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Building on Theories and Practice of Black Urbanism in Our New World

Interior view of the basket-like casing of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The museum was lead by an African-American and British-Ghanian architects.

Interior view of the basket-like casing of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The museum was lead by an African-American and British-Ghanian architects.

I have always owed a great debt to the work of Sara Zewde, especially the usage of the term black urbanist and talking about black urbanism. Zewde is currently a principal at Asakura Robinson a designer at the Seattle-based firm GGN and in 2010, published her MIT graduate thesis, Theory, place, and opportunity: black urbanism as a design strategy for the potential removal of the Claiborne Expressway in New Orleans.

When I started this page, she had the only reference I could find online to the concept of black urbanism, especially as an architectural vernacular (style). Later on, fellow planner and blogger Pete Saunders addressed the term here and here. These authors have provided an African continent-centered focus on black or African urbanism. The most compelling chapter I’ve found in a recent Google search to see if other writers had used the term in recent years. Somehow I missed this chapter in Adam J. Bank’s  2006 book Race, Rhetoric, and Technology: Searching for Higher Ground.

I especially want to draw attention to Melvin Mitchell’s theories which are highlighted in the chapter, which I’ve taken a snapshot of below:

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With this being said, and with the new political environment that we are facing, what’s next for black urbanism? I’d like to take a stab at naming a few things that need to happen:

Insist Black buildings and Black neighborhoods (and other ethnic and poor and marginalized neighborhoods) are just as deserving of historic preservation as others. While it saddens me that so many of the historic Victorian and Warder row-homes here in DC are so expensive, at least they are still standing in their present form. Additionally, the modern homes in the wealthier Black areas of Chicago are just as worthy as anything Frank Lloyd Wright has built. If we can keep the D.C Chinatown and even enhance it by building the archway, we can also prioritize historic structures even as we densify. Likewise, being mindful  (again)that black urbanism is also an architectural vernacular. This gets back to Mitchell’s ideas. I will say that strategically placed public buildings like the new National Museum of African-American History and Culture can be culturally sensitive and still help the black community, even though they were built for primarily white institutions.

Create and honor homeownership or long-term leases, as well as create shopping centers and service plazas that service all income levels. As much as I’d love a certain bullseye-clad big box store to be a bit closer to my home, I’d like it even better if we had neighborhood businesses that are smaller, more focused sections of the department store, such as a stationary store, or grocery or clothing. Neighborhood businesses that are co-ops or otherwise under less pressure for profit and more pressure to create livelihoods and provide good service. Likewise, continuing to promote and provide home purchasing and renovation services, as well as a wide variety of rental options for multiple budgets.

Push for the restoration of the traditional public school system, and turn the charter system into an alternative educational mechanism. I get it, charters promise parents more control and you can do things in charters that the regular public instruction doesn’t allow (like boarding schools, religious instruction, etc.). However, nothing is stopping a group of parents from creating extracurricular education groups for their children, even in marginalized areas. This is where the new charter apparatus would come in, by providing supplemental funding for programming outside of the classic school day, as well as forming a coalition with other adult and child social service providers. I think we need to push for a strong public education system and we need to focus our own extracurricular activities into ensuring that all children have opportunities for after school art, sports, and extra career and trade education. We need our youth to know they can be creative and they can create a new future out of the ashes.

Acknowledge climate change, especially the kind done by fracking,  regular oil pipelines. mining and even landfills near residential areas. I feel like this will be the one thing that the administration has pushed that will affect everyone and potentially exterminate us. So many black communities have battled living near factories, landfills, and other toxic waste for years and many lives have been lost silently to cancers and other diseases. 

File civil suits for every constitutional amendment or social issue violation that happens. I’ve been kicking money back to the ACLU for years and I’m going to increase that donation to them and the Southern Policy Law Center. Also, not just court cases, but standing up for all kinds of marginalized people and recognizing that there are many successful kinds of lifestyles for adults, children and families and creating communities that allow for diverse lifestyles and cultures, without pushing the supremacy or harm of one or the other.

Being careful that we make it clear online when we are speaking our opinion, being satirical or using facts. Yes, facts still exist, and so does opinion. I want to do my best to only spread ideas as ideas that I think better society and make it clear where facts come from.

Recognizing that activism for black folks and other marginalized people does not disqualify a person from professional or political practice or office. Activism is also a form of tactical urbanism. Recognizing that people of color and marginalized folks are going to be even angrier and oppressed and the microaggressions and outright neoliberalism and the systemic classism, racism, and homophobia are going to be worse. Don’t be that person in your planning or architectural practice, your pursuit for good governance or internally with your friends and colleagues.  Understand fully or try to understand the righteous anger and/or the burden of practice, especially against oppressive systems.  Constantly check yourself. Also, there’s fine line between a practice that is rooted in cultural vernaculars and only being the voice for that culture. Let’s be mindful if and when we choose to token and know that while it can be necessary, it can also be just as harmful. Also, having a culturally-sensitive urbanism doesn’t exclude or excuse anyone, if practiced properly. 

And if you are marginalized, rail against the system, but also tap into your creative side. If we had better, more sustainable systems, we could abandon the old ones causing us harm. I know for many of us, we just want to survive or get a piece of the pie. But what if we knew how to bake our own pies and could share? Forgive yourself and forgive those who are evil. You don’t have to forget, but you will need all that energy for the new creations and new worlds we are walking into. Let go of the shame of the words of the oppressor and remember they are wrong and you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t have a purpose.  Don’t do things that turn you into the oppressor. Teach or find someone willing to teach others how to respect cultural tradition and vernacular. Oh, and this is the part where I type SELF-CARE, SELF-CARE, SELF-CARE, SELF CARE…in all caps and repeatedly.

Finally, don’t give up. We will survive someway and somehow, as we always have as a people. Even if that means we are a people in exile.

I’m Kristen. Six years ago, I started blogging here to make sense of the built environment around me. You can find me on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. You can find out more about me at my main website, www.kristenejeffers.com. Support me on Patreon.

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