Risking Life and Lens

This week in North Philly Notes, Helen M. Stummer, author of Risking Life and Lens, provides her artist statement and a few images from her exhibit at the New Jersey Historical Society that runs through June 24.  

This exhibit is a small selection from the large body of work I have created over the past four decades as a social documentary photographer and visual sociologist.

I began my career as a painter. I loved to paint, but when I enrolled in a class at the International Center of Photography in my early thirties only planning to learn how to use my camera better, I became involved photographing the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which was what the New York Times then called one of the meanest areas in America. “If you don’t take a risk you will never do anything meaningful” became my mantra.

Stummer_fig3.26

Woman Carrying Water Home, Guatemala, 1997

France Under bridge Paris copy

Man Living Under Bridge, Paris, France, 2000

E 6th St NYC Manicure Shirley & her twins 11_22_1978 file 104 fr#31e104

Giving Mommy a Manicure, 1978

Maine Ellen Rocking Jimmy Maine. 1989 jpg

Ellen Rocking Jimmy, 1989

stummer-helen_James on Stairwell

James on the Stairs at 322, 1994

Driven out by drug dealers after four years, I went on to photograph mostly in the Central Ward of Newark, and became involved with the struggles of local residents addressing injustice in education, health, housing and police practices. I befriended several families, seeing many of their children grow up and have children of their own. During those years, I also worked in rural Maine, Guatemala, and France with a large organization, Homeworkers Organized for More Employment (H.O.M.E), in the fight against poverty, homelessness and hopelessness.

Risking Life and Lens_smRisking Life and Lens takes the reader/viewer through many of my own experiences and challenges, as well as the everyday stories that residents shared with me. I was there to learn and to witness without judging, striving to capture the innate qualities of dignity, spirit and elegance of people living amidst suffering and devastation. Their grief and anger at the world’s injustice could not erase their grace and humanity, and that left a mark on my camera and my heart.

Nelson Mandela said that poverty is man-made and therefore can be unmade. It makes no more sense to think that someone living in a so-called “bad neighborhood” is a bad person than to assume someone who lives in a “good neighborhood” is a good person. We see so much change happening in suddenly “desirable” urban environments, but a civilized society, if it is to survive, has to offer opportunity that includes and fulfills the needs of all people.

Helen M. Stummer

Designing inspiring spaces for children

 This week in North Philly Notes, Lolly Tai, author of The Magic of Children’s Gardens, explains the purpose, beauty, and benefits of creating children’s outdoor environments in public gardens.

The focus of my research for the last two decades has been on designing outdoor environments for children. My deep interest was sparked by a schoolyard project that I assigned to my landscape architecture students almost twenty years ago when I was teaching at Clemson University. I learned for the first time in a very clear way that exposing children to nature and play are extremely important to children’s physical, mental and emotional health, and that today’s children no longer have ready access to natural environments, which are critical to their development. While I appreciate the need for outdoor space for children, to my dismay, I found very little information on the topic of designing for children at that time. That gave me the impetus to focus my research in this area. I learned a great deal about the design criteria for children. Scale, water, plants, wildlife, heights, retreat, enclosure, imagination, active play, and stimulation of the five senses are important considerations when designing for children. The culmination of my initial research resulted in a co-authored award winning book, Designing Outdoor Environments for Children, published by McGraw-Hill in 2006. The goal of the book was to encourage professionals and future generations to create more natural landscapes, creative outdoor play, and learning places for children.

My passion for exploring, learning, and writing about designing inspiring spaces for children continued to grow with each passing year. I recently expanded my research to include visiting children’s spaces in public gardens and interviewing garden administrators and designers. Each year, as an educator, I also provide my current Temple University landscape architecture students with the opportunity to experience a design project with special considerations for children. The Magic of Children’s Gardens is the culmination of my most recent research.

The Magic of Children's Gardens_smThe Magic of Children’s Gardens is the first book in the design profession that details nineteen outstanding case studies of children’s outdoor environments in public gardens. It presents inspiring design ideas for creating magical children’s spaces through examination of the gardens’ goals, concepts, design, and comprehensive collection of 700 images. The case studies are intended to serve as a broad platform to inspire the creation of more well-designed children’s outdoor spaces. The Magic of Children’s Gardens is intended to serve as a resource for design professionals, school administrators, botanical garden professionals, teachers, parents, students, and others who are planning to design and build children’s spaces.

