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When June Jordan and Buckminster Fuller Tried to Redesign Harlem

Claire Schwartz writes about “Skyrise for Harlem,” from the mid-nineteen-sixties, a proposed project by June Jordan and Buckminster Fuller that would have redesigned the neighborhood on more progressive principles of urban life.

In July of 1964, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Thomas Gilligan, a white off‐duty police officer, shot and killed James Powell, a Black teen-ager. Uprisings erupted in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant, which lasted six nights and then ignited protests across the nation. In the foreword to her book “Civil Wars,” the Black feminist writer and activist June Jordan wrote that, in the aftermath of the protests, “I realized I now was filled with hatred for everything and everyone white. Almost simultaneously it came to me that this condition, if it lasted, would mean I had lost the point. . . . I resolved not to run on hatred but, instead, to use what I loved, words, for the sake of the people I loved. However, beyond my people, I did not know the content of my love: what was I for?”

Jordan immediately provided an answer by throwing herself into what she called “a collaborative architectural redesign of Harlem,” in which she joined forces with the architect R. Buckminster Fuller, champion of the geodesic dome. Jordan and Fuller called their collaboration “Skyrise for Harlem”: a plan for public housing that was attuned to the well-being of two hundred and fifty thousand of the neighborhood’s residents, most of them Black. The project may have seemed a left turn for Jordan, who came to prominence through her essays and poetry. But she had always conceived of her work as falling under the umbrella of environmental design—”that is,” she explained, “in general, an effort to contribute to the positive changing of the world.”

Architecture, in particular, had long been a source of sustenance for the young artist. Four years earlier, Jordan was an exhausted twenty-four-year-old mother of a toddler living in a housing project in Queens. A friend who was trying to convince her to take a much-needed vacation dropped by with picture books about Greece in tow. It was a “fantastic visual inundation,” Jordan later wrote. “It was in this way that I began to think about architecture.” She began a weekly routine. Once a week, she left her two-year-old son in the care of her husband and took the bus into Manhattan to the Donnell Library, where she sat for hours in the downstairs reading room, poring over books about architecture and design: Le Corbusier, Isamu Noguchi, the Bauhaus, and Fuller, a visionary of affordable, sustainable housing. Jordan wrote, “Fuller’s thinking weighed upon my own as a hunch yet to be gambled on the American landscape where daily, deathly polarization of peoples according to skin gained in horror as white violence escalated against Black life.”

The uprisings coincided with a turbulent period in Jordan’s life. A week after the riots, Jordan’s husband wrote to say that he wouldn’t be returning to their home; Jordan, increasingly destitute, sent her son to his grandparents. She wrote to Fuller, he responded almost immediately, and they spent several months drafting “Skyrise for Harlem,” a plan for a neighborhood where residents had long been subjected to constant policing, cramped quarters, and dilapidated schools. Their plan would transform Harlem without displacing any of its existing residents, who often became the collateral damage of “urban renewal” (or what Jordan and others called “Negro removal”). Urban renewal involves the designation of certain areas as “blight”—a term disproportionately applied to low-income Black and brown communities—in order to justify demolition of existing structures and authorize new building. The practice was exemplified by Robert Moses, whose now-infamous Cross Bronx Expressway, for example, relied on denying the rich cultural networks and microeconomies of East Tremont, which were then destroyed by the highway’s construction.

In contrast with urban-renewal projects that devalued Black and brown populations, Fuller and Jordan’s design sought to transform the environment in service of Harlem’s residents. The plan was ambitious, but drastic measures were required. “Partial renovation is not enough,” Jordan wrote. “A half century of despair requires exorcism.” Columns installed in backyards would act as stilts so that construction of fifteen fireproof,…

Claire Schwartz

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