Tales&Trails: Roxbury, Boston

Download my presentation of a guest lecture presented at RISD of Tracking Roxbury: Tales&Trails

My interest in “Reading the City” has happily continued to grow over the past few years. While it is somewhat analogous to reading a text, for instance, in order to understand, the objective of Reading the City focuses on the interpretation of the “reader” who will read between the lines towards a greater sense of ownership and desire for positive change. Simply, understanding the environment prompts changing it. But it is important to note that in many ways, a greater awareness of space and the environment we inhabit, in itself constitutes a change.

After taking Anne Spirn’s class (Urban Nature, MIT 2009), I was inspired to bring my interests in “Reading the City” to a younger audience. Last fall, I got the opportunity to do just that in a class I developed at Orchard Gardens in the neighborhood of Roxbury, Boston, through Citizen Schools City Building After School Program. (In implementing the lesson plans I collaborated with Ben Peterson, RISD and Shreiya Madhusoodanan, BAC.) Alternatives for Community and Environment (ACE) just blocks from Orchard Gardens Public Schools provided a valuable tour of the Toxic Sites in the area providing concrete and all too tangible reasons regarding the value of knowing your city and striving for environmental justice.

Some general remarks about the outcome of all the City Building groups across Boston appeared in real text here.

For immediate gratification, this is what our final posters looked like at the city wide presentation in early December held at the Boston Architectural College:

And I was lucky enough to get the chance to organize this crazy body of work (comprising of my own notes, sketches, photos, collages and twelve year old endeavors galore) for a guest lecture I was invited to give towards the benefit of a course for Art Teachers; a worthy cause since my own high school art teacher was a true inspiration (Mrs. Douglass). As such, I distilled some general tips and lessons from my experience:

Through the efforts of preparing for the lecture, I am now able to give a somewhat linear narrative of the experience:

The class was called Tracking Roxbury: Tales&Trails. It met Tuesday afternoons from 3:50 – 5:20 on the second floor of Orchard Gardens School in Roxbury, Boston.

In order to entice potential apprentices to the apprenticeship I related the following pitch (more or less) six times (!) in the course of three hours (more or less) to many, many twelve-year olds (more and more):

“We will look at the Past, Present and Future of the surrounding neighborhood, Roxbury. The area has been greatly affected by Orchard Gardens, and, in turn the neighborhood affects the school as well. In the apprenticeship, we will work with many hands-on projects that dig into the Past of the neighborhood through maps of how things used to be. Then we will treat the actual city streets and public spaces as a laboratory or archeological site where we will research, analyze and understand the many different systems that make up this place. Finally, we will envision a path for the future, in which people will harness the power of knowledge and observation about an area. This path will communicate, educate and offer a way to improve the neighborhood. I think that everyone is familiar with Boston’s Freedom Trail in which the past comes alive as one follows along the brick path outlined on the city streets. This is a story that unfolds as you walk. In a similar way, we will create Roxbury Trails depending on the stories about the neighborhood that the students wish to tell.”

[Of course, three other places I have known as home have their own versions of the prescribed path, including Los Angeles, Salem MA and Barcelona. Of course, in Tracking Roxbury, the objective is to create a an Intentional Trail in a neighborhood historically not seen as holding crucial urban value worthy of sharing with its residents and visitors.]

Tying together my interests in mapping and using the city as a text and laboratory for exploration, I developed a syllabus for another nonprofit organization when the opportunity to work with Citizen Schools presented itself. I was especially interested in teaching a class that focused on design process and understanding urban space, rather than creating a concrete design product.

The class was under the umbrella of City Building and many of the classes presented a clear design challenge: design a park, design a café, etc. However, I saw the class was as an opportunity to explore why understanding urban space first, and really providing tools for “Reading the City,” were just as valuable as creating a design.

I think it important to demystify space; this is especially true for an area perceived as a “ghetto.” It is the way it is because of policy, economics and many big and small decisions that can be somewhat understood. More importantly, it shows that the place is constantly changing, and the students can be a part of the change.

From the beginning, I wanted to create a situation in which field trips and exploration of the immediate surroundings would inform class activities. In turn, these class activities could help inform how the students explore the outside environment. Because the actual content of the class seemed to build upon the experience of each particular class, the class could develop organically with the students’ responses as key clues to direct the progression. The two things that were certain were the geographic limits of the surrounding environment and the use of Past, Present and Future as methods by which to analyze the surrounding environment; through this approach the students could look at the history of area (the past), analyze the current situation (the present), and from there, develop a more informed image for improvement (the future).

The project was interesting for me. And, after the final presentation, and hearing the students talk about what they learned, it seems that they too gleaned some value from the experiment. It is of course difficult to gauge, as many teachers tell me. But, after this experience, I value experimentation in education more and more.