‘Priced Out,’ ‘Erased,’ and ‘Eminent Domain’: Voices from Portland, Kansas City, and Saint Louis – Part Two

How do we best document those displaced by pernicious, dehumanizing forms of urbanism?

In October, I attended “We Lived Here!,” a panel at the Griot Museum featuring residents—all black women—displaced by processes of eminent domain in St. Louis, MO and Kansas City, MO. As detailed in this previous post, each described eminent domain as an ugly, hurtful, demeaning process used as the reason to take her home and displace her mostly black neighborhood and as a tool for economic development that only benefited a few.

Image from “Eminent Domain/Displaced” exhibit at the Griot Museum, curated by Lois Conley and Matt Rahner.

The panel took place as part of events for the “Eminent Domain/Displaced” exhibit at the Griot Museum of Black History. Described on the Griot’s website, the exhibit is a:

[m]ulti-media installation of place, portraiture, landscape, and appropriated space that explores how the use of eminent domain contributed to the disappearance of three Missouri communities: Wendell-Phillips (Kansas City), Mill Creek Valley, and St. Louis Place (St. Louis). Salvaged objects, oral interviews, archival materials, photographs and more explore the impact of displacement.

Matt Rahner, a photographer and Assistant Professor of Art at Missouri Valley College, and Lois Conley, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of The Griot Museum, curated the exhibit. Conley’s own history and the museum’s location only amplify the exhibit’s meanings. Conley “was a teenager when her parents lost their Mill Creek neighborhood home to eminent domain. A portion of her former backyard became Market Street after the city leveled the area in the name of progress.” The Griot Museum “sits across the street from the site of the future National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, in a demolished area that was part of the St. Louis Place neighborhood.” (The above two quotes are from an interview with Lois Conley about the exhibit, found here.)

Image from “Eminent Domain/Displaced” exhibit at the Griot, curated by Lois Conley and Matt Rahner.

How do we best document those displaced by pernicious, dehumanizing forms of urbanism? I talked the exhibit’s co-curator, Matt Rahner, for more about creating work that documents deleterious urbanization.

Jasmine Mahmoud: How did you begin putting together this exhibit and photographing displaced neighborhoods?

Matt Rahner: I’ve always been a documentary photographer and as an artist I’ve always been interested in real world things. In August of 2012 I read an article in The Pitch [free alternative weekly newspaper of Kansas City] about eminent domain and the city’s plan to tear down the neighborhood of Wendell-Phillips and replace it with a new police station and crime lab. The article grabbed my attention, and I became interested in the process, the neighborhood, and the residents.

The article raised more questions than answers, so I decided to contact Ameena Powell, who was mentioned in The Pitch story. Ameena became a central figure in my series, and was integral to making the work. One of the most important photographs from my series, Eminent Domain, is a photo of Ameena on the steps of the Jackson County Courthouse. She had just left the courtroom where her home was condemned by the city, as one of the final steps in the Eminent Domain process. Ameena stands in front of the courthouse with bags of paperwork, defiant in the face of a city that has forcibly, yet legally, made her move from her home. The city had decided this was going to happen, and there was really nothing Ameena could do other than fight for more just compensation for her home. Her goal was to save her house, but everything was stacked against her. There really was no way she could have done that.

Ameena Powell standing on the steps of the Jackson County Court House after her condemnation hearing in 2012. Credit: Matt Rahner.

JM: What other subjects have you documented in your photography?

MR: Eminent Domain was my Masters of Fine Arts thesis project. Before that I was just a photographer of the world. I had documented people who stay on the side of highway exits holding signs and got to know their stories. However, Eminent Domain was my first real in depth documentary project.

JM: How did you meet the residents of St. Louis?

MR: I was connected with Lois [Conley] at the Griot through Robert Powell who owns Portfolio Gallery in St. Louis. Robert is actually the uncle of Ameena [Powell] so Ameena contacted Robert and said “hey, Matt just made this project, I don’t know if you’re interested in it or if you know somebody who is.” It just so happened that Lois had gone through eminent domain herself growing up in the Mill Creek Valley neighborhood. On top of that, her museum, the Griot Museum sits right on the border of the NGA site. Lois had been wanting to do a project on eminent domain herself, and it seemed quite pertinent and a great time to bring our two projects together. Her project Displaced and my project. 

