Race matters: Los Angeles’s ethnic neighbourhoods & cultural empathy

‘Ethics should walk on one side of the road.’

‘I have noticed interlopers from the Islamic countries sneaking in so I guess the standard of places will fall and crime will increase.’

‘This is Australia, fit in or f*** off.’

Community responses I receive while working on revitalisation projects across multicultural Sydney neighbourhoods vary — from frustrations, hate and prejudices towards people who are different from them; to desires for cultural diversity and intercultural understanding. While racist comments are often omitted in public documents, intercultural conflicts manifest themselves via social media and surveys — a reflection of our society, and too palpable and too deep to brush under the rug.

I also hear comments that are less driven by hate, and more by fear and anxiety. Established residents feel that they are being pushed out of the neighbourhood they have been in for decades, with their identity no longer celebrated in the public realm: ‘Australian influences and English-speaking signs are now the exception or secondary at best. Enclaves breed isolation and exclusion.’ Cafes have changed hands and menus; ethnic supermarkets have moved in selling goods they don’t recognise; the small family-run tool shop is now gone; all of a sudden, their town centre is designated as a cultural precinct, Chinatown or Little Italy, which they don’t’ feel a part of.

How do we help each other see that the celebration of one cultural group does not reduce that of our own? How do we collectively understand that sharing the public realm doesn’t mean melting away of group differences? In the state of New South Wales alone, population growth due to net overseas migration is projected to be 1.74 million (2011-2036). We will need additional infrastructure, social/educational services and amenities, yes, but equally important is building community capacity for all to get along, and to feel a sense of belonging no matter how small their demographic representation.

 

Long-simmering racial and class conflicts 

I remember seeing the footage of the LA Riots in 1992, when my family was exploring emigrating from Seoul to New Zealand. The riots had broken out of conflicts and injustices that built up over time involving white police officers, Korean immigrants and African-Americans and killed more than 50 people and injured thousands. Shops were torched, destroyed and suffered $1 billion in damage (the riots were the manifestation of a complex series of conflicts as shown here). Perhaps the riots draw a rather grim picture of multiculturalism – but it also teaches us in Australia, with a relatively short immigration history, that intercultural understanding is something that can and must be continually nurtured.

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Koreatown today is a safe precinct known for best Korean food outside of Korea.

The current demographics of Los Angeles’s neighbourhoods reflect the racial and class hierarchies established through housing policies in the 30s. In 1939 Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) categorised the neighbourhoods from A to D: A being colour-coded green and the best investment; and D being red and the worst investment. ‘Those communities depicted in “red” usually contained minorities: African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Asian-Americans, and sometimes newly arrived immigrant groups like Slavs, Jews, and Italians’, writes Ryan Reft of KCET. The disinvestment in the redlined neighbourhoods led to a vicious cycle of blights.

 

The social heritage and authenticity

Today, neighbourhoods in and around downtown serving low-income ethnic groups (see interactive map) including Little Tokyo are having to make way for luxury property developments and chain stores. Little Tokyo’s history dates back to late 1880s, with the first group of Japanese immigrants settling and building businesses there. A poignant public art project, Memories of Little Tokyo, takes visitors through a timeline of small shops that used to line the streets: 1905 Miyagishima, barber; 1914 E. Fukushima Bookstore; 1925 Iseri Pharmacy…During World War II people of Japanese ancestry were forcibly taken to internment camps leaving the vibrant Little Tokyo behind. 1/3 of them returned after the war, and Little Tokyo re-emerged with the rise of community-led organisations including Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC), a community development and housing organisation.

Dean Matsubayashi and Grant Sunoo of LTSC explain that Little Tokyo is one of only three Japantowns left in the US, and faces rapid gentrification. We talk about the many sides of ‘heritage’ – architectural heritage can be somewhat protected by policy, but less tangible social heritage is often overlooked — although it is those local community members that keep their place authentic  and vibrant (see San Francisco’s cultural and social heritage case studies). To support the community with identifying their own assets, a program called Takachizu, or treasure map, was set up. Through a temporary, low key exhibition and an online platform, the locals share images of their cultural assets, including this Evacuation Order for all persons of Japanese ancestry and this light-hearted one about a Korean-Japanese adoptee’s Little Tokyo experience.

