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.

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‘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.

Emplacing Materiality

What are the materials of urban space and urban life? The dense forest full of volunteer trees and plants. The beveled, dark grey and somewhat translucent fence that surrounds 100-acres of land newly seized by eminent domain. The hoops and nets of a circular basketball court situated within the green of a vertical park. The aged red bricks of a three-story home. The calm pond in the middle of a calm park full of exercise activity stations. What are the materials of urban space and urban life?

Pruitt-Igoe forest

Last weekend, I considered this question as I visited three sites in North St. Louis City.

The first: Pruitt-Igoe/NGA. That moniker, as Heidi Kolk (mentioned below) has explained, is an amalgamation of two very different sites nevertheless linked due to proximity as they are across the street from each other. Pruitt-Igoe was the massive concrete public housing project first occupied in 1954, and demolished in the early 1970s. Although the complex began with the Pruitt tower for blacks and the Igoe for whites, Pruitt-Igoe soon became all-black and during its peak had 15,000 residents. Lee Rainwater’s famed 1970 ethnography, Behind Ghetto Walls: Black Families in a Federal Slum, described residents’ lives. After Pruitt-Igoe’s demolition in the early 1970s, the land slowly become a burly forest. Today, urbanists often venture to the forest, which is now private property: in 2016, developer Paul McKee bought the land from the city for a little more than $1 million. Across the street from Pruitt-Igoe will be the NGA or National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency; in 2016, the NGA bought a 100-acre plot within the St. Louis Place neighborhood. Eminent domain recently forced that area’s mostly black 200 residents and businesses to move. Both Pruitt-Igoe’s dismantling and NGA’s development, then, have displaced black residents.

Church within land seized by eminent domain for future NGA site (photo credit: Morgan Brooks)

The second site: a basketball court in St. Louis place. The third site: Fairground Park, site of the 1949 race riot that erupted after whites began to attack blacks near and within the park’s newly integrated swimming pool.

Basketball hoop in St. Louis Place Park (photo credit: Morgan Brooks)

We visited these sites as part Material World of Modern Segregation. A symposium convened by Iver Bernstein and Heidi Kolk, both of Washington University in St. Louis, the event brought together an interdisciplinary group of 20+ scholars (including historians, anthropologists, sociologists, film-makers, and urbanists) researching sites of modern segregation in St. Louis city and county. The symposium offered a chance for scholars to share research conducted thus far, and workshop ideas within and themes across the works. On the second day, Bernstein and Kolk split scholars into four groups, each headed to a region of St. Louis: 1) East St. Louis; 2) St. Louis University/Midtown/Mill Creek Valley (Mill Creek Valley was the thriving mostly black neighborhood of 20,000 demolished in the 1950s); 3) “Delmar Divide”; and 4) North St. Louis (my group).

I thought of geographer Katherine McKittrick throughout the symposium. In her 2011 article, “On plantations, prisons, and a black sense of place,” she defines a black sense of place as “as the process of materially and imaginatively situating historical and contemporary struggles against practices of domination and the difficult entanglements of racial encounter” (949). Crucially for this symposium McKittrick also 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) Her attention frames the processes that shape the materialites and geographies of black life, such as displacement of black residents and neighborhoods.

I also thought of ethnographer Sarah Pink as we experienced the site visits. In her 2008 article “An urban tour: The sensory sociality of ethnographic place-making,” Sarah Pink details her experience in Mold, Wales, UK. A Cittàslow (or Slow Cities) member town, Mold aims towards, what as Pink writes, “an attentiveness and mindfulness that stresses the quality of experience” (192). Pink describes taking a tour of Mold that emphasized that Slow City status; in the tour she walks with, eats with, talks with, explores with, photographs with, and experiences the city with residents. Her experience is not just one of being with residents; consciousness of the experience in the town also comes when Pink leaves the tour. She writes:

Most striking was perhaps not the process by which, through consuming my half-milk coffee, falling into step with my guides and trying to imagine the futures they mediated, I became attuned to their world. Rather, it was that once walking hurriedly to my car I felt more deeply how my way of both being in and knowing the town shifted as I was disengaged from my hosts and (without my mediators) returned in ‘transport’ (Ingold, 2007) mode to my car. (192)

Two of Pink’s ideas, I find, are crucial. First, she details how emplacement frames ethnographic approaches. She writes, “we should think not only about how the subjects of ethnographic research are emplaced … [r]ather, it invokes the additional question of how researchers themselves are emplaced in ethnographic contexts” (179). Second, she positions the tour as “a case study of an embodied and reflexive engagement with the discourses, materiality, sociality and sensoriality of a particular way of being in a town” (192). We make sense of urban spaces through discourses, materials, social experiences, and sensorial awareness; we also make sense of space by being conscious of how others and ourselves are emplaced. Critically, for the symposium, this approach situates sites and materiality as only given meaning by being emplaced to capture the often under-studied emplaced histories and practices of segregation that pervade St. Louis.

