Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Sam Smith - One of the enjoyable side benefits of my life has been to contribute from time to time to a journal of exceptional visual style, verbal substance and voracious thought: Designer/Builder.

Designer/Builder was the creation of Kingsley and Jerilou Hammett who presented more good ideas about buildings and cities in one issue than your average city planner has in a decade. And because it was a journal of the "human environment" of which structures are only a part, they also included other pieces including, in the current issue, a defense of melancholy and my article on the curse of corporate culture.

I sometimes tell people that I only am a writer because I'm not good enough to be a cartoonist or a photographer and so, before I even get to the words, I love to check out the photographs in Designer/Builder including, in this issue a cover shot of a man sitting in a rocking chair on a Manhattan sidewalk, his face obscured by the issue of Rolling Stone he is reading.

J, Baldwin, editor of Whole Earth magazine once said, "The editors consider architecture and building as an integral part of real, live culture - everyone's culture, whether you're cool, rich, workin' stiff, or on the dole."

So it was with shock and sadness that I received Jerilou's call to report Kingsley unexpected death while hiking on the Dale Ball Trails east of downtown Santa Fe where they lived and which they loved. According to a local newspaper, "Hammett, who wrote two highly acclaimed books about Santa Fe, knew as much about the city as any historian, said longtime friend Gloria Mendoza. 'That's how passionate he was,' she said. 'You don't find that usually in people who are not native born.'"

It'll be tough but I'm hoping Jerilou continues the journal despite it all, because it is both beautiful and badly needed. You can get a sample copy by sending $6 to Designer/Builder, 2405 Maclovia Lane, Santa Fe, NM 87505. The website.


Kingsley Hammett, Designer/Building, Jan-Feb 2007 - All over the country, long-ignored minority neighborhoods are being threatened by the forces of gentrification and displacement. Rising property values are shifting the racial demographics, driving out original residents, and destroying the cultural and social context of well-established communities.

In most of these low-income neighborhoods, the street pulsates with a rich social life where the local population, be it African American or Latino, gathers on favorite corners and in front of stores to sit, visit, talk, trade news, and play cards. But what is valuable to local residents can be offensive and frightening to middle and upper-class gentrifiers, who believe the proper place to gather is in homes or back yards and see people on the street as a sign of low-class activity and trouble.

The challenge for those trying to preserve the integrity of these newly desirable neighborhoods is to institute improvements that appeal to residents but repel developers. It is a challenge that motivates the work of California landscape architect Steve Rasmussen-Cancian, who has come up with an answer that is cheap, socially engaging, and effective: build sidewalk living rooms furnished with permanent benches, sitting boxes, and planters so neighbors can claim their right to public space while at the same time discouraging those who would like to see them gone altogether.

For nearly thirteen years after graduating from college, Rasmussen-Cancian worked as a political and community organizer on behalf of such progressive candidates as Jesse Jackson and in support of Los Angeles public housing residents. After helping tenants develop low-income coops, he became interested in the field of design. He then moved north to Berkeley to get a graduate degree in landscape architecture, believing that would provide him with new opportunities to get involved in participatory community projects.

"Realistically, after a couple of community meetings, people can't go out and build a building," he says. "But with one or two community discussions people have all the tools they need to go and build street furniture and create the shared space of community living rooms."

While back home in Los Angeles on a school break he broached the idea to some of his old organizing buddies to launch a major tree-planting and sidewalk improvement project in some of the neighborhoods he'd worked in earlier.

"Let's make the most of the urban landscape," he told them. "Their response was, 'If we do that, aren't we just rolling out the carpet for gentrification?' They knew on a gut level they'd just be improving the curb appeal of those properties."

He took that question back to Berkeley and tried to solve the core dilemma of gentrification: Low-income inner-city communities have a great need for improved environments. But improving the environment sets people up for displacement. How could they achieve one without the other?

Rasmussen-Cancian found less support than he expected within the Berkeley design community. Even those with good politics often were locked into conventional thinking. They felt that gentrification was a problem beyond their scope and power to resolve and told him, "Steve, you're right to worry about it. But you can't do anything about it. You're in design school."

"Designers have self-edited themselves out of many roles. They mainly serve governments and people who can afford to pay," he says. "But if designers accept that they do have a social role and do have some control over the impact of their work, then they have to look at the work they're doing. A lot of their work would not be defensible if you asked, 'Is this serving any social good?' So figuring out how to learn to be a designer, to still be socially responsible, and to make a better neighborhood for the same neighbors is challenging."

Rasmussen-Cancian was struck by the fact that nearby West Oakland, a community of beautiful old Victorians, had not been gentrified long ago. It offers gentrifiers the last BART station before a twelve-minute subway ride to San Francisco's financial center along with great weather, ocean breezes, and views of downtown Oakland. But it was the birthplace of the Black Panthers and the Pullman Car Workers Union and remains a proud African-American neighborhood. He concluded that what had saved it from gentrification was the racism of gentrifiers. If there is no one on the streets, the area, with a convenient subway stop, might look like a great site for potential development. But when the streets are filled with black people in a society where it has been statistically proven that a majority of white Americans won't move into an area they perceive to be 30 percent African American or 50 percent Latino, gentrifiers tend to keep on driving.

"Gentrifiers and the diverse longtime residents they displace have very different ideas about what makes an inviting, attractive neighborhood," Rasmussen-Cancian says. "Experience and studies show that working-class urban residents view the street as the center of the neighborhood, the place to hang out, to socialize, and to watch the passing scene. In contrast, most middle- and upper-class gentrifiers are looking for a quiet street as a gateway to their homes."

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