groundbreaking that were brand new and had silver plaques on them with the inscription, “Kansas City: rebuilding our city one brick at a time.” It was such a tone-deaf and disingenuous gesture that ignored the history and relevance of the neighborhood. It was totally opposite of what the city had done, because in reality they had torn the city down one brick at a time. Now, these city employees and contractors have these bricks in their homes or offices as a sort of trophy for destroying this neighborhood. Luckily, for posterity, I was able to secure one of these bricks, and I display it in the exhibition to serve as a reminder of the city’s complicity in the process.

JM: At the event, I remember that many were so depressed after hearing the residents’ stories. They asked, “what can we do? It seems like we can’t do anything.” Do you have thoughts about what we as citizens can do to either stop eminent domain or make more equitable neighborhood change?

MR: That’s a great question. First of all, I think understanding the history of the place you live is really helpful, understanding how our cities are formed, developed and redeveloped. Some people are aware of racially restrictive codes and redlining … but for the most part people aren’t aware of those ideas. So understanding this history. … Places that are chosen for eminent domain have usually struggled and I think for neighborhoods it’s helpful to be organized and have neighborhood organizations that have a plan for their own development. Also, I think it’s important to document the place and create projects in the neighborhoods, whether that be art making projects, creating written histories, or visual documentations. Neighborhood leaders can create asset lists of the neighborhoods and document those things now so that when the city does come up and say, “We want to do this project here,” the neighborhoods can say, “NO, there are all of these important cultural markers in our neighborhood that we think are important.”

Found object assemblages installed in the exhibit Eminent Domain. Credit: Matt Rahner.

Found object assemblages installed in the exhibit Eminent Domain. Credit: Matt Rahner.

In Wendell-Phillips many residents felt that the city never cared enough to ask them (the residents) what they thought the City should do to spur economic growth or to curb crime, and that’s too bad because I think the residents had a lot of great ideas, and tearing down the neighborhood wasn’t one of them. The city, however, had their “reasons” for taking the neighborhood, and perversely, one of the more prominent ideas they pushed was that it was going to help the surrounding neighborhoods. They tried to sell the idea that this re-development would help the residents. This kind of faulty logic is on the city, and the effects are yet to be seen. Many residents wished the city would be more involved with the neighborhoods and listen to their feedback.

JM: Are there any other thoughts you have about this project?

I think it’s important for artists everywhere to be involved in their communities … if not making work about these topics, then to at least get involved in some way, whether joining associations or attending city council meetings. I don’t feel like I can measure in any qualitative way what my project has done, but I feel like it has helped raise awareness on these issues. Other professionals are working in their respective fields to raise awareness and create change. It takes multiple perspectives and multiple people to create change, and it can’t be just one person. There are strength in numbers.

‘Priced Out,’ ‘Erased,’ and ‘Eminent Domain’: Voices from Portland, Kansas City, and Saint Louis — Part One

“We found that the city had used whatever tactic … to take [our] home. The blight study led to condemnation. Condemnation opens the door for eminent domain. By the time we were aware that our properties had been audited, eminent domain was just inevitable. … Because our memories, our homes, our neighborhood, the people that we are, the people that we saw every day, mattered not to the city. The city used us as a way to bring economic development and all they saw were dollar signs. They couldn’t care less about the fact that we had people in the neighborhood that were upwards of 75 and 80 years old, who had never lived in any other home in their adult life.”

-Sheila Rendon, displaced St. Louis Place resident

Ameena Powell (standing), and Sheila Rendon (seated at far right), panelists at the “We Lived Here!” panel, October 7, 2017 at the Griot Museum in St. Louis, MO

Earlier this month, I moderated “The Politics of Gentrification and Displacement, from Portland, Oregon, to St. Louis, Missouri,” a panel at the St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF). The panel screened two films. The first, Displaced and Erased (2016), is a short feature (which you can watch here) about the mid-20th century displacement of a thriving black community from what is now downtown Clayton, MO. Where there used to be black homes, churches, and schools, there are now four-star business hotels, restaurants, and parking garages that cater to mostly white clientele. These changes came because officials in Clayton, the St. Louis County suburb adjacent to St. Louis City, systematically implemented policies to displace black people, by erasing black homes and gathering spaces. Emma Riley, a white filmmaker who was born and raised in Clayton, directed and produced the film after learning about the displacement from her black high school teachers.

