Archive for the ‘Building Community’ Category


This essay will appear in Grace Lee Boggs’ Living For Change column of the Michigan Citizen.

Manufacturing can save our cities.  We should not view it only as dying.   Instead, we must rethink it within a “community-scaled” framework that produces products, jobs, skills, relationships, and stronger neighborhoods.

The familiar narrative about manufacturing in the U.S. begins at the turn of the 20th century.  Manufacturing gave us prosperity.It gave us global economic power. It created a robust middle class.  It ramped up at unprecedented scales to meet the demands of mass consumption, particularly in the automobile industry.  Cities like Detroit (“Arsenal of Democracy”) and Philadelphia (“Workshop of the World”) were hailed as success stories of the Industrial Revolution.

This revolution did not last forever.  Deindustrialization began in the post World War II years.  With automation the number of workers required on the line declined significantly.  As the labor movement grew in strength, companies left for the suburbs. Today corporate urban flight extends overseas, and the bastions of American industry struggle with the devastating effects of disinvestment and rising unemployment rates.

Economic development solutions for de-industrialized cities often fall into two categories.  The first looks at the physical conditions of thousands of derelict buildings sitting idly across the landscape and devises programs that rehabilitate neglected industrial buildings for commercial or residential uses.  E.g.  former factories are converted into luxury condos. The second approach focuses on job creation by building a “knowledge-based” economy. Advances in digital technologies have sped up globalization, placing a premium on jobs in this sector. To become a “knowledge city”, cities invest in research institutions that develop technological innovations in science and engineering. Advocates believe that cities with a strong knowledge economy will increase their global competitive edge.

These prevailing approaches do not leave much room for viewing  manufacturing as part of the equation for urban revitalization .  Should every abandoned factory become high-end residential lofts? Is the knowledge economy the panacea for all de-industrialized cities?  Instead,  manufacturing is caricatured as an industry encumbered with union lobbyists or associated with a dying era, one that should step aside for the Information Age.

A Brooklyn-based non-profit is demonstrating the viability of community-scaled manufacturing.  Through the acquisition, rehabilitation, and management of neglected industrial spaces, Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center has transformed six properties into top-rate facilities.  These buildings mainly house custom-made artisanal operations, like woodworkers, upholsterers, and fabricators.  Over 100 businesses reside in GMDC’s buildings, supporting over 500 workers. The majority of employees are residents from the surrounding neighborhood, showing that community-scaled manufacturing can deter fears of gentrification and displacement.

Economist E.F. Schumacher said, “If you get too many useful machines , you will get too many useless people”. By encouraging  the reuse of supposedly obsolete industrial infrastructure, community-scaled manufacturing is a place-based strategy that  roots manufacturers in their local areas. It addresses workforce development concerns about the lack of skilled workers. The apprentice-style education provides a way for people to discover and develop their own abilities.

Thus manufacturing becomes a step towards broadening  hands-on opportunities for many people. Jobs in trade and craft are good skills;  community-scaled manufacturing recovers the societal value of jobs in which people make things.  Its inherent small-scale demands a localized economy and has the capacity to advance craftsmanship, promote education, and build stronger communities.

Manufacturing can, should, and is taking place in our cities.  More communities are recognizing the need to localize  goods and services.  The local food security movement reflects this understanding.  Community-scaled manufacturing can realize similar outcomes. It has the ability to bring the consumer closer to the producer, decrease the ecological footprint of manufacturing, improve local economies, and encourage self-sufficiency. We can let go of the old way of manufacturing – its polluting factories and menial labor — and embrace the future of community-scaled manufacturing.

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We featured Kian Goh at the Unspoken Borders Conference this year, during the Talk20 session.   Having Goh be part of the conference was fantastic, particularly because of her direct engagement with the queer community on design issues.  One of her projects is featured in our hot-off-the-press publication.  She was also recently interviewed by the American Institute of Architects – be sure to listen to the mp3 of the interview.  She articulates the importance of promoting social justice through design.  Though she specifically speaks to an architectural audience, her words resonate well with other design fields.

