Public space should be about comfort, democracy, and delight. Where can we find those spaces?
I stole the title from Michel de Certeau, and this isn’t a how-to exactly, more of a how do we, how can we? These days I feel like most of my skills have been swallowed up in endless research and writing. So I thought I would find inspiration today, and write about how we can experience the city.
Michel de Certeau writes “The ordinary practitioners of the city live “down below,” below the thresholds at which visibility begins. They walk—-an elementary form of this experience of the city; they are walkers, Wandersmanner…”
It feels elementary, to walk the city. In a place like London you step into a certain anonymity as you step out of your own space. You make your way through the city thereby creating space, creating the city, one of a thousand thousand others also walking, also inhabiting and creating. This is how we create space through our lives, use the city in ways never expected by those in authority and best of all, in ways they can’t see.
So how do we do it?
Take the time. Let walking become not just a way to get from here to there, but a thing in itself. It’s a slow way to get from here to there. Chose it.
Look around, breathe, experience, drink it all in, think deep thoughts, soak up atmosphere, talk to strangers.
Let the city build itself in layers. Every time you step outside you learn something new. I know I’m lucky to live here, where everything breathes of all the people who have walked here before me. Our steps intertwine, even if our lives do not. That means…
As an LA native I would have never imagined that a bike movement would ever flourish in this city. Not because it’s impossible, but because I never saw a mode of transportation defining who I am as an individual. The automobile has scarred this city’s identity for far too long. Even though many people in Los Angeles walk, bike, and use public transit, it all goes back to the car. The fact that most our of public dollars go towards roads and highways doesn’t help.
In these hard times, even public transit has become expensive for many low-income people– who are turning to bikes as a primary mode of transportation. And as bus service cuts persist, bikes have been become a necessity for many folks, especially at night. Often riding with without a helmet, lights, or reflectors, these bicyclists have some scars—either from being hit by car, or knowing someone who was killed by a car. These bicyclists don’t all have fancy bikes nor the time to attend a hearing to advocate for more bike lanes or policies that protect them. It didn’t help that many of those active in this thriving bike advocacy movement didn’t look like them—brown, black or poor.
Founded by two women of color, the City of Lights/Ciudad de Luces Program, incubated by the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition (LACBC), has been working since 2008 to empower low-income cyclists of color through education and leadership development. What started off as an effort to give out helmets, lights and safety vests at day labor centers across the city, the program evolved into creating a bike repair space, BiciLibre, located in the Westlake neighborhood, and led community meetings to prioritize bike infrastructure in low-income areas as the City of LA drafted a Bike Master Plan. In almost four years, the program has helped serve 600+ low income cyclists, giving another face and voice to our bike movement. In late 2011, in the spirit of its popular education philosophy, a partnership between the City of Lights, LACBC, the City of LA Department of Transportation (LADOT) and retailer REI helped fund a public education campaign specifically targeted to the Latino community, the first of its kind. The campaign titled, “Precaución: Tu Familia También usa la Bicicleta,” went live this year, reaching a broader audience—beyond the hipster wearing cutoffs with a fixie hanging from his (or her) shoulder.
I would have never thought that bikes would eventually be part of the fabric of our city. Even I’m a believer now.
Last Saturday, some 3,000 thousand people gathered around Saint Paul’s cathedral in London to “Occupy the London Stock Exchange” (or LSX). Two days later, the camp is still up, as several hundred people sleep in tents each night and many more gather in the day to decide actions. Yesterday the Cannon of St Paul’s gave the occupiers his blessing to allow them to stay, after the police tried to force them out. I interviewed two of my friends and fellow activists, Mark Boothroyd and Jeremy Dewar, the day after the event.
Tell me about the atmosphere. What kinds of people were there? Was it a very mixed crowd? Or were most of the people the regulars we’ve seen over the past year out in the streets?
Mark: The crowd was overwhelmingly young, most in their late teens or twenties. There were older people there in large numbers, but it was a very youthful action. There was not a noticeable union presence, no banners or flags, although I noticed some trade unionists from London who are active in the anti-cuts movement.
There was a contingent from Anonymous with Guy Fawkes masks and several banners. There were lots of homemade banners and signs which people had brought, and as I arrived I saw people making more with bits of cardboard and marker pens, drawing inspiration from what was happening to come up with new slogans and ideas.
