Touring Project Row Houses: Lessons on Arts as Anti-Gentrification Urbanism in Houston’s Historically Black Third Ward

On this block sits a one-story shotgun house with a modest “A”-frame structure. Two parts comprise the home’s street facing façade: a window centers the right half, while the left half indents inwards towards a front door. White paint unites the entire house’s exterior; this paint also covers and accents the horizontal wood beams that adorn this house.

Nine other nearly identical replicas—more one-story white “A”-frames—surround this house. In this near uniformity lies a story about the inception of these homes, and their continued meaning making in Houston’s Third Ward neighborhood.

These homes sit along Holman Street less that a quarter mile from a mammoth interstate intersection, and some two miles south of Houston’s Downtown. They are part of Project Row Houses. Founded in 1993 by artist Rick Lowe, Project Row Houses is, as described on its website, “a community platform that enriches lives through art with an emphasis on cultural identity and its impact on the urban landscape.”

I toured Project Row Houses (PRH) in late May 2018 as part of this year’s Association of Arts Administration Educators (AAAE) conference. What most impressed me: PRH’s unwavering commitment to centering the needs of its mostly African-American community and residents (the majority of whom are marginalized due to race, gender, and income) amidst gentrification threats.

The tour included a welcome from Executive Director Eureka Gilkey and a neighborhood tour by McKenzie Watson, Guest Services and Membership Coordinator. Days later, a plenary at AAAE featured an interview with founder Rick Lowe and Director of Strategic Partnerships Tamika Evans. Essential lessons from them close this post.

Much has been written about arts and gentrification. Notably, sociologist Sharon Zukin researched artists in 1980s New York City lofts in then-fringe neighborhoods and Richard Florida has written about the role of the creative economy in the neoliberal growth of cities. But in these discourses, there is often an unstated link between mostly white artists who move to and make work in mostly non-white urban margins, and the role of that racial difference in sparking gentrification.

More recently, the term “artwashing” was coined to describe “the work and presence of artists and creative workers is used to add a cursory sheen to a place’s transformation,” and to attend to race and racist processes of gentrification involving the art. [More on artwashing here and here.] Journalist Peter Moskowitz has also been more explicit about that link between white artists gentrifying non-white urban areas. He does so through redlining, writing in 2017:

Redlining not only depressed the economies of inner cities, it created an entirely new kind of people in the suburbs—the white middle and upper-middle classes. For the first time in American history, the majority of white people were living largely privatized lives in single-family homes, without many community spaces or diversity, a lifestyle that reinforced the ideal of the nuclear family, with a stay-at-home mom and a working father. When the children of that economic and cultural experiment we now call “white flight” looked around, and decided they didn’t like what they saw, they began moving back to cities. In the 1970s, New York, San Francisco, and every other major urban center began experiencing an influx of a new kind of white person—one raised with the aesthetic, economic, and spatial values of the suburbs.

[…] suburbanization unleashed on cities a deluge of artists who cared more about marketable aesthetics than about art that could create social change.

In the 1930s, the racist process of redlining (whereby government backed home loans provided top rates to whites, and abysmal rates and denials to blacks regardless of financial healthy) racially segregated Houston, as it did in a majority of sizable U.S. cities. [See the unparalleled Mapping Inequality for more.] Through redlining, white bankers and governmental officials marked a majority of Houston’s Third Ward (a mostly African-American neighborhood) in red, that is, as “hazardous”; a yellow mark meant “definite declining” and delimited the remainder of the area. They did so solely due to race, because the neighborhood was mostly black. In redlining, those banks and officials denied mortgages and/or gave black residents the worst mortgage rates solely based on race, and thus divested from black people and black spaces. They also, in lining white areas blue and green, subsidized white neighborhoods with the best mortgage rates and investments.

Texas Map & Blueprint Co. (1930): Street Map, City of Houston, Texas, circa 1930. http://hdl.handle.net/1911/91602.

Through Moskowitz, we can make an argument linking aesthetics and race (as I’ve written about before), about how dense, redlined, and non-white urban areas that were once economically devalued due to governmental racism became, in the late 20th century, attractive to white artists who grew up in green-lined (and thus white and economically valued) suburban areas. U.S. gentrification narratives often narrowly focus on white artists entering non-white neighborhoods. Linking redlining to gentrification—whereby the presence of white artists in non-white neighborhoods attracts neoliberal capital and in turn displaces existing residents of color—then, more robustly animates how aesthetic and racialized values have been differently attached to white and black bodies because of past and continued racialized urban investments, and frames work by existing residents to confront dehumanizing neighborhood change.

Now a neighborhood of 15,000 residents, Houston’s Greater Third Ward currently has a population that is about 64% black. From 2000 to 2013, home values nearer downtown have risen over 176%, displacing many long-time residents. Project Row Houses centers historic and existing black residents, and humanizes those made most vulnerable by contemporary neoliberal development, and past redlining. From my tour, I learned that it does so in at least three ways.

First, PRH uses its resources to respond to the needs of the community, including confronting racial policies that have long dispossessed black residents in Houston. During her welcome, Executive Director Eureka Gilkey told us how PRH centers the question “How can we use our resources to respond to the needs of the community?”

