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Urban Barnraising: Building Community through Environment

People are becoming more aware of how racial discrimination and oppression are reinforced through the designed physical environment in which we live. In many insidious ways, the process by which our habitat is planned and built keeps people isolated, disempowered, and repressed. A deepening understanding of the impact of the urban habitat on peoples' lives, and how our habitat can be employed for our empowerment, should contribute to our liberation.

All cultures shape their habitat. Traditionally, indigenous people the world over have built beautiful homes with local materials, as well as villages and towns which nestled harmoniously in the landscape. Constructing their own homes instilled in the builders feelings of accomplishment and self-confidence, and generated a deepened sense of belonging to a place.

Today, labor-displacing machines are creating impersonal and alienating buildings without human hands. Massive, regimented apartment buildings and office complexes intimidate and isolate their occupants from one another. Reducing people to passive spectators in their own living and working environments contributes to their experience of powerlessness, as their sense of self-reliance becomes undermined.

Over the centuries, the architecture of buildings and open spaces and the planning of entire cities has evolved as a professional service to the privileged few. The accumulation of capital enables private patrons, corporations and governments to create physical settings designed to protect their bounty and strengthen their empire. Like the military triangle, the - private and corporate patrons, the architects, and the building contractors reinforce each other in constructing large and ostentatious structures for their own profit and ego gratification. The resulting skyscrapers provide regimented social lives for ever-growing masses of people.

The most dramatic environmental expression of social stratification, oppression and racism is in the location of peoples' communities. Living on the "wrong side of the tracks" or the "wrong side of the highway" separates the have-nots from the haves—usually people of color from the white middle class. Similarly, each higher foot of elevation that houses occupy on the hills of cities suggests a proportionate increase in investment portfolio of the owners.

The majority of inner-city dwellers, largely people of color, live in declining neighborhoods and substandard housing in the flatlands of cities. These are also usually the designated locations for polluting industries and incinerators, and dumping grounds for toxic waste. The African-American and Latino residents of these neighborhoods struggle to survive despite abject poverty, unemployment, and no prospect of change. Many succumb to despair and escape into drugs and violence.

At the same time, the affluent minority–the white middle class—lives in the expanding gentrified quarters of cities, saturated with extravagant consumer offerings, their neighborhoods adjacent to but in contrast to the "others." In the words of Lester Pearson, former president of Canada, "No planet can survive half slave and half free, half engulfed in misery, half careening along toward unlimited consumption. Neither ecology nor morality can survive the contrasts."

Community Design Centers

Grassroots organizations and progressive social movements, especially in their early stages of growth, have paid little attention to their built environment. It seemed intractable and too expensive, and consequently irrelevant to their struggles. Yet the spaces in which we live affect our spirit and action much more than we realize. Oppressive physical surroundings perpetuate and reinforce their residents' oppression.

During the last 30 years of working with a variety of grassroots organizations and social movements, environmental designers have learned to work with highly conscious and inspired but often unskilled volunteers, and with little money. Organizations such as Planners for Equal Opportunities, the Planners' Network, and Architects/ Planners/Designers for Social Responsibility have worked closely with neighborhood residents on affordable housing, control of land for community open space, and counter-gentrification strategies to stave off the displacement of the poorer residents. Community design centers also offer economic advice, trainings, and employment.

To encourage active involvement of residents in the restoration of the private and public spaces in their neighborhoods, participatory planning and self-help management and construction methods have been developed. This is to ensure that peoples' active participation, their "sweat equity," will produce material equity and growing control over the habitat that they restore. The sense of satisfaction in joint accomplishment of tangible restoration work is an empowering experience, contributing to the growing solidarity and community among the participants.

For neighborhood grassroots organizations to tackle restoration projects effectively requires a realistic assessment of available human and physical resources. Small improvements—for example, the clearing of a vacant lot to build a neighborhood commons consisting of a community garden, a sitting area, and a playground—bring people together to improve the quality of their daily lives. Restoration of community open spaces is also relatively easy to accomplish, preparing people to tackle more demanding efforts such as the restoration of buildings. To begin with, people could also paint murals on the bleak surfaces of neighborhood buildings, murals depicting their struggles and aspirations. People could also paint over the billboards which tower over urban neighborhoods, ruthlessly exploiting peoples' vulnerabilities with advertisements for liquor and cigarettes. The Rev. Calvin Butts, who ran such an effort in Harlem, says, "I started this campaign because alcohol and tobacco are the leading killers of people in this community."

Community-based restoration workshop centers could also be set up, and accumulate tools and equipment. These centers could conduct research and development in creative recycling of salvage and surplus building materials, to produce marketable products which would strengthen the economic viability of the organization. The centers could also serve as training grounds far neighborhood residents and young people. In time, these workshops would be magnets of creative work, social hubs of inspiration and communication.

Urban Barnraising

Despite the evolution of human habitat-making into a function of elite patronage, building traditions which engender cooperative participation and community are still alive. The old American tradition of barnraising, for example, generates cooperative spirit and sense of community. A farmer alone was unable to carry the long, heavy beams necessary for the barn. In order to survive, European settlers had to engage in mutual aid and erect each barn as a cooperative effort. As they worked together, they experienced their interdependence. Though Africans and Native Americans were excluded from these barnraisings, they had their own traditions of barnraising.

Our disintegrating urban habitats with their multitudes of unemployed and homeless people are the new frontiers for restoration and urban barnraising. Restoration efforts should aspire toward environmentally, economically and socially sustainable development at the grassroots level. Urban barnraisings can be inspiring, celebratory events, bringing together large numbers of people to work cooperatively.

Affirmation of cultural pluralism at the grassroots is beginning to transform the image of urban neighborhoods. Ethnic, lifestyle and religious diversity is becoming impressively visible through large murals, building design, and public open spaces. With the passage of time the colorful richness of human expression can imbue the fabric of peoples' habitat with the vibrant spectrum of the rainbow.

The rigor and discipline of restoration work, and the cooperative spirit that barnraisings engender, promise to prepare a fertile soil for the growth of community among people, the very roots of democracy.

Cultural Diversity       ?õ¬?       Vol. 1 No. 2      ?õ¬?       Summer 1990