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Memories of Little Tokyo show what the shops used to be on footpath edges.
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“Immigrants wanted to have a community where they could feel comfortable with their native tongue — Archie Miyatake

 

Inclusive ethnic neighbourhoods 

While the mission of LTSC includes promoting Japanese culture, it is delivered by people of many ancestries, for people of all ancestries, leading to an inclusive celebration of one ethnic group. Shops and restaurants in Little Tokyo transport me to Japan with their manga-inspired products and delicious ramen broth, but well caters for non-Japanese people. Signage and menus are in English, staff speak English, and the businesses are easy to find online. These seem like simple things to do, but still remain a challenge in Australia.

LSTC’s +lab project brought together the unusual mix of Latina teens and senior members of the Little Tokyo community. During Older Americans Appreciation Month, the young women, participants in a photography training program called Las Fotos Project, were invited to take portraits of the older people and aimed to identify the character of Little Tokyo through photography.

 

Community, culture and self-worth

The Las Fotos Project provides participants, between the ages of 11 and 18, access to equipment and training in photography, storytelling and interviewing. “Why just girls?”, I ask Eric Ibarra, the founder and executive director of Las Fotos Project, to which he explains his prior experience working with girls taught him that young women need their own space that isn’t dominated by men. The program is an opportunity to learn photography and to formally exhibit artworks, but its impact goes beyond obtaining technical skills.

My visit to the Las Fotos gallery coincided with the City Rising exhibit, which is supported by KCET that produced a documentary exploring gentrification with the same title. Gentrification has brought on an additional level of anxiety for the Latino community, especially for those who are undocumented and cannot speak up about substandard housing or other injustices, says Ernesto Espinoza of East LA Community Corporation.

14 girls participated in the City Rising project with photographs they took of communities, people, traditions and cultures of Boyle Heights and south LA, two low-income Latino neighbourhoods under gentrification. One of the goals of the exhibit Eric says, is “for young people to understand what gentrification is…on the individual person scale”. The participants went out and asked for the permission to take portraits, listen to the individuals’ stories of how the change is impacting them. Engaging with the community members was an important part of the process, through which the young participants could learn that “there is value in these traditions and they deserve to be displayed and seen by everybody”, and connect with their self-worth, history and culture.

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A young woman reads the City Rising exhibit introduction.
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City Rising exhibit includes photographs of people, traditions and cultures in Boyle Heights and south LA.
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A group of older men play cards in Mariachi Plaza, Boyle Heights.
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Young men skateboard in Mariachi Plaza.
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A bold restaurant mural draws attention in Boyle Heights.

 

Ultimately cultural precincts or enclaves shouldn’t be just about celebrating one’s own culture. They should connect people of different of backgrounds, and build capacity and empathy to together fight systemic eradication of underrepresented cultures. There is a growing interest in “community placemaking as a new form of activism” in Los Angeles, as Tridib Banerjee of the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy puts it. In this city, ethnic groups are learning to treasure their own and each other’s cultures.

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Downtown LA is raw, diverse and authentic; and under gentrification.

 

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At the Grove (shopping and entertainment complex), trolleys carry people, a fountain sings, security guards keep shoppers in check, the farmers market sells ‘homemade’ products and hidden speakers play Frank Sinatra from every corner. This is the other face of Los Angeles.

 

Many thanks to these organisations:

 

This blog post was made possible by Westpac Social Change Fellowship, during which Julia Suh is visiting 15 cities to learn from their governments, social enterprises, consultants, academics and community organisers about how they are addressing inequality via design and management of the public realm and bringing about positive change. 

 

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Portland community placemakers: we lead, you support

It is an asphalt intersection built like hundreds of other intersections in Portland’s neighbourhoods and around the world, yet Share-it Square is no ordinary intersection. My visit to Portland aligned with the community’s annual harvest day. Neighbours, comfortably dressed in jeans, shorts and t-shirts, appeared one by one carrying domestic items that typically belong to homes. Folding tables and chairs with colourful tablecloths were soon set up in the car-free intersection. Plates of roast vegetables, dips and fresh tomatoes were laid out to be shared. Pastel-coloured papers, glue and scissors waited to be played with. But the day really was about apples. Buckets of crushed apple pieces were poured into a wooden fruit press, and a couple of men laboriously turned the cast iron handle down. Curious children paused cycling, put their helmets down and watched the group effort.

 

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Neighbours gather around to pour crushed apples into a wooden fruit press.
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With the streets closed to cars for the day, children roam about.