Eureka Gilkey introducing Project Row Houses to our tour group

Some answers in the organization’s 25 year history include:

-Preserving housing stock. PRH started one of the first affordable housing programs in the neighborhood and more recently purchased 20 units from a slumlord, renovating them to become safe and quality places to live.

-Bringing back small businesses along Emancipation Avenue, which runs by Emancipation Park. Emancipation Park is the oldest park in Houston and in Texas. Bought in 1872 by former slaves who pooled together $1,000, the park celebrates Juneteenth, the day commemorating the emancipation of slavery in Texas on June 19, 1865 (two years after the Emancipation Proclamation). In the 20th century, Emancipation Avenue had myriad of black-owned businesses that acted as a refuge for black residents denied entry into mainstream businesses elsewhere in Houston. In the past few decades, real estate prices have jumped from $5/sq. ft to $100 sq. ft. PRH has helped to anchor small businesses including NuWaters Co-Op, a food market.

-Working with University of Houston and Texas Southern University, universities located in the greater Third Ward, to hire residents who live in their zip codes.

-Using the majority of their annual budget of $2.6 million (which is mostly foundation funded) to sustain these structures.

Ultimately Gilkey emphasized how the work of Project Row Houses recognizes the complex the racial and classed effects of gentrification, and fights against how long-time residents have been displaced without recourse and resource. She detailed city policy issues, including the fact that if you are a renter in Houston, you cannot be part of your neighborhood’s civic organization and are threatened by same day eviction. However due to PRH’s community-engaged work, by 2018 some 22% of land in the neighborhood was owned by non-profit and churches, organizations that do not adhere to capitalist development plans.

Second, PRH invests spatially in its community. During our tour, McKenzie Watson revealed how the structures that define Project Row Houses – the row houses, but also homes for single mothers — all invest spatially in the marginalized community. Here are some of PRH’s spatial work:

Young Mothers Residential Program“The purpose of YMRP is to empower low-income single mothers and their children in achieving independent, self-sufficient lives. YMRP has supported roughly 100 mothers and their families, some of whom have gone on to earn doctorates, law degrees and become community leaders and entrepreneurs.”

Murals across from the Young Mothers Residential Program homes

Row House CDC: “Project Row Houses and Rice Building Workshop collaborated to create a series of row house-inspired duplexes to provide affordable housing for people in the community. In 2003, Row House CDC was created to act as a sister organization of PRH to manage the Affordable Housing Program.”

Cookie Love’s Wash n Fold, a laudromat for PRH residents named after a neighborhood resident

Small Business Incubation: “PRH’s Incubation Program provides space, time and/or mentorship to artists and creative entrepreneurs working in the early stages of project development. The incubation program affords creative entrepreneurs the opportunity of operating within a close-knit community of artists and activists in addition to operating on a neighborhood level with members of the Third Ward community and beyond.” Many businesses are begun by former PRH residents.

Inside Crumbville, TX, a vegan bakery owned by Ella Russell (center) incubated by Project Row Houses

Inside NuWaters Co-Op with a member-owner

Inside NuWaters Co-op

Many incubated businesses are near Eldorado Ballroom, owned and renovated by PRH, the historic home where 20th century black audiences, denied from white-only theaters, were able to see traveling black musicians.

-Space for Art: From Public Art, to Residencies, to low-cost studio space, PRH is spatially thread by and led by art.

A stretch of row houses on Bastrop St used for art installations including radio broadcasts

“Neighborhood Fantasies” exhibit

Third, PRH animates an artistic thinking about its mostly black neighborhood. The AAAE plenary featured Rick Lowe (founder) and Tamika Evans (Director of Strategic Partnerships) in conversation with Sixto Wagan (Director of the Center for Art and Social Engagement at the University of Houston). Rick Lowe detailed the inception of Project Row Houses; how high school students visited his studio and questioned the greater goal of his work. As he detailed in 2006:

I was doing big, billboard-size paintings and cutout sculptures dealing with social issues, and one of the students told me that, sure, the work reflected what was going on in his community, but it wasn’t what the community needed. If I was an artist, he said, why didn’t I come up with some kind of creative solution to issues instead of just telling people like him what they already knew. That was the defining moment that pushed me out of the studio.

At the plenary Rick Lowe also made us think about the relationship between art and the community, even admist neoliberal displacement, saying “in a market economy, we exercise our role in the market as well,” “you loose things when you scale up,” “as an artist, you make something and you think about it,” and “having an expansive mindset integral to the whole thing.” Lowe suggested framing residents as artists, as those with expansive and creative mindsets, is integral to the work that Project Row Houses does.

Sixto Wagan, Tamika Evans, and Rick Lowe at the 2018 AAAE Plenary

Tamika Evans, director of Strategic Partnerships, also expansively revealed how through centering arts, “PRH had the capacity to dream” and to “empower people and engage community through direct action.” She also incisively queried, “What does it mean to be a in a community with another human being?”

By thinking artistically, by working artistically in its neighborhoods, Project Row Houses makes an expansive space for its community and confronts the spatial dehumanization of black people. Especially in urban processes like redlining and gentrification, black people aren’t given multitudes of meaning. They are just marked in redlines as “hazardous” or through development as “to be displaced.” By contrast, Project Row Houses has allowed for multitudes of meaning to be re-attached to black residents from animating Emancipation Park, to housing single mothers, to making space for black businesses, financial aptitude, and of course, art.