The protest was very international with people from all over the world attending. I met activists from Spain, America, Slovakia, Poland and many other countries. Some of the Spanish activists became active around the M15 movement earlier this year and had formed the Real Democracy movement here in the UK, which occupied outside the Spanish embassy for several weeks in solidarity with the protests in Spain. Others were various activists from around the world who lived in London and wanted to take part in the protests in solidarity with all the others protesting around the world.
Is the lack of recreational space making us fatter? Probably. (Among other things)
Americans are getting fatter every day. I’m sure there’s a statistic out there pointing to how every x number of minutes, a person somewhere out in America is determined to be obese. Despite the fact that the City and County of Los Angeles are vast, there is a serious lack of parks to ensure that people have spaces to create community, stay active, and most importantly, stay healthy. Obviously, the problem of obesity in the United States, and especially in communities of color, will not be resolved by simply creating more spaces for recreation, as access to fresh, affordable food is also a key factor, but it would sure help if people in Los Angeles, and other urban cities throughout the country had places to run, walk and play.
In the meantime, as there is less and less available land in Los Angeles for parks, people that are able to get have easy access to open space (and can stay healthier) are those with large yards (keep in mind that about 60% of City of LA residents are renters), can afford a gym membership of some sort, or are fortunate enough to live near open space (there’s very few of us).
As a kid growing up in South Los Angeles, it was much easier for me to get to Popeye’s and McDonald’s than to Rancho Cienega Park, which was about 4 long blocks from my house, but I had to walk across the train tracks (where the Exposition Line will soon run) and walk Exposition Blvd, where you found a wide assortment of furniture and trash dumped before you got to the park. Keep in mind, the 1990s were a tough time in South LA (i.e. 92′ Civil Unrest and and subsequent years of blight).
From the moment I step out of my front door in the morning to the moment I come home at night, around 300 surveillance cameras record my every move. When I get on the bus, five cameras monitor people on the inside, while several others film cars on the outside of the bus. In libraries, on street corners, in parks or stores, I am Constantly. Being. Watched.
A typical CCTV warning sign in Croydon, London. Signs like these are strewn around the city.
Image by le Korrigan – Flickr
This is the story of what it’s like to live in the UK today. London has the “greatest density of surveillance cameras on earth” (Luksch & Patel, 2008), a fact that one becomes used to at an alarming speed when one lives here. There are so many cameras in this city, their abundance becomes normalized. Strolling around on a Sunday afternoon, you almost forget about them, really.
“CCTV panopticon” by nicolasnova – Flickr
Whenever I despair about our diminishing public sector, I reflect on The Library as a sacrosanct bastion of democracy. But now, even that is prey to the privatization beast.
This, my friends, has got to stop. Check out privatizationbeast.org.
Also, check out David Morris’ article on the Public Library inspired by the “rebranding” of the Fort Worth library which removed the word “public” from the name.
Like I said, this has got to stop.
What if school was full of things that your were dying to learn? Where students are teachers and teachers are students?
A parallel development to London’s protests and counter-movements against the deep cuts in education, social programs, and the public-sector-at-large is an emergence of ”free schools” –– voluntary places of non-hierarchical alternative education that take place in the occupations and include workshops, classes and discussions as well as reading groups.
Some of these occur as spontaneous classrooms in public spaces, reminiscent of 1960s “happenings,” such as the events created by the University for Strategic Optimism.
Other seek more permanent sites, albeit squats, such as the Really Free School (previously the School of Temporary Thought), now housed in the old pub Black Horse pub in central London, not far from many of the city’s universities.
“Surrounded by institutions and universities, there is newly occupied space where education can be re-imagined. Amidst the rising fees and mounting pressure for ‘success’, we value knowledge in a different currency; one that everyone can afford to trade. In this school, skills are swapped and information shared, culture cannot be bought or sold. Here is an autonomous space to find each other, to gain momentum, to cross-pollinate ideas and actions. […]”
It’s what we did on the 23rd, we did it to hold our own People’s Assembly, and extraordinary it was too! The crowd outside was so impressive, and the noise was like nothing, absolutely nothing I have ever heard before, as the cars, trucks and buses passing all slowed down, cheering and honking to show their support.