 

Not an overnight success

The scene is almost too good to be true for zealous placemakers, but it hasn’t come about overnight. “In 1996 the community started this project with just chalk — basic chalk on the street. They wanted to reclaim the public space and create some kind of a gathering point that was a place where people could come together and build a community”, said Sarah Heath who has been the neighbourhood’s community organiser for the last five years. She took me through the 19 years of Share-it Square history. The chalk drawings at the intersection eventually got washed off by the rain every time, leading to doing a more permanent mural in paint around 2001. While it initially surprised the local authority, they are part of the same team now. The residents come up with a new design and paint something different every year. Closing the streets for a day is easily done, through a simple process with the local authority.

Each corner of the intersection has been changed to bring the neighbours together. One corner has a DIY bench with a woman’s head carved into the back — Angel Bench it is called, dedicated to a former resident that passed away in a house fire. In front of it, a 24/7 tea station resembles an oversized umbrella and invites passers-by to grab the mugs hanging off the pole. Little toy trucks and a ride-on unicorn lead to a kids’ club, a kind of a tree house with signage that reads ‘howdy folks, welcome parents + players’. A series of random books are available in a book share, perhaps to be read on the Angel Bench with a cup of tea.

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Kids’ Club has shared toys and a set of rules established over time.
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There is trust between the community and the local authority. Closing the street is pretty simple.

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Please, not another pretty photograph of community murals

I often come across photographs of places that resemble this scene at a superficial level – places with book shares and murals, information boards and community events. But the key difference between self-sustained places like Square-it Square and top-down managed places lies in the process. Who identified the assets and opportunities? Who initiated? Who maintains?

What we ultimately want is not intersection murals or tea stations specifically, but rather communities with capacity to self-organise, initiate projects and become guardians of the places they live in. Capacity building is harder than getting a project done. When asked about challenges of fostering community spirit like this, Sarah says the community members themselves have to be invested in their neighbourhood and be willing to put in the time and energy to look after it. Luckily, a few people in her community are coming forward to ensure the Share-it Square spirit continues, beyond their residency.

 

Micro-scale community projects

If you would like to live in a place like the Share-it Square neighbourhood, what’s stopping you from making change?

I overheard a young student a few days ago, talking about how roadworks in her suburb are impacting her. I asked what she thought she could do to influence the environment around her, and her answer was pretty simple: move. Her reasoning was fair – living with her parents now, why would she go through the trouble of writing to the authorities or initiating change? It is way easier to move to a place that suits her values and needs.

She is not alone in feeling uninvested in her neighbourhood. Thinking about my own situation, there is no shared space around my apartment block that residents can appropriate. The typical 6–12-month lease periods don’t provide the certainty we need, to want to emotionally and financially invest in the place long-term. It is too hard to navigate the local council system and get support for a community project.

We often talk about inviting the community to become part of the solution. What will it take for the community to feel invested, have the capacity to identify their own assets and lead micro-scale community projects? What are we doing now to build that capacity?

 

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Portland Bureau of Transportation challenge citizens to think differently about how their streets can be used, on Park(ing) Day. The last time I was involved in a Parking Day in Sydney, the police came to move us on.
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A landscape design consultancy created this seating that reads ‘park it!’
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A restaurant extends out to a parking space with a Parklet. This is on a more permanent basis.
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Inside the Parklet is more seating and quirky elements that make the street feel alive.

 

Many thanks to these organisations:

This blog post was made possible by Westpac Social Change Fellowship, during which Julia Suh is visiting 15 cities to learn from their governments, social enterprises, consultants, academics and community organisers about how they are addressing inequality via design and management of the public realm and bringing about positive change. 

The Amazon impact on marginalised Seattleites

A Banista smiles from behind a cart packed with crates of bananas. “Take one,” the signage says and sure, I grab one. The Community Banana Stand, set up by Amazon in two locations in and around South Lake Union two years ago, offers free bananas to everyone: Amazonians and non-Amazonians, brogrammers and non-techies. My visit is to an unassuming two-wheel cart with wood panels, parked between Meeting Centre and Doppler, two of about three dozen office buildings Amazon occupies. The generosity of giving out 4,500 bananas per day is at odds with a few things. The unethical and pesticide-intensive Dole and Chiquita brands seem to have been served in the past (not my choice of a ‘healthy’ snack) although on the day of my visit the supplier is One Banana, a certified Fairtrade trader. The ‘Community’ Banana Stand is a top-down operation – it appeared out of nowhere “originally conceived by Jeff Bezos”, and may disappear without any community input. Given its location in the heart of the Amazon campus, it is not a surprise that it doesn’t attract people who desperately need food.