Unless otherwise noted all images are by Jasmine Mahmoud. 

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A ‘Staircase’; A Lacrosse Case; and Durham (Gilead?)

  1. Conversation between Annie Savoy and Crash Davis:

Annie Savoy: What do you believe in, then?
Crash Davis: Well, I believe in the soul. The cock, the pussy, the small of a woman’s back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap. I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter. I believe in the sweet spot, soft-core pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days. [pause] Goodnight’ (From ‘Bull Durham,’ (film), 1988).

2. Description of Gilead:

The lawns are tidy, the façades are gracious, in good repair; they’re like the beautiful pictures they used to print in the magazines about homes and gardens and interior decoration. There is the same absence of people, the same air of being asleep. The street is almost like a museum, or a street in a model town constructed to show the way people used to live. As in those pictures, those museums, those model towns, there are no children.

This is the heart of Gilead, where the war cannot intrude except on television. (From The Handmaid’s Tale (Book), Margaret Atwood, 1985).

**

Last year, I wrote about the myths of the ‘New South’; the buried ghosts of race, class, and history that lie just under the freshly-paved surface of places like my hometown of Durham, North Carolina. The contradictions and juxtapositions where it is possible to accidentally stumble across a slave graveyard while playing frisbee-golf, artisan coffee and bagel in the other hand. Where the rustic decay of tobacco curing barns shares space with the upturned red clay of a luxury subdivision construction site; where you might, if jogging through the woods, come across the remains of a stock-car speedway: the ‘Cheerwine’ and ‘Pepsi Cola’ signs still visible through the thick loblolly pine trees. And we could digress into the tropes of the Southern writer: air so heavy with humidity that you can’t breathe; grandma smoking a cigarette on the back screened-in porch; the way cicadas sound in July; the roll of thunder in an afternoon storm. I remember how that air smelled like tobacco on some days, or how it smelled right before the rain. The way you could hear at the same time the “crack” of a baseball bat hitting a ball and a passing train.

Ok, enough nostalgia.

Amazon.com and Apple Computers – two of the world’s largest and wealthiest companies – are looking at my modest hometown for their East Coast headquarters locations; Durham was one of the NYTimes’ “41 Places to go in 2011”, and I hardly recognize the place. There are condos selling for millions and new ‘mid-century modern’ hotels with swanky pool decks where I can’t afford a cocktail. Damn, Durham. Damn.

But let’s wind the clock back to 2001-2011,  10 years that really shook the ‘Bull City’: one ‘Staircase’, one ‘Lacrosse Case’; two popular documentary films; corrupt district attorneys; and a whole lot of dredged up skeletons of race, class, sexuality, and just pure Southern-Gothic weirdness. An exotic dancer accusing rich white boys of racially-motivated rape. A mansion that is a movie set and a real-live crime scene. Even the image of a woman (possibly) getting attacked by a bard owl, and slowly bleeding to death as her bisexual husband drinks wine by the pool. ‘The Staircase’, and ‘The Lacrosse Case’, three years apart, and linked by a creepy, dystopian movie filmed on-location that features, in one scene, a man’s body torn to pieces by angry handmaids.

If that ain’t Southern Gothic, I don’t know what is. You got nothing on this, Harper Lee.

**

Durham, the little tobacco town that punches above its weight, has had a few representations in film. One of these films, ‘Bull Durham’ (1988) was actually written for, set in, and filmed on – location in Durham. For that movie, Durham’s (then-abandoned) tobacco warehouses, old-school minor league baseball stadium, and kudzu-covered telephone poles made for a cutesy, wholesome backdrop for the love story between Crash Davis, the veteran ball player (Kevin Costner), and Annie Savoy, the no-bullshit, superstitious, Southern belle (Susan Sarandon). This year (2018), Durham celebrated the 30th-anniversary of the film, with a local screening at the Carolina Theater and on a big screen in outfield of the original ballpark. The ‘Hit Bull, Win Steak’ sign in the outfield that was erected as part of the movie set, still graces the outfield in the new (larger) stadium for the Durham Bulls Triple-A baseball team.

BullDurham

Scene from 1988’s ‘Bull Durham’, Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon (Pictured), Filmed in Durham

Some other movies were filmed locally (but set elsewhere) due to North Carolina’s film tax-credits, which, for a time, made the state one of the most popular filming locations outside of California. These tax credits are no longer, and film-making has moved to other (southern) states like Georgia and Louisiana. But Durham was the backdrop, strangely, for some pretty dystopian films (a sign of things to come, since life imitates art?)

For example, ‘Firestarter’, with Drew Barrymore, based on the Stephen King book, was filmed on-location in the Durham area in the early 1980s, taking advantage of the modern architecture of the ‘Research Triangle Park’.

firestarter-original121010

Shortly after ‘Bull Durham’, the original film adaption of Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaids Tale’ was filmed in / around Durham, released in 1990.  Much of the story involves the relationship between the Handmaid known as ‘Offred’ (or ‘Of Fred’, played by Natasha Richardson), her ‘Commander’ (played by Robert Duvall), and the Commander’s wife, Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway). The filming location for much of the story was the 1935 mansion at 1810 Cedar Street in Durham’s ‘Forest Hills’ neighborhood, a graceful area of mature trees and winding roads. The home was designed by noted local architect George Watts Carr for the prominent local Buchanan family (pictured below in a scene from the film).

