I grew up in a family of social scientists, but I was the weird child who drew.
From making sketches of the models in my mom's Sears catalog...to a bedroom so full of my craft projects that it was like my own personal art gallery, I lived to make. I don't think anyone in my family was surprised when I became an architect. But to be honest with you, the real foundation of the architect I became was not laid in that bedroom art gallery but by the conversations around my family's dinner table. There were stories of how people lived and connected to one another, from the impact of urban migration on a village in Zambia to the complex health care needs of the homeless in the streets of San Francisco.
Now, it would be fair if you're looking over at your seatmate and wondering, "What the hell does that have to do with architecture?" Well, all of these stories involved space and how it did or didn't accommodate us. The fact is, we share some of our deepest connections in physical space. And our stories play out, even in this crazy age of texting and tweeting, in physical space. Unfortunately, architecture hasn't done a great job of telling all of our stories equally. Too often, we see the building of monuments like the Gherkin or even Trump Tower...
that tell the story of the haves rather than the have-nots. Throughout my career, I've actively resisted the practice of building monuments to certain peoples' stories—usually white, male, rich—and bulldozing other peoples' stories—usually people of color from low-income communities. I've tried to create a practice that is rooted in elevating the stories of those who have most often been silenced. That work—it's been a mission in spatial justice.
Now, spatial justice means that we understand that justice has a geography, and that the equitable distribution of resources, services and access is a basic human right. So what does spatial justice look like? Well, I'd like to share a story with you.
For years, I've been working in the historically African-American neighborhood of Bayview Hunters Point in San Francisco, on a plot of land that once held a power plant. Back in the '90s, a community group led by mothers who lived in the public housing on the hill above the plant fought for its closure. They won. The utility company finally tore it down, cleaned the soil and capped most of the site with asphalt so that the clean soil wouldn't blow away.
Sounds like a success story, right? Well, not so fast. You see, because of various issues like land entitlements, lease agreements, etc., the land actually couldn't be redeveloped for at least five to 10 years. What that meant is that this community that had been living near a power plant for decades, now had 30 acres of asphalt in their backyard. To put that in context for you, 30 acres is equal to about 30 football fields. Now, the utility company didn't want to be the bad guy here. Recognizing that they owed the community, they actually put out a call for designers to propose temporary uses for this site, hoping to turn it into a community benefit rather than blight.
I'm part of the diverse team of designers that responded to that call, and for the last four years, we've been collaborating with those mothers and other residents, as well as local organizations and the utility company. We've been experimenting with all types of events to try and address issues of spatial justice. Everything from job training workshops to an annual circus to even a beautiful, new shoreline trail. In the four years that we've been operational, over 12,000 people have come and done something on this site that we hope has transformed their relationship to it. But lately, I'm starting to realize that events are not enough.
A few months ago, there was a community meeting in this neighborhood. The utility company was finally ready to talk concretely about long-term redevelopment. That meeting was kind of a disaster. There was a lot of yelling and anger. People asked things like, "If you're going to sell it to a developer, wouldn't they just build luxury condos like everyone else?" And "Where has the city been?" "Why aren't there more jobs and resources in this neighborhood?"
It was not that our events had failed to bring joy. But in spite of that, there was still pain here. Pain from a history of environmental injustice that left many industrial uses in this neighborhood, leaving residents living near toxic waste and, literally, shit. There's pain from the fact that this zip code still has one of the lowest per capita income, highest unemployment and highest incarceration rates in a city which tech giants like Twitter, Airbnb and Uber call home. And those tech companies—hm—they've actually helped to trigger a gentrification push that is rapidly redefining this neighborhood, both in terms of identity and population.
Now let me pause for a moment to talk about gentrification. I suspect for a lot of us, it's kind of like a dirty word. It's become synonymous with the displacement of poor residents from their neighborhood by wealthier newcomers. If you've ever been displaced, then you know the agony of losing a place that held your story. And if you haven't experienced this, then I'm going to ask you to try and imagine your way into it right now. Think about what it would be like to find your favorite local spot, a place where you often went and hung out with the old-timers or your friends, had vanished. And then you get home, and you find a letter from your landlord, saying that your rent's been doubled. The choice to stay—it's not yours to make. You no longer belong in your home. And know that this feeling you're feeling right now, it would be the same regardless of whether or not the person who harmed you meant to do so. Developer Majora Carter once said to me, "Poor people don't hate gentrification. They just hate that they rarely get to hang around long enough to enjoy its benefits."