Much like the Banana Stand, Amazon’s urban campus is contradictory. Its 40,000 employees – up from 5,000 in 2010, and 55,000 anticipated in the next decade – have boosted retail, real estate and food business. Amazon has put $5.5mil into a new streetcar line and donated a fourth car, to be part of the bigger public transport network. South Lake Union before Amazon was a car-oriented, grey suburb largely with on-ground parking, warehouses and industrial buildings with 677 residents in 1990. It now has all the usual elements expected in a good walkable public realm: bike lanes, bike racks, sculptures, benches, integrated landscaping, street trees, awnings, footpaths with different treatments…So why is it that this public realm doesn’t feel authentic? In the new private and public spaces still being rolled out in the neighbourhood, it is hard to find features or shops that are uniquely Seattle, a public realm appropriated by the local community, or a place for diverse Seattleites not just those in tech. (Locals talk about the city’s soul in this thread)

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South Lake Union’s public realm is walkable, bikable and green, but missing diversity of people, community appropriation and unique features.
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The Community Banana Stand offers free bananas to the locals.
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Amazon’s new office, three glass biospheres, features about 40,000 plants.

 

Urban or suburban campus?

Little information is available regarding displacement of the existing businesses and communities in South Lake Union. The locals tell me there would have been some sort of consultation, but if so, it is hard to find any remnants of them and the past in the public realm. As I walk past blue-badged workers, I realise that on the surface I blend in – I am young, Asian and likely to pick up lunch from one of the 35 food trucks (although I would be part of a small female workforce at Amazon or in tech). Now in the biggest company town in the US, Amazon occupies 19% of A-grade office space in Seattle, equal to the next biggest 43 companies’ square footage combined. Google and Facebook have joined the neighbourhood. South Lake Union’s daytime demographics reflect a typical tech company’s workforce – no children, homeless or elderly people are seen; and the retail and food scene caters for high-income earners. Seattle’s non-tech workers are feeling the impact of a housing shortage and getting priced out. Tech companies are not to be solely blamed, considering other factors such as Wall Street investors, but their link to affordable-housing and homelessness crisis is at the centre of Amazon’s second headquarters (HQ2) debate . 10,730 homeless people currently share the city – the third largest in the US – and a state of emergency was declared on homelessness in 2015.

Is it better for tech companies to be part of the city’s fabric than to be in an isolated suburban campus? Yes. On so many levels, from the perspective of workers’ well-being, environmental footprint, spillover economic growth beyond tech and the kinds of collaboration and social interaction that physical proximity affords. This is considered generally a good deal also by the cities, although some are choosing not to offer hefty tax incentives or participate in the HQ2 bid. But thinking about the quality of life for marginalised communities, less evidence can be found regarding how the growth ultimately ‘trickles down’ to benefit them in the long run.

 

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Pike Place Market, a public market, is a major local and visitor attraction in the heart of Seattle.
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The Alaskan Way Viaduct will come down to make way for a new public realm.

 

The Amazon (social) impact

Amazon has a few great projects and initiatives that are rewriting their philanthropy strategy. It supports FareStart, a social enterprise that trains and hires people with barriers to employment, and provides food to vulnerable citizens. Spaces for five eateries, accessible by the general public, have been donated and furnished by Amazon. To tackle homelessness directly, Amazon is also building homes for 65 families — Mary’s Place, a homeless shelter, was given a former motel as a temporary shelter last year, which will eventually be redeveloped. Instead of being displaced, the residents will be rehoused in Mary’s Place Family Shelter, which will occupy 47,000 sq. ft. of space integrated into a new office building. Last year, Amazon helped ‘The University of Washington with a $10 million donation towards development of a new, state of the art Computer Science & Engineering (CSE) building’; and continues to partner with various technology NFPs such as Girls Who Code, CoderDojo and Code.org.

It will be interesting to see how Mary’s Place patrons get involved – so I would hope — in the shaping of their homes and the built environment around them. Will there be any services, shops and public spaces that reflect their needs and values? Other tech giants are looking into the public realm too. Apple has recently claimed the term Town Squares to call their privately owned public spaces and Facebook is building their own ‘village’ – will the public realm remain truly public?