Handmaids Tale

Scene from the 1990 ‘Handmaids Tale’, filmed at 1810 Cedar Street, Forest Hills, Durham (Pictured: Robert Duvall, Faye Dunaway)

In the dystopian city for which Durham provides the backdrop in the ‘Handmaid’s Tale’, the mansion (pictured) is the home of a high-ranking officer (Duvall) in the post-apocalyptic ‘Gilead’, a monstrous theocracy that replaced the United States after religious extremists staged a coup. In the mansion, we see the ‘ceremony’ take place: a horrific monthly religious ritual where the handmaid (Richardson) has sex with the Commander (Duvall) while lying between the legs of the commander’s wife (Dunaway). In Gilead, Handmaids are able to bear children, while most women are not (because of an environmental-toxin related infertility pandemic).

Other scenes filmed around Durham include public hanging of traitors to Gilead (downtown), and a graphic and dramatic public execution scene filmed at Duke Chapel on Duke University’s campus, where the handmaids are urged to rip apart a man accused of rape. This, as it turned out, is ironic on many levels.

We will return to Duke in a moment.

***

In 2001, Kathleen Peterson was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in her home, 1810 Cedar Street (the same mansion as used in Handmaid’s Tale filming). Life imitates art.

Peterson’s husband, Michael Peterson, a local author, newspaper columnist and once-mayoral candidate, was accused of murdering his wife, and after one of the longest murder trials in North Carolina history, was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Peterson and his defense team maintain that Kathleen died as a result of an accidental fall, while prosecutors (and the jury) claimed she was murdered by Peterson by blows to the back of the head. Adding to further intrigue and controversy in the case was that the state presented as evidence both Michael Peterson’s bisexuality (sexual liaisons with local men), and the death of a family friend under similar circumstances in Germany in the 1980s. Michael Peterson served 8 years in prison before being released under house arrest. Later, the court determined that evidence had been mishandled and prejudicial, and Peterson was offered a re-trial. Rather than face the unknown outcome of a second jury trial, Peterson opted for an ‘Alford Plea’, in which he plead guilty, but maintained his innocence, having already served his time in prison and thus, walked away a free man. Questions remained about how, if not by murder, Kathleen Peterson died in such a bloody way. One local theory involves a possible owl attack, since the lacerations on Peterson’s head could match those of an owl’s talons, and micro-fibers were found on her corpse. The owl attack alone would make for a great Southern Gothic short story.

The case and surrounding publicity was gripping and macabre, generating much international press. It was also personal for those of us from Durham, since the Petersons were a well-known local family. I went to college, incidentally, with Kathleen Peterson’s biological daughter Caitlin, who initially maintained her stepfather’s innocence but later came to the personal belief that he was guilty of murder and sued her stepfather (Michael Peterson), successfully, for wrongful death.

In 2004, the French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade released ‘The Staircase’, a documentary about the Peterson trial and surrounding controversy. This was later followed up with a sequel, ‘Last Chance,’ in 2013, and the ‘Staircase III’, in 2017 – which followed the subsequent developments in the legal case and further trial proceedings. The whole series was picked up and released by Netflix in 2018, and has garnered critical acclaim and strong ratings.

The_Staircase

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House of Michael and Kathleen Peterson, crime scene, 2001

I am not so interested in whether or not Michael Peterson is, or is not guilty; or whether or not Kathleen died as a result of accident or some other cause, including a possible owl attack. I am more interested in the Southern-Gothic tableau of the mansion itself, the scene of dystopian fiction (where Natasha Richardson’s character murders Robert Duvall’s character by cutting his throat) and also the scene of the bloody stairwell death of Kathleen Peterson. I am likewise fascinated by, and disturbed by, the undertones and fractures of race, class, power and privilege; homophobia and elitism; corruption and collusion that the case unearthed; Durham’s seedy and complex underbelly exposed for the whole world to see in the Netflix series.

But ‘the Staircase’ was only a precursor to another ‘case’ that also tore open Durham’s civic fabric, and has also been portrayed in film: the saga of the Duke Lacrosse case.

***

In 2006, just three years after the trial of Michael Peterson, scandal again erupted in the Bull City that again tore apart the fabric of the tobacco town and exposed some latent (and pretty ugly) simmering race, class, and cultural divides. This time, the focal point was the elite Duke University, one of the nation’s most prestigious (and also a filming location for The Handmaid’s Tale).

THE HANDMAID'S TALE, 1990, (c) Cinecon International

Handmaids Tale (1990) ‘Particulation’ execution scene, filmed at Duke University, Durham

The story, in a nutshell, goes like this: three white members of Duke’s lacrosse team, all from affluent suburbs in the Northeast / Mid-Atlantic USA, were accused by a local exotic dancer by the name of Crystal Mangum of violent rape and beating, along with racial insults and other detestable behavior. Mangum had been hired to dance at a party the lacrosse team was hosting on Buchanan Street, in Durham’s Trinity Park neighborhood (*incidentally, the neighborhood where I grew up). Trinity Park features historic houses and is across the street from Duke University’s Georgian-style East Campus, known as Trinity College. The neighborhood is a mix of student housing (in subdivided homes and apartment buildings) and single family homes, many of which are owned by Duke faculty.

