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A Room Without a View?

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“…the deepest social and psychic wounds of modernity may be sealed without ever being healed.” – Marshall Berman

The city body of St. Louis has suffered through our practices. Collectively we cannot be immediately absolved from the often-cataclysmic remainders of the programs devised and wrought by the disciplines of urban planners, social workers, developers, architects and artists. We cannot expect those same disciplines to be able to reconcile their own tragic histories with a utopian future in which “creative placemaking” atones for the spatial segregation created through destructive racist real estate practices, “historic preservation” redresses the mass depletion of historic building fabric and the crazy-making constant relocation of the city’s poorest citizens, and “urbanism” somehow guarantees the right of assembly in public space. The intersection of identity and space requires a step outside of our lenses, if we are to truly resolve any social contradictions through practice.

Perhaps the ideologies of practitioners of urban change could be excused or even sublimated in other eras. Today we even reconcile problematic earlier practices to contemporary values by aestheticizing modernism, making it safe. We valorize monuments to the disintegration of communities instead of commemorating the sites of potent and useful social struggle. Yet we might not focus widely and notice that all of the placemaking activities of the past century have left us a St. Louis that is stratified, divided and decadent in many ways. From that tired, conflicted space comes the opportunity for each of us to seize historical agency and redirect the forces we can see.

Our gazes are thus very important. We choose whether we see the city and its population for what it has become by critically examining how it has become this place, or whether we simply let our eyes study the facts that justify our own practices. This choice determines whether the contemporary list of buzzwords will lead us toward social equity and a healed city, or simply perpetuate and repurpose the ideological weight of the past. The deliberation of this distinction, by the way, is largely our problem. The communities in which we work really are not waiting for the answer. People most likely are asking what historical forces we might deliver.

As a practitioner of architectural history and historic preservation (although perhaps no longer a “preservationist”), my work is caught in the choice. Preservation is the choice to validate certain parts of our collective memory. Neighborhood improvement can simply reflect trending rises in property values. Architectural history, like art history, often seems like a mechanism for justifying its subject discipline. On the other hand, critical engagement of current events through the lens of architectural history can reveal how mistakes of the past are being repeated. Public architectural history in service to community decision-making is a wonderful practice.

My work is tied to the underdefined but overstated agenda of “urbanism.” Urbanism in St. Louis has come to capture an alignment of critical voices that support increased housing density, improvement of public and bicycle transportation and gentrification (literally, increased property values) in certain neighborhoods. “Urbanists” lately criticized the fact that a rehabilitated grocery store on South Jefferson Avenue near Lafayette Avenue will reopen as a Save A Lot instead of as some more urbanistically correct store. The “urbanist” faction continues to talk up the supposed arrival of Ikea in St. Louis, which will reside in a big anti-urban box, that somehow can be accepted while Save A  Lot cannot (class seems a subtle element). Yet much of urbanist discourse is devoid of consideration of social needs or the fact that vanguards in urban design historically have overtly or covertly had the impact of dislocating impoverished or African-American communities. Economics seem lacking too – the larger economics of full employment and benefits to whole classes of people.

Urbanism isolates social problems to the terms of architecture, which overlooks root causes and thus becomes incapable of providing social solutions. That lack of awareness rears its head in other disciplines too. Discussion of the “Delmar Divide” by artists and architects has tended to simplify what is a dire state of spatial segregation in the region. The need to publicly roost the tensions of race in the region requires care and listening. So far, moves in this direction are well-intentioned but have initiated (without sustaining) a fractured and unclear discussion that reduces a complex historical crisis to a single phrase.

Similarly, in historic preservation, practitioners often ignore the urban buildings associated with the working class, racial and gender struggle and postwar depletion. Buildings in distressed neighborhoods disproportionately disappear, with little fuss, despite the fact that systematic loss of housing stock not only destroys buildings but also communities. Preservation of disciplinarily-marginal buildings and sites does happen a lot, but usually not through any initiation of the official movement that will fight arduously for high-style Modernism and idyllic farm houses. Preservation may well be “creative place-saving” because its interpretive nature can skew our identity as it can be detected in our architecture. Through silence, preservationists actually can aid the erasure of more contested or simply marginal parts of our history.

The location of art practice also relates to how we inscribe our values on the city body. My practice has intersected with the idea of “community art,” a loaded term that is also useful. I think that the term’s best effect has been reminding artists of the larger role that they play in society, and the need to engage broad constituencies. However, practices that state that they are “community” based led by practitioners who live and work isolated from spaces in which they work raise questions. Are not such artists already members of place-based communities in which they live? Does funding determine which communities are “community” enough to be legitimate places for “community art” to occur? Of course artists should be regionally conscious and active, but the choice to locate practice and appropriate sociological language builds expectations.

Community art’s cohort includes “creative placemaking,” a term highly relevant to contemporary art and planning discourse that remains highly subjective. “Placemaking” itself carries a problematic arrogance when employed to describe projects in neighborhoods where people have already “made” the place. Here is where art parallels the track of real estate development; the assumption of a “frontier” to be invented through practice links art projects to disastrous development plans like Northside Regeneration today and St. Louis’ 1916 zoning ordinance passed to curtail open housing. These projects involve wide views that are not very deep, and a fervor to “make sense” of space without really learning it. Situation of the “placemaker” is crucial – is that place within and among community residents?  And the most basic question really becomes: is this project for or with those residents? Authorship (publication, exhibition, recognition) can drive us askance of our intent subliminally.

Yet surely most of us don’t arrive actually deluded that we are “making” a “place.” So why don’t we call what we do by its real name? Art, architecture, planning, building, rehabbing, developing, owning – these are all precise and valuable practices that offer transparency to all involved in our pursuits. The term of art suggests that we as practitioners cannot negotiate direct relationships and that we fear our work may be less relevant if not packaged a certain way. Funders, of course, spur on the vocabulary.

Without enumerating endlessly the problems of this moment, I think it is crucial for each of us who practice our arts in St. Louis to develop direct and informed relationships with the other people who live here. Disciplinary formation and refinement – talking amongst ourselves – provides useful critique, but ultimately our work is beholden to a mass of people that may not speak our languages. We stand among our neighbors with tremendous potential to bring some practice to our city’s places that no one else could offer. We must name our practices and be humble enough to serve. In most of our fields, service is challenging because of this grindstone called authorship.

We encourage ourselves to be the makers when sometimes our neighbors want us to be stewards and assistants. Ideology may compel us otherwise, without our knowing it. When an artist reaches for another word to describe a studio practice that in itself already offers value to a community, the question should be why? When we gaze at our city, we should be forming such questions to elevate our consciousness, and not seeking places to which our answers will descend. Historical forces tell us that many more questions about work are being – and should be — asked right back.

A Room Without a View? was originally published in the Whole City St. Louis newspaper accompanying Works Progress at The Luminary. Photos courtesy of Michael R. Allen.


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