The Birds-Eye Slum-View Problem

roofless shanty in Rose Town, Kingston, Jamaica

   There’s a fascinating story in today’s Boston Globe entitled Learning from Slums. I spent most of my career working in places nowhere near anything that could be characterized as a “slum.” I have vague recollections as a very young child of a shanty-town derisively knows as “Boogertown” in my hometown. I think it was bulldozed when I was not much more than three years old. And in the process, they bulldozed hundreds of blocks of great old homes simply because they were old. It was progress... or so they said. This article highlights a proposition unthinkable just a generation ago: was “slum-clearing” a bad idea?

road through weeds of no-man's-land that was bulldozed through Rose Town by the government years ago

   Several years ago, Prince Charles visited Rose Town while on a trip to Jamaica. Rose Town is adjacent to Trench Town, made famous when Bob Marley lived there years ago; his onetime home is now an unofficial shrine. Rose Town, however, had been torn apart in the 1960’s by political violence: partisans of one party lived in one end of the neighborhood, and partisans of the other party lived in the other, and the middle of the neighborhood was bulldozed 30 years ago because of the fierce warfare. The image to the right is what remains today of what had once been a neighborhood street. The houses are distant memories, and the land has almost been reclaimed by nature. Even the asphalt of the streets is far gone; it’s hard to imagine the place as it was before it descended into the darkness of violence so many years ago.

   Today, Rose Town residents live in severe conditions. Very few of them have toilets. Electricity is procured by throwing hooks up over power lines and stringing the attached wires into your shanty. Nowhere in the United States does poverty even approach to that of Rose Town. Upon seeing the broken neighborhood, Prince Charles made an impassioned personal plea to Andrés Duany to help design the knitting-together of Rose Town once again. I was one of the consultants to DPZ on the project, which was sponsored by the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment.

stages of growth of the "wet appliance" to a full masonry house

   Architecture can’t solve all problems; our final presentation was preceded closely by a major gun battle on the street outside the church where we were presenting... it was serious enough that a couple tanks were called out. But I like to believe that the preceding week had contributed at least in some way to the beginning of a years-long process of healing the neighborhood.

   Many things were proposed, of course... and no single charrette participant can keep track of them all. In my case, one of the ideas I worked on was something I called the “Wet Appliance.” Many Rose Town residents slept on the ground, with no roof overhead at all. The Wet Appliance was a combination bathroom/kitchen cabinet built out of concrete that could be craned onto each site. The idea was for the residents to add to it over time, first as tent-like structures of canvas and found objects, then later as metal walls, and then concrete block.

terra cotta sculptures at Rose Town neighborhood library in Kingston, JamaicaRose Town potter working on a large pot

   Last fall, the Prince’s Foundation held another charrette in Rose Town that I was privileged to attend. I was immediately struck with the progress in the neighborhood, even though none of the major buildings of the DPZ plan had been built yet. Nonetheless, many of the Prince’s Foundation’s efforts were already proving fruitful.

proverb painted on a wall in Rose Town, Kingston, Jamaica

   One thing I noticed was the terra-cotta sculptures that were cropping up everywhere. The Foundation had trained a group of men on the north side of the neighborhood, who had then started a pottery in an abandoned house just north of the No Man’s Land. They didn’t yet have customers for their work, so much of it became civic art instead. But I started to wonder “What if someone in the south side opens a shop to sell things made by the potters on the north side? And then what if a craft is developed on the south side, and the vendors are in the north? Is it possible that this inter-dependency might help knit strings of neighborliness across the divide again?” I don’t know, but we can hope.

   In any case, I had, in the interim, written A Living Tradition [Architecture of the Bahamas]. Because the architecture of Jamaica and the Bahamas is similar, I was tasked with writing the architectural code. It quickly became very clear to me very that anybody that must throw hooks across powerlines to get electricity won’t be able to afford a $50 book. So I started to look for other ways of writing the instructions for how to build new homes and shops inRose Town, and how to renovate the ones that were already there.