In response to the allegations, the Duke Lacrosse season was cancelled by university president Richard Brodhead, and the team coach, Mike Pressler, resigned under pressure. Durham prosecutor Mike Nifong (who was also on the prosecution’s team in the Michael Peterson case, three years prior) suggested the alleged rape was a hate crime, due to the racial slurs (allegedly) overhead at the party and due to the racially-charged nature of several emails sent (about the party and the hiring of strippers, by other members of the team).

Once again, Durham was thrust into the national and international limelight, for all the wrong reasons.

duke lax53a06a2eacfd7_-_cos-02-duke-rape-scandal-xlEventually, it came to light that prosecutor Mike Nifong had withheld evidence that exonerated the three accused (pictured above); and further details emerged that the accuser, Crystal Mangum, had lied about being raped. Mike Nifong was subsequently disbarred; and state attorney general Roy Cooper (now North Carolina’s governor), dropped all charges. Still, the city, and the university, were tainted by the fact that the party did take place; that strippers were hired; that disgusting emails and misogynistic / racial slurs were indeed uttered. The fact remains that an elite university, full of (mostly) affluent students from (mostly) other places, can be an uneasy bedfellow to a Southern industrial city with a high African-American poverty rate and a city where nonwhite residents outnumber white residents.

Once again, the case was turned into a documentary feature-film that exposed Durham’s simmering race and class divides; poor town-gown relations; local mistrust of Duke’s elite students and administrators; and dysfunctional and incompetent (to a criminal degree) legal apparatus and court system.

The 2016 film ‘Fantastic Lies’, by Marina Zenovich, was the most recent of several other films and TV-documentaries about the scandal (including an episode of ESPN’s “30 for 30” devoted to the scandal.)

duke lax_stephenMiller

Pictured: the legal analyst Nancy Grace with then-Duke student Stephen Miller, now special adviser to President Donald Trump, discussing the Duke Lacrosse case in 2006.

And the case had even bigger implications: it may have even helped to spawn the ‘Alt Right’ movement, which reared its ugly head in the election of Donald Trump and now has a place in the Oval Office. Stephen Miller (pictured above), one of the architects of the ‘Alt Right’ and some of Trump’s controversial nativist policies (such as the Muslim travel ban and the proposed wall on the US / Mexico border), was a Duke student at the time of the Lacrosse scandal and an outspoken campus conservative. He appeared on shows like Nancy Grace to decry the way the lacrosse players were being treated and what he thought was a culture of blame and antagonism on campuses like Duke and elsewhere. This, of course, is a conversation that is racking college campuses today, as angry white conservatives react to the proliferation of identity-based movements such as #metoo and #blacklives matter and have sought to bring conservative and controversial speakers like Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos to speak.

**

Now: would you like a sweet tea with your biscuit?

Mapa literari Català – Catalonian Literary Map

I wanted to comment on a project by Espais Escrits (Written Spain), an association grouping other institutions promoting Catalonian literature. They developed started developing in 2006 a project called Mapa Literari Català (Catalonian Literary Project), mapping the biography of writers from Catalonia, Spain, and their presence in different parts of the world. The project allows for us to visually locate common geographical places, read parts of diaries, journals, and read extracts of their literary work. It also includes multimedia content such as photographs and videos. It was redesigned and improved for tech updates, and released during the Spring of 2018.

Moreover, it also adds information in different languages, including what these authors produced in English, Castilian, and Catalan. The institute receives funding from the Generalitat de Catalunya and the Fundació Lluís Carulla. The project can be accessed at http://mapaliterari.cat/ca/ and the organization at http://www.espaisescrits.cat .

In the Rutes Literàries (Literary Routes), http://www.mapaliterari.cat/ca/api/guia/30/josep-pla/ruta-josep-pla-a-calella-de-palafrugell several distinct routes walk you through the important monuments and physical spaces that have literary importance for those writers. In the Route of Josep Pla, in Costa Brava, Spain, the institution organizes a walking tour around the places of literary importance for the works by Pla in Palafrugell, a fishermen village where he would spend the summers with his family. His writing describes several important places in that small town of Calella de Palafrugell. Below is a small extract about his perception of the village, and its change with time:

“El que queda encara a Calella és obra dels vells, graciosos mestres de cases. La població, per altra banda, s’ha modificat totalment. El nombre de pescadors és reduïdíssim; si en queda encara algun deu ésser perquè no gosen posar una perruqueria per a senyores o perquè no tenen prou veu per a cantar amb Pepet Gilet, en Tianet i en Blau. Això no és obstacle perquè Calella –que és un agregat de Palafrugell- sigui un dels pobles més bonics del nostre litoral –potser el més bonic vist del mar estant.”