The second film Priced Out (2017) documents early 21st century gentrification and displacement in Albina, Portland, a once thriving black area of Northeast Portland that endured 20th century practices of redlining and divestment, and later late 20th century and early 21st century investment and displacement/gentrification. The documentary film follows Nikki Williams, described on film’s website as “a black single mother who once embraced the idea of gentrification. A decade and a half later she found herself torn between feelings of grief for her community and the economic opportunities that come from rising home prices.” The film’s director Cornelius Swart first met Williams in the late 1990s while making NorthEast Passage (2002), a documentary film that chronicled how Williams worked to clean up her neighborhood from drug dealers and abandoned buildings; at the time Williams celebrated gentrification as a process to further “clean up” her neighborhood. Priced Out chronicles Williams over a decade later when, according to the website for the film, “she realized she was one of the last black people on her street. While Nikki wanted to see the neighborhood fixed up, she never thought ‘they would kick everybody out, fix it up, and tell everyone they can’t come back.’ The catch is, Nikki is a homeowner, now caught between the loss of her community and the opportunity to sell her home and achieve economic freedom for the first time in her life.”

Scenes from Priced Out: Nikki Williams in 2013, when she realized that the black community in her neighborhood had been “obliterated” by gentrification. Image from pricedoutmovie.com.

Both films poignantly depict how the particular processes that displace and erase marginalized communities–and in these cases processes that displace black people and black neighborhoods–contribute to logics that naturalize gentrification. Priced Out also particularly shows the how the aesthetics and young, white demographics of gentrifying coffee shops (and I’m thinking about the recent controversy in Denver with its “happily gentrifying” coffee shop) and apartments act as violent signifiers to long-term, often non-white residents—who often also being displaced by huge rent hikes—that they are no longer welcome in their neighborhood.

While moderating, I gave genealogy of the word gentrification. As many readers of this blog know, in 1964, British sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term gentrification to describe what she observed in the London neighborhood of Islington. She wrote:

The social status of many residential areas is being ‘uplifted’ as the middle class—or the ‘gentry’—moved into working-class space, taking up residence, opening businesses, and lobbying for infrastructure improvements.

One by one, many of the working class quarters have been invaded by the middle class. Once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district it goes on rapidly until all or most of the working class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed

Even her description included a warning about the process. She also wrote:

There has been a great deal of displacement. All those who cannot hold their own—the small enterprises, the lower ranks of people, the odd men out—are being pushed away.

Since Glass coined the term, gentrification has been used by scholars to capture a set of processes that produce a pernicious type of neighborhood change. In his 1996 book, The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the revanchist City, Marxist geographer Neil Smith defines it as a “process … by which poor and working-class neighborhoods in the inner city are refurbished via an influx of private capital and middle-class homebuyers and renters—neighborhoods that had previously experienced disinvestment and a middle-class exodus” (30).

Gentrification as a process is almost always associated with racialization and displacement. As such, it follows broader genealogies of geographic and urban change in the United States that relied upon policy to produce those racialzied changes. These include the westward settling of the frontier, which relied upon legislation to mark Native American lands as an empty in states like Oregon, which, as Priced Out documented, also used policy, specifically black exclusion laws, to prevent black settlers. This includes redlining efforts that not only racially segregated neighborhoods, but that also produced wealth for white homeowners, and dispossession for black residents. And this includes displacement of black people and destruction of often black neighborhoods: not just downtown Clayton, but also in St. Louis Mill Creek Valley in the 1950s, Pruitt-Igoe in the 1970s, Laclede Town in the 1980s, and most recently St. Louis Place where in 2017, 212 black homeowners were displaced for the new NGA site.

For those living in Albina, Portland in the 1990s and 2000s or downtown Clayton in the 1960s, or St. Louis Place in the last decade, gentrification is not just an academic term that captures a process; it is also describes lived, often nefarious experience of disorienting neighborhood change. Michelle Lewis, a protagonist in Swart’s film, says gentrification is “pain, loss, and grief.”

While moderating, I asked our panelists (Priced Out director Cornelius Swart, as well as Peter Benson and Kedron Thomas, both professors of anthropology at Washington University): what can we do? What can we do to prevent displacement and produce more equitable cities? Actions by activists captured in Priced Out suggested some solutions: ending no fault evictions (which are currently legal in Oregon), implementing rent control, enforcing affordable housing provisions in tax incentives (often ignored by developers), and giving those displaced a first “right to return” to newer developments. Cornelius Swart also floated the idea that displaced residents, especially those displaced by city practices meant solely to extract profit, should sue the city.

