It has been very interesting to follow the evolution of some of our city’s most storied communities. Neighborhoods like Bedford Stuyvesant, the South Bronx and Harlem. Growing up in the 80s, forced to tag along with my Mom who worked in neighborhood-based planning, I witnessed the severe blight in many of these areas, with entire blocks abandoned, burned out, and boarded up. – Fodder for nightly news programs admonishing the poor for the inevitable social and economic breakdown resulting from landlord abandonment and neglect, and divestment of federal dollars in cities in favor of infusion of resources in the suburbs. This occured via federal programs like FHA working in sync with real estate and brokerage firms. A system to secure wealth and prosperity for some. And well for others, I’ll let you fill in the blank.
Today these formerly “undesirable”, “unbankable”, “red-lined” neighborhoods are storied for their ever-rising property values, with plans for rezoning in these and other gentrifying areas around New York City.
Concerned about unheard voices in urban design, my colleague, Architect and Housing Policy PhD candidate, Anze Zadel and I launched a project to offer design support to low-resourced residents, whose businesses and homes are targeting for rezoning (largely “up-zoning” to attract developers).
This participatory action research and design project puts residents in the driver’s seat whereby they interrogate problems, develop research questions and design solutions and take leadership in implementation and evaluation of the project.
For me, this project is an exciting culmination of several years of advising, facilitating and teaching community-centered urban design approaches and the impact of design on housing quality, jobs, education, environmental conditions and other factors.
Historically the struggle has been to bring in capital through grants and federal subsidies to keep these communities afloat. Now the fight is to fend off an influx of aggressive capitalistic tactics aimed at displacing long-time residents.
Below is an article that the brilliant young writer and philosopher, Anthony Schiappa, and I worked on a few years ago for executive director, Donald Notice and his team at West Harlem Group Assistance, Inc., as they celebrated their 40th Anniversary.
The piece is a retrospective on the socio-economic factors and politics with which WHGA had to contend in re-designing severely blighted buildings and blocks throughout Harlem over the past few decades. Though very community-centered but not radically participatory (yet!) WHGA has pushed through many hurdles to secure a future for their constituents.
WHGA’s story is the is the story of over 3,000 such community-based organizations. More importantly this is about the impact of policy and design on millions of low- and moderate- income tenants and homeowners, small business, disabled persons, seniors, immigrants, the working poor and unemployed poor and many other vulnerable groups that comprise our cities. People for whom design can be remarkably uplifting or unimaginably oppressive.