“What remains in Calella is the work of the old, graceful house builders. The population, on the other hand, has been totally modified. The number of fishermen is very small; If there is still some ten it is because they would not like to start a hairdresser’s shop for ladies or because they do not have enough voice to sing with Pepet Gilet, in Tianet and Blau. This is not an obstacle because Calella, which is an aggregate of Palafrugell, is one of the most beautiful villages on our coast, perhaps with the most beautiful view of the sea.” (my translation)

Rhythm and light in Le Corbusier’s Paris archives

“Light conditions the ways in which we perceive – guiding what we are able to see, inflecting visible colours and informing our sense of the shape of space” (Edensor, 2015a, p. 331).

The play of light and dark, the contouring of shadows, and unease with gloomy spaces mediates our experience of landscapes. As Edensor (2015b) has argued, darkness and light should not be viewed as neutral entities, but rather as carrying cultural values and meanings. Our interest in Edensor’s work is matched by our engagement with Sarah Pink’s (2015) treaties on sensory ethnography, leading us to consider how the affects of light can transform the emotional and social meaning of place. Of particular interest has been the theatricality of the light/dark duality: the use of urban illuminations to create spectacle such as the Nuit Blanche arts initiatives in France and beyond (Evans, 2011), the advent of dark restaurants where you eat without light to heighten other senses (Edensor and Falconer, 2015), and the selective use of lighting to flood heritage sites with bright colours at night (Di Salvo, 2014). While appearing subtle, playing with light and dark can speak to a highly orchestrated encounter. This is exemplified in the nuanced rhythm of natural light and purposeful shadow of Le Corbusier’s architectural designs.

Well known for his modernist reinforced concrete structures, Le Corbusier’s work at sites such as the Villa Savoye in Poissy, France, the celebrated Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, France, and the Chandigarh planned city in India, encapsulated his vision of a new, efficient, and rational urban life. While ranging in scale and scope, Le Corbusier’s work often makes use of floor-to-ceiling or blocks of horizontal windows, slender columns, and showcases the texture of poured concrete design. Deliberate in his use of colour, carefully positioning windows and decorative wall cut-outs to create a pattern of daylight and its shadows, Le Corbusier uses light to transform interior spaces. This approach is on display at the architect’s Maison La Roche and the adjacent Maison Jeanneret in Paris, France, which together form the Fondation Le Corbusier. Here, the notation of archive has a dual meaning: it indicates both the collection of printed materials generated by Le Corbusier during his lifetime and held by the Fondation, a form of traditional archiving; and also treats the buildings themselves as architectural archives and entities that enliven and exemplify the principles contained in the boxed-up designs and notes. Vising the Foundation and other sites that Le Corbusier designed, therefore, becomes an immersive experience; one that allows people experiencing the sites to make connections between documented words and the physical manifestation of those ideas. For example, the layout of Maison La Roche links directly to the Five Points of Architecture espoused in Le Corbusier’s handwritten notes, while reading the architect’s meditation on the interplay of light and dark is augmented by the ability to experience first-hand the built outcomes of these approaches.

The photographs and text that follow aim to capture the sensory experience of reading one site in Le Corbusier’s architectural archive, 24 rue Nungesser et Coli. In recognition of the experiential nature of sensory ethnography, the comments are drawn from the research findings of one of this post’s co-authors (Kathryn Travis), with deliberate use of personal pronouns.

Reading space through light and shadow:

Having started to research in the paper archives at Maison Jeanneret, and having twice visited Maison La Roche, I sought to experience first-hand the Apartment-Atellier where Le Corbusier lived for 31 years. Having designed and built the structure with his cousin Pierre Jeanneret – their professional partnership spanned almost twenty years and included numerous collaborations – Le Corbusier received the top two floors of Nungesser et Coli as payment.

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On Rue Nungesser et Coli, Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret’s design still stands out. Contrasting neighbouring structures that follow a more traditional 19th century Parisian style of architecture, the horizontal windows that expand the entire width of the building and the use of glass blocks point towards the unique Le Corbusier style. The brilliance of the day intensified the light reflecting off the window panes and magnify the presence of the building. Light reflected from continuous walls of glass outshines that caught by encased and recessed windows.

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Having used the intercom to speak with the attendant, I was buzzed into the main floor entrance and told to follow the signs and use the back stairwell. Walking through the front doors, a long pause was needed to adjust to the stark and sudden change in light. It proved difficult to adjust to the interior and orient to this new atmosphere, let alone while needing to locate directional signage. If not for the mirror with the collaged reflection, I might have completely missed the ambient blue glow of the stairwell.

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Ambient light filters into the space. Having adjusted to the drastic shift in light when first coming inside, the stairs were relatively easily to find in the small, cramped interior. Climbing the half-shadowed stairway, there was a surprisingly somber mood radiating from this shared space. Separated by slightly ajar, bevelled glass windows, sounds of dishes being moved could be heard from one of the private apartments. These sounds followed me each step to the seventh floor.

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The door to Le Corbusier’s apartment opened and I was smacked with natural light. Compared to the immense brilliance outside and the strained light of the interior, this brightness was specific and contained. Pockets of light pull one’s line of sight in very particular movements across each room. Spatial design is sculpted with light; in/direct, reflected, ambient and spectral. Every angle, line and point appears masterfully placed.