I felt much more hopeless a month earlier while an attendee at “We Lived Here!” An October 2017 panel at the installation Eminent Domain/Displaced at the Griot Museum in St. Louis (more on this in a following post), “We Lived Here!: A Community Panel” featured residents from St. Louis and Kansas City displaced by practices of eminent domain including Ameena Powell, Sheila Rendon, Charlesetta Taylor, Ruth Marie Johnson Edmonds, Vivian Gibson, and Patricia Lee. All residents on the panel were black women; some had been displaced multiple times from both Mill Creek Valley, the thriving black community in St. Louis demolished in the early 1950s, and more recently in 2017 from St. Louis Place, the mostly black neighborhood in North St. Louis City, of which city officials seized 97 acres by eminent domain for the National Geospatial Agency (NGA).

Eminent domain often connotes the state acquiring private property for public use to build parks or transportation. But the panel implicitly queried these ostensible benefits by asking: what does it mean when eminent domain—ostensibly meant for public good—is to used to displace black communities and bring profit to only a few stakeholders? (Panel moderator Maggie Garb, Professor of History at Washington University, recently wrote a salient post about the history and practices of eminent domain.) The stories offered at “We Lived Here!” revealed a pernicious, ugly side to eminent domain, especially when directed towards black residents who, despite efforts to engage with local officials, were left ignored, displaced, and erased. At the very least, one thing we can do is document their voices and stories. So in the reminder I include excerpts from two of the panelists of “We Lived Here!”

Sheila Rendon, St. Louis (displaced from the St. Louis Place neighborhood in 2017)

My home was taken for the NGA Project. We fought hard. We understood probably in the 1970s, there was a move against our neighborhood. We saw businesses leaving, we saw institutions closing, we saw offers being made to homeowners to buy their living costs to leave the neighborhood. Within about 1998, there was the last of the residents here and there was an active move from several businesses to buy up our neighborhood. But we still wanted to reach out to these entities thinking that there was a development coming that would include us.

We understood in roughly about 2007 that the neighborhood was being taken, finally taken. Not developed. My house was built in 1865, and the blight study read that our property was outdated, an eyesore, unsafe, unsanitary. Which none of those things were true.

We found that the city had used whatever tactic in order to take your home. The blight study led to condemnation. Condemnation opens the door for eminent domain. By the time we were aware that our properties had been audited, eminent domain was just inevitable. … Because our memories, our homes, our neighborhood, the people that we are, the people that we saw every day, mattered not to the city. The city used us as a way to bring economic development and all they saw were dollar signs. They couldn’t care less about the fact that we had people in the neighborhood that were upwards of 75 and 80 years old, who had never lived in any other home in their adult life. They couldn’t care less about the fact that my children were in high school … they started since they were in kindergarten.

So to the fight that is Mill Creek, St Louis Place, and others in the future, will be from the very beginning. When there is talk about the development of your communities, you have to be there from day one. Because development is not always for you, sometimes it’s against you, and the very last tool that they will use is eminent domain. So do not fear it, it’s not something that you should fear, it’s something that you fight. And you fight to the very, very end. My husband and I were the very last people in our community and we fought. My husband starved himself for 30 days on a public forum from the transition from winter to spring, sleeping in tents, the struggle was real.

One thing I will leave you guys with, with the idea that, Mill Creek Valley happened and St Louis Place happened, is that it can happen to you and if you are not diligent, and you do not go to the meetings, if you do not confront your elected officials, it will happen to you. And you will be on the stage as we are today talking about what happened to our neighborhood. Don’t let that happen to you.

Ameena Powell, Kansas City, MO (displaced from the Wendell-Phillips neighborhood in 2013)

Who was Wendell Phillips? Wendell Phillips was a white man, who was a court attorney, he was a writer, a poet, and he left a good law practice on the east coast, and he gave up that practice to become an abolitionist for slavery. And so that’s how our neighborhood got the name Wendell-Philips. Some of the famous people that lived in our neighborhood…. There was movie called the Great Debaters. It’s about a gentleman named Melvin Tolson and how he took the debate team all the way to national championships. … He grew up in the neighborhood. He graduated from Lincoln High School, which is still one of the top performing high schools in the country. Virgil Thomas [wa]s a Harvard graduate of music and … a composer. … Charlie Parker, the famous saxophonist, grew up in our neighborhood.

