Roxbury, Boston: Urban Pedagogy (one of x) / Reading the City (two of x)

01/23/2011 § Leave a comment

The Roxbury Trail Map
My interest in “Reading the City” has happily continued to grow over the past few years. While it is somewhat analogous to reading a text, for instance, in order to understand, the objective of Reading the City focuses on the interpretation, hopeful that the “reader” will read between the lines towards a greater sense of ownership that creates a greater potential for change. Simply, understanding the environment prompts changing it. But it is important to note that in many ways, a greater awareness of space and the environment we inhabit, in itself constitutes a change.

After taking Anne Spirn’s class (Urban Nature, MIT 2009), I was inspired to bring my interests in “Reading the City” to a younger audience. Last fall, I got the opportunity to do just that in a class I developed at Orchard Gardens in the neighborhood of Roxbury, Boston, through Citizen Schools City Building After School Program. (In implementing the lesson plans I collaborated with Ben Peterson, RISD and Shreiya Madhusoodanan, BAC.) Alternatives for Community and Environment (ACE) just blocks from Orchard Gardens Public Schools provided a valuable tour of the Toxic Sites in the area providing concrete and all too tangible reasons regarding the value of knowing your city and striving for environmental justice.

Some general remarks about the outcome of all the City Building groups across Boston appeared in real text here.

For immediate gratification, this is what our final posters looked like at the city wide presentation in early December held at the Boston Architectural College:

WOW: Final Presentaion

WOW: Final Presentaion

WOW presentation

WOW students in dialogue

preparing for the presentation

And I was lucky enough to get the chance to organize this crazy body of work (comprising of my own notes, sketches, photos, collages and twelve year old endeavors galore) for a guest lecture I was invited to give towards the benefit of a course for Art Teachers; a worthy cause since my own high school art teacher was a true inspiration (Mrs. Douglass). As such, I distilled some general tips and lessons from my experience:

Through the efforts of preparing for the lecture, I am now able to give a somewhat linear narrative of the experience:

The class was called Tracking Roxbury: Tales&Trails. It met Tuesday afternoons from 3:50 – 5:20 on the second floor of Orchard Gardens School in Roxbury, Boston.

In order to entice potential apprentices to the apprenticeship I related the following pitch (more or less) six times (!) in the course of three hours (more or less) to many, many twelve-year olds (more and more):

“We will look at the Past, Present and Future of the surrounding neighborhood, Roxbury. The area has been greatly affected by Orchard Gardens, and, in turn the neighborhood affects the school as well. In the apprenticeship, we will work with many hands-on projects that dig into the Past of the neighborhood through maps of how things used to be. Then we will treat the actual city streets and public spaces as a laboratory or archeological site where we will research, analyze and understand the many different systems that make up this place. Finally, we will envision a path for the future, in which people will harness the power of knowledge and observation about an area. This path will communicate, educate and offer a way to improve the neighborhood. I think that everyone is familiar with Boston’s Freedom Trail in which the past comes alive as one follows along the brick path outlined on the city streets. This is a story that unfolds as you walk. In a similar way, we will create Roxbury Trails depending on the stories about the neighborhood that the students wish to tell.”

[Of course, three other places I have known as home have their own versions of the prescribed path, including Los Angeles, Salem MA and Barcelona. Of course, in Tracking Roxbury, the objective is to create a an Intentional Trail in a neighborhood historically not seen as holding crucial urban value worthy of sharing with its residents and visitors.]

Tying together my interests in mapping and using the city as a text and laboratory for exploration, I developed a syllabus for another nonprofit organization when the opportunity to work with Citizen Schools presented itself. I was especially interested in teaching a class that focused on design process and understanding urban space, rather than creating a concrete design product.

The class was under the umbrella of City Building and many of the classes presented a clear design challenge: design a park, design a café, etc. However, I saw the class was as an opportunity to explore why understanding urban space first, and really providing tools for “Reading the City,” were just as valuable as creating a design.

I think it important to demystify space; this is especially true for an area perceived as a “ghetto.” It is the way it is because of policy, economics and many big and small decisions that can be somewhat understood. More importantly, it shows that the place is constantly changing, and the students can be a part of the change.

