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?
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.