 

To belong to a community

Marginalised communities outside of the tech neighbourhoods are at risk too. Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDpda), a community development organisation, was formed in 1975 to revitalise and preserve the neighbourhood whose community members mainly are from low-income and non-English speaking backgrounds. MaryKate Ryan and Julie Neilson of the team understand the ins and outs of the place. With only 4% home ownership rate, a sense of security is not easy to establish, leaving residents at a constant fear of being displaced. ‘Belonging’, however, has a lot to do with being part of a community rather than just the physical design of a place, Julie says. SCIDpda’s work involves the acquisition and management of affordable housing and commercial property, coupled with social services. SCID is currently one of four neighbourhoods earmarked for $6.5 million investment by the City of Seattle’s Equitable Development Initiative (EDI). (Open pdf Seattle 2035 Growth and Equity Analysis)

I hear similar insights from Rania Qawasma, an architect and author of This is Home, a book aimed to guide recently resettled Arabic-speaking refugees with small but important bits of information. We share our own culture-shock stories settling into our respective countries: Rania in the US from the Middle East, and myself a South Korean migrant to New Zealand. What seem like simple know-hows now, we weren’t so familiar with back then – using the garbage disposal, (not) talking to random children in the public space without their carer’s subtle permission, or knowing when to water the lawn.

We often overlook how capable people are in setting their own paths. They just need the right resources and support. At the Tiny House Village, one of seven encampments set up for the homeless by Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), a resident was taking his shift monitoring the site. When asked what he would like to see improved, he replied, “there is a good community here, I wouldn’t change anything.” I left the beautifully set-up Village in the hands of Seattleites who, with housing sorted, at least for now, have self-organised into a community. Surely improving their lives, and those of the most vulnerable, must be the priority for the city’s growth, not an afterthought.

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Chinatown is one of the neighbourhoods where residents are at the risk of displacement.
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SCIDpda residents set up a vegetable garden in an underutilised space across the street from their apartments.
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A boy punches the air while running out from the SCIDpda apartment courtyard.
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Tiny House Village is home to a community of couples and singles.
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Tiny House entries are beautifully personalised with pot plants and an owl.

 

Many thanks to these organisations:

 

This blog post was made possible by Westpac Social Change Fellowship, during which Julia Suh is visiting 15 cities to learn from their governments, social enterprises, consultants, academics and community organisers about how they are addressing inequality via design and management of the public realm and bringing about positive change. 

The making of New Orleans’ public spaces: form follows people

“In going up St. Peters Street & approaching the Common I heard a most extraordinary noise, which I supposed to proceed from some horse mill–the horses tramping on a wooden floor. I found, however, on emerging from the houses to the Common, that it proceeded from a crowd of five or six hundred persons assembled in an open space or public square. I went to the spot and crowded near enough to see the performance. All those who were engaged in the business seemed to be blacks.” (Excerpt from Benjamin Latrobe’s notes — see full text here page 33-34)

This 1819 description of a public space by architect Benjamin Latrobe, is one of the earliest accounts of jazz and the evolution of African music and dances in New Orleans. Under the Catholic Spanish and French rule, African slaves were allowed take Sundays off, and would gather in the open space to beat the drums, play string instruments, dance and freely socialise. The name, use, users and political context of the space changed over time, and included being named Beauregard Square in 1893 after a former Confederate General. The City of New Orleans renamed it Congo Square in 2011. (If in New Orleans, visit The Historic New Orleans Collection to learn about the city’s complex history.)

“Public space in New Orleans may be the opposite of design,” says Jared Genova, Resilience Planning and Strategy Manager at the City of New Orleans (the City), citing various social episodes that appear spontaneously in places that weren’t designed for that purpose. For him, resilience means creating everyday social and economic opportunities, and goes beyond the hype of post-Katrina disaster readiness. Over my three-day visit his remark turned out to be fair, as I would often observe locals hanging out on the front porches, the musically talented jamming on the streets and young people skateboarding below interstate highway overpasses. In this city, design of the public realm is often facilitated based on the locals’ organically developed use of the place, driven by the user groups themselves and/or the City. Such manner of planning has presented different kinds of success indicators. In neighbourhoods where resources are limited, there may not ever be a perfect concept design, a completed project or a refined sense of materiality. Instead, there is genuine and resilient DIY spirit emerging from people who desperately want a common ground where they can just be.

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One of the earliest accounts of the evolution of jazz refers to Congo Square.
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An impressive 8-person band draws a large crowd at Jackson Square, the heart of French Quarter.
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Tourism is one of the main industries in New Orleans.