Why is it that we treat culture erasure and economic displacement as inevitable? We could approach development with an acknowledgment of past injustices—find value not only in those new stories but the old ones, too. And make a commitment to build people's capacity to stay—to stay in their homes, to stay in their communities, to stay where they feel whole.
But to do this rethink, it requires looking at those past injustices and the pain and grief that is interwoven into them. And as I started to reflect on my own work, I realized that pain and grief have been recurring themes. I heard it early on in the Bayview Hunters Point project when a man named Daryl said, "We've always been set aside like an island—a no-man's-land." I also heard it in Houston, when I was working on a project with day laborers. And as Juan told me stories of being robbed of his wages many times on the corner in which he stood every day to earn a living to support his family, he asked, "Why can't anyone see the sacredness of this site?"
You know, you've seen the pain, too. From campaigns around statue removals in Charlottesville and New Orleans...to towns that have lost their industrial lifeblood and are now dying, like Lorain, Ohio and Bolton, England. We often rush to remake these places, thinking that we can ease their pain. But in our boundless desire to do good, to get past all of our mistakes, to build places that hold possibility, we often maintain a blissful ignorance of a landscape filled with a very long trail of broken promises and squelched dreams. We are building on top of brokenness. Is it any wonder that the foundations cannot hold?
Holding space for pain and grief was never part of my job description as an architect—after all, it's not expedient, focused on beauty, and hell, even requested by my clients. But I've seen what happens when there's space for pain. It can be transformational.
Returning to our story, when we first started working in the neighborhood, one of the first things we did was go out and interview the activists who had led the fight to close the plant. We consistently heard and felt from them a sense of impending loss. The neighborhood was already changing, even back then. People were leaving or dying of old age, and with those departures, stories were being lost. To those activists, no one was going to know the amazing things that had happened in this community, because to everyone on the outside, it was the ghetto. At worst, a place of violence; at best, a blank slate. Neither was true, of course. So my colleagues and I, we reached out to StoryCorps. And with their support, and that of the utility company, we built a listening booth on our site. And we invited the residents to come and have their stories recorded for posterity. After a few days of recording, we held a listening party where we played clips, much like what you hear on NPR every Friday morning.
That party—it was one of the most amazing community meetings I've ever been a part of. In part because we didn't just talk about joy but also pain. Two stories that I remember well—AJ talked about what it was like to grow up in the neighborhood. There was always a kid to play with. But he also spoke with sadness of what it was like to first be stopped and questioned by a police officer when he was 11. GL also talked about the kids, and the ups and downs of the experience of living in this neighborhood, but he also spoke with pride of some of the organizations that had sprung up to provide support and empowerment. He wanted to see more of that. By holding space to first express pain and grief, we were then able to brainstorm ideas for a site—amazing ideas that then became the seeds of what we did over the next four years.
So why the radically different meeting now? Well...the pain and grief woven into these spaces was not created in a day. Healing also takes time. After all, who here thinks you can go to therapy just once and be cured?
Anyone? I didn't think so. In retrospect, I wish that we had held more listening sessions, not just joyful events. My work's taken me all over the world, and I have yet to set foot in a place where pain didn't exist and the potential for healing was absent. So while I've spent my career honing my skills as an architect, I realize that I'm now also a healer.
I suppose this is the point in the talk where I should be telling you those five steps to healing, but I don't have the solution—yet. Just a path. That being said, there are a few things I have learned along the way.
First—we cannot create cities for everyone unless we're first willing to listen to everyone. Not just about what they hope to see built in the future but also about what has been lost or unfulfilled. Second—healing is not just for "those people." For those of us with privilege, we have to have a reckoning with our own guilt, discomfort and complicity. As non-profit leader Anne Marks once observed, "Hurt people hurt people; healed people heal people." And third—healing is not about the erasure of pain. We often have a tendency to want to put a clean slate over our pain, much like that asphalt on the soil in Bayview Hunters Point. But it doesn't work that way. Healing is about acknowledging pain and making peace with it.
One of my favorite quotes says that healing renews our faith in the process of becoming. I stand here before you as an architect-healer because I'm ready to see what I can become, what my community and those that I work with can become, and what this country, and frankly, this world can become. And I was not meant to take that journey alone. I believe that many of you are unhappy with the way that things are now. Believe that it can be different. I believe that you all are far more resilient than you think. But the first step requires courage. The courage to see each other's pain, and to be willing to stay in the presence of it, even when it gets uncomfortable. Just imagine the change that we can make together if we all committed to that.