Creating children’s outdoor environments is critical in today’s society as more and more children grow up in cities. According to the United Nations, just over half the world now lives in cities, and by 2050, over 70 percent of people will be urban dwellers. Children are spending less time outdoors. Sedentary lifestyles are contributing to obesity and other health problems, as well as a sense of disconnection from nature, for today’s urban children. That deleterious trend has to end and be turned around immediately. When nature no longer occurs naturally for children, it is imperative that we join our efforts to design spaces that benefit children’s health and well-being.

 

Books of critical importance in the era of Trump from Temple University Press

This week in North Philly Notes, we showcase books of importance in the era of Trump.

Undocumented Fears: Immigration and the Politics of Divide and Conquer in Hazleton, Pennsylvania
Jamie Longazel
Longazel uses the debate around Hazleton, Pennsylvania’s controversial Illegal Immigration Relief Act as a case study that reveals the mechanics of contemporary divide and conquer politics, making important connection between immigration politics and the perpetuation of racial and economic inequality.

The Gendered Executive: A Comparative Analysis of Presidents, Prime Ministers, and Chief Executives
Edited by Janet M. Martin and MaryAnne Borrelli
A critical examination of national executives, focusing on matters of identity, representation, and power. The editors and contributors address the impact of female executives through political mobilization and participation, policy- and decision-making, and institutional change.

The Great Refusal: Herbert Marcuse and Contemporary Social Movements
Edited by Andrew T. Lamas, Todd Wolfson, and Peter N. Funke
With a Foreword by Angela Y. Davis
The Great Refusal provides an analysis of contemporary social movements around the world—such as the Zapatistas in Mexico, the Arab Spring, and the Occupy movement—with particular reference to Marcuse’s revolutionary concept.

Unsettled: Cambodian Refugees in the New York City Hyperghetto
Eric Tang
Eric Tang tells the harrowing and inspiring stories of Cambodian refugees to make sense of how and why the displaced migrants have been resettled in New York City’s “hyperghetto.”

Terrorizing Latina/o Immigrants; Race, Gender, and Immigration Politics in the Age of Security
Anna Sampaio
Winner! American Political Science Association’s Latino Politics Best Book Prize, 2016
Immigration politics has been significantly altered by the advent of America’s war on terror and the proliferation of security measures. Terrorizing Latina/o Immigrants examines how these processes are racialized and gendered and how they impose inequitable burdens on Latina/o immigrants.

Vanishing Eden: White Construction of Memory, Meaning, and Identity in a Racially Changing City
Michael T. Maly and Heather M. Dalmage
Examining how racial solidarity and whiteness were created and maintained, the authors provide an intriguing analysis of the experiences and memories of whites who lived in Chicago neighborhoods experiencing racial change during the 1950s through the 1980s.

Deregulating Desire: Flight Attendant Activism, Family Politics, and Workplace Justice
Ryan Patrick Murphy
Situating the flight attendant union movement in the history of debates about family and work, Ryan Patrick Murphy offers an economic and a cultural analysis to show how the workplace has been the primary venue to enact feminist and LGBTQ politics.

The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics
Revised and Expanded Edition
George Lipsitz
In this unflinching look at white supremacy, Lipsitz argues that racism is a matter of interests as well as attitudes. He analyzes the centrality of whiteness to U.S. culture, and identifies the sustained and perceptive critique of white privilege.

Look, a White!: Philosophical Essays on Whiteness
George Yancy
Foreword by Naomi Zack
Look, a White! returns the problem of whiteness to white people. Prompted by Eric Holder’s charge, that as Americans, we are cowards when it comes to discussing the issue of race, Yancy identifies the ways white power and privilege operate.

Meet Davarian Baldwin, co-editor of the Press’s Urban Life, Landscape, and Policy series

This week, in North Philly Notes, a Q&A with Davarian Baldwin, the new editor for Temple University Press’ Urban Life, Landscape, and Policy series.

You have written about migration and Black Urban Life. What drew you to that field of study within American studies?
I am the child of the Great Migration. I am the first generation in my family to be born in the north during the Second Great Migration. While many of my family stopped and settled in other cities like Chicago, my segment of the family kept moving on to a smaller town called Beloit, Wisconsin because I think, even though full of factories it, in some ways, reminded them more of their Mississippi home.