About the community, like a lot of the people say about Mill Creek, this is a neighborhood where people lived and they stayed. So my grandmother bought her house in 1943, she had all her children out of that house. Her children now live in that house and they’re now in their 70s and 60s. And that house will be knocked [down] as well. So we’ve got 72 years of history, at least 72 years of history, in that one house.

I bought my house in 2007. I was thirty years old. I paid $10,000 for that house. It was a fixer upper but I was proud to own a fixer upper. I came back from holiday and said, “This is where I want to spend the rest of my life.” So I paid for the property, and it was probably the most exciting day of my life.

I got the notice in about 2011 that we were going to be displaced. Unlike a lot of the things that have happened to the people here, there was no planning for any of this. In our city, we have a city planning commission, and development has to go through the city planning commission before it can be implemented. So there has to be: these notices have to be posted. They weren’t. This is October 2013, we got our notices and were sued in court, well before this.

Chapter 5.23 requires you to give notice to a homeowner before you partake or undertake an eminent domain action. And that just didn’t happen. … The powers that be will get their way regardless of how illegal, nefarious or … criminal it can be. They will get what they want and so in 2013 … the city, after I lost my appeal in court, the city decided, whoops, this is them. So when I filed my appeal in court, they wanted to go ahead and tear down the buildings. Now this house [next to Powell’s] had been vacant for months and they were supposed to be tearing down the houses in order of the sale. … But they tore mine down so they could have an argument in court to say that the building is torn down, you don’t really have anything to fight for. So that is my experience with eminent domain.

At the very least we–those of us invested in building equitable neighborhoods and protecting those made vulnerable by destructive urbanization–can collect their voices and stories.

An anti-racist right to (protest in) the city: voices and thoughts from St. Louis

Photo by Kierstan Carter

Last night, St. Louis City police officers arrested 126 protestors. These arrests came after previous ones last Friday, September 29, including the arrest of faith leader Rev. Darryl Gray, who police threw to the ground, pepper-strayed, and arrested. These also arrests came after police arrested 22 people on Saturday, September 23, during protests in the St. Louis Galleria, the local St. Louis County mall. Those arrested at the mall included faith leader Rev. Karla Frye (a black grandmother who white male officers–as documented in widely circulated photos–tackled to the ground); many have called those actions by the police, now being investigated by the ACLU, a police riot. These actions also came after police arrested an undercover cop, Air Force officer, medical student, and St. Louis Post Dispatch reporter during the first weekend of protests, on Sunday, September 17, using a tactic called kettling, rounding up a block-length swath of people.

This iteration of protests began September 15, 2017, when a judge ruled that Jason Stockley, former St. Louis police officer who killed Anthony Lamar Smith, was not guilty of first-degree murder. (Stockley elected to have a judge, not a jury, decide his fate: more on the case here). Since the verdict, protesters have marched daily in the city and in the county—in streets, in front of the St. Louis City Police Department, in shopping malls, and in front of St. Louis City and Country jails where some protestors have been detained.

Photo by Kierstan Carter

I asked a few protestors who attended demonstrations to share their thoughts and pictures: they exist in this post (and I thank Kierstan Carter, Jennifer Gallinat, Sabrina Odigie, and Matthew Thompson for sharing these). A question that many protestors get: what are you protesting for? Among a multiplicity of answers–for Black Lives, for racial equity, for juridical and legislative changes to ensure both–another answer comes from No Justice! No Profit! No Justice! No Profit! — a recent rallying cry. Many of have marched and chanted to disrupt economic regimes that contribute to racial injustices too common to many in the region.

There are also questions that embed that query–what are you protesting for?–within the space of the city, especially within the St. Louis region. What urban logics (racist divestment, neoliberalism, austerity) are they protesting against? What urban logics are they protesting for? What kind of city are we protesting for? A right to the city? A right to remember, and push against, racist logics in the city? A right to protest with our bodies in the city? A right to (imagine, fight for, and build) an anti-racist city?  Here are some more questions and thoughts.

What kind of city are we protesting for? A right to remember, and push against, racist logics in the city?

