Imagining Futures: Architecture, Planning, and the Black Power Movement

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Courtesy Arthur Symes.

Courtesy Arthur Symes.

Brian D. Goldstein’s open-access article, “‘The Search for New Forms’: Black Power and the Making of the Postmodern City,” appears in the September 2016 issue of the Journal of American History. His forthcoming book, The Roots of Urban Renaissance: Gentrification and the Struggle Over Harlem, will be published in February 2017.

In May 1968, J. Max Bond, Jr. stood before a group that left few other traces in the historical record: Architects and Planners Against the War in Viet Nam. Bond, who was African American and himself an architect, took this occasion to angrily denounce two ongoing federal programs: the Vietnam War and urban renewal, the government-backed clearance and reconstruction of American cities in the postwar period. The war’s violence and destruction showed America’s disregard for non-white people, Bond explained. So too did urban renewal. “Urban renewal has meant Negro removal, and still does,” Bond told his audience.

In his wide-ranging speech, Bond wondered about other ways of shaping the city. Specifically, he envisioned methods that remained within the rubrics of architecture and planning, but with very different kinds of people doing the shaping. “The idea of a Black expression in architecture is… something that is scoffed at, for which there is very little respect,” he noted. Yet, he contended, “it seems reasonable… to expect that were Black Americans in a position to express their particular conditions and values through understanding architects and planners, distinctive buildings and plans would result.”

Bond’s argument—that race mattered in forming the built environment, and that empowering African Americans to determine the shape of their communities would produce a different sort of city—grew out of frustration with the costs of urban renewal but also drew from the larger politics of the ongoing black power movement. Black power activists demanded the right to racial self-determination, arguing that community control of education and government could improve inequalities that racial liberalism had ineffectively addressed. They also sought control over urban space itself, as their movement took root in predominantly black neighborhoods across American cities.

The vision that resulted from this pursuit is the focus of my article, “‘The Search for New Forms’: Black Power and the Making of the Postmodern City,” in the September 2016 issue of the Journal of American History. The article’s title comes from a phrase in Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton’s 1967 book, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America, effectively the manifesto of the black power movement. In demanding racial self-determination in schools, housing, politics, and business, they called for “new forms.” As Bond’s example shows, this phrase had concrete implications too. Black power activists imagined alternative urban futures through the formal vocabulary of architecture and planning.

Bond sought this goal in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem, the nation’s most famous predominantly African American community. Born into an influential family and educated at Harvard, Bond began his formal involvement in the civil rights movement in the 1950s and remained in close contact with civil rights leader Julian Bond, his first cousin. As leader of a community-based design center called the Architects’ Renewal Committee in Harlem, or ARCH, he pursued the radical ideal he had described in his 1968 speech, of a neighborhood designed by and for its African American residents. With ARCH, which assisted Harlemites threatened by urban renewal, he shaped a design practice that sought to put community control into action, by giving Harlemites more direct influence over architecture and planning.

Bond suggested that black control of the built environment would produce a different sort of city, representative of residents’ “particular conditions and values.” Yet my research explains that this vision often did not require new forms at all: it unabashedly celebrated the traditional streets and building types of Harlem, finding in them a vital, collective, vernacular culture in which Harlemites took care of each other. Where Harlem needed to be rebuilt—and there were many such areas in a community that had deteriorated with landlord and official neglect—ARCH and its partners insisted on retaining the kinds of forms that had characterized Harlem, with its mix of buildings and uses, stoops and sidewalks, and walkable blocks. Yet these visions of Harlem’s future rested on the radical notion that any rebuilding should benefit the people who presently lived in Harlem—that Harlem should remain a predominantly African American, low-income community.

In my article, I explore the larger implications of this ideal, most significantly as a repudiation of modernist urban renewal, which typically assumed the replacement of both a community’s buildings and its residents. In Harlem, Bond and ARCH inverted the assumptions of urban renewal. They argued that neighborhood revitalization should grow up from the grassroots, and did not require an architectural clean slate to do so. Instead, they found value in the people and buildings of Harlem, and experimented with new ways to democratize professions that typically had little representation by people of color. I explain that this vision was not without its complicated legacies, which I consider more fully in the article. Yet in the 1960s, architecture and planning seemed to offer a unique ability to imagine a more just urban future.

