Black Designers Demand Equity and Justice in the Built Environment

August 31, 2020 | by Dana Rice

Ridge on the Rise mural by artist Eric Okdeh depicts African American performers who played at the Pearl Theater on Ridge Avenue. | Photo: Chet Pancake

In a “design as protest” workshop hosted by Spruce Street Commons last October, architect and Philadelphia native Bryan Lee Jr. asked participants to consider who holds power when looking at inequities within different systems. In the context of real estate development, asking this simple question has led many to question the roles of various actors from developers to architects regarding the neighborhoods they are building in. For many communities in the city, these actors are seen as a threatening presence as the fear of erasure and displacement is often associated with their work.

Community Futures Lab (CFL), a project by Black Quantum Futurism/The AfroFuturist Affair, sought to bring empowerment to neighborhood residents in North Philadelphia. From May to April in 2017 CFL popped up along Ridge Avenue, a culmination of years of work by local artist Rasheedah Philips and musician Camae Ayewa. “[We] created a space where there was no pressure, such that anybody walking in can get what they needed in that moment,” said Philips. Her book on the project, Space-Time Collapse II: Community Futurisms, was published this spring and is a compilation of stories, theories, and projects in support of equitable futures in the neighborhood. The book and the pop-up lab along Ridge Avenue provides much-needed guidance to designers, planners, and developers facing the challenges of injustices within the built environment.

A longtime resident of Brewerytown and Sharswood, Phillips noted that the development of CFL was in response to top-down development and land acquisition tactics employed by the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) at that time. Having worked with both residents that had their properties taken away through eminent domain as well as public housing residents who were facing long term relocation, she said, “People just don’t get the opportunity to speak up in those ways or in a way that it gets heard. People don’t get to tell about the trauma they experience being ripped from a community that, it has its problems, but they’ve been there all their lives.”

Between 2015 and 2016, as part of a HUD Choice Neighborhoods Grant, the Philadelphia Housing Authority took approximately 1,200 parcels in the Sharswood and Brewerytown area through eminent domain. The redevelopment project also included the demolition of PHA’s own Norman-Blumberg Apartments that was built in 1967. This despite the fact that, according to HUD policy, PHA is only required to do a one for one replacement of existing public housing units being demolish which included only 414. At the same time the PHA had already owned a number of scattered site parcels in the neighborhood, some of which were in poor condition like the properties on the 2400 block of Oxford Street which had been condemned and later demolished as part of their development plan, according to a report conducted by Penn Historic Preservation students in 2016. Today grassroots organizations like Occupy PHA have been protesting the selling off of these acquisitions to private entities and not providing enough permanent housing for the low income needs of local families.

For CFL, one of the goals of their project was to subvert blanket labels being touted by developers like the PHA. Phillips highlights a story often told by Kelvin Jeramiah, president and CEO of the PHA, about being held at gunpoint upon visiting the Blumberg Housing Project. In an op-ed published in the Philadelphia Inquirer about the project Jeremiah wrote, “By almost any measure, Blumberg/Sharswood is a top contender for Philadelphia’s worst community.” For Phillips, these types of narratives promoted by developers are deeply problematic because they are, according to Phillips, “weaponizing language against people” in order to justify “that this neighborhood needs an intervention on the scale of erasing what’s there and rebuilding over top of it without taking into account the complexities of the community and how it got to be the way it is without acknowledging the city or the housing authorities own role in that.”

1937 Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) map of Philadelphia.

1937 HOLC map with overlay of Philadelphia City Planning Commission redevelopment plans submitted by 1965. | Maps: Dana Rice

While the tactics used by the PHA and current trends of gentrification have been critiqued, it is also important to think of them in context with other historical trends within the built environment. New Deal and postwar eras of discriminatory lending practices enforced by both the private market and the federal government provided opportunities for white people to access property outside of urban areas and confined black and brown populations to the cities. This, according to Richard Rothsteins’ book, The Color of the Law, was a deliberate mechanism for enforcing segregation.

The practice also created disparities in the quality of the built fabric between these areas. In the years that followed, neighborhoods like North Philadelphia suffered from disinvestment and the fabric of the neighborhoods started to decay. These disparities were not the unfortunate consequences of a shrinking tax base. This was by design. In 1937, when the Homeowners Loan Corporation (HOLC) map of Philadelphia was created, Sharswood was in the midst of its jazz culture heyday. Venues such as the 1,400-seat Pearl Theater opened in 1927. The Pyramid Club was founded in 1937 as a social club to advance the cultural contributions of African Americans in the city. It was also during this time that legends like jazz musician John Coltrane and visual artist Dox Thrash were finding their footings in the neighborhood. Despite this, the neighborhood was rated “D” for hazardous by the HOLC redlining maps.