JM: What were you trying to communicate in the exhibit?

MR: In the photographs I wanted to communicate how the residents felt about the process of eminent domain because they didn’t have a choice in the matter and they had to move. They had to leave behind a house they’d lived in for 50 years.

My photographs aim to communicate the way the residents felt. Their reaction to eminent domain. As I took the photographs my camera became a stand in for the city and their presence in the photograph was more a reaction to the city. There are definitely pictures of defiance but also I was trying to give the residents a voice, give them agency over the situation … because no one really listened to what they wanted or to how they would have liked to see things handled differently.

A note scrawled inside an upstairs closet in a home of a long-time resident of Wendell-Phillips. 2012. Credit: Matt Rahner.

And with the exhibit my goal was to transform the space of the white wall gallery into a homelike space. I wanted to create an intimate environment where my photographs could reside on the wall with objects from the homes and neighborhood. I decided to recreate wallpaper that I had found in one of the homes and use it to transform the space of the show. On top of the wallpaper, I hung my photos as well as found paintings and prints that came from Wendell-Phillips.

I used objects that were left behind, and I was never sure why they were left behind. Some of them were damaged beyond repair and I could understand why people threw those away. But the objects allowed me to access the past and to understand the neighborhood better than I could have in the time that I was there.

For example, one of the main found sculptures in the show is a pile of bricks that came from one of the homes after it had been demolished. I chose to bring the bricks into the gallery space to speak to my experience of watching this place be torn apart. As I was documenting Wendell-Phillips, it was a common sight to go back to the neighborhood and find a new house had been torn down, until eventually all of the homes were razed. The pile of bricks in the gallery represents the essence of these homes and the devastation brought onto this neighborhood by the city. The bricks are physically in the space, and you have to walk around them, you have to bear witness in your own way and have your own experience of this place. The bricks on the floor relate to the photographs on the wall, so they tie together the past and the present.

As I organized the plethora of objects I had collected, I realized there were specific arrangements that became more potent than my photographs in terms of communicating the story of the neighborhood. I arranged the objects for the viewers of the show to be astute and to pay attention to the clues hidden within the arrangements. My hope is that viewers saw the connections between the objects and how they can describe a larger narrative of the history of Kansas City and this place in particular.

JM: What were some of those objects that were more potent than the photographs?

MR: The family photographs that I found were really potent. I was an outsider going into this neighborhood as it wasn’t my neighborhood, so I was really respectful of that. My photographs were from my point of view, as an outsider, but the family photos come from a different place. They are insider views on people’s lives, and something I wasn’t able to access as a documentarian.

Found object assemblages installed in the exhibit Eminent Domain. Credit: Matt Rahner.

Many of the items in the exhibit were given to me. One resident’s family lent me this incredible document that goes back into the 1800s that shows every transition of ownership on their land and house. It’s an incredible object, visually, and the history of the neighborhood can be read in the creases and folds of this document. It’s powerful that way.

In the show I wanted to draw comparisons between the treatment of this neighborhood and the history of the United States. Obviously Native Americans were here first and were pushed out by settlers. From day one in America there is a history of taking, and systemic racist ideology. These practices have been perpetuated in urban America, and continue to happen in cities like Kansas City and St. Louis. Practices of redlining, block busting, white flight, and racially restrictive covenants have left negative effects on cities and neighborhoods. I believe that this particular eminent domain project is an extension of systemic racism, it was an extension of all of these things that had been in place since our country was founded. I wanted to talk about this in the show, and I used the objects to tell that story. Specifically, I used a print of Jesus on the cross, hung next to a velvet painting of a Native American Indian. Each story (of Christ and Native Americans) deals with taking. Interestingly, in the print of Jesus, his wounds are visible on his torso, hands and feet, and on the painting I found of the Native American the velvet canvas was pierced and had holes in the figures torso, hands and feet. I put these two pieces in the show to specifically raise the question of power and authority, and of who is able to “take” from whom. Often it is the powerful wielding influence and taking from the powerless. I saw this correlation in the history of the neighborhood up to the use of eminent domain.