10-041 - Trinity - Davarian - Web Feature

10-041 – Trinity – Davarian – Web Feature

Can you talk about the kinds of books you are looking to acquire for the Urban Life, Landscape, and Policy series?
I would love to acquire books that make bold arguments while, if historical, work closely with less examined archives. I would love to see books that are both global and local in scope…books that feature the city as a crossroads for different people, ideas, and aspirations all deeply grounded within the details of their urban spaces. I want to see books that don’t look at the city as just the repository for social and historical experience, but understand the built environment as equally influential, as a central actor in the storyline…books that balance their attention on the structure of cities and the agency of human lives. For me, recent books that have some or all of these qualities include Beryl Satter’s Family Properties, Nathan D.B. Connolly’s A World More Concrete, and Andrew Needham’s Power Lines.

What book (or books) made you fall in love with reading and the power of words?
While I write and edit non-fiction academic work, I must be honest and say that fiction has always been my first love. In fact I make sure to read interesting and provocative fiction when I am writing more scholarly work. As a child the books were Beverly Cleary and alternative Star Wars fiction. As a teenager The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Alice Walker’s The Temple of My Familiar, and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon changed my life. The book that has stayed with me and challenged me with its combination of searing social commentary and elegant and witty prose remains Ellison’s Invisible Man. I have built an entire course around this book and I find something new in that novel every time I teach the course. To be sure, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth was the next generation version of that book but added a decidedly more urban flavor to Ellison’s racial satire. I think in the more academic realm, W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk and C.L. R. James Beyond a Boundary have done the same thing for me.

What was the last great book you read?
I am a big fan of science fiction and mystery/police procedurals, especially when the genres are both in the same book…so that makes Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife definitely the last great book I read. For me it sort of offers the prose response to one of my favorite non-fiction urban studies; Mike Davis’ City of Quartz.

What one book would you recommend everyone read?
Again mystery books/procedurals are fabulous because the great ones have amazing social commentary about gender, race, social position, inequality and so many feature the city as a central character in the story. I would recommend everyone read Paco Ignacio Taibo’s Some Clouds.

What book did you find overrated or just disappointing?
Certainly not disappointing, but as a scholar of the Great Migration, I didn’t find anything new or exciting in The Warmth of Other Suns. Yet I certainly appreciated how its prose style made decades of scholarship more accessible to a much wider audience. On the fiction side, I found Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections a bit overrated. 

What book do you wish more people knew about?
Salvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper, is an unheralded master work, not just because of its inventive prose but because the ideas in the book are expressed in the paper quality, the typeset, and materials used in the making of the very book itself. I wish the publishing market would allow more books to reflect their ideas and themes in the construction of the actual book

What author(s), living or dead, would you be most interested in having over for dinner? WOW, I hate that I don’t cook! Not just because we share the same surname but certainly James Baldwin because of his courageousness, force of nature, ethical posture, faithfulness to everyday people, impatience with pettiness, and all qualities held with flare and wit. I think I would also want to hang out with Steig Larsson…what would it be like to push out a trilogy of prose in the face of your impending death? The courage that must take as a writer when one could easily curl up in a ball

possessive_investment_rev_ed_smWhat Temple University Press title could you not put down and why?
George Lipsitz’s Possessive Investments in Whiteness was certainly from a different time, a time when the mainstream took more seriously the idea that racial identity can in fact shape life chances and access to important resources etc. But while in the 1990’s a whole shelf of books came out in the form of memoirs or celebrations of whiteness, Lipsitz’s was a thoughtful essay so rich in archival depth demonstrating clearly how state power and private wealth have been so closely tethered to white racial identity. Here the idea that race is a social construction did not justify a dismissal of the concept but called for a more rigorous understanding of its social and hence lived power.

Temple University Press is having a Back-to-School SALE!

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Ferguson, Freddie Gray, and the Limits of Urban Tourism Development

This week in North Philly Notes, Aaron Cowan, author of A Nice Place to Visitpremieres his new promotional video for the book and explains the shortcomings of the urban tourism strategy in the wake of police violence.