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The view from above is breath-taking; an uninterrupted expanse of green tree-tops, cream and stone facades and living roof-top patios. Standing seven stories from the ground, there is calm and tranquility, only the hint of a crane and the hum of vehicles from the periphery highway reveal human activity and bustle. After an immersion into Le Corbusier’s apartment, it is clear that the sensory experience of the highly structure interior space affects one’s perspective outwards. From high above, it is easy to imagine how his rhythmic organization of objects, textures, and light could extend out into Parisian landscapes, where buildings seem to sit stoically in their planned locations and, overtime, the naturalized relief of foliage grows between man-made structures.

Kathryn Travis and Roza Tchoukaleyska

 

Works cited:

Di Salvo, S. (2014). Innovation in lighting for enhancing the appreciation and preservation of archaeological heritage. Journal of Cultural Heritage, 15(2), 209-212.

Edensor, T. (2015a). Light design and atmosphere. Visual Communication, 14(3), 331-350.

Edensor, T. (2015b). The gloomy city: Rethinking the relationship between light and dark. Urban Studies, 52(3), 422-438.

Edensor, T. & Falconer, E. (2015). Dans le noir? Eating in the dark: sensation and conviviality in a lightless place. Cultural Geographies, 22(4), 601-618.

Evans, G. (2011). Hold back the night: Nuit Blanche and all-night events in capital cities. Current Issues in Tourism, 15(1-2), 35-49.

Pink, S. (2015). Doing sensory ethnography(2ndedition). London: Sage.

Golden Gate Going, Going, Gone.com? A Review of Richard A. Walker’s ‘Pictures of a Gone City’ (2018)

Review: ‘Pictures of a Gone City: Tech and the Dark Side of Prosperity in the San Francisco Bay Area‘ (PM Press, 2018) (by Richard A. Walker, Prof. Emeritus of Geography, UC Berkeley). 

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On Thursday, June 14th 2018, London Breed was finally declared mayor of San Francisco, after a hard-fought campaign and close election that would have been historic in any  possible outcome: Breed is the first African-American female mayor of the city, but opponent Mark Leno would have been the first gay male and third place finisher Jane Kim would have been the first Asian-American woman. As such, the birthplace of American identity politics revealed a very identity-political outcome. All three candidates shared a similar platform – namely, cleaning up the streets and dealing with the large homeless population and addressing the housing affordability crisis – though Breed offered a slightly more aggressive approach toward the homeless, a hot-button issue and one around which liberal San Franciscans are losing patience. The intractability of the homeless problem is just one of the reasons that Breed has a daunting job ahead of her. San Francisco, and many of its suburbs, are in danger of slipping completely out of reach to not only the poor and working class, but the middle (and even upper-middle) class as well, fueled by a relentless economic boom that has come to be known as ‘San Francisco 2.0’. Yet, as an historian knows – booms don’t last forever, and the Bay Area has always hit higher-highs, and lower-lows, than many other American city-regions, back to its early days as a rough-and-tumble gold-mining and shipping center. Creative production here is more fervent, but creative destruction, all the more violent.

Gone City

Fittingly, and in this context, Geographer Professor Emeritus Richard A. Walker released what may be his magnum opus a few months prior: ‘Pictures of a Gone City: Tech and the Dark Side of Prosperity in the San Francisco Bay Area‘ (2018 PM Press). ‘Gone City’ reads in some parts like an election primer, thematically organized around many of the key issues facing San Francisco and the wider Bay Area, a Manichean and messy urban conglomeration which Walker presents as a double-edged sword of unimaginable progress and innovation alongside incredibly troubling poverty, homelessness, and inequality.

The professor of Urban Studies at the University of San Francisco and gentrification scholar Rachel Brahinsky rightly accused Walker of being something of a ‘Marxist Booster’ (while reviewing the same volume at the AAG Annual Meeting in New Orleans, April 2018): Walker seems torn between a lifelong love affair with the Bay Area’s golden mythology and promises at the same time that he skewers and vilifies the current state of the region. This is one rather strange contradiction in a book full of (economic) contradictions, and there are a few other drawbacks, which I will return to later.

Yet, as an anatomy of the economic geography of America’s tech hub, the book succeeds on many levels. It is timely, ambitious, and thorough, realized through Walker’s decades-long expertise in the region and avuncular familiarity with the region’s key players, politics, and quirks. Firstly, the (urban) scale addressed in the book is comprehensive and larger than many studies of San Francisco, which tend of focus on and fetishize the 49-square mile city which is really just a dot in a massive sprawl of more than 8 million people. Walker takes a bird’s eye view from Santa Rosa in the North, devastated by wildfires in Fall 2017, all the way down to Gilroy (and beyond) in the South, a distance of more than 100 miles (for British readers, a slice of land that would extend from London to Birmingham and beyond). It is at these far-flung exurban clusters, Walker argues, that the new, multi-racial working class and working poor are increasingly gathered, serving the economy of the network of cities comprising the Bay Area. Likewise, Walker’s overview spans from the beaches of the ‘Penninsula’ – that silicon-encrusted, moneyed hub often representing the core of the tech industry and ethos (Palo Alto, Mountain View, Cupertino, et al.,) – eastward beyond Oakland to Stockton and Modesto, fringe cities that have suffered in poverty and structural sclerosis at the same time that San Francisco has gone from ‘rich’ to ‘super rich’. This region-level thinking is welcome, and missing in planning, policy and politics in an area where topics like housing and transportation often end (inefficiently and frustratingly) at municipal boundaries and county lines. It may be that only an economic geographer and lifelong Bay Area resident like Walker can zoom out, and in, so effectively, and the book succeeds thus.