It was tricky even getting in. And so we got fed up and took democracy into our own hands. This is what it felt like as we forced our way up the stairs and into the main council chamber after they refused to even let us into the overflow room to hear our people testifying to the council:
I’m usually the one with the camera, so it is magic to have someone else catch my face (and Ali’s!) at such a moment of happiness (photo by Guy Smallman, he’s got some great pics!). I found my face featuring heavily in the Socialist Worker article, which was ironic, but I loved that so many groups were able to come together to pull off such an incredible night.
I spent a good portion of my childhood and college years in Paris and during that time, I spent many a day with my friends in parks and public spaces loitering, people watching, chatting, protesting… the top four favorite occupations of Parisians.
In Paris, public space abounds and is used for casual meet-ups, art happenings and street performances, for protests, playtime or for strolling with a loved one. The French love to occupy these places.
Public spaces are the perfect spots to eat a quick bite at lunchtime, to catch up with old friends and perhaps above all, to practice the favorite Parisian pass-time of voir et être vu, “seeing and being seen.” It has always been my way to meet up with friends or family in a park, along a canal or on a square any place other than in a café, restaurant, orany other place where you have to consume (Paris is expensive and a lot of us are strapped for cash).
Public spaces are convenient half-way points and meeting spots that open up time and possibilities — the possibility of observing others and participating in street/city-life, the possibility of bumping into other people we know, or of hanging around longer than one would want to in a bar or a restaurant where your time is more or less contingent upon how much you consume. Public spaces open up the movement and size of a group, a flow of friends and acquaintances coming in at some points and leaving at others, and maybe returning later on. Public spaces exist solely for the purpose of being enjoyed and occupied by people…and that’s exactly what Parisians do. Public spaces are fully integrated elements of everyday city-life. And this is why, when I think of Paris, I think of lazing and people watching, of casual football passes, of being free to simply hang out.
This week’s assignment to pick my favorite public spaces was a tough call. I thought of my favorite lounging parks, such as the park in the center of the beautiful Place des Vosges where Victor Hugo once lived.
Place des Vosges
I thought of the Pont des Arts, a pedestrian bridge that links the banks of the Seine where I like to picnic with my buddies. Its a hangout for young folks and sometimes a brass band shows up at night.
Pont des Arts
I believe as I’ve mentioned previously, I’m not that into public spaces, though I have nothing against them personally. But there is one such public space I dig, and at least sporadically, have enjoyed over time; the Grand Performances series which have taken place for some 24 years. This has been a publicly and privately funded nonprofit enterprise bringing music and other arts for free to the downtown L.A. venue of the Water Court at the California Plaza.
Ordinarily the plaza is an open air dining and coffee drinking space set on a tier, that is you can park underneath or walk up to its plateau fronting an elevated Grand Avenue from lower Olive Street on its eastern side, where the plaza is set among massive office towers and the Omni Hotel. Across Olive is the apex of Angel’s Flight, a funicular rail that goes up and down a short run of Bunker Hill. Angel’s Flight (having re-opened recently after being shut down for a decade in the wake of a fatal accident) has been seen in noir films such as the lurid ‘50s masterpiece Kiss Me Deadly with Ralph Meeker as the best Mike Hammer ever, to the recent Our Family’s Wedding, a comedy about the misadventures of an African-American groom and his Mexican-American bride and their respective soon to be in-laws.
Back to Grand Performances. Over the years a broad range of sound and visuals have been on tap at this space from the retro lounge/world beat band Pink Martini, the Guangdong Modern Dance Company, the Watts Prophets, the spoken word progenitors who came out o the Watts riots of ’65, the music of Battlestar Galactica (and this is not the time to delineate the current incarnation of Battlestar and its Caprica offspring on cable, but suffice it to say this sci-fi epic ain’t your daddy’s ‘80s Battlestar helmed by Bonanza’s Lorne Greene on network TV), the Dakah Hip Hop Orchestra, to the silent film, La Passion de Jeanne D’Arc with a live score accompanying it featuring strings and a choir.
This week I read in the paper that the Los Angeles City Council was awarding $18 million to finish a project that has been a redevelopment site in my neighborhood for years. The goal? To build a Costco. Then to build a Costco with a Home Depot on top. Then when both of those pulled out, to build a Lowe’s home improvement store, which is a lot like a Home Depot.