Nice Place to Visit

In A Nice Place to Visit, I examine the attempts of four cities – Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and St. Louis – to remake themselves into tourist destinations in the second half of the twentieth century. Though each location had its own unique characteristics and variety, these cities – and many others like them – followed a similar pattern of substantial public investment in an “infrastructure” of tourism: massive downtown convention centers, fancy new chain hotels with impressive atriums, and recreational facilities like sports stadiums and festival marketplaces. These were accompanied by aggressive marketing campaigns from professional convention and tourist bureaus, often supported by tax dollars.

All of this public subsidy was justified, said political leaders and business executives who supported them, because tourism provided the best route out of the “urban crisis” of the postwar period, and would bring prosperity by generating new tax revenue, and especially new jobs for urban residents hard-hit by the loss of manufacturing in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. In the early 1970s, as the city of St. Louis debated a bond issue to finance a new $25-million convention center for the city, promoters promised the new convention business drawn by the structure would bring “a resurgence of the city’s heritage, a return to the halcyon era of easy-going good living, good dining and good entertainment.”

The transformation from gritty industrial city to sparkling tourist destination was not an easy one, however, and in nearly every case tourist development failed to provide the panacea it seemed to promise. Service jobs in new hotels or restaurants could not offer the wages or benefits that union-backed industrial labor had provided. Furthermore, the substantial public debt incurred by cities to build tourist facilities meant diverting scarce funds from core functions like education, infrastructure maintenance, and emergency services. Finally, while new convention centers and entertainment districts drew visitors to downtowns, they did little to stem the exodus of middle-class (mostly white) residents out of cities and into suburbs.

The shortcomings of the urban tourism strategy have been thrown into sharp relief in recent years by the widely-publicized protests over police violence. In the late summer of 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri an unarmed 18-year-old African-American Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer. The death of Brown catalyzed a protest movement demanding an end to racially-biased policing practices. Protestors and heavily-militarized police clashed throughout the fall of 2014 along the town’s main thoroughfare of West Florissant Avenue, a short 15-minute drive from the St. Louis convention center, now dubbed the “America’s Center Convention Complex.”  The following April, Baltimore erupted in a series of protests after the death of Freddie Gray, an African-American man, due to injuries sustained at the hands of police. While most protests were nonviolent, a small group of rioters destroyed police cruisers and storefronts.  Maryland National Guard troops occupied the central city,  standing guard over the city’s Inner Harbor, the central location of its tourist facilities including the city’s convention center, hotels, National Aquarium, and Harborplace waterfront marketplace.  Cincinnati and Pittsburgh have faced similar challenges in achieving racial justice and overcoming the economic and social legacies of postwar urban segregation.

The historical narratives of these cities should, then, give us pause regarding the role of tourism in contemporary cities.  Just as past urban leaders pursued downtown hotels and convention centers, today casinos increasingly flourish in the Rustbelt urban landscape, and cities are grappling with the challenges of tourist-oriented “sharing economy” businesses like Airbnb and Uber, which threaten to diminish hospitality tax revenues or disrupt established parts of the economic sector. While tourism is indisputably an important element of urban economies, A Nice Place to Visit suggests that cities would do well to temper the belief that tourism-driven economic development is a cure-all, and, furthermore, to remember that the benefits of such development are rarely equitably distributed. Truly successful cities are those that are not only “nice places to visit” but also communities that provide economic opportunity and social justice that make them good places to live.

Follow Aaron Cowan on twitter @aaronbcowan.

 

A Slumlord Bent on Displacing tenants and a DC Law that (Sort of) Stands in its Way

This week in North Philly Notes, Carolyn Gallaher, author of The Politics of Staying Put explains how the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) is operating in Washington, DC. 

Cities are fashionable again.  After decades of disinvestment, people are coming back.  Washington DC is a case in point.  Between 1950 and 2000 the city’s population shrunk by 29%; however, in the next decade it grew 10%, from 572,059 to 632,323. Although population growth slowed after 2012, the city still added another 23,000 residents in the next two years.  Most economists think the city would have grown even more if not for the rising costs associated with living in the city.

