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Decoding Black Stories Built Into the Environment

Students Take Deep Dive Into Links Between African American History, Architecture and Urban Planning

By Aadit Tambe M. Jour ’22

A young boy hovers expectantly near a snowball vendor in 1940s Harlem Park

Photo courtesy of Maryland Historical Society, HEN.00.A1-105

A young boy hovers expectantly near a snowball vendor in 1940s Harlem Park, a middle class Black neighborhood in Baltimore that declined following an urban renewal plan imposed by the city in the late 1950s. A UMD architecture researcher's class this semester details how urban planning by white leaders damaged the fortunes of Black Americans.

Quality mortgages. Low interest rates. Federal housing subsidies.

For many white Americans in the mid-20th century, these were the steppingstones to home and property ownership that helped build financial security. But few Black Americans could take that step, and the effects of this inequity still reverberate today, with white wealth dwarfing Black wealth by a factor of 10, and Black homeownership lagging some 30% behind white homeownership.

University of Maryland architecture students led by Kea Distinguished Professor Marques King M.Arch. ’14 are delving into this facet of the African American experience—one impacted by racist practices such as redlining (restricting home loans in majority-Black areas), exploitation and segregation—in American cities over a 500-year period. His course, which debuted last fall, focuses on the relationships between people of color and the urban planning and policy practices that shaped where and how they live.

In the course, also running this semester, students choose an American city and examine its history with regards to the Black population that inhabited it, exploring the relationship between the communities and the design and planning of the land. Every week, the class discusses the common themes that students encountered in their respective city’s deep dive.

Melonee Quintanilla M. Arch. ’22 focused on the Harlem Park neighborhood in West Baltimore, which saw a push for urban renewal in the mid-20th century. The neighborhood, whose middle-class Black residents had built a thriving economy, was redesigned by white city officials in the early 1960s. The modest carriage homes were demolished to leave an unmaintained empty space at the center of each block—as a part of a failed experiment to introduce urban green spaces into the city.

Every week, Quintanilla’s classmates discussed interesting stories or pieces of history they came across while conducting research. She said a common theme is how many American cities had a flourishing, culturally rich Black community that was wiped out in the mid-20th century as a result of urban planning: The construction of highways and railroads bulldozed majority-Black areas, Black-owned businesses were destroyed as a part of urban renewal, and trash incinerators were placed in Black communities.

“Understanding how oppression against Black people was intentionally codified and designed into our built environment led me to understand the physical manifestations of racism,” she said. “It is important because it starts to chip away at the notion that racism is in the heads of people of color—it’s not an abstract construct that we complain about—it’s something that is living and is existing and has physical forms. It shapes our cities and our homes.”

Towards the end of the Civil War, King said, the U.S. saw the rise of Black codes—restrictive laws designed to limit the freedom of African Americans; White Supremist groups—such as the Ku Klux Klan—regulated African Americans’ presence on the land. This destroyed hundreds of Black communities in the country.

During the early-20th century, when African Americans migrated to cities in search of middle-class work, white architects, city planners and legislators specified certain areas where Black people could live—often areas that were undesirable, flood-prone or otherwise unattractive to well-heeled White people. The Black inhabitants frequently turned these locales into economically vibrant neighborhoods and established flourishing businesses and communities—sometimes leading to armed attacks against prosperous Black areas by jealous white neighbors.

The 1921 race massacre in the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma, is a particularly egregious example of a prosperous Black community being attacked by white supremacists. Over the course of a few days hundreds were killed, 10,000 homes destroyed, all the businesses were burned, and a bomb was dropped on the community from a plane.

“Tulsa is a great example of a successful community and wealth built by African Americans out of necessity only to have it taken from them unconstitutionally and through violence, and (this) paradigm that has played out multiple times throughout history,” King said.

The most common way to grow wealth in the U.S. has historically been through land and home ownership, and because most American residential neighborhoods are zoned for single-family homes—one of the costliest living options—people of color face another obstacle to building family wealth.

A solution, he said, is to rezone to allow more diverse, affordable housing alternatives—such as duplexes and triplexes.

“We have in our founding documents that all men are created equal, but that’s not the case for a lot of people,” King said. “In order to push for the ‘all men are equal’ maxim that we hold so true to, it’s important for us to know our history so we don’t repeat it again.”

Students need to understand that their work as designers and planners has the power to impact other people’s lives, said Brian Kelly, professor and director of UMD’s architecture program. This course, which will be offered again in the fall, seeks to foster a sense of empathy and understanding in students.

Throughout most of history, architects, designers and preservationists have been preoccupied serving the wealthy, he said.

“What we’re trying to inculcate in students is the idea that the greater public good isn’t necessarily represented by the 1% percent population that hold (most) of the capital,” he said. “What we do is not just for the wealthy; it’s for everyone.”

 

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