Two weekends ago, we wrapped up an inspiring, thought-provoking conference. Fortunately, we had a representative from Arch Paper cover the conference, and they’ve just posted a review of their reflections. Here’s a highlight:
Amidst the discussion of what designers can do about social inequities, a related question emerged: should design education address the root causes of those inequities? “There’s no lack of design-build studios going out to poor neighborhoods to build houses, but there’s no discussion [in architecture school] of why those neighborhoods exist,” said architect Kian Goh. But isn’t there a trade-off between expertise and generalism? Some participants thought so, and urban designer Felipe Correa countered: “It is important that we not overextend the net, that we bring it back to what we know how to do best,” he argued. “Allow sociologists to deal with the sociology.”
I think this has been our best conference yet, particularly because we were able to attract a wide cross-section of students to attend.  In addition to the various methods of collaboration, great graphic design and aggressive outreach effort, I believe our theme, “Ecologies of Inequality”, strategically peeked the interest of students. As a designer of color, this conference is a nourishing reminder why I decided to pursue this profession in the first place.
Another participant also posted her thoughts of her visit. After the conference, two PennDesign architecture students have launched an interactive blog to continue the dialogues around design and social justice.

I’m smiling. The NY Times reported that the Obama’s will be planting an organic vegetable garden at the White House, complete with an educational program with local elementary students to help harvest the produce.

For urban dwellers who have no backyards, the country’s one million community gardens can also play an important role, Mrs. Obama said.

When the Obamas made made the call for people to get more involved with volunteering and service projects in their communities, I witnessed thousands turning out on MLK Day in DC.  Imagine the new surge of urban residents participating in community gardens, urban farms, CSAs and other local food programs!

White House Veg Garden

It’s been a long time since I’ve read something that’s motivated me enough to start a new blog post.  Attending design school has been one of the most consuming and exhausting endeavors I’ve undertaken. But today I read an explosive speech by Jeff Chang, and it has helped me re-orient myself back to the first reason I decided to become a landscape architect/urban planner.

I’m starting to piece together and articulate how the policies that the past 40 years, which Jeff summarizes in his speech, also encompass the physical and spatial disenfranchisement of communities of color. When Jeff describes hip-hop as a response to the “story of the rise of the politics of abandonment and the politics of containment”, it is not just that these policies have socially disenfranchised communities, but that there is a a physical displacement and exclusion of communities that has resulted.  The urban renewal policies of the 1950s, combined with the drug economy, destroyed our Paradise Valleys and Hill Districts around the country, p

In school, this sense of urgency is mostly absent among students.  Too bad most of us are caught up perfecting our renderings and drawings, clicking away in front of computer screens (and here I sit blogging).  We need more conscious, justice-oriented designers to join the fight to restore our communities and take up the questions that Jeff posed at the end of his speech.

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OUR ANCESTORS, OUR BREATH
Cultivating Spiritual Power for our Healing and Happiness

ANNUAL MINDFULNESS RETREAT FOR PEOPLE OF COLOR IN THE TRADITION OF VENERABLE THICH NHAT HANH

@ BLUE CLIFF MONASTERY

PINE BUSH, NY

WED, OCT 22 – SUN, OCT 26, 2008

Our fifth annual retreat offered to People of Color in the tradition of the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh will be held on the East Coast for the first time! In this five-day retreat for people of Native-American, African, Latina/o, Asian/Pacific Islander, Caribbean, and Middle Eastern ancestry (as well as their Caucasian family members), we will touch healing and nourishment through the practice of mindfulness and our reconnection to our ancestors.

This retreat offers us the opportunity to practice and enjoy the art of mindful and peaceful living in our daily life. We will learn to recognize and embrace our pain in transformative ways, find peace within ourselves, and foster stronger sisterhood and brotherhood in our communities. It will give us an opportunity to stop, rest, and touch the source of wisdom, compassion and healing in ourselves, so that we can renew our relationships and bring peace and understanding to our world. Through the practice of mindfulness we will learn how to nourish happiness, gratitude, good communication and serenity in our daily life. Some of the questions we will explore are:

• What are our sources of spiritual power in us?
• How can we cultivate our spiritual power to maintain balance in our life?
• How can we nurture faith, joy, creativity, and compassion in our daily life?

For further information, please check our website later on for more details regarding this retreat (www.bluecliffmonastery.org), or call us at 845.733.4959.

After I had written my last post on why Obama inspires me to re-engage with electoral politics, I recently came across these comments that he had said during his first senatorial campaign in 1995, when he was featured in an article published by an alternative paper in Chicago. I found these statements to be an important reflection, in his own words, of Obama’s approach, philosophy and vision for the role of elected officials and government.

What makes Obama different from other progressive politicians is that he doesn’t just want to create and support progressive programs; he wants to mobilize the people to create their own. He wants to stand politics on its head, empowering citizens by bringing together the churches and businesses and banks, scornful grandmothers and angry young. Mostly he’s running to fill a political and moral vacuum. He says he’s tired of seeing the moral fervor of black folks whipped up–at the speaker’s rostrum and from the pulpit–and then allowed to dissipate because there’s no agenda, no concrete program for change.