And that same week I received an email from the Los Angeles Public Library (News You Can Use) with their new schedule consisting of shorter hours and no longer being open on Sundays and Mondays.
Libraries in my mind, are the last of the great public sector products. They are safe spaces for children, for homeless, for women, for families, and for the curious of all stripes — not to mention they are full of books. And they are free. You can stay there as long as you like. All day if you want. They are peaceful.
And as the public sector has crumbled around them, many libraries have stepped up to fill the gap. Last year I read a headline that was something like “Head Librarian Bans Shushing,” for an article about Chicago, I believe, where the head librarian acknowledged their last-public-sector-standing-role and explained “We are the last community centers. People need to talk. We can’t tell them to be quiet any more.”
Although I don’t generally follow architecture awards, which tend to favor the male divas of that profession, I am excited to see that this year’s European Prize for Urban Public Space, is shared, with one of the two winners being the inventive Open Air Library in Magdeburg, Germany that was created by the residents themselves, built out of the debris of a demolished building, and is open 24/7 for people to enjoy the space and borrow books.
The partner winner is an Opera/Ballet house in Oslo, Norway that includes a ramp up to the roof which serves as a public plaza.
It is still not too late. Maybe our neighborhood Lowe’s can support a public plaza on its roof (instead of parking) or a public library at its base. Or something else that engages the idea of a public in exchange for our hard-pressed public investment. Something of value besides shopping.
As I stumbled back home late one Friday night after many hours of travel to get from a tiny town in Southern France to London’s own Tower Hamlets, people busy painting a line along the pavement and doing various other things made it hard to get my roller bag past them. I was not pleased, but I woke up to this:
The London Festival of Architecture brought the University of Innsbruck’s Walk the Line project, and the weekend was full of activities, games, food (I suppose it was too much to hope for it as a Johnny Cash reference). The statue of Gladstone in front of the old church looked happier with his blue scarf.
None of that was for me sadly, I was exhausted and had one hell of a deadline coming up. But the idea was interesting, changing how people use public spaces and form community with the simple use of some paint and some props.
I think, however, that the aftermath was even more interesting, because for a few days the props were left, the hosts were absent, and my neighbors were left to do with the space and the props as they would. Of course, I was still on deadline, so I just saw it as I walked to and fro work and school. But this was after all just a student project, a taste of what this space could be with just a tiny bit of investment.
They took everything away, and my own pictures came just a few days late to capture the small magic – so I have borrowed some photos from Loopzilla, who has made them available for just this purpose. And you can read a short story about the effort on Diamond Geezer.
But let’s take the Seating Furniture for example:
They had made innovative little tables out of plywood with holes in the middle to fit down over the bollards, and painted tree stumps blue for people to use as seats. And all kinds of different people used them, from big burly guys to the guys who worked in the little shops to families to teenagers. The same way they used the “dinner at eight” station with a more traditional table and chairs. It made me happy to see a whole family sitting down there on a warm summer evening eating a meal.
Now I have no idea what this was supposed to be exactly, it’s the wrong shape and size for hopscotch…
And I don’t think anyone is much celebrating the olympics around here, but kids seem to like to play on it. They play in the “official” games area as well, with balls and stones where the tic-tac-toe board was painted (noughts and crosses anyone?) that once had x’s and o’s. And loads of different people used the “theatre” (just another bunch of blue tree stumps) as another place to sit and chat in the shade. These things very visually created more opportunity for my neighbors to come together in ways they wouldn’t usually do, and spend time in an otherwise rather unwelcoming space that most just travel through, apart from the hordes of teenage boys in the afternoons and evenings, and the chatty crowd in front of the bookies.
So now that it’s gone, what are the lessons learned?
- You can do an immense amount of good with very little money. Stroudley Walk could clearly become a vibrant enjoyable place, and I applaud the student’s imagination and effort. You’d think planners would have figured this out by now.
- DO set up seating areas. Do NOT set up seating areas without providing bins. Or trash cans. Depending which continent you’re in. Or people will no longer like the seating areas.
- It’s always good know a bit more about the community when planning. If they’d spent much time here they surely would have thought of painting a football (soccer) pitch where the boys are always playing. And maybe had some better games? Like chess boards? A giant backgammon board? How cool would that have been? Maybe added some Bangladeshi artwork and made people’s smiles even bigger?
- It’s a bit crap to come into a community and do a project like this, and then take most of it away though I’m sure the Council didn’t want to have to deal with it. But the next bright-eyed students with an idea will wonder why the residents are a bit jaded and blame them for not being open and participatory. These projects should always be connected to the actual and real, as there are currently what seem to be rather terribly generic plans to redevelop the walk. This would have been an amazing way to test out things before they became permanent, and I could not think of a better way to start people thinking creatively about what they want from their neighborhood plaza and how they could actually use it. If the Council cared to ask them in a way that actually invited creativity and enjoyable participation.
Everyone agrees that Chicago Public Schools have to change. Yet there are fierce disagreements over what kinds of changes must be made, who should lead that change, and how it should be administered. At the helm of the warring parties are Karen Lewis, the new president of the Chicago Teacher’s Union, and Ron Huberman, the CEO of CPS installed by Chicago’s Mayor Daley.
These two opposing leaders are fighting a serious battle, one that will determine the extent to which public schools remain publicly owned and operated. It is a fight with tremendous implications, ranging from the future of charter schools in the City of Chicago, to how success is defined and evaluated.
In the backdrop of this battle, there is another struggle going on in Chicago Public Schools. This is the fight to protect the life of Chicago Public School students. As a recent New York Times article identified, 218 CPS students were shot in the last school year, and 258 the year before. The article, provocatively titled “Graduation Is the Goal, Staying Alive Is the Prize,” highlights efforts to improve the safety of simply attending public school. They focus on an unfolding intervention strategy which targets the most “at-risk” students and connects them with adult mentors and support services. Created by CEO Huberman, a former police officer, this $60 million intervention is also geared to strengthening communications between the police and school administrators. While this intervention brings in deeply needed resources, the police dimension of the program strengthens a disciplinary approach that relies heavily on law enforcement to run daily operations at schools.
No doubt I’m the last cat who should be writing about public space. I mean here at home in Los Angeles I rarely think about public space and congregating in same. That is, I do congregate occasionally, I just don’t go out of my way to do it. Because mostly I’m in my car going to and fro – and when I get to my destination, it’s rarely to a park. I have nothing against open spaces, I like open spaces and certainly L.A., particularly our urban areas of the city, that are green poor – though this is not the only way in which gathering spaces are manifested in this city.
Lord knows people have meetings, write screenplays or work on the Great American Novel on their laptops (or playing World of Warcraft with who knows who all else online) at many a Starbuck’s or Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf in this considerable town. Maybe somebody has tracked this, but I’ve yet to see or hear about a sinewy barrista kicking somebody out for staying too long in their coffee shop. But then, it seems these folks now and then buy a coffee, frappachino and/or bottle of water to keep the static down.
My gym, which the lovely and talented Dr. Pop pays for – as one has to have perks in this line of work – is an L.A. Fitness housed in a former Montgomery Ward department store in a mall on La Cienega near the 10 Freeway. Okay, so already it’s not a public space, but bear with me a moment. Given this is ethnically rich L.A. and the geography of where the gym is (located in between several distinct neighborhoods), this facility gets a cross section of its inhabitants from young sleek-muscled tatted ballers wearing just the right shoes for their hops to, what I presume to be, orthodox Jewish woman in sweat gear that includes long stretch skirts, sweat pants under that and coverings for their head. Admittedly, you don’t generally find representatives of these two groups awaiting their respective turns at the preacher curl machine, gabbing about the latest episode of Rookie Blue.
More than any other city I’ve been to, Berlin is the closest thing in my mind to what a city “built for the people” looks like.
East Berlin, that is. The ex-West Berlin is completely different, more typical of big western capitals with imposing, super-symmetrical, grey buildings standing starkly next to hyper-modern architecture, big monuments and chain stores strewn about large avenues that take hours to traverse – with many cars on the road and few people on the streets. The whole thing feels a bit cold and impersonal and during working hours, a bit like a giant German ghost town.
The East on the other hand is living. Its chaotic. There is graffiti absolutely everywhere, everywhere everywhere. Paint chips off of buildings, plants grow off ledges of buildings, people whiz by on bikes and smoke in cafes, a constant stream of people occupy the streets: talking, lounging, cooking food, playing football.
