As I write this column, I consider the built environment around me, and it is different from how it was six months ago. I’m not talking about the lines that are now on the floor to keep us six feet apart, or the boarded store windows, or the signs that say “Masks Required.” I’m talking about the way I am seeing public space. The ongoing global pandemic and social unrest permeate every perspective, outright or subconsciously.
Before I enter an elevator, I check if anyone is inside. When I prepare for a six-hour car ride, I read a half dozen articles about how to safely use a public restroom. And when I walk along a narrow sidewalk and a stranger coming toward me crosses to the other side of the street, I wonder, “Is this courtesy or fear?”
Six months ago, I didn’t obsess about the built spaces I navigated. But now, they beg for attention. What am I seeing that I have never looked at before? What do I need to learn?
PUBLIC ACCESS: WHO BENEFITS?
July 26, 2020, was the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). A new documentary called Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution tells the story of the disability rights movement and the activists who spent decades fighting for the ADA. In the film, archival footage shows Judy Heumann, coauthor with Kristen Joiner of Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist, describing how she feels after the act is signed. “On the one hand, I’m ... feeling like I should say everything is wonderful. [But] I’m very tired of being thankful for accessible toilets... If I have to feel thankful about an accessible bathroom, when am I ever going to be equal in the community?”
When one is unequal in the community, her/his/their importance is being discounted or ignored. People with disabilities were, and are, undervalued as contributing members of society. This is ironic when we consider what nondisabled people have gained from the work of disability activists. Think about universal design. When you roll your luggage or grocery cart on a curb cut, or watch closed captions on TV, you are benefiting from their activism. And people with disabilities have long been advocating for better remote work and learning options—exactly what is needed now for the majority of the population.
STREET SIGNS: WHAT’S IN A NAME?
During the first months of the pandemic, I spent a lot of time walking in the town where I was sheltering in place. I began to notice street names—hiking up the steep hill of Mountain Avenue or stopping to admire the view at Prospect Place. When I came upon Washburn Road or Gregory Lane, I wondered whether these were named after people, and who they might have been.
Street names are part of the language of our neighborhoods, whether or not we take note of them. Those that commemorate people can convey narratives that don’t reflect the population. When there’s a movement to change a name, the street can become a site of controversy.
In January 2019, the city council in Kansas City, Missouri, voted to change the name of a major thoroughfare from Paseo Boulevard to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Nine months after the street was dedicated to the civil rights leader, voters decided to have the street returned to its former name. I wondered why, and found a New York Times article by John Eligon, who writes, “The Paseo was named after Paseo de la Reforma, a grand thoroughfare in Mexico City.” As Alissia Canady, a then–council member who had voted against the renaming ordinance, told Eligon, the Paseo has become “synonymous with black success.” “There is pride of having a home along the Paseo,” she said.
How many unseen chapters of this battle are still waiting to be fought? This is how a city’s residents must interact when they all have a stake in its history and its future.
MONUMENTS AND MEMORIALS: WHAT NEEDS TO CHANGE?
In The Observatory podcast’s “Episode 129: Spatial Justice,” Jessica Helfand interviews De Nichols, principal of design and social practice at Civic Creatives in St. Louis, Missouri. Referencing her work as a 2020 Monument Lab Fellow, Nichols said, “There is such a rich history to our city that’s not being taught in schools. ... What are the ways that we can use art and sculpture ... to uplift a lot of those histories? ... Now, as Confederate monuments come down in cities and towns across the nation ... what goes there?”
Nichols’s comments bring me back to my own neighborhood in Brooklyn, where there are physical messages of hope appearing in the parks and on the pavement and the sides of buildings. But they are literally overshadowed by the 60-story luxury apartment towers that are being erected.
As we continue to confront devastating illness and political upheaval, there will always be two questions to ask: What should we tear down? What should we build? ca
© 2020 W. Richmond