“…What we need in America, especially in the African-American community, is a moral agenda that is tied to a concrete agenda for building and rebuilding our communities,” he said. “We have moved beyond the clarion call stage that was needed during the civil rights movement. Now, like Nelson Mandela in South Africa, we must move into a building stage. We must invest our energy and resources in a massive rebuilding effort and invent new mechanisms to strengthen and hasten this community-building effort.

“…Now an agenda for getting our fair share is vital. But to work, it can’t see voters or communities as consumers, as mere recipients or beneficiaries of this change. It’s time for politicians and other leaders to take the next step and to see voters, residents, or citizens as producers of this change. The thrust of our organizing must be on how to make them productive, how to make them employable, how to build our human capital, how to create businesses, institutions, banks, safe public spaces–the whole agenda of creating productive communities. That is where our future lies.

“…The right wing talks about this but they keep appealing to that old individualistic bootstrap myth: get a job, get rich, and get out. Instead of investing in our neighborhoods, that’s what has always happened. Our goal must be to help people get a sense of building something larger.

“…The political debate is now so skewed, so limited, so distorted. People are hungry for community; they miss it. They are hungry for change.

“…What if a politician were to see his job as that of an organizer, as part teacher and part advocate, one who does not sell voters short but who educates them about the real choices before them? As an elected public official, for instance, I could bring church and community leaders together easier than I could as a community organizer or lawyer. We would come together to form concrete economic development strategies, take advantage of existing laws and structures, and create bridges and bonds within all sectors of the community. We must form grass-root structures that would hold me and other elected officials more accountable for their actions.”

Full text below:

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I was disappointed to hear that Detroit’s Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick announced the sale of 92 city parks last month. Many of these parks are probably small, abandoned and surrounded by other empty lots. Reportedly, the city wants to generate some revenue and spark development by selling these pocket parks.

There are enough vacant properties to stimulate development in Detroit, and I don’t see why the city can’t examine other approaches to revitalizing areas that are not designated parkland. Turning to parkland reveals a sense of desperation. It’s probably true that many of these parks are eye-sores and hardly ever used (what child would want to play on rusted, broken swings?), but selling off a city’s parks, no matter how small, is a short-sighted approach to city planning.

Whether it’s due to poor leadership, too much bureaucracy, or lack of resources, it’s unfortunate that the city is unable to improve these neighborhood parks. With the elimination of these neighborhood parks, the city cannot bank on the larger city parks (Belle Isle, Palmer Park, Rouge Park) to attract more residents, especially without an adequate public transportation system. During my experience working with youth who lived in northeast Detroit, few, if any, had even been to Belle Isle, which is considered one of the most well-known parks of Detroit.

Coincidentally, I’ve been researching the history of Detroit parks and greenspaces for my landscape theory class. As cities grew with Industrialization in the late 19th century, pioneering planners, such as Frederick L. Olmsted, advocated for the integration of public park space, in order to promote the public and environmental health of urban centers. In 1921, Detroit had become a national leader in park and recreational activities and hosted the annual convention for the National Association of Park Administrators. Hundeds of park administrators from around the country flocked to Detroit to learn how its park system accommodated a growing populace, and to view Belle Isle’s spectacular architecture and park design. (Though Belle Isle has been stripped to its bare essentials, with the closing of the zoo, aquarium and other attractions within the last 10 years).

I’m not necessarily arguing for the city to seek a return to the early 1900s because we clearly live in a different social and urban context today. But I do support innovative and visionary leadership to city planning and repairing the fabric of our urban communities. What would it look like if the city partnered with the local community to identify the needs of their neighborhoods? How can communities self-strategize to bring and maintain resources in the city? What does the city value, and how do those values manifest the kind of development we are encouraging in the city? Can we invite city designers and planners to rethink Detroit?

Click below for the list of neighborhood parks for sale: Continue Reading »

Last Saturday I went to check out the Mid-Autumn Festival organized by Asian Americans United and the Philadelphia Folklore Project. The first time I had heard about this event was several years ago through my involvment with the Detroit Asian Youth Project and our efforts to engage youth with cultural arts and activism. There’s a really dope documentary that tells the story behind the festival that captures the goals to use folk arts to build intergenerational relationships, pass down cultural traditions and build a stronger sense of community.

Walking through Chinatown, there was a wonderful vibe from the festival and the hundreds of young people and families walking around. Continue Reading »