“If you understand 1917, you should have a different understanding of what is happening now.” This Anne Walker, an East St. Louisian historian and Director of Freedom Trails, Legacies of Hope, said last week at “Centennial: Remembering the 1917 East St. Louis Massacre.” The forum, hosted by Washington University in St. Louis, made space to remember what has been long forgotten by many in the region: a century ago, in 1917, East St. Louis endured what many call a “race riot”—what others suggest should be remembered as a pogrom or massacre. According to Mary Delach Leonard:

On July 2-3, 1917, mobs of white people, angered over labor issues, roved through the city, assaulting African-Americans and burning their homes and businesses.

Although the official death toll was 48 — 39 blacks and 9 whites — historians believe more than 100 people died and hundreds were injured, including women and children.

At the forum, I learned of the horrific things the mostly white mob did to black people, including to black women and children: beating and burning them to death. This week, horrified by the massacre in Las Vegas, I am also reminded by many historians that the curious phrasing used for contemporary mass shootings (such as “worst modern mass shooting”) owes itself to what many fail to remember: pre-WWII massacres in the United States. Clear Lake (1850), Sand Creek (1864), Rock Springs (1885), Wounded Knee (1890), East St. Louis (1917), Elaine (1919), Tulsa (1921). These were massacres committed by mostly white mobs who often killed hundreds of Native American, black, and Asian people.

In her 2011 Social & Cultural Geography article, “On plantations, prisons, and a black sense of place,” geographer Katherine McKittrick writes: “A black sense of place draws attention to the longstanding links between blackness and geography. It brings into focus the ways in which racial violences (concrete and epistemic actions and structural patterns intended harm, kill, or coerce a particular grouping of people) shape, but do not wholly define, black worlds” (947). Considering a black sense of place in St. Louis asks us, as East St. Louisan Anne Walker did, to think about connections between the 1917 massacre of black residents in East St. Louis, and the recent protests in St. Louis.

Photo by Matthew Thompson

Protester Sabrina Odigie wrote me:

I attended the protests on Friday and Saturday because I am fed up with black murder, which, to be clear, is different from black death. Despite the love our nation claims to hold for us, it still, time and time again with cases like Anthony Lamar Smith and Kenneka Jenkins and Sandra Bland, proves that it still sees black folk as disposable. Unless we are athletic beasts or musical geniuses, America doesn’t care. I wanted to add my voice to the thousands that agree that all black lives are valuable. I protested to show that change will come, but she won’t be sending invitations. Change will not ask politely for us to make room for it and wait for us to get ready. No one is ever ready for change because change is not comfortable. We must demand it and sacrifice for it. It is not romantic. Change is hard and takes time, energy, and an internal power that some of us don’t know we have. It also starts with the individual, but when enough individuals come together as we did with the protests, the nation doesn’t just watch. It begins to listen.

McKittrick also writes: “these ongoing acts of violence against particular cultures and communities are disturbingly familiar acts; the slain and displaced bodies are (vaguely or distinctly, depending on perspective) reminiscent of those working to death for a plantation economy that thrived on the interlocking workings of violence, black dispossession, and land exploitation” (952). How might today’s protests animate and confront past and present anti-black geographies?

Photo by Matthew Thompson

What kind of city are we protesting for? What can the protesting body do?

Last year my colleague, dance scholar Amanda Graham instructed “Body Moves”; she began the course’s “The Body in Protest” unit, with, as she wrote, “a discussion of the protests currently taking place across the nation and the world.” She provided her class with a list of “what protesting can do,” and also shared this list on Facebook (where I first read it), asking friends add points. Her list included that protest:

– allows for people who have a common issue to gather in public space;
– redefines public space for assembly, dialogue, expression instead of silence, isolation, violence;
– connects people’s hearts, feelings and voices energetically;
– gives us practice in trusting our intuition, collectively;
– interrupts the “normal” way of being in public space when normal is protecting oppressive ways of being.
– is a form of collective communication: shows the national what is concerning locally, and international community solidarity and outrage through media, social media;
– helps those most impacted feel like they have support, a voice, even when state-controlled media, education systems, are silencing/isolating stories of oppression and violence.
– practices a protected right under the constitution: freedom of assembly.
– practices being in solidarity
– is a way to garner masses to for social, political, economic change, a space to envision.

[What else does protest do? Feel free to add thoughts in the comments.]