The mesh fence that now surrounds the future NGA was put up in the last few weeks. Within the fenced area still are churches and homes recently abandoned as residents have been forced out. The churches and homes no longer act as spaces for worship and residence; framed by the fence, they are now marked for destruction. At one moment during our visit, as we looked at the fence and through the fence, a security guard driving in a car approached us and added unease to our observations.

Security guard driving towards us within newly fenced area slated for NGA (photo credit: Morgan Brooks)

When we were in the Pruitt-Igoe forest, John Early (a member of our group) mentioned that when he often walks through the forest he feels under his feet a dismantled curb or another remnant of the apartment complex demolished more than 40 years ago. That day, we saw what appeared as a large rock spray-painted in a bright pink color. Also, when within the forest although surrounded by seemingly calm green plants, I felt not ease but anxiety as I was technically trespassing on private property.

We played basketball in the court in St. Louis Place Park Basketball court and then walked by several homes in the neighborhood, including a “new” one. Charlesetta Taylor, one resident of the NGA eminent domain area, was able to have the city pay to move her home a mile away in the northern part of the neighborhood. (Other residents have not had her fate).

Charlesetta Taylor’s newly moved home (photo credit: Morgan Brooks)

As we walked by her recently moved home–which aesthetically seemed to fit into its new block–new meaning was made of the bricks that held together parts of the home, and continued to give strength and resilience in the new location. When we consider the materials of urban life, we make fuller sense of these materials by considering how they engage with our (and more importantly) with residents’ emplacement.

 

St. Louis Map Room

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

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

Maps in the St. Louis Map Room

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

Emily Catedral

Various World Maps

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

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

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

Redlining map from early 20th century

Income by zip codes in the early 21st century

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

Interior entrance to the Map Room

Stevens Middle School exterior

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

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

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

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

Map by University City High School Students

Migration Map

Homelessness and its History in St. Louis

Trails Map

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

Diversity Awareness Partnership Map

Map from St. Louis Children’s Hospital

Foodbank Map

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

Walking the Divergent City: on Euclid Avenue in St. Louis

murals-on-page

Murals on Page Ave by Christopher Green

As our bus turned right—east—onto Page Avenue, a major thoroughfare, we saw single-and multi-family homes alongside boarded up ones. Something (unexpected to some) adorned the latter: murals upon murals upon murals full of images of famous black St. Louisians. There was one of Jamala Rogers, activist, author, and columnist for the St. Louis American (black-owned weekly newspaper), and another of J.B. “Jet” Banks, former Missouri State Senator, who served for three decades.

After a stretch of Page, our bus turned left—north—onto Kingshighway, a heavily trafficked major thoroughfare. We continued north and approached the next major intersection at Natural Bridge, where White Castle, McDonald’s, and Rally’s stood as the places to eat. A right turn on Natural Bridge, and then another right turn on Euclid led us to our first destination: Euclid Avenue near Greer. We exited the bus and stood briefly on Euclid, near North Side Community School, a charter school. Across the street from us: Handy Park, named after W.C. Handy, the black composer and musician who wrote “St. Louis Blues.”

From our post on Euclid Avenue our charge was simple: walk south until Maryland Avenue, some two miles away. The only other directions: be mindful and observe. These observations formed the assignment due days later: jottings with initial impressions and composed fieldnotes about the experience of walking along Euclid Ave.

This assignment was part of “Urban Ethnography in St. Louis,” a course I am teaching this semester at Washington University in St. Louis. My charge: train students in ethnographic field methods and the important work of observation, field research, interviewing, and documentation; and teach genealogies of urban ethnography especially related to Anthropology and Sociology as well as to American Studies, Performance Studies, and Urban Studies. Do this all situated within St. Louis with particular attention to how spatial racism, segregation, poverty, processes of displacement, gentrification, neoliberalism, and cultural and expressive practices have shaped culture in the city. The walk south on Euclid Ave. would bring students from and through majority black St. Louis neighborhoods to a majority white St. Louis neighborhood.