Comparing the HOLC maps to other development trends/initiatives in the city throughout its history, a pattern emerges. By 1967, the Philadelphia City Planning Commission (PCPC) was well underway with its redevelopment plans for the city. In the 1940s and the 1950s, PCPC certified many areas for redevelopment in Philadelphia. By 1967, several plans were submitted, all in areas that were rated “D” 30 years earlier. At the same time, the PHA would have been wrapping up its major push at developing public housing blocks in the city. Between 1938 and 1973 the PHA developed 40 new housing sites, while many would be low rise developments in response to growing housing needs many would be high rise developments that would see large swaths of row houses demolished. Additionally, by the 1950s, most were being developed in predominantly Black or transitioning neighborhoods.

In 1967 eight blocks in the heart of Sharswood were seized through eminent domain and cleared to construct the Norman Blumberg Apartment towers. After this large intervention the neighborhood continued to decline. Vacancy was often perpetuated by the City itself. According to a 1987 City Planning Commission North Philadelphia Redevelopment Plan, between 1970 and 1983, 16,833 residential properties were demolished in Philadelphia. Of these, 46 percent were in lower North Philadelphia. The report also notes that of the vacant lots in the neighborhood, public organizations owned many of these parcels. Despite recommendations from the 1987 plan for the City to disseminate these parcels for use by the residents, looking at the Department of Licenses and Inspections data on demolition permits from 2007 to the present, demolitions are still a prevalent issue North Philadelphia and other areas that were once given a “D” rating. Over 20 years later, the PHA’s “Transformation Plan” for the neighborhood still highlighted land vacancy as a key issue.

What these maps allude to is a history of an oppressive built environment, and that the conditions that exist today are by design. While the ratings given by the HOLC maps may not have accurately portrayed these areas at the time, due to policies and initiatives surrounding the built environment, these conditions became a reality. Touching on this, Phillips noted that property rights “have always been used against Black or indigenous folks to deprive them and to strip them of any access to their own communities and their own homes. They’ve always found a way to design and engineer this kind of deprivation of land or right to the land whether its redlining or just outright racial terrorism.”

1937 HOLC map with overlay of Philadelphia City Planning Commission redevelopment plans submitted by 1965 and PHA developments before 1973.

1937 HOLC map with overlay of Philadelphia City Planning Commission redevelopment plans submitted by 1965 and PHA developments before 1973 and building permits completed since 2007. | Maps: Dana Rice

For Phillips, the language employed by the PHA and other developers negates this history. In her book she explains further how touting these narratives often has had the effect of “flattening” the community and implying complicity among neighborhood residents in their own poverty and disinvestment, stripping them of their histories and their futures. In her book she wrote, “Failure to pull themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps, claim their space, and move into the future, is met with the punishment of having their space seized and their futures pre-determined by market and government forces.”

In this way Phillips highlights that what makes the PHA and other developers’ plans particularly damaging to communities is not just their control over space, but also over time. “The future, much like space (housing, land, and even outer space), becomes accessible only to those who have the resources to accelerate the pace determined by the dominant party–in this case PHA, government entities, and private developers.”

Given the history of spatial oppression/deprivation, communities like Sharswood are left disempowered and Phillips said that it takes some time to overcome that. In many ways the establishment of CFL became about redistributing control back to the community over time. The lab was designed as an open space where anyone could come in, communicate their pasts in any medium, and think about the future, in contrast to the rapid pace of development and change encircling the neighborhood. Time at CFL slowed down. Typical development outreach programs which usually feature sporadic presentations at community meetings, often in conjunction with plans and designs already in the works. CFL set up a permanent shop in the neighborhood for 12 months, although it would have liked to stay longer. According to Phillips, despite her being a longtime resident of Brewerytown/Sharswood, it still took a lot of time for CFL to build a relationship with the community. “The first six months was just about building trust,” she said, but this time ultimately enabled residents to open up and share their stories. What her work reveals and lends guidance to is a new methodology for design work in historically oppressed communities, and what is really needed is spaces where residents can be empowered to take control over their own futures.