A found velvet painting of a Native American, installed in the exhibit Eminent Domain. The wall paper the painting hangs on is recreated from one of the homes within Wendell-Phillips. Credit: Matt Rahner.

A found print of Jesus Christ on the cross, surrounded by two angels. This print was found hanging on a wall in a home in Wendell-Phillips. Credit: Matt Rahner.

JM: Did anything surprise you while putting together this project and/or once it was displayed?

MR: I think the surprise came when I had everything in the gallery, and I was like wow, the installation, with my photographs and the found object felt complete. That was actually a surprise for me. I’ve been surprised as well by how Eminent Domain has resonated with people. My goal was to tell “A” story of the neighborhood and not to write “THE” history. I wanted to tell the story of eminent domain in a compelling way and hoped that people connected with it, which I think they have.

While making the work, one thing that was more appalling than surprising was that the city handed out these bricks at the groundbreaking that were brand new and had silver plaques on them with the inscription, “Kansas City: rebuilding our city one brick at a time.” It was such a tone-deaf and disingenuous gesture that ignored the history and relevance of the neighborhood. It was totally opposite of what the city had done, because in reality they had torn the city down one brick at a time. Now, these city employees and contractors have these bricks in their homes or offices as a sort of trophy for destroying this neighborhood. Luckily, for posterity, I was able to secure one of these bricks, and I display it in the exhibition to serve as a reminder of the city’s complicity in the process.

JM: At the event, I remember that many were so depressed after hearing the residents’ stories. They asked, “what can we do? It seems like we can’t do anything.” Do you have thoughts about what we as citizens can do to either stop eminent domain or make more equitable neighborhood change?

MR: That’s a great question. First of all, I think understanding the history of the place you live is really helpful, understanding how our cities are formed, developed and redeveloped. Some people are aware of racially restrictive codes and redlining … but for the most part people aren’t aware of those ideas. So understanding this history. … Places that are chosen for eminent domain have usually struggled and I think for neighborhoods it’s helpful to be organized and have neighborhood organizations that have a plan for their own development. Also, I think it’s important to document the place and create projects in the neighborhoods, whether that be art making projects, creating written histories, or visual documentations. Neighborhood leaders can create asset lists of the neighborhoods and document those things now so that when the city does come up and say, “We want to do this project here,” the neighborhoods can say, “NO, there are all of these important cultural markers in our neighborhood that we think are important.”

Found object assemblages installed in the exhibit Eminent Domain. Credit: Matt Rahner.

Found object assemblages installed in the exhibit Eminent Domain. Credit: Matt Rahner.

In Wendell-Phillips many residents felt that the city never cared enough to ask them (the residents) what they thought the City should do to spur economic growth or to curb crime, and that’s too bad because I think the residents had a lot of great ideas, and tearing down the neighborhood wasn’t one of them. The city, however, had their “reasons” for taking the neighborhood, and perversely, one of the more prominent ideas they pushed was that it was going to help the surrounding neighborhoods. They tried to sell the idea that this re-development would help the residents. This kind of faulty logic is on the city, and the effects are yet to be seen. Many residents wished the city would be more involved with the neighborhoods and listen to their feedback.

JM: Are there any other thoughts you have about this project?

I think it’s important for artists everywhere to be involved in their communities … if not making work about these topics, then to at least get involved in some way, whether joining associations or attending city council meetings. I don’t feel like I can measure in any qualitative way what my project has done, but I feel like it has helped raise awareness on these issues. Other professionals are working in their respective fields to raise awareness and create change. It takes multiple perspectives and multiple people to create change, and it can’t be just one person. There are strength in numbers.

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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.

Antonio López García’s Everyday Urban Worlds (and prezi)

My new book Antonio López García’s Everyday Urban Worlds: A Philosophy of Painting is entering production with Bucknell University Press – it should be available in August 2014 (appearing on amazon at present for pre-order).

It represents rather a new form of writing for me – inspired by the meandering and philosophical style of Spanish author / civil engineer Juan Benet’s El ángel del señor abandona a Tobías (1976) where he mixes a range of disciplinary questions together, using the famed painting of the same name by Rembrandt as a point of departure.

