Friday, July 24, 2009

Rightsizing Cairo

Above: Cairo, Illinois, December 2007.
Below: Cairo, Illinois, July 2009, same place, different result.

I'm just back from a 5-day, 2500-mile drivathon (with Marcia, Olon, and Lisa) to the Gulf Coast, my fourth since Hurricane Katrina, including a stop in Cairo, Illinois.

There's a lot to say of what we saw and I'll close this post with some of those introductions.

Here, I want to focus on Cairo, which I first visited in December 2007 and wrote about in an earlier onesmallproject.blogspot post. A city located at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, with economic logic and strategic significance that are no longer relevant. A culture where refusal by white business owners to hire black employees led to an extended economic boycott that added to the city's freefall. What was once 20,000 people is now 2,000.

I went back to several locations to record the current condition, as compared to late 2007.

You see in the images that open this post the most dramatic of changes: a building that in 2007 had a tree growing through its facade has rubbled, exposing the tree's base and pulling down the neighboring building.

This is one way that nature fights ... slowly, growing a tree, finding a crack between brick wall and limestone sill, growing, growing, growing out, up, and to the light, and all the time pushing, bending, invading ... toppling, reclaiming, looking for more.

Above (2007) and Below (2009): a view down Commercial Street. From here, the only notable difference was the amount of traffic during our recent visit--tourists, motorcyclists, after-church locals, all driving slowly, some offering to talk with me to express their surprise, history, wonder.

This moment changed some things for me in 2007, finding the inside of a glass door covered with vegetation and a tree attempting to grow out of the crack between sidewalk and facade, seeing this long-term deterioration of the human-made environment and the patience and power of nature. In 2009, the growing was on-going, the door was open, the plants reaching out.

While the appreciation for Duke, telephone number, and very good question remain, the aluminum framing (above, December 2007) that once was a front door is gone in July 2009, probably at the hands of a scrapper.

Significant difference here, between winter and summer conditions. Facade elements holding on in 2007 (above) are gone or in the process of collapsing in 2009 (below).

For more images, go to Cairo 2009.

Along the 2500 miles, we saw some things:

Birmingham, Alabama ... Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, all members of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Youth Choir and all killed by a bomb that exploded in the ladies' lounge in the church's basement at 10:22 AM on September 15, 1963, the clock, today, still telling that time, reminding.

Tuskegee, Alabama ... at Olon's alma mater, Tuskegee University, and there's no way not to be awed by the founder Booker T. Washington and the work of George Washington Carver, humbled by the early buildings (constructed with bricks handmade on-site by students), the Airmen, and every student, faculty member, employee, and advocate, and inspired by Paul Rudolph's best, the Tuskegee Chapel.

Montgomery, Alabama ... a slow shock, so many critical moments of the Civil Rights Movement pulsed and pulsing there: Rosa Parks, Bull Connor, George Wallace, Martin Luther King Jr.'s first congregation, Ralph Abernathy. Today, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Civil Rights Memorial Center + Maya Lin, but also Wall of Tolerance, where each visitor can enter his or her name as a show of commitment to the ideals of the Civil Rights Movement: to work in our daily lives for justice, equality, and human rights.

New Orleans ... the Lower Ninth Ward with Brad Pitt building architectural monsters one after another. Here, maybe only here, I'm embarrassed to be an architect, I'm walking in an architectural horror show, courtesy of some of the world's "best" architects. But at least Pitt is doing something.

New Orleans ... Duncan Plaza encircled with chain link and emptied of a 200-person tent city in December 2007 under the pretense of some local construction. We see it again, as it sits across from City Hall and Mayor Ray Nagin, the plaza still empty, with construction going on two sides, but really, no need to move the people out except to get them out of sight.

New Orleans ... Bourbon Street, my first elevated police booth.

Lafayette, Louisiana ... Acadiana Outreach Center (visited in 2008 and 2009) designed, cobbled together, and built incrementally under the guidance of our friend Hector LaSala.

Memphis ... late one night we stopped on Beale Street for dinner. But beyond that, the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, must be seen, as I saw it in 2007, on a dark, rainy night--the balcony and car, double-hung window barely open across the alley, light on, James Earl Ray waited there, patient, and pushed his gun's barrel out, aimed, and fired. In a split second, death ... and so much dead.

Cairo ... after some photography, walking around, we find a place of business, a bar, Fat Boys Bar & Grill, what seems to be the only functioning business on Commercial Street, and it's not until I've ordered a soft drink that I see a large Confederate flag hanging from the ceiling, a vicious reminder of past struggles and tensions still alive.

We drove away from this place, Olon and I, planning our return.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Leftover Rightunder

I'm just back from Lexington and a dayplus as Guest Artist at the Governor's School for the Arts, as organized by The Kentucky Center and hosted by Transylvania University.

This year, GSA auditioned over 1600 students and 225 high school juniors and seniors were selected to participate in the three-week program in one of nine disciplines: architecture, creative writing, dance, drama, instrumental music, musical theatre, new media, visual art, and vocal music. Students, faculty, and guests focus on topics and issues within their fields, even as disciplinary boundaries are crossed effortlessly. Students room with a student from another field, each student is required to attend a minimum of three "smorgs" (a smorgasbord of one-hour short courses offered by faculty members in each field), and faculty share breakfast, lunch, and dinner tables along with a late night table near their residence hall. One guest artist from each field makes a morning presentation to the entire GSA group as a kick-off for an immersive day dedicated to each discipline.