Design is always about imagining futures, and so offered an ideal tool for those active in the black power movement, which was also engaged with the task of envisioning new futures. Bond, ARCH, and their Harlem partners reveal a little known chapter in the history of black power, one in which activists demanded not only control of institutions in the built environment, but also control of the built environment itself. Architecture and planning, frequently tools of oppression, became tools for envisioning liberation.

This history suggests the value of seeing American social and political history and architectural and planning history as inextricably joined, with valuable lessons to teach one other. Interpreting the history of black power through the built environment shows another realm in which cultural production helped to advance the goals of the movement. Alongside the theater, visual arts, music, and literature that made up the era’s black arts movement, architects like Bond were also emboldened by the idea, as critic Larry Neal explained, of “the need to develop a ‘black aesthetic.’” Their work provides further evidence of black power as a proactive, imaginative movement, not simply an oppositional one.

At the same time, interpreting the history of the built environment through the lens of the black power movement brings new insights to the history of architecture and urbanism in this period. In the 1960s, the dominant vision of the city transformed from the monumental, austere forms of architectural modernism to the eclectic, often historically respectful forms that define the postmodern city. Reasons for this transition include the work of urbanist Jane Jacobs, the rise of historic preservation, and new theoretical preoccupations among designers. My essay argues that black power activists played an important role in this shift too, finding value in Harlem’s traditional forms for reasons that were quite different—architecturally, socially, and politically—from those of their peers. Understanding this enriches the social history of the rise of postmodernism. It also diversifies the actors credited with bringing about that transition, a goal that reflects Bond and ARCH’s own desire to achieve more inclusive design professions.

Bond worked in a terrain that was fertile for such demands, as the late 1960s brought heightened attention to questions of representation among experts, the negative effects of public policies, and inequalities that were entrenched in American cities. Activists looked to the built environment for solutions, while designers felt an urgent need to contribute to the larger goals of the era’s social movements and found unique opportunities to do so. Today, as we find ourselves in a similar moment, with increased focus on racially disparate police brutality, structural inequality, persistent racism, and discriminatory policies, activists and scholars outside the design professions are again asking how understanding the consequences of architecture and planning can contribute to movements for equality. Likewise, those who shape the built environment are again asking how they might join such movements.

Part of this effort has involved interpreting the role that planning itself has played in shaping and concretizing inequalities. Just as understanding the operation of urban renewal helped activists to imagine alternatives to it, understanding the costs of policies that followed has facilitated similar goals more recently. Journalists, most notably Ta-Nehisi Coates, have helped raise such awareness by bringing the insights of scholars to a broad audience. Historians of the built environment are also finding opportunities to contribute to ongoing movements’ efforts to offer alternative visions. One good example is Walter Johnson’s 2015 Atlantic article detailing the costs of relatively little known but widely used development policies in communities like Ferguson, Missouri. Another is an effort by architectural and urban historians to center black lives in the close study of buildings and plans (to which I contributed).

Architects and planners—especially those in the midst of their educations—are likewise seeking more engaged approaches to their chosen profession. One notable recent effort, the Black in Design Conference at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, held in October 2015, focused on justice and equality across scales, from the globe to the building. Organizers emphasized the contribution of underrepresented groups in design and, crucially, the necessity for designers to dedicate their skills to addressing injustice and inequality. In doing so, they modeled a discursive space that was itself an alternative to dominant frameworks.

Max Bond passed away in 2009, but dedicated much of his career to these imperatives, which he first raised in his thirties as the leader of ARCH: more inclusive representation among designers, greater appreciation of the value of diverse perspectives, and modes of design that could shape greater equality in American cities. Seeing such demands unfold in the very school that provided his own design training in the 1950s would have undoubtedly made him very proud, though he surely would have been frustrated that this conversation continues to be so relevant today. His insistence that the built environment provided a fundamental tool for imagining just worlds and demanding civil rights remains as urgent in our present era as it did in that of the black power movement.

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