Given these trends, it’s fair to ask why big cities like Washington, DC still have slumlords.  In the era of urban decline (roughly between 1960 and 2000) slumlords typically let their properties deteriorate because they couldn’t make a return on investments in them.  Today, returns on investments in rental accommodations are very likely, if not guaranteed.  Enter the modern slumlord.  No longer an individual or a family, the modern slumlord is often a real estate investment group, and for them disinvestment is a strategy for ensuring a larger return.  Instead of repairing and refurbishing an old building and earning modest returns, you tear it down, replace it with luxury apartments, and charge rents to match.  The only things standing in your way are tenants.  So, you stop making repairs and hope they’ll move out.

The residents in Congress Heights, a complex in the Anacostia neighborhood, know all about this strategy.  They’ve lived it for several years.  Their landlord, Sanford Capital, doesn’t make repairs anymore.  The company’s tenants live with sporadic heat, faulty plumbing, a bedbug infestation, rodents, and a basement with raw sewage and standing water when it rains.  People often pack up and leave when things get this bad, but a number of the tenants in Congress Heights are holding on.  Some of the complex’s longtime residents are elderly and can’t imagine living anywhere else.  Others don’t want to leave their friends and neighbors because they all look out for one another.  And, everyone is poor and worried about finding someplace else as affordable as where they live now.  They are right to worry.  The Congress Heights neighborhood is near a metro (subway) station and is, in developer speak, “ripe for redevelopment.”  A recent study by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute (DCFPI) also suggests there aren’t many affordable apartments left in the city.  Since 2002 the city lost nearly half of its affordable apartment units (defined in the study as units renting for $800 or less).

The District of Columbia has a law, the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA), which should have prevented things from getting so bad at Congress Heights.  The city council introduced TOPA in 1981 in response to a spate of condo conversions in fast-gentrifying neighborhoods near downtown.  The goal of the law was to help tenants stay in place when their landlords decided to sell or convert to condominium.  TOPA states that when a landlord sells a rental apartment building, tenants are allowed to refuse the sale and purchase the building instead for the same price. Tenants are also allowed to purchase their building if a landlord wants to demolish it for redevelopment.  Tenants usually work with a developer (for-profit or non-profit) to purchase their building.  They can then choose whether to convert their building to condo or co-op or keep it rental.

By law landlords are supposed to inform their tenants when they contract a sale or submit formal plans for demolition with the city.  In practice, however, landlords often subvert these guidelines, and at various points in recent history the city agency responsible for regulating the TOPA process has abetted them.

The landlord at Congress Heights, Sanford Capital, applied for and received permission to demolish the buildings in early 2015 and the tenants have still not received a formal TOPA notice.  In the meantime, the city’s Attorney General, Karl Racine, recently sued the landlords and will ask the court to put the building into temporary receivership so a different owner can make repairs.  The city is also considering forcing Sanford Capital to issue its tenants a TOPA notice. In short, the law that didn’t work to protect the people it was supposed to protect may still be their last hope for staying put.

Staying Put_061615.jpgIn my new book The Politics of Staying Put: Condo Conversion and Tenant Right-to-Buy in Washington DC, I assess TOPA’s success at helping tenants stay put.  As the Congress Heights case suggest, the law is imperfect.  Legislators need to specify fuzzy language, close some obvious loopholes, and demand city regulators actually provide oversight of the process.  But, I also found that many tenants have made TOPA work for them.  Most importantly, successful tenants associations have used TOPA to stay put—no mean feat in a fast gentrifying city.  Successful tenants associations have also participated in the benefits of reinvestment, whether as new owners building equity or as renters who can demand building wide improvements and continued low rents from their development partners.

The bigger battle, though, isn’t fixing TOPA. The law was never designed to be a stand-alone solution.  TOPA cannot, for example, ensure an adequate supply of affordable housing, police slumlords, or reign in the city’s pay-to-play approach with developers.  In fact, the city’s Zoning Commission approved Sanford’s plans for redeveloping the land where the Congress Heights apartment complex sits even after the city’s Department of Human Services and its Department of Housing and Community Development received hundreds of complaints about significant code violations in Sanford owned properties.  In these neoliberal times, cities don’t want to assume responsibilities for their low income residents (or increasingly, their middle income ones), but they will have to if they want to ensure their cities don’t become exclusive enclaves for the wealthy.  Otherwise, cities risk becoming a version of the 1980s era suburbs they long bemoaned.

 

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