Photo by Matthew Thompson

Photo by Kierstan Carter

Graham’s class read Susan Leigh Foster’s 2003 Theatre Journal article “Choreographies of Protest.” In the article, Foster, a choreographer and dance scholar, articulates meanings made of protesting bodies. They are as she writes:

a vast reservoir of signs and symbols … capable of both persuasion and obstinate recalcitrance. … At this moment in history when bodies gather primarily at shopping malls and when protest is frequently conducted through the on- line circulation of petitions, I want to argue that this physical interference makes a crucial difference. Approaching the body as articulate matter, I hope to demonstrate the central role that physicality plays in constructing both individual agency and sociality. (395)

Protesting bodies, as Foster suggests, function powerfully as both symbolic and physical, obstinate forces. Her formulation also begs questions: What symbols are put onto differently raced bodies? How do those symbols further the potentials of protests, especially of protests confronting racism?

Photo by Matthew Thompson

Photo by Matthew Thompson

Photo by Kierstan Carter

Jennifer Gallinat, who is white, attended the “White Allies” protest on September 21, 2017. It took place in downtown St. Louis, starting at Kiener Plaza (which faces the Arch and the Old Courthouse, a site that prominently features the story of Dred and Harriet Scott’s life). Protestors then walked a few blocks towards Busch Stadium (baseball field where the Cardinals play), which that evening hosted a Billy Joel concert. “I saw a bunch of white people,” Gallinat first told me about the protest that drew approximately 500 people. She continued:

There were certainly crowds watching us, and there was this moment where, we were chanting “white silence is violence.” … [T]here was just a weird awareness of, when you’re chanting, how words just start to cease having meaning. They just become these syllables or shrieking noises. It’s a ritual of engaging with those in power, and it doesn’t even matter that the words start to become incoherent. But, there’s this, perhaps, an innate human need to express our outrage, our desires, our demands, and it has to be done. It can’t just be an internal dialogue, it has to be witnessed.

Gallinat’s thoughts dialogue with Susan Leigh Foster’s ideas on the power of the protesting body as both symbolic and physical. Gallinat also told me:

There was definitely no riot gear. There was a shit ton of bike cops, but I think every single bike cop in the existence of humanity was there.

Afterwards I went home and watched the news: I’m just very frustrated with the narrative. A quote from Malcolm X had popped up in my Facebook memories about, “If you’re not careful, they’ll have you hating the ones who are oppressed, and loving the ones that do the oppressing.” Even just listening to the newscasters. I feel like protest has become now, this negative word. That’s why I actually try to say “civic demonstration,” representing First Amendment rights. We’re slowly stripping away the Bill of Rights. It’s slowly being stripped from us, and we seem to be just fine and dandy. Even the news, fine and dandy with that. We’re just, we’re accepting it.

The symbolic and physical body is a reminder of the First Amendment right of assembly. But the crowd’s overall whiteness–and how they were treated by the police in contradiction to the racially mixed, predominately black protestors days earlier and later who were often kettled, pepper sprayed, and arrested–further suggests a troubled symbolic power of the raced protesting body. In a St. Louis American article, “Privilege at the protest: ‘White allies’ demonstrate without incident outside of Billy Joel concert at Busch Stadium,” Kenya Vaughn wrote:

It was inspiring, almost breathtaking, to hear hundreds of white people march through downtown St. Louis – on a night where more than 40,000 people, mostly white, came downtown to see Joel– and proclaim that “black lives matter.” But it was just as disheartening, and frustrating, to see what happened – or didn’t happen – as they stood boldly on behalf the injustices that black people endure.

They were free to block the street, free to chant and voice their frustration with systemic racism and police brutality against people of color. And after they were done, they were free to go home. None of the tactics that protestors have been terrorized with since the start of non-stop protests in response to Jason Stockley’s first-degree murder acquittal – or a few years before in Ferguson – were a part of the program.

The irony wasn’t lost on the few black people who stood on the sidelines in support of the white people for black lives. “Man, if we were up there like that, we woulda been pepper sprayed, chased off and arrested by now,” a member of The Lost Voices, a group of protesters from Ferguson, said as the protestors carried on.

Whose bodies have a right to the city?  Whose bodies are given the right to (protest, fight for, and imagine) an anti-racist city? How might we build an anti-racist city with those most excluded from their rights to the city?

Photo by Matthew Thompson

 

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Dividing Lines: a mapping exercise by Sarah Sims

As many of us gear up for teaching in the upcoming (or already upon us) academic year, I wanted to share a mapping exercise. This exercise asks students to consider how their lived experiences dialogue with internal and official maps of the city they live in and engage with conceptions and urban practices of segregation, division, and equity.