   I noticed that the town was filled with sayings, or proverbs, that were instructions on how to live. These were written on street walls with great care, often accompanied with carefully-executed artwork. Most of the proverbs were far more painstakingly drawn than anything we might characterize as “graffiti.” I began to wonder “what if I do a code that is a series of very simple proverbs: instructions for how to build and how to live in that which you have built?” So I did a proverb code, which was originally conceived as a ten-page handout.

   But somewhere towards the end of the charrette it occurred to me: “Why don’t you do what the people do: write the proverbs on the wall?” And so, on the last day of the charrette, one of the charrette team members spent most of her day painting the first parable proverbs on the wall of the new community library (that had recently been an abandoned house) where we where holding the charrette. After several revisions by the neighborhood elders to get the language consistent with the local vernacular, it read: “Plant your yard with things you can eat, for why should your yard lay fallow while you spend more of your money at the grocery store?”

young children making a song out of an architecture code   The final presentation was held in the community library... the room was packed, and it went off exceptionally well. People stayed and talked long into the evening after the presentation ended. I was standing to the side, listening to pieces of several conversations when a local architect stepped up to me in an animated fashion and said “Steve, you must come now! You must hear this!”

   “Hear what?” I asked. “What is happening?” As we stepped through the door into the night air, I could hear them... the voices of children singing. This group of little children were taking these simple words on a wall that were never meant to have rhythm or rhyme, and they were turning them into a song! We can’t do this. We can only set the stage for this. But in doing so, I have greater hope than ever that we’re getting closer to knowing how to help start a new living tradition.

   The point of this story is to make the point that Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow makes in the Boston Globe article, except from a different angle: ground level. Rebecca has selected a telling shot of Dharavi: a bird’s-eye view contrasting the shanty roofs with the modern city rising in the background beyond. A bird’s-eye view is all that most people get of an “informal place.” But a bird’s-eye view isn’t a view that’s limited to just Americans. A Kingston taxi driver dropped one of our design team members off the first morning of the charrette with the nervous admonition that “I haven’t been in this place in over thirty years.”

the potters' house in Rose Town, Kingston, Jamaica

   The bird’s-eye view doesn’t reveal the potters’ house... or the No Man’s Land beyond it. A bird’s-eye view gives no hope of understanding when Rebecca describes the shantytowns’ ecological friendliness, their “humming economic activity,” or their compactness, mix of uses, and pedestrian friendliness. Those can only be understood on the ground, and at the human level.

   It is essential to understand that many great cities began as shantytowns. Look at early engravings of Washington, DC. It was populated with shacks and shanties, and the goats roamed the streets!

   The important thing, then, is that every place that people build, no matter how humble in its current state, has the chance to improve itself and to grow into something better. I can say with great certainty that the residents of Rose Town are hoping for a better Rose Town tomorrow, just as you hope for your neighborhood to be better. And the one thing that better tomorrow definitely does not include is a bulldozer drawing a bead on your front door. That which should be cleared is not the neighborhood, but rather the impediments that prevent the neighbors from improving their homes.


~ Steve Mouzon


Legacy Comments:


Monday, March 2, 2009 - 11:48 AM

Chad Cooper

Steve,

This posting is both thought-provoking and inspiring... thanks for sharing.

Best,

Chad


Monday, March 2, 2009 - 02:31 PM

Mike Watkins

Steve,

Very well said.  Having worked with you on both of the charrettes that you mentioned, I know you will appreciate this update.  While in Jamaica last week, I stopped by to see Mr. Gibbs at the Library and visit the house that the newly trained locals were to rebuild.  You wouldn't recognize it!  Mr. Black, Ann Hodges and that local crew did an amazing job.  I will e-mail the photos to you.  Perhaps you know how to post them as commentary?

Mike


Monday, March 2, 2009 - 08:08 PM

Steve Mouzon

Mike, I'll change the blog so that anyone can post... so you can post them directly.

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