 

Active citizens

To see this spirit in action, I paid a visit to a DIY skatepark under an overpass, created initially by a group of skaters who literally made concrete walls and ramps on site. It was illegal and got knocked down. Disappointed, but unwilling to let go, they built a much better and bigger second skatepark. It also got knocked down. Their response? They formed a not-for-profit and successfully negotiated with the City for it to be formally designated as Parasite Skatepark. Tulane School of Architecture students stepped in and designed the next phase through various collaborative workshops.

Arts Council New Orleans’ Youth Solutions program guides young people to take ownership of their own neighbourhoods and implement improvement projects. Its impact lies in helping youth overcome anger, powerlessness and helplessness associated with trauma, with creative placemaking projects. Paid practical internships such as carpentry and welding, as well as mentorship, are available. The program has seen young people learn to empathise with the needs of younger kids and create a pop-up park for them; build seating for public spaces; and interview locals for asset mapping.

 

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Parasite Skatepark is well used by the locals.
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Under the concrete slabs of overpasses are playgrounds and other types of gathering spaces. On hot summer days, they offer some respite from the heat and humidity.

 

Go to where the people are

For activists like Imani Brown, founder of Blights Out and director of programs at Antenna, supporting active citizenship means creating a space where dialogue can be generated and art can make the streets its home. I get a sense of what that might look like at an event held in a bar, Street Spirit, where Imani aims to bring “artists, activists, scientists, spiritualists etc who come from a myriad of different backgrounds but whose work intersects in a way that is unexpected and hopefully is delightful and engaging”. The event is a mix of music, talks, poetry, and surprisingly a presentation by a Certified Floodplain Manager explaining New Orleans’ urban planning and flooding history, and micro-scale stormwater management solutions for the individuals in the audience. Raising awareness on hazard mitigation starts here, where the people are.

Imani tells me about the many prejudices, systems and laws that have taken a toll on New Orleanians’ lives: the Brown Paper Bag test, which was used to determine the status of a person of colour based on the skin colour (and colourism still exists); the loss of free public spaces when the beaches and pools were closed to African Americans; and most recently, a segregated school system that is further suffering from the replacement of ‘veteran black educators’ following Katrina. ‘Integration’ is a politically charged word especially in New Orleans, where hundreds of years of unjust systems continue to influence and segregate its communities. Imani would like to see more places where different people feel the invitation to connect.

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A diverse group of people gather in the back of a music venue for Street Spirit.
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Imani Brown opens Street Spirit and brings together artists, activists, scientists and spiritualists.


Learning from the neutral ground

When the newer American residents and French-speaking Creoles began to cohabit the city in 1800s, their quarters were separated and demarcated by Canal Street – Americans to the west, and Creoles to the east in the French Quarter. The area of demarcation was thus known as ‘the neutral ground’ and the term has been generally used to describe all median strips in the city since. Neutral grounds today are where people socialise, walk and rest (and where people can park to prepare for flooding). Melissa Lee, Senior Advisor for Commercial Revitalization at New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA), wants to see the celebration of inclusion continue on these grounds. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, for instance, has a neutral ground, which will be improved to signify the social justice history and connect the local community. Following the public spaces where people already are, NORA is also working on creating an ‘edible walking trail’ for a neighbourhood, where its elderlies tend to walk up and down the street for exercise, and the culture of community gardening has evolved into urban farming. It is hoped that the loop encompassing African, Vietnamese and Latino communities will lead to unexpected and positive cultural exchanges and community cohesion.

Public spaces in New Orleans could have been left empty, and neutral grounds stripped off any character or sense of ownership. Instead, New Orleanians – whether they are old Vietnamese gardeners or young African American students – are finding ways to manifest their values in the public realm. As the City develops strategies to overlay water infrastructure with public spaces, I imagine this culturally unique city could also prove to be the most technologically innovative and socially inclusive.

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Canal Street used to separate the newer American residents and French-speaking Creoles.
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French Quarter is human-scaled and beautifully maintained.
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Street signage on the footpath is often seen in neighbourhoods.

 

Many thanks to these organisations:

 This blog post was made possible by Westpac Social Change Fellowship, during which Julia Suh is visiting 15 cities to learn from their governments, social enterprises, consultants, academics and community organisers about how they are addressing inequality via design and management of the public realm and bringing about positive change. 

 

The Detroit model: greater than the sum of its parts

Google Maps gave me four options for getting to Recovery Park from my downtown hotel: one-hour walk along an eight-lane M-3 then through a grass-covered neighbourhood; a 45-min walk-bus-bus-walk combination with buses running every 60 min; a 16-min bike ride on the vehicular road; or a 7-min drive on an interstate highway with a giant partial cloverleaf.