The wall might as well still be there – many, in fact would like it to be.
Every Sunday and holiday, about 80 miles of the main streets of Bogota are blocked off from cars for most of the day so that bicyclists, runners, skaters, and pedestrians can take over the streets. The ciclovias are used by about 2 million people – about 30% of the population and are surrounded by other events on park stages – concerts, yoga and aerobic instructions, and other performances.
And now, Los Angeles, the least likely suspect, whose endless concrete and streets have been the butt of urban critique for devoting most of the public space in the city to cars instead of people is on the verge of launching its own – CicLAvia – an event to be held on September 12 if all goes as planned.
“L.A. doesn’t have enough public space…of the largest cities in the U.S., L.A. is the most park-poor,” says Aaron Paley, CicLAvia advocate, in a video on Kickstarter, the social entrepreneur venture capital network. (What could be more Do-It-Together? Venture capital from anyone who can give $1 a more).
“But we do have these fantastic streets. And the streets already belong to us. And by turning the streets over to the people on a Sunday we create temporary parks overnight without any large investment.”
Aaron is a professional animator of public spaces and runs a company that is, ironically, called CARS (Community Arts Resources). He makes festivals, events, and turns concrete in L.A. into places where people dance, and, sing and play together. He’s a friend and we were Stanton Fellows together (a great program that helps social entrepreneurs create their own project – sorry, only in L.A.). He was researching and investigating and noodling about a new idea for public space, ended up in Bogota, and came back as a ciclovia evangelist.
A few weeks ago, Aiyana Stanley Jones was killed by the Detroit police, who raided her home while she was sleeping. The incident passed the national media’s “if it bleeds it leads” rule and was even more tragic because Aiyana was only 7 years old.
Five days later, 20-year-old Damion Gayles was shot and wounded by the police only a few blocks away. The community was outraged and the media picked up that outrage as well.
But what is less known about Detroit is how the people in this city that has been under economic, political, and police siege for so long, have been gradually building an infrastructure for peace and promise from the grassroots.
When violent crime and police brutality spiked in the 90s, the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality was formed to document acts of policy brutality and misconduct, to create greater accountability and justice from law enforcement, and to advocate for a police force that is more racially diverse, more respectful, and more adept at dealing with and serving people of different backgrounds and abilities.
One of the Coalition’s core organizing strategies is to form “Peace Zones for Life” across the city in which mediators are called in to arbitrate conflicts between neighbors and families rather than the police. Their idea is to “put the neighbor back in the hood” and to transform tragic events into community-building efforts for safer futures.
The killing of Aiyana and shooting of Damion have sparked the creation of new Peace Zones across the City. The shootings are tragic, but the innovation and tenacity of the Peace Zones deserve celebration.
Another kind of peace zone are the spaces and places being made where youth can participate in change-making and thrive. Central to such efforts are veteran activist Grace Lee Boggs (who will be 95 in July) and the Boggs Center, which was established in 1995 by friends and associates to honor and continue the revolutionary legacy of theory and practice of Grace Lee and her husband, James Boggs, now deceased. Read More…
This Mothers’ Day I would like to pay special tribute to (you Mom, of course), but also to the women known as Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
In March 1976, then-President of Argentina Isabel Perón was deposed by a military coup. This marked the beginning of a military dictatorship known as the “Dirty War” which would last until 1983. During that time, an estimated 30,000 people “disappeared”, mostly young women and men struggling for the return of constitutional rule, for the freedom of their country from its subjugation to U.S. interests, and for the respect of the U.N.’s Declaration of Human Rights. It was later discovered that most of these young “desaparecidos” had been abducted, tortured and killed for allegedly “corrupting Christian and Western values.”
“Que Digan Donde Estan” – Pictures of those who disappeared during the “Dirty War”
James Rojas is an urban planner who devotes a lot of his time to translating the impenetrable maps and language of land use planning into a activities that are visual, tactile, and playful — the language of how we actually experience the world.
James’ basic goal is to create environments that elicit ordinary people’s ideas and solutions to urban problems.
“I’m always amazed by people’s ideas and solutions — its mind-boggling how many creative ideas people have.”
To James, ideas are the golden currency of city-building.
