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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.