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Helter Skelter
Can thinking wrong be absolutely right?

by DK Holland

Main Street, Greensboro was not exactly bustling with activity either. In fact, it’s a Potemkin Village,4 most of the storefronts just that, fronts. Less than 100 years after the Civil War, Alabama became again a stage on which Civil Rights conflicts would be played out (think 1960s, Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham, the Klu Klux Klan). Once majestic, now decaying buildings and vacant fields abound, constant reminders of battles lost. There is little industry or agriculture, in other words, little supports the community and the community supports little. And there is a lot of poverty (34 percent of children live below the poverty line) and not much for the people to do. Did this persistent ennui provide opportunity for Mockbee? He gave his architecture students the most meager of budgets to build housing and community centers in the region. This limitation forced them to get creative, especially about materials. When Flor donated used carpet tiles, Mockbe’s students stacked the tiles horizontally, creating thick exterior walls for a house. Thirty car windshields purchased from a scrap yard became a huge sunroof for an outdoor community center built by Rural Studio.5 These structures are stunningly beautiful, well used and much appreciated.

Pam Dorr, though not an architect herself, was originally part of Rural Studio's Outreach Project and now runs HERO. She is a big fan of Project M. Both HERO and M breathe much needed positive energy into the region, and HERO has taken over several of the vacant buildings in Greensboro, one of which houses M.

Free Pie Day resulted from a discussion at Project M in Belfast, Maine, but led to PieLab opening in a hero store-front in Greensboro, Alabama. At the beginning of each Project M Bielenberg says, “We do what we call ‘10 by 10 by 10.’ Everyone goes out and talks to people in the community and brings back what they find. Each person talks to 10 people in 10 locations and brings back 10 stories. We also do a process during which everyone reveals a hidden talent. One girl said ‘I bake pies.’ It was 2009. We had a tanking economy, the Iraq war was on. We all agreed from what we learned doing 10 by 10 by 10 that the Belfast community needed something positive. So Free Pie Day was promoted by placing whipped cream pies with Free Pie flags in them all over town to publicize the upcoming Free Pie Day on March 14 (3.14 = pi). We got mismatched ceramic plates from Goodwill to serve slices right on the street. It was March and it was freezing, but we wanted people to stick around, not walk off, which they would have done with paper plates. There was a lot of press, lots of pies. Discussions were lively and positive. We designed a pie chart that encouraged people to pick a cause: donate to the homeless shelter or perhaps to the Bernie Madoff Defense Fund. After it was over and a big success, Project M’ers felt that the Greensboro community needed pies more than Belfast.”

Left: Exterior of permanent PieLab on Main Street in Greensboro, Alabama. Right: Interior of the original pop-up PieLab in Greensboro, Alabama.

M’ers “thought wrong” in several ways: by switching Free Pie to a totally different location and morphing it into a store and by having no other goal but to enhance the community. And all this worked. Bielenberg adds, “Our impulse was to create conversation among people who wouldn't normally talk to one another.” Since there was no welcoming place to congregate on Main Street in Greensboro, there was little discourse.

Then they prototyped the space for PieLab, and their impulses proved true. PieLab grew to become a business, a storefront and a community center (Dorr had just the spot for them) helping this Potemkin Village become a vital hub. Bielenberg says, “A lot of people in Belfast didn’t get it. Why are we having a free pie event? It wasn’t logical. It was random and serendipitous. Thinking Wrong is more about process, about embracing randomness. No one thought at the beginning we would end up with PieLab in Greensboro.”

Left: PieLab is staffed by members of the Youth Build program who are earning their high school diplomas and learning a trade. Right: The interior of PieLab uses donated reclaimed wood and used chairs from a nearby abandoned school.

My slice at PieLab, baked and served by a wonderfully integrated and engaging staff of local folks, was quiche and came with a nice simple salad on the side. The PieLab space is modern, inviting, lively with a touch of Mockbee and a touch of M. This energy clearly breathes fresh air into the lungs of this sleepy town every day. As I stood there, in walked four women from Birmingham. All excited, they had come all the way to Greensboro to experience PieLab. “There you go,” I thought. “Tourism in Greensboro has just increased by 400 percent.”

Josh To, a product manager at Google, was also curious to see what was happening at PieLab. And we were both at PieLab that day. He says, “I knew John Bielenberg and Project M and had heard great things about their work so I decided to come down and see what was going on.” Dorr asked To if he could think up something to do with the town kids who were part of hero's YouthBuild program and who were hanging out in the community space at PieLab. To says, “I had few common denominators with these young guys so I wanted to break the ice, wanted to do something random, really unexpected. I wanted to surprise them with something weird and interesting—something they could maybe learn from. I have a firm belief when you put someone in a challenging or competitive situation, there is great potential for a creative or even genius idea to come out of it."”

To had a modest upbringing in the Sunset district of San Francisco in a three-bedroom house with his extended Chinese family—fourteen people. He recalls, “Living so close to a lot of different perspectives shaped who I am. I became very good at being empathetic. When you live with thirteen people you have to!

“As a student, we were often assigned science projects. Since money was tight, I didn’t have the luxury of dreaming up a project and then buying all the materials I needed. Instead, I would look for inspiration by rummaging through our garage for parts that could serve as the foundation for an interesting science project. I also grew up learning that in order to be successful, I needed to work hard. However, I quickly realized that in the grand scheme of things, I was still more privileged than the vast majority of people on the planet. This made me want to help others whose lives were a lot harder than mine.” To studied design and communications at UCLA and then went to work at Google. Holland
DK Holland writes about design and teaches in two MFA design programs in New York, one at SVA and one at Pratt. She is an advisor to Project M and Design Ignites Change. Holland has been the editor of Design Issues since she started it in 1990. She is the author/producer of many books on design as well as Branding for Nonprofits. She is the producer of CitizenME, which creates transmedia tools that engage students in understanding how to become proactive citizens. Holland lives and works in her tiny nineteenth-century restored Italianate house and garden in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.