Here’s a 3-minute video that runs you through the process and its party spirit. A more detailed explanation follows as the article continues below.
When thinking about urban environmental repair, there is perhaps no better place to start than in what may seem to be the most unlikely of places: Detroit, MI. Yes, the ex-capital of the auto-industry is rewriting the rules of urban regeneration as we know them and Detroit residents are creating a whole new way of thinking city-life.
As Rebecca Solnit says, Detroit’s best-known recent history is one of urban apocalypse characterized by “deindustrialization, depopulation, and resource depletion”
One third of the population lives beneath the poverty line and local officials estimate unemployment to be near 50% (the official figure is 30%).
Since the mid 1950s, the population has gone from nearly 2 million people to less than 900,000. Thirty percent of Detroit’s land is currently vacant – roughly the size of San Francisco in square miles. On top of this, the entire city of Detroit has become a “food desert” — there is not one produce-carrying supermarket in the City. The endless rows of abandoned buildings and houses of what was once Motor City offer an eerie glimpse into a “post-American” future.
But out of this land, another story is emerging, in which the people of Detroit are re-inventing their city as the urban agriculture center of the country.
I recently met Asenath Andrews, the principal of the Catherine Ferguson Academy, a high school for young mothers and pregnant teens who raise animals and organic fruits and vegetables. The school also offers classes on beekeeping and more to the community..
The conversation opened a window for me upon Detroit Green.
Here’s another little Havana/L.A. mashup about art and redevelopment.
One of my other favorite places in Havana is the Callejón de Hamel, a small alley near the University of Havana that is an explosion of color, afro-cuban imagery, and sculpture — produced by Cuban artist Salvador Gonzales Escalona.
Salvador started making murals and sculptures in the street in 1990, using scrap objects and whatever paint was available, including car enamel (good paint is in short supply in Havana).. Inspired by the support of local residents and visitors, he continued painting and sculpting and the street is now a jewel of a place that also serves as an active Afro-Cuban center. Children can take painting workshops there, and every Sunday Rumba musicians and dancers perform (it has become a tourist attraction, hence the nickname “rumba alley”).
The street is still Salvador’s artistic headquarters. Here is a lovely Havana Cultura video interview with the artist (sorry its just in Spanish, but even for people who don’t know the language, it is visually engaging, and gives you a sense of his personality):
I didn’t have to go far to see what L.A. has to offer along the lines of Callejon de Hamel. I live a stones throw from St. Elmo’s Village, which is now celebrating its 40th anniversary year as a live/work space for artists and as a community arts center.
The Village, as its residents call it, was founded by artists Roderick and Rozell Sykes and is run today as a non-profit by Roderick and his wife Jacqueline Alexander-Sykes.
City Mask by Roderick Sykes
Like Callejon de Hamel, St. Elmo’s offers art classes for children, and also hosts a weekly open house, frequent tours for local schools, and hosts the Poetry in Motion festival each fall.
What makes mathematicians good mayors?
They solve problems!
People using too much water? Taxi drivers taking folks to the wrong locations? Too many men acting violent at night? Frustrated drivers unable to communicate with each other? Urban dwellers crossing the street in dangerous ways?
In this videoblog urban planners from Colombia tell the story of two creative independent mayors who found new ways to address old urban issues. The mayors – Antanas Mockus from Bogota and Sergio Fajardo from Medellin – worked to change the way that residents relate to one another and to public space. With the help of mimes, super hero costumes, and artistic interventions, they helped to create a ‘culture of citizenship’ in their respective cities.
As you listen to Catalina Ortiz and Diego Silva tell the story of these two mayors, you’ll learn how former mathematicians became some of the most innovative politicians in Colombia’s recent history. And their efforts are far from over. Amidst Colombia’s unfolding presidential race, Mockus and Fajardo are both trying to bring their alternative messages to the national stage. While Fajardo’s campaign has been gaining steam in the mainstream, Mockus is focused on fueling a new grassroots movement built on trust between informed citizens. What is his campaign slogan amidst the violence plaguing the country today? “Life is Sacred.”
For more on Mockus and Fajardo check out the links below:
Fajardo in Medellin:
Question: Will more people take the stairs if it is turned into a piano?
Question: Will more people throw away trash if the trash can sounds like a 1,000 foot well?
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