I learned of this exercise from Sarah Sims, K-12 Programs Manager at the Missouri History Museum. Sims facilitates teacher professional development, guides museum educators, and leads workshops such as “Summer Teacher Institute about Civil Rights” and “Community as Classroom: Place-Based Education for Social Justice.” I met Sims when my “Urban Ethnography in St. Louis” class toured the museum’s #1 in Civil Rights: The African American Freedom Struggle in St. Louis exhibit (which runs through April 15, 2018). We then used this mapping exercise in a subsequent week.

Having students map, I have a found, provides an inquiry-based awareness of maps as constructed representations of place and space. Who constructs maps and what information is used to make “official” maps, such as google maps, atlas maps, or government-used maps? What information do maps include and exclude? How does one’s own experience in place contribute to internalized views of space? In what ways are maps engines of segregation, dispossession, and division? In what ways might maps be used for equitable outcomes for vulnerable and marginalized communities? These are some questions my students considered before, during, and after they constructed their own maps.

Maps by students Eddie Campell and Dylan Bassett

For this exercise, you’ll need:

-1 sheet of paper per student (larger sizes like 11” by 17” are ideal, and 8.5” by 11” will work)

-7 colored pens/pencils/crayons highlighters per student (or have students share). The following, per student, is ideal:
1 black permanent marker
1 brown pencil, crayon, or pen
1 green pencil, crayon, or pen
1 purple pencil, crayon, or pen
1 blue pencil, crayon, or pen
1 red pencil crayon, or pen
1 yellow/orange pencil, crayon, pen, or highlighter

-(if possible, but not necessary as you can narrate directions), access to AV to present the following steps in slides

Sims’s exercise begins with a slide called “Dividing Lines,” which gives an overview of the significance of this exercise. She writes:

In this activity we will consider maps of our communities
-Not as we see them on google maps, or government maps, or other such official maps.
-But how we internalize the spaces of our community in our minds and memories, and how we live and move in those spaces.
-And how these internal/lived maps contribute to how we conceptualize, talk about, and  compartmentalize our communities.

Next, she frames the exercise:

-You’ll all make your own map
-Fill in as much as you can
-Be as detailed as you can
-We will add different components to our maps in a certain order, so please follow the steps
-This is not an artistic competition!

The seven steps are as follows – they are framed for St. Louis but applicable to any city. Make sure to give time, about 3 to 5 minutes, for each step.

Step 1: City (Black)

“Draw the shape of St. Louis.”

Note: I showed my students a slide of St. Louis to help them draw the shape of the city.

Step 2: Neighborhoods (Brown)

“Fill in as many of the different neighborhoods in the city (or county) as you can.”

“Don’t worry about their exact shape just get the neighborhoods with their spatial relationships to each other as you remember them.”

Step 3: Movement (Green)

“Draw/label the major routes you take to move throughout the city (or county).”

“This could include ways you get to work, to recreational events, to run errands, how you move around your place of residence.”

Step 4: Landmarks (Purple)

“Draw/label the important landmarks and places.”

“Think about what the Travel Chanel would highlight in St. Louis, or what a tourist would want to see.”

Step 5: Favorite Places (Blue)

“Draw/label the places that are important to you: places you go to all the time, and/or places you would recommend an out-of-towner should visit.”

Step 6: Explicit Dividing Lines (Red)

“Draw/label major dividing lines within the city and county that serve to separate areas/groups of people/places/etc. Think about the dividing lines that you hear about on the news, read about online or in books, and/or have experienced.”

Step 7: Implicit Dividing Lines (Yellow/Orange)

“Look at your map and lightly shade in the areas that are mostly blank.”

***

After completing this mapping exercise, I asked my students to lie out all maps in a line, and observe them together.

Maps by students Bemnet Tesfaye and Sarah Small

Then we engaged the following questions, borrowed from Sims’s exercise:

  • What stands out to you as you view our maps together?
  • What things are similar about all of our maps?
  • Are there intersections between how we remember the map of our city/community and how we interact with our city/community?
  • What explicit or implicit biases are visible in our maps?
  • What are the implications of our internal/lived maps on our role as students and urban ethnographers at Washington University?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joanna Dee Das

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

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

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

That’s Southland?

Yes, that’s Southland.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How does this concept resonate with Dunham’s work?

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Had she gone to the Caribbean by then?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can we gain pedagogically from your book?

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

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

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

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