Secondly, the book covers a lot of topical ground, peeling back layers of the tech economy that span the social, structural, spatial, environmental, and political. What gentrification looks like in San Jose versus Oakland; the texture of the region’s unique multi-racial dynamic (majority non-white, and increasingly so); the ecological and natural consequences of so much money concentrated in one place; and perhaps most thoroughly, why the Bay Area housing market (and associated problems) has no American (and few global) comparisons. For example, Walker has the best explanation I have yet come across of why the local housing market is a demand, rather than supply, problem. Walker argues, convincingly, that too much demand (at the high end), fueled by an overheated tech job market, means that no amount of housing supply will result in socially-just housing processes. This needs to be argued more frequently and forcefully,  and as convincingly, among local policy circles and among the chattering classes of the pseudo-progressive, pro-growth governing elite – including the new mayor, London Breed, who maintain that increased supply is the key to curing the affordability problem. This is also the line of the dominant local urban think tank, known as ‘SPUR’, and what has become known as the ‘YIMBY’ (‘yes in my backyard’) coalition. Few, other than Walker, are suggesting that there are simply too many high-paying jobs.

Where the book falls short, in addition to Walker’s somewhat rose-tinted glasses of the overall allure and innovation of the region over it’s history (an attitude that is frequently ingrained among those remaining Marxist-daydreamers who struggle to move beyond Berkeley, 1967) – is its optimistic assumption that ‘Left Coast Values’ will win the day and present unified, radical solutions. Walker identifies, in early chapters, a vast, multi-racial, multi-cultural working class, which, in his framing, spans restaurant workers, teachers, delivery drivers, and even mid-level professionals who would be ‘elite’ in any other metro but in San Francisco struggle to pay basic housing costs. This Bay Area working coalition will, in Walker’s hope, unite across racial, class and cultural lines and implement a more equitable future (or, ‘tech-uitable’, to use local parlance). To make this case, he points to several turning points where various cities have taken steps to roll-back some of the excesses in development and growth (such as San Jose / Santa Clara County putting in anti-sprawl regulation, spending on light-rail, and densifying in a new-urbanist way from the 1980s-present; or the rent controls and workers’ protections erected in cities like San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland). Walker seems to buy into the current California self-image of being a sort of progressive reaction to all that is wrong with the rest of America, but this viewpoint is too temporal, too ‘Trump vs. the West Coast’, and too reliant on the flickering, dimming candle of Governor Jerry Brown, finishing his final term. It is no accident that Brown was first governor in the 1970s, when Walker was enjoying his Marxist reading group as a young Berkeley scholar. Walker writes (what may be) his last book as Jerry Brown finishes his last pieces of idyllic legislation. Walker acknowledges that Brown, and other California progressives, have not exactly shied away from neoliberal tendencies like increasing the prison population, rolling back environmental regulations, and maintaining a pro-growth (business-friendly) agenda – but he could be even more expository of the multitudes of hypocrisies, back-peddling and self righteousness that are endemic to Northern California politics. And a little self-reflection, Richard: how lovely is the view from your home, high in the Berkeley hills (or wherever it is?)

I am not convinced of the (social, economic) resilience of the Bay Area, nor of California’s potential to be a progressive beacon moving forward. I have come to know too many desperate souls who would live anywhere else, if only they had the means to do so. I have also come to know my own students, many of whom are immigrants or the children of immigrants, and who do not share the 1960s-Summer of Love or Berkeley-radical values set of Walker and his cohort. These students, quite understandably so, want a better life for themselves and are aiming not to transform the region in some sort of unified working class uprising, but to pay off their debt and bring home a paycheck.

Finally – Walker may be slightly (and only slightly) nearsighted to overlook the racism that permeates, sometimes violently, the interstices of the Bay Area’s fabric. Walker paints a picture of a harmonious (if unequal and structurally-divided) metropolitan example of a post-racial America, a vision of things to come, when whites will no longer be a majority. I see, almost daily, a deeply suspicious white community; an equally suspicious community of color; and feel that racial strife is never far beneath the surface (here or anywhere). Just this week, a white woman was caught on camera verbally lambasting a Filipino-American family at the checkout counter of a supermarket in working-class (and extremely racially diverse) Daly City, in San Mateo County. I often tell my friends, and believe strongly, that if there is a race war in America, it may just as easily stem from the Bay Area as from Michigan, Alabama, or the Texas-Mexico Border. There may be a time, in the future, where Bay Area residents are ready to move beyond their identity politics, but I am not convinced that time is soon.

But even though this on-the-ground view may be obscured in Walker’s bird’s-eye-approach, the book is important, and should be required reading for London Breed and all others seeking to understand this complicated, beautiful, ugly region. And lessons learned in the Bay Area can, and will, apply to other cities and regions- especially as information which is defined and developed in these silicon circuits increasingly comes to shape and define humanity, delivered by a drone.

homelss

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