From the beginning, I wanted to create a situation in which field trips and exploration of the immediate surroundings would inform class activities. In turn, these class activities could help inform how the students explore the outside environment. Because the actual content of the class seemed to build upon the experience of each particular class, the class could develop organically with the students’ responses as key clues to direct the progression. The two things that were certain were the geographic limits of the surrounding environment and the use of Past, Present and Future as methods by which to analyze the surrounding environment; through this approach the students could look at the history of area (the past), analyze the current situation (the present), and from there, develop a more informed image for improvement (the future).

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The project was interesting for me. And, after the final presentation, and hearing the students talk about what they learned, it seems that they too gleaned some value from the experiment. It is of course difficult to gauge, as many teachers tell me. But, after this experience, I value experimentation in education more and more (such as the Brooklyn Free School) And last, but not least… more photos!

Los Angeles: Reading the City (one of x)

12/03/2010 § Leave a comment

I am becoming increasingly interested in the role that visualization of our built environment and our ability to read the constructed conditions has towards fruitful design and planning practice. (*the term “our” implies everyone’s – not just designers and those professionally concerned with the form and development of cities. The truth is, I believe such capabilities of “reading the city” could have even more deep and far reaching implications – and I hope in the future I will explore these further.)

What I mean by this is two-fold.
1. The ability to understand the functional aspects of an urban condition as tied to larger systems and networks. Signs embossed on the pavement of many cities begin to provide clues.
Yes, this storm grate covers a drain that carries storm water to the harbor, untreated:

And it is connected to the larger watercourses. On a horizontal plane – the river and the ocean, and on a vertical plane, to the groundwater, aquifer and the rainfall that (still / for the time being) replenishes the sources below ground.

2. The second value in Reading the City is the awareness that the city is continually changing. The city changes cyclically (like the seasons or immigration patterns) as well as along a somewhat linear path.

The political, social, cultural and economic factors that determine these changes are embedded in the fabric of the urban environment. The ways that people read these changes affect the image of a place. This image affects how areas grow and change. Immigrants to Los Angeles in the late19th century prioritized private space and believed that the detached single family house was the key to the good life. Los Angeles is now criticized for the resulting homogeneous landscape of detached single family homes. However, the urban condition resulted from a certain image. And even as major neighborhoods are becoming increasingly walkable, this image is hard to shake. Now, current trends reveal a longing for public space providing dynamic social interactions. This, in time, will become the new image of the city. The image is the built manifestation of social values. Cities are similar to (seemingly natural) landscapes in that they are both personal and collective:

Before it can ever be the repose for the senses, landscape is the work of the mind. Its scenery is built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock. ( Simon Schama in Landscape and Memory)

The ability to Read the City in this way parallels the often romanticized idea of reading the rural landscape as described by John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Ruskin among many others. While these are not new ideas, (having been applied to landscape, painting and other texts) it seems that the city remains an untapped resource.It too can be read as a text and function as a language to help us understand many facets of our culture through active engagement.

In Ways of Seeing, John Berger begins poignantly:

Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.

But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can
never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it.

In numerous discussions, many agree that “space matters;” but, then, actual space is often left out of those very discussions. Arguments about affordable housing, environmental justice, downtown revitalization, sprawl, public space, built heritage and transit oriented development, to name a few, are often discussed with only a token nod to the concrete conditions on the ground. Many times images are used to highlight a polemic notion (such as with images of endless suburbia to “prove” its ubiquitous evilness) rather than to gain deeper knowledge regarding the discussion with careful interpretation of the visual material.
This is at first ironic considering how easy it is to put a picture to words with the ample free resources that allow us to visualize our worlds from plan view to aerial and even perspective. I wonder if perhaps words simply have cultural dominance over convening meaning due to their being the familiar mode of communication for the widest audience. (Indeed not everyone is knowledgeable enough in the visual forms of representation.) Another reason may be that words also seem less likely to be interpreted “incorrectly.” If the latter is the case, it in fact serves as an opportunity towards communicating with a tool that can have multiple and even contradictory meanings. (Words have this too, but it is often forgotten.) There, however, numerous attempts at communication; these often occur where people are likely to pass. For instance, with the following images:

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The meanings derived from looking at the above images are probably as numerous as the observers. Speaking of which, there was a great Baldessari exhibit at LACMA when I took these photos, shown in the streetlight banner of one of the images.

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