Steven Ward, Donna Sink, and Jeff Rawlins, assisted by Mark Richards, are teaching the architecture component to eighteen young architects. The thematic: "found" as in (from my perspective) found materials, found sites, found artifacts, found spaces, found lives, and maybe even found careers and happiness!

To kick off the Architecture Immersion Day on July 1, I offered "Leftover Rightunder," as in, so many offsites, gonelives, and immaterials so taken for granted, or not, that we don't see them or believe they exist.

On June 12 I visited East St. Louis with Olon Dotson and students in his " The Applicability of New Urbanism in Our Inner-City Communities” seminar. This "leftover space"--two abandoned houses that nature has reclaimed--were among our sightings. (all photos by the author, for more photos, see this set)

I like this category "leftover" as it expresses the complementary relationship between things that we traditionally perceive as being unused or unconsumed and things that remain as residue. Synonyms bring out the interconnectedness even more: leftover indicates remainder--rubbish, odd, or waste--AND excess--surplus, bonus, dividend.

In this, your garbage is my prize, that wasted space can welcome our event, and a person considered homeless, someone we won't acknowledge passing on the street, or the individual we try to keep out of our neighborhood, house, and life, is, I say is, of interest, importance, and potential.

This quality I term "leftover spaces, leftover materials, and leftover people" and the title "Leftover Rightunder" refers to the presence of such rubbishes/dividends everywhere around each of us.

In East St. Louis, near the corner of 10th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, across the street from the Katherine Dunham Museum, an apartment complex is being deconstructed, with oversized brick-blocks saved and palleted for future use.

As part of my presentation, I asked the assembled students and faculty, from the nine disciplines, to shout out words or phrases that capture this quality of "leftover" in their fields. Among the suggestions:

ghost image
double casting
short ends

I like this. Am I, a licensed architect with a PhD, am I an UNDERSTUDY of a self-builder in Buenos Aires, both learning from him and having my knowledge undercut and simultaneously underscored by his ideas, works, and practices? Is a self-builder in a planned informal settlement in Panama City, Panama a GHOST IMAGE of the professional constructor he practices in the formal economy during weekdays, or is the formal downtown high-rise that he builds the ghost image of the construction one finds in informal settlements around the world? Does one pollute the other? Are they so different? With a professional education, do we DOUBLE CAST students as both knowledgeable enough to begin a career and unknowledgeable about almost anything outside the conventional bounds of the profession? By SHORT ENDS, are we talking about those most in-need getting only what are the cast-offs of the middle class? Or are we talking about the very best, maybe as a way to acknowledge that slumdwellers -- who appear to own so little -- have a great deal to teach designers about sustainable practices?

East St. Louis again, background = a long abandoned building in full collapse, middleground = open land with partial basketball court + players, foreground = my colleague Olon Dotson.

For now, to continue this interest in language, and in finding new words to express new ideas, to become aware of unknowable settings, or to believe in what we're seeing because we have language with which to communicate, I'd like to add a onesmallproject.glossary, just for fun, and to suggest a range of words and ideas and approaches for your consideration.

As in "a system of outdoor community courts, convened for genocide cases" in Rwanda.

"Gacaca was designed to reward confessions, because the objective was not only to render rudimentary justice and mete out punishment but also to allow some emotional catharsis by establishing a collective accounting of the truth of the crimes in each place where they were committed."

Source: "The Life After," Philip Gourevitch, The New Yorker, May 4, 2009.

Getting Baptized
"A generation ago, it was a given that if you were a black man in Detroit, you worked in an auto plant. A job on the line was a birthright, reporting to the employment office of one of the Big Three a rite of passage. 'We called it 'getting baptized,' a retired African-American autoworker, General Baker, told me.'"

Source: "G.M., Detroit and the Fall of the Black Middle Class," Jonathan Mahler, The New York Times Magazine, June 28, 2009.

"Whether via neglect, fire, or the odd Cajun musician, block after block of Detroit succumbed to the bulldozer over the decades, but it wasn't until Monday, April 26, 1993, during a budget presentation to Detroit's City Council, that the city's unbuilding binge rocketed to national attention. On that day, Marie Farrell-Donaldson, Detroit's ombusdman, proposed that blighted sectors of the city be put out to pasture. Detroit would literally be downsized at '20, 25 blocks at a whack.' The plan called for residents to be ferried from moribund districts to those where a spark of life could still be found. Derelict houses would be demolished, empty stretches fenced off, and the whole mess turned over to 'nature.' Farrell-Donaldson, a former city auditor who was Michigan's first black female certified public accountant, titled her report 'Management by Common Sense.' She explained in terms familiar to the Motor City's hard-pressed automobile executives: 'What we would be trying to do, in reality, is to downsize the community. We're talking about rightsizing the city to correlate with our budget.'"

Source: Jeff Byles, Rubble: Unearthing the History of Demolition. New York: Harmony Books, 2005, p. 233.

Urban Prairie
"A vacant lot in a city that has been neglected for some time, thus having grown weeds or other assorted vegetation. Usually found in not-very-nice or neighborhoods populated with abandoned houses. 'I liked the apartment, but I'm not sure I should take it--that neighborhood has an awful lot of urban prairie.'"

Source: Urban Dictionary, downloaded July 4, 2009.

Walking Point
"as a reference to military service and as a way to be in the city, to be aware and alert at all times, to live in the city as one would live in a war zone"

Source: conversation with Michael Orange, Mechanic Street between 4th and Broadway, Camden, New Jersey, October 2008. (for photos of Camden, see this set)

This is a first five.

All Leftover Rightunders.

More to follow.