Here I’ve devoted a chapter each to specific paintings (Gran Vía, Madrid desde Torres Blancas, and Madrid desde la torre de bomberos de Vallecas…), which I use as points of departure to fold Spanish literature, film and urban planning together with larger interdisciplinary and philosophical, geographical questions.

If you CLICK HERE you can see a ‘prezi’ that I’ve used with a lecture focusing on an excerpt of the second chapter’s Madrid desde Torres Blancas (visuals only).

Stephen Vilaseca’s Barcelonan Okupas [new book just published]

Barcelonan Okupas book cover

Barcelonan Okupas: Squatter Power! is the first book to combine close-readings of the representations of Spanish squatters known as okupas with the study of everyday life, built environment, and city planning in Barcelona. Stephen Vilaseca broadens the scope of Spanish cultural studies by integrating into it notions of embodied cognition and affect that respond to the city before and against the fixed relations of capitalism. Social transformation, as demonstrated by the okupas, is possible when city and art interrelate, not through capital or the urbanization of consciousness, but through bodily thought. The okupas reconfigure the way thoughts, words, images and bodily responses are linked by evoking and communicating the idea of free exchange and openness through art (poetry, music, performance art, the plastic arts, graffiti, urban art and cinema); and by acting out and rehearsing these ideas in the practice of squatting. The okupas challenge society to differentiate the images and representations instituted by state domination or capitalist exploitation from the subversive potential of imagination. The okupas unify theory and practice, word and body, in pursuit of a positive, social vision that might serve humanity and lead the way out of the current problems caused by capitalism.

[Click here to listen to a podcast interview with Stephen Vilaseca]

[Click here to go to the book’s Amazon page]

003 – Madrid – Fraser on Antonio López García’s Everyday Urban Worlds [Book Teaser] – Urban Cultural Studies Podcasts

UCS 003 Fraser on Antonio López García’s Everyday Urban Worlds: A Philosophy of Painting   (6 August 2013) [BOOK TEASER] The author reads a concise draft introduction for a book in progress on the famed Spanish painter. Topics include art history, other Spanish painters (from Velázquez to Goya to Picasso, Dalí, Gris and M iró), Madrid’s urban space, temporality, and the book’s structure and interdisciplinary method (incorporating urban studies, geography, architecture, literature, cinema and more…). Born in Tomelloso in 1936, López García is an internationally recognized ‘hyperrealist’ painter, and in recent years his work Madrid desde Torres Blancas set an auction record at Christie’s for the sale of a work by a living Spanish artist.

001 – Valencia/Bilbao/Barcelona – Vilaseca on Street Art in Spain – Urban Cultural Studies Podcast

UCS 001 Stephen Vilaseca on Street Art in Barcelona Valencia and Bilbao Spain (28 June 2013)  Conversational interview inspired by scholar Stephen Vilaseca‘s recent article “From Graffiti to Street Art: How Urban Artists Are Democratizing Spanish City Centers and Streets,” originally published in the journal Transitions: Journal of Franco-Iberian Studies (8, 2012). Topics include: public space, graffiti vs. street art, artists Escif, Frágil and Dr. Case, Valencia, Bilbao, and Barcelona. [LINK TO ORIGINAL PUBLISHER]

Wallhunters: The Slumlord Project (Baltimore)

WallHunters: The Slumlord Project

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[Watch the 5 minute video here]

[this post follows up on previous posts on artist Gaia posted on this blog]

The project will install 15 large street art pieces with posted info that reveals/publicizes the ownership of dilapidated vacant houses.

Using radical methods, our project will unite three forces to catalyze discussion of Baltimore’s vacancy problem and how to solve it:

  • Wall Hunters Inc, a recently  created, street  artist run non profit organization
  • Baltimore Slumlord Watch
  • a film being made that gives voice to the ignored on the topic of vacancy and the power of street art.

In short, the project will bring together 15 artists from around the country, each of whom will install a large piece on a dilapidated vacant house. QR codes and text detailing the ownership information that is uncovered by Slumlord Watch will accompany the art. Voices of the people who live in these neglected areas of town, will be heard Continue reading