Design as Protest’s list of design justice demands. | Image: Design as Protest

Several organizations within Philadelphia and nationally have been calling out these inequities and have started campaigns to advocate for design justice in both the design professions and the built environment. PhilaNOMA is the Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization for Minority Architects. President emeritus Tya Winn, who is also a program director for Habitat for Humanity, explained that the national organization was started in 1971 when a group of Black architects banded together during the American Institute of Architects (AIA) convention in Detroit. The group was responding to a greater need for advancement of people of color in the architecture profession. According to data from the National Council of Architecture Registration Boards (NCARB) as of 2016, although the number of non-white licensure candidates had risen slightly from previous surveys to 42 percent, the number of those receiving their initial licensure had remained stagnant at 15 percent. This means that 85 percent of all licensed architects are white. Additionally, 64 percent of licensed architects are men.

These inequities within the profession have led to real problems when designing within communities of color and the built environment in general. “Most architects are just not equipped to deal with a lot of the issues in these neighborhoods,” said Winn. “The site was always treated like this isolated thing, like a white box. We all know that that’s just not how buildings are engaged at the street level as a person, and we’ve spent a lot of time heralding architects that completely wiped out or ignored the surrounding culture and context.”  She said disparities in architectural education oftentimes fail to discuss histories of racial oppression in the built environment.

The AIA and most state architecture legislations call on the architecture profession to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public. Yet, according to Winn, the aspect of “welfare” is the most wanting, and she sees a correlation between this and the Black Lives Matter movement. “When you think about the tenants of these movements, what is the quality of life as a Black person in America is the really the core of the question right now.”

Community Futures Lab (CFL), a project by Black Quantum Futurism/The AfroFuturist Affair, held workshops and events focused on community empowerment along Ridge Avenue in 2017. | Image courtesy of Community Futures Lab

To this end, NOMA has recently modified their mission statement to more directly address these racial injustices. It now states that their objective is to “empower our local chapters and membership to foster justice and equity in communities of color.” To this end the organization is calling on all architects to be “BRAVE,” an acronym that stands for “banish racism,” “reach out to those that are grieving,” “advocate for the disinherited,” “vote in every American election,” and “engage each human that you meet as you would want to be engaged.” Winn explained further how this reinforces the directive for architects to focus on the “welfare” aspect of their projects and by not only asking architects to be aware of the communities they are building in and asking them to be an advocate for them.

Winn also shared her involvement in the Design As Protest movement that is closely aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement. The group recently launched a national letter writing campaign to get leading professional organizations, educational institutions, practices, and government institutions to sign on to their Design Justice demands. These include reallocating police funding, ending CEPTD (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design), ending designs of prisons and police stations, redefining metrics of affordable housing, shifting public policies, enhancing self determination, reimagining financial model of neighborhood design, preserving and invest in Black cultural spaces, and reflecting spatial injustice in design training and licensing. In its last update the group had 103 signatories, including Penn Praxis. However, sign on from design practices and government organizations has been slow so far.

For Winn, the need for the design professions to take these demands seriously is critical. “This is about basic human rights. This is the welfare of Black Americans. It is hard living in these neighborhoods. There is poverty and disenfranchisement. There are scars,” said Winn. These neighborhoods have been revitalized to death. “We need to start building places where people know they are valued, where there is a sense of place, where residents feel like they belong and the space is a reflection of them in a positive way. As architects and planners, we know these places are needed and it should be our responsibility to do it because no one else is going to see it the way we see it.”


About the Author

Dana Rice By day, Dana Rice is an architectural designer that strives to use preservation as a tool for neighborhood revitilization. She has a passion for underrepresented histories and working with communities to preserve their unique histories with atypical approaches.

One Comment:

  1. Sad to report:
    Even Black people cannot come into a Black community propped up by white folks, with some strange agenda that long term residents are Not aware of! I was in attendance at most of the Ridge Av. PopUps…Strange scenes, never explaining any input or benefit to the community. Now we see why, there was none!

    The EMINENT DOMAIN was the focus that was obfuscated by all of the little popup forums and other social events. The disjointed efforts took all of the publicity, while homeowner/ resident were fighting for they homes, property assets.

    Having pop ups, propping up a ” peace park,” and claiming to be Preservatioists, allowed for crazy stories from PHA about progress.
    The horrible LANDGRAB may have started in the segregated past, but is being completed by Black elected officials and housing administration presently.

    Wow five years later, now we learn books were being created, and deals on Dox Thrash House.
    * Land, Land, Land was taken from Black people, by allowing a Badly Managed housing agency ( PHA) to use EMINENT DOMAIN to take private assets- UNPRECEDENTED! That is the Big story!
    Please hold the Nonsense!

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