Racism and Architecture

By Katelyn Lusher


Gentrification has a certain “look.” Once you know the telltale signs, it is impossible to not notice, even if you are not from that particular city. In May, my husband and I visited my brother in Denver. I had never been to the city before, but it was clear to me that certain areas were changing rapidly. For example, older buildings with graffiti art were juxtaposed with shiny, modern looking apartment complexes with signs advertising available units. Small, independent family-owned shops were flanked by hip restaurants and boutiques. In a brewery, I saw a sign urging people to “Save Welton Street” from gentrification, which confirmed my suspicion that the area was undergoing aggressive change. The same can be witnessed in Over-the-Rhine on Vine Street, which quickly changes as you approach downtown. It is no coincidence that while Over-the-Rhine has been a predominantly Black neighborhood since the 1950s, the areas which have been “redeveloped” are now primarily white spaces. The same is true in gentrified areas across the country. Denver, Cincinnati, Detroit, Cleveland, and New York City are all prime examples of cities that have used architecture to gentrify and, by extension, eliminate Black spaces.


Recently, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York put on an exhibition called “Reconstruction: Architecture and Blackness in America,” which explores how racism is embedded in architectural choices without most people even knowing it. Architecture has been used to purposely separate and divide people within cities by design; one of the artists of this exhibition, Sekou Cooke, states that “the predominant spaces of Black inhabitation in this country have been leftover, disposable, and characterless environments.” For example, when white residents leave an area, it is then possible for Black residents to live there as long as they can accept that their residences may be shabby, outdated, or undesirable to most. It is not uncommon for people to drive through a neighborhood with older, shabbier buildings and label it as “bad” or “rough.” Many times, those areas are occupied by non-white and/or low income residents. An area may be purposely neglected to further segregate less “desirable” residents from more affluent white populations. Over-the-Rhine is a perfect example of this. Over-the-Rhine became a predominantly Black neighborhood when most of its German immigrant population left because of anti-German sentiment after both world wars. The neighborhood remained that way for decades until redevelopment projects by 3CDC introduced high-end luxury apartments that are now mostly occupied by white professionals. The 2020 census results are not out yet, but it is likely that Over-the-Rhine’s demographics will be quite different compared to the last census in 2010. This is not to say that non-white residents can’t occupy these spaces and rent out a luxury apartment; however, many landlords and mortgage lenders are guilty of discriminatory practices and make it difficult to do so (even though it is illegal, it still happens).


Furthermore, many architectural projects are designed by white, male architects so other voices are not heard from the very beginning. In a panel discussion published by Architectural Record, two architecture professors, Dianne Harris and Louis P. Nelson, and a practitioner, Damon Rich, discussed how white supremacy is built into the environment and education. Nelson comments that it is impossible to talk about architecture only in terms of aesthetics. Doing so, in fact, “masks a dominant Western, white framework that, once we expose it, helps us look at how all architecture is a cultural product and cultural agent, as well as political and racial.”


In other words, you cannot look at architecture without also considering how it is used to exclude certain people and obscure disparities behind a glossy front. Harris further states that anyone who is not a white man—or maybe a white woman, in some cases—is shut out of the room when design decisions are being made, and that further widens the divide: “When white architects refuse to see who’s not at the table, and refuse to acknowledge that structural racism is a critical issue for professional practice, they reinforce white supremacy over and over again, both in the profession and in the built environment.” If new developments in Over-the-Rhine, for example, are primarily designed by white men in an area that is primarily occupied by Black residents, then how will new architecture ever reflect the needs of the community that already exists there? In fact, most of 3CDC’s leadership appears to be white.


There are also, Harris states, many “erased landscapes” in Black history which render certain events invisible to white Americans who don’t want to acknowledge their presence or didn’t deem it important to preserve. For example, the 1921 Tulsa massacre on Black Wall Street has only recently started to earn public recognition from white Americans in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. When those homes and businesses were destroyed, Black spaces were also destroyed. When Black spaces are destroyed, spaces that have been leftover and discarded by white residents are all that is left, corroborating Cooke’s earlier point about Black inhabitations.


New development projects in gentrified areas stick out intentionally. Gentrification and racial disparities are closely linked. Through architecture, gentrification can call attention to how certain populations are encouraged while others are forced to live on the fringes.


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