Two homes on Euclid Avenue

Two homes on Euclid Avenue

Salvation Army, Church, and Homes on Euclid in North St. Louis City

Salvation Army, church, and homes on Euclid in North St. Louis City

On the first part of our walk, students observed buildings and businesses including Salvation Army, Dollar General, and Family Dollar. Much was much boarded-up like Euclid School, a former public school now for sale by the city, farther along our walk. One student observed a run-down brick house with a beautiful structure that he assumed could be easily, if not inexpensively, rehabbed. As he got closer to it, he heard the sound of what seemed like 100 birds chirping inside of it. But much was also inhabited and cared for, like lawns where residents lived or immaculately cared for churches.

Euclid School

Euclid School

"For Sale" sign at Euclid School

“For Sale” sign at Euclid School

Falling down home on Euclid Ave.

Falling down home on Euclid Avenue

They observed streets and sidewalks, often full of litter. Many spoke about the tactile feeling of walking on the uneven sidewalks made more so by shards of broken glass and an array of litter—some which moved slowly in the wind—of different sizes and weights. One student named the objects she saw on sidewalks and grass—empty soda cans and fast food wrappers—as indicating someone’s past consumption.

They observed the people: initially mostly black. Residents entering or leaving homes; children whizzing by on schools buses; the rare passerby who would sometimes say hello; the group of black men elevated on ladders, moving bricks from a boarded up home onto a pallet; the one white woman, who many students ascribed a role other than resident, talking with a black man on his porch. They observed sounds of school children bantering, men talking, cars driving by and blasting music, birds chirping, the gentle wind.

Along Euclid Avenue

Along Euclid Avenue

They observed themselves: a group of 18 mostly white undergraduate students at the top research university in St. Louis, and their professor (me, a black woman), walking in a clump on the sidewalk initially in mostly black neighborhoods. Many had smartphones in hand and backpacks on their backs. (Washington University has garnered negative attention for having the largest share of students whose parents make incomes from the top 1%.)

After the fieldtrip, I explained where we had walked. We started in Kingsway East, a North St. Louis City neighborhood bounded by Kingshighway, Natural Bridge, Marcus Avenue, and Dr. Martin Luther King Drive.

I cited demographic information from Mark Groth, whose excellent St. Louis City Talk blog documents most of the city’s 77 neighborhoods. According to Groth:kingswaye

4,322 residents of Kingsway East were counted in 2000.  That is a 14% decline from the 1990 census count.  It’s 98% black.  There were 2,162 housing units, 80% of which were occupied, 52% renters, 48% owners.

We continued our walk through Fountain Park, a neighborhood centered by a beautiful park with a fountain and a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. According to Groth:fountain-park

The 2000 census data counted 1,804 residents (down 23% from 1990’s count) of whom 99% were black. There were 1,010 housing units counted, 75% occupied (32%/68% owner/renter split).  2010 census data counted 1,484 people, another 18% loss, down to 17 white people, 1,445 black people, 7 Hispanic/Latino and 1 Asian

As we crossed Delmar Ave, we entered the Central West End. From Mark Groth:cwe

The 2000 census counted 14,144 residents (4% decline from 1990s count) of whom 56% were white, 36% black, 5% Asian and 2% Hispanic/Latino.  9,572 housing units were 89% occupied, 26% by owners and 74% by renters.  The Central West End was one of a handful of central corridor neighborhoods that actually gained residents in the 2010 Census count (2% increase).  Racial counts from the 2010 Census yielded 58% white, 28% black, 11% Asian and 3% Hispanic/Latino.

Most of my students had previously visited the Central West End; a metro stop connects the neighborhood with Washington University’s main campus.

But numbers tell only part of a city’s story. Walking allowed students to observe affect. Some said they initially felt uncomfortable walking along Euclid, visibly out of place. For many, comfort set in for many after we crossed Delmar Ave. At Delmar and Euclid, many-spotted Lofts @ Euclid, a six-story warehouse turned renovated apartment building. Images of healthy, beautiful black models graced advertising on the building; some commented a pleasant shock seeing black rather than white faces in the advertisement.

Lofts @ Euclid

Lofts @ Euclid

But for some, crossing Delmar produced a new discomfort. Shiny, exciting Central West End now seemed dulled as students had just experienced a plethora of litter and neglect blocks away. The walk animated what we’d studied: the effects of a century of racist policies in St. Louis that displaced and dispossessed black residents, invested in white neighborhoods, and produced St. Louis as a highly racially segregated city. The walk attuned some of my students to how St. Louis could be more equitable. At basic levels, a lot of students wanted better trash clean up in North St. Louis City.