I resorted to Uber. Andrew, the Uber driver, swiftly took me to the neighbourhood, known as Chene Ferry, North Black Bottom or Poletown depending on who’s saying it. Following years of residential demolition works, nature transformed the land back to its beautiful green state, with vacant lots creating open spaces in a grid. It was a bizarre sight, reminding me of Christchurch after many landmark buildings had been demolished following the earthquakes. Unable to find signage, I got off the car in an approximate location and started walking, only to find Andrew drive back toward me 5 minutes later. “I think I found the building, and I didn’t want to leave you here walking around by yourself. I don’t know what this area is like – jump back in, I will take you”, he said and I obliged with much appreciation. Guns. I wonder if that’s what was on his mind. It certainly was on mine when I reached the building entry with signage that read ‘gun-free community’.

Being back in the US, my perception of safety is influenced by my lived experience in New Haven where I would receive regular email updates on local shootings from the police chief and my university would provide door-to-door shuttle escort service after 6pm. Prevalent media portrayals and data on gun violence and hate crimes don’t help. Detroit, despite its generally improving violent crime rate, still comes out on top as America’s Most Dangerous City.

Decline, bankruptcy, violence and poverty may have dominated Detroit’s headlines for decades, but the locals say the last three years have seen an unprecedented progress since the new mayor Mike Duggan took office. With good leadership, citizens have also gained momentum on their initiatives to serve their communities and build places. The local thought leaders I met with face complex challenges everyday yet see opportunities everywhere. Their resilience, expertise and empathy is changing Detroit one place, one neighbourhood at a time.

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Few buildings remain to tell a story of what Poletown used to be.
2Cadillac Place
Cadillac Place was General Motors’ world headquarters for 80 years till 2000.

 

Urban farming by people with barriers to employment

There was virtually nobody walking around but the evidence of community in Poletown East was visible in the public realm. A small community garden on a vacant lot, a custom-made bus shelter and a mural painted by high school summer program students – these are a few of the community projects that Recovery Park facilitated to bring life back between derelict factories and remaining houses. Its CEO Gary Wozniak takes me back to a time – only about 4-5 years ago – when the city went bankrupt. Two thirds of the street lights didn’t come on, buses didn’t run, garbage didn’t get picked up and street sweepers didn’t work. In that turmoil, people who could find opportunities elsewhere left. Only one third of its peak population (1.8 million in 1950) remain today.

While the Detroit Land Bank, an authority set up by the mayor to manage foreclosures, has been securing 96,000 properties and demolishing 11,900 abandoned and vacant houses, Recovery Park has been streamlining its not-for-profit and for-profit missions. Gary believes everybody should be given an opportunity to develop “a skillset to self-determine their lives long-term”. An ex-offender himself, he understands that for ex-offenders, integrating back into a community is not easy. De-institutionalisation takes time, when your time in prison had been spent following routines and instructions. Recovery Park Farm’s workforce is mainly made up of people with barriers to employment.

I get a tour of the greenhouses, which currently house 20 different products managed by a hydroponic grower Jeff Gilbert, farming manager Michelle Lutz and five associates. It is Monday and the team has just finished harvesting. I get a taste of a tiny freshly picked cucumber with a yellow flower – it’s crunchy and delicious. The rest of the vegetables would bring US$5-6,000 per week in revenue, purchased by regional produce distributors. Anna Kohn of the team explains the associates are provided not only with long-term employment but also wraparound support. “100% paid health benefit, housing, support with substance abuse, getting an ID, even opening a bank account”, she says, as well as above minimum wages, is all important for folks to feel stable and be able to come to work.

The team’s vision does not stop with eight high tunnels and five associates. There is a plan in motion to create a whole neighbourhood of 40 acres, which currently has 17 houses compared to 851 in the past. Gary gives me a tour in his yellow buggy: there are bioswales managing stormwater runoff; houses and lots recently purchased; a grant won from a Knight Arts Challenge that will be used next year to bring chamber music, jazz, blues concerts; a plan for businesses to move into a vacant school; and ambition to transform an old German-Polish meat market into a community gathering spot. Their vision is a place where people have stable housing, meaningful work and a renewed sense of community.

5Recovery Park Farm
The Recovery Park team discuss the day’s harvest in front of a high tunnel.
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Recovery Park office building has a mural painted by high school students during a summer program. In the background is an abandoned building waiting to be demolished.

