Sunday, February 6, 2011

How to Read Local Landscapes at the Architectural Heritage Center

Yesterday I had the good fortune (seriously, I won tickets) to attend the presentation by professor Reiko Hillyer, "Marking Our Territory: How to Read Local Landscapes", which is part of the Oregon Humanities "The Conversation Project: A New Chautauqua" program. (I had to look up the meaning of Chautauqua). The title of the presentation doesn't give a particularly succinct description of it's main thematic, but this sentence from the press release helps: "One of the most persistent ways people exert power over others is to control their access to space." This is a topic that I have considerable interest in, as I think it's important to recognize the subtle ways that the built environment can influence our perceptions and behaviors.

The program was divided into two parts: first Hillyer started with presenting an overview of the basic thesis, and the latter portion was a group conversation that Hillyer ably moderated. I'm always a little leery of democratic group conversations, especially among lay-people (nevermind that this was an interested/motivated group of lay-people), because I find that the central topic can be easily derailed by someone who wants to turn the discussion to their own personal experiences and narratives, regardless of how directly relevant their thoughts might be. I'll be the first to admit that my attitude is flawed: my feeling of a voice "derailing" a conversation is my own perception; it's clearly important for the person speaking, and indeed, may even be reflective of other people's thoughts and opinions. Group conversations and democracy are sloppy things by nature and necessity, and everyone has the right to speak. Please accept this as my too-lengthy explanation of why I'll focus on the former rather than the latter part of the program.

Hillyer started by talking about the idea of "landscape" and how it is defined, noting that is often framed metaphorically or pastorally. When we are talking about a landscape painting, for example, it generally conjures mental images of undisturbed nature: rolling hills, majestic peaks, perhaps a winding river. The idea of landscape often ignores the vernacular of the built environment: the arterials of a city, dense downtowns, industrial waterfronts, big box strips with acres of parking. This is all part of our day-to-day landscape, and it affects us and our behaviors, although it is so common-place as to be rendered invisible. In not seeing this landscape, and recognizing it as such, we do not question the nature of it or ask why it exists in the fashion that it does. Without intentionally acknowledging the built environment, it becomes something that just happens; something that just is, much like the rolling hills, majestic peaks and winding rivers. Except, of course, the built environment exists only through past specific human intention.

Along this line of thought, Hillyer posed questions to us such as: who gets to decide what constitutes a neighborhood? It's a good question, especially when taking in historical events like the practice of redlining, which undeniably forms an element of the modern demographics of certain neighborhoods (Alameda is an example that comes immediately to my mind). She talked towards the power behind the control of space, how it can be used to reinforce segregation, or to delineate the perceived appropriate use of space. In terms of racial and economic parity, the practical application of space as a means of control can have devastating effects: take the effect of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans for example.

On the psychological control and definition of space, she showed us this image, which I felt was particularly compelling:

This picture of a segregated water fountain from the South illustrates that segregation wasn't about maintaining a physical distance between races as much as it was using the space to define the superiority of whites over blacks. The space is shared, but the symbolism of the two different fountains is as obvious as it is oppressive. This was part of a landscape, and someone constructed that portion of architecture with a specific thought and intention.

Portland's racist past was addressed, as well. There were the overt forms of racism in the city, from the "We Cater to White Trade Only" signs in lunch counter windows of downtown Portland in the mid-40s to the Coon-Chicken Inn on Sandy Boulevard (which exists today as Clyde's Prime Rib), but also the much more destructive public works projects like the construction of Memorial Coliseum, I-5 and the Fremont Bridge, and the planned expansion of Emmanuel Hospital. This is a subject that interests me greatly, because I think that our city has a long and continuing history of targeting minority areas for re-development, and I think it's important for them to be acknowledged in order for them to be prevented in the future. Other large-scale "urban renewal" fiascoes include the destruction of the Jewish and Italian neighborhoods of South Portland through the South Auditorium project, the destruction of the original Chinatown through the Morrison Bridge expansion, and the further harassment of the black community through the construction of the Minnesota Freeway. Oh, and of course: Vanport.

The presentation continued, as Hillyer addressed ways in which the built environment can also be reclaimed by the minority or by dissenting voices. She used lunch counter sit-ins as an example of political acts that occur as a protest to the proscribed use of a space. She talked about monuments to Confederate generals erected during the Jim Crow era before showing us an alternate - and very provocative - example of a monument that addresses the experience of the Civil Rights era:

She discussed the semantics of our remembered past as well, showing us a historical marker reading "The Massacre at Wounded Knee", where "Massacre" had clearly been added over a previous word. The previous word was "Battle", and the change reflected a different framing of events. These semantics are also reflected in what we choose to preserve, and how we preserve it. The Paul Revere house in Boston was being used as an Italian grocery and bank in the late 19th century before it was purchased and returned to a semblance of its 18th-century purposes. Through this preservation, the memory of the structure as a home to Paul Revere is honored, while its previous importance to an ethnic group is erased. In this example, it was made clear that preservation itself is a political act.

Not all modifications to the environment around us have a specific racial or classist subtext, but the whole program served as a great lesson that in any type of development there is a value judgment that is being made. Forest or farmland? Farmland or suburb? Portland Avenue or Rosa Parks Way? "Jump City" [ugh.] or inner-city Home Depot?

Early on in the growth of Portland, the men developing the city made a specific decision to set aside the Park Blocks as one contingent whole - not the divided North and South Park Blocks that we know of today. It was a generation removed from the original developers that started building on the blocks that separate the Park Blocks today, and the resulting legacy of that had left a couple of blocks that were merely used as surface parking lots. One of those lots has recently been returned to the public domain as Directors Park. It's the same type of value judgment that was made decades ago that resulted in the transformation of a Meier and Frank parking structure into Pioneer Courthouse Square. (There were also private profits made off of public funds in both of these cases, which shouldn't be discounted in the equation, but I digress.)

This program left me inspired, and made me feel like I have an improved vocabulary for how I regard our urban landscape now, and I'm going to make the assumption that others in attendance felt the same way. There was quite a bit in this presentation that I feel like I'm not doing justice to, and I'm not sure that Reiko Hillyer will have the opportunity to make this presentation again, but if she does, I would strongly encourage you to experience it for yourself. I knew a few other people that were in attendance, specifically my pal Patrick Tsukuda, Dan Haneckow of the fantastic blog Cafe Unknown, and Val Ballestrem, Education Manager of the Architectural Heritage Center, and I hope that they all will provide their own accounts of the experience as a way to expand on and refine my own description.

1 comment:

hollyc said...

Khris: Thanks for your insightful overview of a program I was unfortunately unable to attend. You might be interested in reading a book that I think has largely been forgotten: John Hersey's "My Petition for More Space." It is speculative fiction about an overpopulated future and explores the human need for space, and to some degree, privacy.