Voices and Visions of St. Louis: Past, present, future

“Many of us are here because we want to bear witness to the terrible events that have recently unfolded in the cities of our nation, particularly but not exclusively in St. Louis, with respect to some of the most dispossessed citizens of our society,” stated Diane Davis, St. Louis native and chair of urban planning at the Harvard GSD. With this, Davis kicked off a two day conference, hosted jointly with Sam Fox School of Design at Washington University in St. Louis.

“For many of us the outrage is not merely the tragic events surrounding the senseless murder of Michael Brown and its aftermath, but also the longstanding neglect and unconscionable attitude we have taken as a nation with respect to the importance of building cities that embody the ideals of justice, equality, opportunity and toleration that we so cavalierly pride ourselves on here in America. ” The conference provided a rigorous inquiry into the historical development of the present moment in this American city. It also framed St. Louis as a metaphor for a national condition of racial injustice and encouraged designers, planners and policy makers to, in the words of Davis, “rise to the occasion and take responsibility to help create a better future.”

The keynote panel that followed featured Joseph Heathcott, professor of Urban Studies at the New School, and Jamilah Nasheed, Missouri state senator. Heathcott presented the legacy of white supremacy in St. Louis as implemented with calculated intentionality. The Jim Crow order in post Civil War St. Louis was “carefully constructed by white politicians, real estate networks, neighborhood groups and business associations over the course of five decades.” Heathcott presented St. Louis as a kind of border city between North and South, East and West. Given this status, segregation as law was unevenly applied in St. Louis, allowing for the flourishing of a black middle class that was active in challenging American apartheid. Nasheed spoke of the way in which well-designed cities can foster health and well-being, but the opposite is also true. He lamented the disinvestment in certain neighborhoods in St Louis that result in abandoned and neglected buildings. “It is why so many of our young people are filled with hopelessness as soon as they walk out their front door. When our government’s actions tell people they are not worth the most basic investment of time and money, it should be no surprise when they start to believe it.”

Below are select highlights from each of the panels from the 2 day event.

Civil War(s) in St. Louis

The first panel of presentations, which focused on the history of St. Louis, was both analytical and prospective, bringing to light key moments in history that could inform the call to action. The geographical, political and racial tensions caused by St. Louis’ status as a border city was a central theme, formulating St. Louis as a stage on which nationally significant events played out.

Colin Gordon of the University of Iowa, took the murder of Michael Brown by officer Darren Wilson as a point of departure for what he termed “ fractured citizenship” in this border city–one in which access to impartial law is a privilege. He asked, “Who does the state protect, who does it target, who are presumptively citizens, who are considered instead threats or nuisances?” He showed how policy and planning in St. Louis in the 19th and 20th centuries viewed black residents of St. Louis as less than full citizens. Each presentation in this panel built upon Heathcott’s thesis, that systematic racial exclusion and injustice were not incidental or organic but deliberately inscribed into the policies and fabric of the city, and that the dismantling of this legacy is a key responsibility of designers and planners.

Modernism and Its Discontents

“Who has the power to impose social and spatial order? What agency does urban design and planning have in that context?” asked Eve Blau, moderator and professor of urban design and planning. The conference's second panel addressed how design and planning interventions in St. Louis have contributed to socio-spatial exclusion, and in Blau’s words, “an unequal distribution of misery.” The common thread among these panelists was their interest in creating socio-spatial connectedness in a city left overwhelmingly disconnected by a complex history of planning missteps.

Panelist Heather Woofter, chair of Graduate Architecture at Washington University and founding director of the firm Axi:ome, discussed the challenge of practicing architecture in a city so thoroughly shaped by modernist planning, which ultimately resulted in disconnected neighborhood pockets. In their projects in St. Louis, Axi:ome tries to create “openness, community access to programming and joint efforts that move beyond property boundaries” in a setting that was originally designed for none of these things.

MK Stallings, educator, poet and the founder of UrbArts in St. Louis says, “It’s difficult to support artists in a city that is so polarized racially and segregated residentially. There are just not enough spaces where you might build audiences for artists.” He discussed the way that the combination of population shrinkage, low density, and few cultural institutions to support black arts has resulted in artists generally leaving the city to find support elsewhere. UrbArts combats this by working to build an arts community in St. Louis, creating venues and events for the display of local work as well as youth and community programming.

Exposing Exclusion

“It was the uprising in Ferguson catalyzed by the police shooting of Michael Brown that helped dispel the myth of a post racial Obama era in America,” said Dan D’Oca (professor of planning and urban design and moderator of the third panel). “Autopsies of those uprisings have effectively demonstrated the degree to which white supremacy continues to shape our urban environments.” This panel brought together a diverse group of people dedicated to shining a light on white supremacy through data visualization, activism, filmmaking, and journalism­, telling stories with an eye toward removing barriers to access in St. Louis.

Dr. Jason Purnell leads the public health initiative “For the Sake of All” to improve the health and wellbeing of African Americans in St. Louis. Purnell’s simple, legible maps overlay data on health, race and socioeconomic factors. One map with particular impact showed an 18 year gap between the life expectancies in 2 different zipcodes, areas separated by fewer than 10 miles. Purnell illustrated the way in which context is a major determining factor in health outcomes: “Only 39 percent of African Americans in St. Louis consider their neighborhood safe. Only 66 percent of African Americans in the city of St. Louis find it easy to buy fresh food. When folks like me in public health suggest 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity and 5-7 fruits and vegetables a day, if you don't consider it safe, you aren't going out for that walk after dinner, you're not sending your children out to play. If you have to take 2 buses to find a fresh fruits or vegetables it's going to be much harder to engage in that behavior. Behavior happens in a context.”

Sylvester Brown is the executive director of the Sweet Potato Project, a program that gives St. Louis youth summer jobs planting and growing sweet potatoes in vacant lots and ultimately creating and selling a product from the sweet potatoes. “We teach them marketing, branding, product development, and sales and teamwork.” While it’s a simple concept and model, the effects of the project are profound. “This is how you change a community, how you empower people to direct their own destiny,” said Brown.

Reconstructing a Better Future

Toni Griffin, (LF ’98, professor in practice of urban planning, and founder of the consulting practice Urban Planning and Design for the American City) moderated the last panel, which synthesized ideas formulated throughout the conference and identified next steps. Two themes recurred: fragmentation–culturally and politically embedded in St. Louis–and agency–who has it, and who doesn't. She challenged the audience to use our agency to change this fragmentation: “I venture to say that 90 percent of the people in this room grew up in a segregated community. Just sit with that for a second. We all are likely living in or grew up in a segregated space.” We don’t often think of all white enclaves as segregated, but this simple exercise allowed the audience to recognize that segregation is not only the creation of black space, but also white space. Griffin also added an important observation to the conversation about scales of spatial interventions. Interventions into segregated black spaces tend to be small scale, “creative placemaking” or “tactical urbanisms”, while interventions into white space tend to be bolder and backed by major investment. When these types of large scale investments are made in black neighborhoods, it is often in anticipation of it transitioning to a white space.

The format of the conference–a deep examination of multiple facets of a single city as a means of engaging in a conversation with urgent national relevance–contributed to its successful outcome. The presentations and subsequent conversations were radical and productive, informed and pragmatic.

Tagged , , , , |

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *