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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joanna Dee Das

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

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

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

That’s Southland?

Yes, that’s Southland.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How does this concept resonate with Dunham’s work?

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Had she gone to the Caribbean by then?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can we gain pedagogically from your book?

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

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

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

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

Thoughts on “Urban Planning: Art and the City 1967 – 2017,” an exhibit at CAM STL

In one scene a pair of female dancers, one black and one white, stand sideways ready to begin choreography. Costumes—black shorts and sleeveless black tops—suggest this piece as hip and abstract. As they begin to dance, so does the position of each of their arms, angular in front and bent at the elbow as if to engage in a sort of cooperative, artistic combat. As the dancers continue, they often twin their iterative movements in both angular and lyrical motions, with encircled arms and bent knees and twisted torsos, positions in tension with how their legs often stay planted in a stationary place.

Image from Liquor Store Theatre

What distinguishes this choreography are not just these movements but also the location. Staged in front a liquor store in Detroit, MI, this dance is from Liquor Store Theatre. Conceived of by Detroit native Maya Stovall (who performs in much of the choreography) Liquor Store Theatre, is according to her website, “a four-volume, thirty-plus episode meditation on city life in Detroit … a four-years-running series of documented performances and conversations with people in the streets, sidewalks, and parking lots surrounding Detroit liquor stores.” The work includes both video of the choreography (set to atmospheric, rhythmic music) and videos of interviews with residents inside or in front of the liquor store. Some residents talk about changes in Detroit: tearing down abandoned residential buildings and development to existing abandoned commercial structures. When I watched the video, one interviewee, a young black man, talked about how tourists often likely mis-perceive him and his friends as up to no good when they are in fact just hanging out and spending time together.

I learned of Liquor Store Theatre at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis as part of the museum’s “Urban Planning: Art and the City 1967-2017” a group exhibition with work by 24 artists; the exhibit opened earlier this month and runs through August 13, 2017. This past weekend I visited, watched Liquor Store Theatre, and engaged with the exhibition’s other works. (Earlier in May, the museum hosted Critical Spatial Practice St. Louis (CSPSTL). I attended “Performance and the City,” a panel with Maya Stovall, other exhibition artists Abigale Deville and David Hartt, and the curator Kelly Shindler.)

Literature for the exhibit thematizes much of the work as either “photography as a tool to document a rapidly changing nation,” sculpture, or “several moving image works.” In my interaction, I thought of three more takeaways.

First, although other cities are referenced, most works consider one of three cities: New York, Detroit, or St. Louis. It is useful to pause and ask why the focus on these three cities, especially in the last 40 years? Planning and development in New York City—from the 1916 Zoning Resolution, to the late 20th century and early 21st century loft laws that legalized illegal occupation of artists in commericial buildings, to the 2005 Greenpoint-Williamsburg Land Use and Waterfront Plan that transformed the neighborhoods’ skyline and displaced many residents with market-rate high rise buildings and scant affordable housing options—not only changed the function of buildings and skyline in the city, but also set rubrics for other local and national conversations and policies on density, zoning, gentrification, displacement, and “renewal,” and the racial impact of these urban planning efforts.

I particularly thought about zoning and race in Glenn Ligon’s Housing in New York (2007), which curator Shindler describes as “expos[ing] gentrification as an assault on African-American neighborhoods.” In the series of five silkscreens, Ligon narrates the story of each place he has lived throughout his life all in New York City. Ligon’s story is one of growing up in housing projects in the Bronx; living in brownstones with no-heat and flooded ceilings in Brooklyn and Manhattan; and later, as he became a more established artist, living in converted lofts in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Glenn Ligon, Housing in New York (2007)

Ligon, Housing in New York (2007), Frame 1

Ligon, Housing in New York (2007), Frame 2

Ligon, Housing in New York (2007), Frame 3

Ligon, Housing in New York (2007), Frame 4

Ligon, Housing in New York, Frame 5

As of 2010 New York City had a population of more than 8 million that was about 25% black (with Harlem no longer majority black); St. Louis City had a population of 319,000 that was about 49% black; and Detroit had a population of 713,000 that was about 82% black. Detroit and St. Louis are also the cities with the two largest shrinking populations (2015 estimates situate the population of St. Louis at 315,000 and of Detroit at 677,000).

But some art revealed the sociality and life beyond this “decline” and beyond how black urban areas are often demarcated in policy and discourse as in ruin. There was a through line of liquor and inebriation in much of the art, such as Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems, 1974-75.

Closeup of Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems, 1974-75

But other works revealed a rich sociality to where alcohol gets bought and consumed as a way to tell the story of those often ignored by urban planners. In Maya Stovall’s Liquor Store Theatre, for example, the commercial place to buy liquor becomes a backdrop for residents–mostly black–to tell stories about their home.

Second, some works articulated the role of the rural in the making of the urban. Images from Juan William Chávez‘s Pruitt-Igoe Bee Sanctuary (2010) situated an imaginary of turning the land in the Pruitt-Igoe forest in St. Louis City into a bee sanctuary.

Images from Juan William Chávez’s Pruitt-Igoe Bee Sanctuary (2010 and 2011)

In Agnes Denes’s Wheatfield–A Confrontation, the artist documents the wheatfield she and others planted at the Battery Park landfill in May 1982; in August 1982 she and others harvested more than 1000 pounds of wheat delivered to 28 cities. As Denes wrote in her artist statement: “Planting and harvesting a field of wheat on land worth $4.5 billion created a powerful paradox. Wheatfield was a symbol, a universal concept; it represented food, energy, commerce, world trade, and economics. It referred to mismanagement, waste, world hunger and ecological concerns. It called attention to our misplaced priorities.”

Agnes Denes, Wheatfield–A Confrontation (1982)

Third, the exhibition particularized attention to art about urban space and planning, rather than art (such as public sculpture) that exists within urban space. There is much overlap between the two categories and the exhibit attuned to how art about urban space often focuses on urban aesthetics and imaginaries. Mark Bradford’s Untitled (2012) “create[d]” according to the curator “ghostly etchings, a palimpsest of merchant posters sourced around Los Angeles that refract the area’s crucial informal economies.” Note how his articulation situates the sparse and novice-esque aesthetics of the block letters alongside messages of “Homeless Prevention Program” and “We Buy Houses Cash.”

Closeup on Mark Bradford’s Untitled (2012)

Another closeup on Mark Bradford’s Untitled (2012)

Ultimately and collectively the works in this exhibit re-orient how we might study, document, and analyze urban space by situating the aesthetics, narratives, and sociality of, and imaginations for, the city.

Urban Planning: Art and the City 1967-2017” runs at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis until August 13, 2017.

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?