 

Wraparound support for village-making

The Collective impact model is also at the heart of Focus:HOPE, a civil and human rights organisation founded following the 1967 riots to start ‘fighting racism, poverty and injustice’. Its long history and concrete mission has led to several organisational arms, ranging from food distribution and workforce programs to placemaking and neighbourhood network development. It serves a community that has repeatedly suffered from spatial injustice and human rights violations: water being cut off in occupied homes, overruled community voices, lack of schools, racial covenants, to name a few. Now with 92% of vacant lots secured, Focus:HOPE is working on the HOPE Village initiative, with the aim to support about 5,300 residents in a 100-block area impacted by riots, blight and disinvestment; and ‘by the year 2031, 100% of neighborhood residents will be educationally well-prepared, economically self-sufficient, and living in a safe, supportive environment’. Stephanie Johnson-Cobb, a community development specialist, wants to change the local mentality of young people who feel this is a place where they grow up but where they leave to get jobs and live in the suburbs. The Village includes a Center for Working Families to support with financial literacy, credit repair and employment; an arts department with various cultural programs; and Cool Cities Park.

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Stephanie Johnson-Cobb illustrates HOPE Village initiative’s various programs.

 

Micro entrepreneurship

Detroit’s abundance of land offers numerous possibilities but invites blight when left uncared for. Detroit Future City (DFC), a NFP organisation that oversees the implementation of a community-led vision for Detroit, is guiding Detroiters to help keep their neighbourhoods safe and beautiful. Working with Lots – a Field Guide is a book of local examples and ideas that aims to bring a ‘green culture shift’; starting a conversation about blight and beauty, abandonment and maintenance. It began as a landscape-focused program to help individuals and communities use and maintain vacant lots, but the DFC team is starting to see its impact also as a channel to engage young people about stormwater management and food security.

Detroit’s entrepreneurial spirit perhaps has always been there, nurtured through its long manufacturing history. Citizens, when left with broken systems, found ways to improve their own lives, but there is no doubt organisational support accelerates the process. Detroit Creative Corridor Center (DC3), in its 7th year of existence, aims to diversify Detroit’s economy by supporting creative practitioners. It is an incubator for designers to test ideas, form a network and develop early stage ventures. The city has a unique history and entrepreneurial spirit to draw from, and is on its way to solidify its designation as a UNESCO City of Design.

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A portrait artist activates Greektown.

 

Greater than the sum of its parts

How will these efforts connect spatially, economically and socio-culturally to form a stronger whole? Detroit covers a large area of 360km² (compared to Vancouver’s 114km², with a similar population). It was originally designed to be automobile dependent and the culture hasn’t shifted drastically. Many still live in detached homes in the suburbs, some a few vacant lots apart. What’s stopping people from living in downtown? The reasons vary from the perception of safety, affordability, lack of schools, childcare and supermarkets, to transport options – public transport is not great, drivers are stuck with expensive car insurance in the metro area, and retail doesn’t yet support everyday living.

Downtown is changing fast however, owing to investors like Dan Gilbert, a Detroit-born billionaire and Founder & Chairman of Quicken Loans, a mortgage lender. His real estate arm, Bedrock continues to acquire properties in downtown (this 2015 map shows 45 ‘Gilbert properties’). With building upgrades, investment into the public realm and amenities is on the way. Vacant buildings are being refurbished. More chain stores are moving in.

A city that has long suffered from class and race struggles, Detroit’s downtown is an opportunity to reset the course. Will the new downtown offer something for folks in HOPE Village, Recovery Park and new immigrants, as well as new professionals moving in? Or will the communities live in their own bubbles?

Supporting micro businesses with street level retail spaces, new restaurants sourcing ingredients from local urban farms, and public realm improvements upskilling future designers – I left Detroit thinking about the possibilities, greater than the sum of its parts.

6Campus Martius Park
Campus Martius Park is the city’s major civic hub. In the background is Campus Martius Building, which houses Quicken Loans’ headquarters.
7Vacant Buildings
My walking tour guide points to the building on the right as a lovely apartment where he lives in. The rest of the high rises are currently vacant but being refurbished.
8BID
Greektown is included in the Downtown Detroit Business Improvement Zone.
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Public realm investment is evident is Greektown.

 

Many thanks to these organisations:

 This blog post was made possible by Westpac Social Change Fellowship, during which Julia Suh is visiting 15 cities to learn from their governments, social enterprises, consultants, academics and community organisers about how they are addressing inequality via design and management of the public realm and bringing about positive change.