As we walked further south, now in the Central West End a majority white neighborhood familiar to most, we also saw the unofficial trademark of St. Louis: the private street. We saw little to no litter on the sidewalks. We observed restaurant upon restaurant and shop upon shop including Pi Pizzeria and Mission Taco, two local gourmet St. Louis chains, and Left Bank Books, arguably the city’s best bookstore. When we finally ended our walk at Starbucks, artisanal restaurants surrounded us.

Private Street

A private street in the Central West End

A shop in the Central West End

A shop in the Central West End

Mission Taco, a popular restaurant, in the Central West End

Mission Taco, a popular restaurant, in the Central West End

St. Louis is often called the divided city. Delmar Ave. slices St. Louis City into two halves, North and South. Many refer to the “Delmar Divide,” that is between North St. Louis City, which is 98% black, and South St. Louis City, which is 70% white. The next week we read J. Rosie Tighe and Joanna P. Ganning’s 2015 article in Urban GeographyThe divergent city: unequal and uneven development in St. Louis.” They frame St. Louis not as the divided city but as the divergent city. They evidence how displacement and dispossession in majority black North St. Louis City are very much linked to investment and growth in majority white South St. Louis City. The walk animated this: how dispossession in majority black St. Louis is linked to growth in majority white St. Louis, and how policies of dispossession and alternatively investment influence the experience of walking and being in various parts of the city.

The idea for this walk developed from two past experiences. First, in October 2016, I participated in Neighborhoods United for Change, a St. Louis Association of Community Organizations (SLACO) program that pairs residents from a North St. Louis City neighborhood with residents from a South St. Louis City neighborhood. Residents meet each other and tour each other’s neighborhoods as a way to breakdown structures and cultures of segregation and inequity. (I wrote about the experience here). After participating, I knew I wanted to have students engage North and South St. Louis City in dialogue especially as Washington University’s main campus is on the very western edge of St. Louis, and feels palpably different from much of the city. Second, later in October, I participated in Bob Hansman’s tour. Hansman, an artist and Wash U professor from St. Louis, offers monthly tours centering St. Louis and racial inequities. The tour goes to where Mill Creek Valley, a thriving black and white neighborhood, once stood and was torn down in the 1950s; the forest in St. Louis where the Pruitt Igoe housing project, torn down in the 1970s, once stood; and the Ville neighborhood and Sumner High School, where Arthur Ashe, Chuck Berry, and Tina Turner attended. During the tour, Hansman mentioned how he often has students walk along Euclid Ave to observe how the city changes.

Many undergraduates at Washington University experience the “Wash U bubble,” rarely leaving campus or merely exploring the nearby “Loop” neighborhood, the unofficial hangout for Wash U students full of fast casual restaurants, cafes, and bars. (A new, expensive residential development in the Loop marketed to Wash U students offers a shuttle directly from the apartment to campus). The walk animated lives in St. Louis beyond what many of them know and led them to ask questions about how policy frames the lives of others as well as their own lives.

I write this all to offer an imperfect methodological exercise with questions about race, ethics, and impermanence. What does it mean to bring a majority white group—headed by me a black professor—into a majority black neighborhood? What does it mean to bring a majority white group into a majority white neighborhood? How do we respectfully observe and document, and enter and exit another’s space? What does it mean to experience, observe, and document space produced by policies of dispossession and alternatively policies of investment? I’d love to hear thoughts about how others teach about urban ethnography in respect to processes of spatial racism, dispossession, and inequity. What are best practices for walking, observing, and engaging cities?

Map of notable squatted social centers and houses in Europe

Squatted houses in the European Union.

 Link to zoomable Map of Squatted social centers.

This map comes courtesy of the  Squatting Europe Kollective, an international interdisciplinary research collective that seeks to “produce reliable and fine-grained knowledge” on squatting throughout the European Union. Their work–including the recent volumes Squatting in Europe: Radical Spaces, Urban Struggles (Minor Compositions: 2013) and The Squatters’ Movement in Europe: Commons and Autonomy as Alternatives to Capitalism (Pluto: 2014)–offer useful resources for scholars and activists “seeking to understand the issues associated with squats and social centres across the European Union.” The link contains a map that can users can use to search major cities or zoom in on specific locations.