Thursday, January 1, 2015

Why is it so difficult to see in Ward 6?

Image from
For some time, I've been thinking about the problem of seeing. Certain spaces become somehow rather unclear or even difficult to see, while others appear quite clearly.Some people see a completely different reality from others.

One of my neighbors recently brought up Hine Junior High, the abandoned school near Eastern Market Metro. He said that he walks by the building all the time and thus he has a much better understanding of it than most people. In his view, rats regularly run around the building, people often defecate on the grounds, and the building is nearly burned down and falling apart. As a result of this perspective, he finds gentrification to be a quite positive development. He also mentioned that the redevelopment of Hine would increase housing prices, which is also good in his view.

Hine Junior High. Image by author.
I walk by the Hine building all the time and have never seen the world that my neighbor described. Yet, I, like most people, also have problems with seeing because seeing is both a social and a physical phenomenon. When we travel to a new city, we often turn to guide books or websites oriented towards our social position (for example, the NY Times "36 Hours" column). These guides help us to see the city by giving it some sort of meaning and place to start from. We also experience a wide range of spaces through the stories told to us by our neighbors, friends, and social networks, as well as by strangers we happen to meet.

I had walked by Potomac Gardens public housing project for years, but I did not have a clear view of the buildings. My view was quite hazy. When I met Liane Scott of Grassroots DC, I was invited into Potomac Gardens. Through my social connections within Potomac Gardens, I gained a way to see Potomac Gardens.

Earlier this year, Liane and I visited several residents in their apartments. I had never been in a public housing project apartment before. We took the elevators first in the Potomac Gardens senior building. The sunlight that flooded the windows in the hallway with the elevators reminded me why the American Institute of Architects (AIA) included Potomac Gardens along with Eastern Market on the 1974 AIA Architecture Tour. We walked down the immaculate hallway and sat with a senior in her apartment, which was like other one-bedroom apartments I had seen before. The large windows in the small living room and the bedroom brought in a lot of sunlight. The kitchen was tucked away near the door and had a bright electric light in it. The senior resident showed us photos of her family members and talked positively about her apartment life.

We later went to visit two families in the townhouses. We visited a mother with her two young children. She was less positive about life in Potomac Gardens due to concerns about safety in her stairwell. During the conversation, she often looked out the big window beside her dining table and talked with people walking by two floors below. The window brought in much sunlight and fresh air, as well as a view of trees. Then we went to another family's apartment that had curtains over its windows and thus was more dark and enclosed. In the apartment that day, there were a range of relatives and visitors, as well as a small, cute dog. Many people depended on the official occupant of this apartment, who was living one of the (I think) two bedrooms. For example, a cousin -- a young man in his early 20s, someone who would easily fit in among the students in my classes -- had once lived on the couch for several weeks or maybe longer. He had recently moved on and was now back visiting. A young woman sitting next to him on the sofa was drunk and seemed injured. She recognized a deep social gap between her and me and kept calling attention to it in a joking manner. Such social interactions made Potomac Gardens more clearly visible to me.

Why do some social networks in Ward 6 see certain spaces as filled with chaos and crime, while other social networks see a different reality in the same space? Why are some spaces hazy and unclear, while others are clearly defined?

The social nature of our vision makes certain spaces appear clear to us (though we should always ask what are we clearly seeing and what is hidden from view) and other spaces hazy or chaotic wastelands. In one of my favorite articles, "The Dead Zone and the Architecture of Transgression," Gil Doron discusses how urban planners and architects see abandoned buildings, closed industrial areas, empty lots, spaces under bridges, and other such spaces as "wastelands," "voids," and "Dead Zones" and seek to rescue them from their wasteful existence by redeveloping and "revitalizing" them. When further investigated, these apparently empty places are in fact not dead at all, but rather represent "an order of a different kind." Thus, some see Potomac Gardens as representing a wasteful existence.

How might we move beyond this rather elitist perspective? The newest issue of Slavic Review arrived in the mail just as I was pondering this. In it, Oxford University Russian literature professor Philip Ross Bullock writes about the "colonial gaze" -- a view of the world from the perspective of those in power, a view that serves the interests of those who rule. This view is often from above, suggesting a panoramic mastery over the world. The colonial gaze organizes the subject population into fixed categories described by statistics and organizes space into fixed maps with clear borders. The colonial gaze rests on binaries, such as "civilized" people vs. "savages," the "superior" people (homeowners) vs. the "inferior" "Other" (public housing residents or renters).

Bullock suggests that we might develop an alternative way of seeing by undermining the binaries of the colonial gaze. First, we might introduce "a number of simultaneous ideological, ethnic, and cultural perspectives, thereby breaking down the reductive binary oppositions that structure the operation of the colonial gaze" (p. 759). For example, by mixing up our social worlds, we might acquire a variety of perspectives or we might recognize things that we had been blind to without being aware of being blind. Second, we might resist being categorized or resist being named. Bullock continues, "To resist naming is to resist being seen...thus thwarting the ideological assumptions that flow from the Soviet [DC elite] center to the 'oriental' (or rather, orientalized) [or the Other of the] periphery" (p. 760). Nonconformity to the binaries of power may subvert the colonial gaze. Finally, social connection, not as a hierarchical relation of pity and paternalism but as a horizontal relationship of solidarity among neighbors, might allow for a vision that develops mutual understanding. Here, as strange as it may sound, an article on Russian literature provides a potential model for an alternative way of seeing in Ward 6.

Have you developed alternative ways of seeing?

P.S. For more photos of Hine and a great comment by a reader, see my previous post: "Hine Jr High: Dead Zones and Life Zones."

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