Carving through Rigid Space: Filipina Domestic Workers at Statue Square, Hong Kong, by Zhuofan Chen

September 14, 2021
ARCH 355
Professor Ipek Türeli

Figure 1: Filipina domestic workers’ gathering, view from Chater Road towards Statue Square – Visual China Group.

Abstract

Every Sunday,  at the heart of Hong Kong’s financial district, thousands of Filipina domestic workers gather to transform the public ground of Statue Square. Collectively they convert the space into temporary venues for all types of social interactions. (Fig. 1) This essay first contextualizes the phenomenon by analyzing the oppression­—spatial inequality and constraining of sexuality—the helpers face in the domestic sphere of their employers. The essay then argues that the Filipinas establish their autonomy and agency through the reappropriation of the public space, using theories developed by Michel de Certeau in his work The Practice of Everyday Life to evaluate the everyday creative resistance occurring in the square and elsewhere.

 

Arriving in Hong Kong

Following the region’s economic boom in the 1970s, Hong Kong saw a dramatic increase of women in the workforce. With females taking up employment outside of the domestic sphere, there was a simultaneous increase in demand for live-in domestic helpers and a decrease in the number of women available to provide such service.[1] In 1975, 1000 Filipino women arrived in Hong Kong on designated domestic worker contracts to help fill the gap. Many were well educated, fluent in English and conveniently motivated by their home government’s new legislation promoting labour export.[2] Since then, the number of Filipino domestic helpers in Hong Kong has been steadily increasing, reaching 140,500 by 1998 and stood elevated at 189,000 in 2016. Of these almost 200,000 workers, 99% are female and relatively young, with a median age of 35 according to the latest statistics. [3]

 

Oppression in Domestic Space: Surveillance, Suspicion, and Discipline

Domestic workers are required by employment law to “live-in”. In a city notorious for its limited living spaces, the pay gap between foreign and local labour enabled Hong Kong residents without sufficient home space to employ live-in helpers, resulting in general sub-standard accommodation for the employees.[4] The helpers are often physically restricted to the service space in the household. As demonstrated in a report by Mission for Migrant Worker, in many cases the domestic helpers had to curl up in cabinets on top of the shower, sleep beneath hanging laundries, retreat into cupboards above the fridge or lay on the floor in the children’s room. As one woman described: “This ‘cupboard’ is my private bedroom; I belong to the kitchen.” (Fig. 2,3) [5] The spatial arrangements emphasize the hierarchy of the family and the helper’s position as servant 24 hours a day, as even after working hours the helpers would not be able to rest without disturbance and constant surveillance from the employers. Furthermore, many helpers are not allowed to leave the apartments during the workdays and maintain minimal contact with their language or culture. As a result, live-in helpers often experience an overwhelming sense of isolation and distress. On their days off, most helpers would “try to be outside as much possible,” seeking relief from the deplorable living conditions.[6]

Figure 2: Two views of living accommodations for foreign domestic workers, “They hang clothes to dry on top of the sofa which is my ‘bed’” – Mission for Migrant Workers.

Figure 3: Two views of living accommodations for foreign domestic workers, “This ‘cupboard’ is my private bedroom; I belong to the kitchen.” – Mission for Migrant Workers.

The foreign helpers face not only spatial restriction and surveillance but also moral suspicion and discipline. For many Hong Kong residents, the presence of a foreign woman within their home constitutes a fundamental moral challenge to the existing patterns of authority and the rigid integrity of traditional Chinese families.[7] Locals often hold the helpers as “moral suspects” and presume the women are here to “to find a man and obtain financial security”.[8] The media constantly associates domestic helpers to the sex industry, reporting under sensationalist titles such as “Unknown to Employer’s Family of Four, Foreign Helper Prostitutes Online.”[9] For Filipina domestic workers, this devitalizing stereotype of obedient seductress is a result of a multitude of socio-cultural factors tracing back to the nation’s colonial history.[10] Over the four decades of American occupation from 1898-1946, sex industries thrived around the U.S. military bases in the Philippines. This drove many poverty-stricken women into becoming “entertainers” or “hospitality girls.” The government to some extent promoted this image of Filipina women as pleasing and subservient providers of services—sexual and otherwise­—to compete in the international tourism market and gain foreign currency.[11]

The fear of the Hong Kong employers over the moral corruption brought forth by the sexuality of foreign domestic helpers led to their discipline and oppression of the workers’ expression of sexuality in the domestic sphere. Many helpers must not wear dresses or skirts,  nail polish, jewelry, perfume, or make-up. In some cases, they are even demanded to cut short their long hair to appear as gender-neutral and non-sexual as possible.[12] As a result, for the helpers, the private rituals of self-expression are actively suppressed in their own homes, their sexuality constantly constrained.

 

“Strategies” vs. “Tactics”: Poaching within the Rigid City

Casting off the cultural convention and moral disciplines of their Chinese employers once a week, the Filipinas navigate their way through the urban fabric of Hong Kong in search of their own space—they arrive at Statue Square. The next part seeks to employ de Certeau’s theory to investigate how “strategies” were constructed by the establishments at the square and how the Filipina domestic workers deployed their “tactics” to poach the regulated territory and construct their creative resistance to not only the repressive system dictating public spaces but also the repression of identity and sexuality they face in the society at large.

In his book The Practice of Everyday Life, de Certeau established the distinction between “strategies” and “tactics” in the context of contemporary cities. “Strategies” are determined by the structure of power and institutions to define space and dictate how individuals should act and interact within the space. “Tactics,” on the other hand, are routines and “making do” practiced by those who are subjugated, guided only by one’s belief and instincts, thus creating “an element of creative resistance” to the repressive order constructed by institutional bodies. [13] De Certeau further establishes that contemporary cities have a unified whole generated by “strategies,” however the route individuals take through the city and the specific interactions they carry out can never be fully determined by the strategy of the governing bodies, thus “tactics” are formed and individuals are capable of “poaching” space within the regulated territories. [14]

 

Statue Square: The Making of “Strategies” 

Figure 4: View from the southwestern corner of the Statue Square in the 1920s. The statue of Queen Victoria is in the center with the original canopy. Supreme Court is on the front-right, the Hong Kong Club is in the back behind the Cenotaph. – Keystone Stone View Company.

Statue Square, since the day of its birth, was dictated by rigid “strategies” from structures of power. Located in the district of Central, the square was first constructed at the end of the nineteenth century dedicated to Queen Victoria. (Fig. 4) Chater Road passed through the square dividing it into two parts. It was an exclusive space for the colonial Western elites, with buildings and establishments only accessible to people of European origin and a very limited amount of Chinese elite. (Fig. 5) The initial square inherited the hierarchy and officialness of the public space of the 18th century, serving as a monument to the institution in power. Individuals were only allowed in its precinct to pay tribute to the authority. [15]

Coming to the present day, colonial dominance has now transitioned into the power of both global capital and local capital. The statue of Queen Victoria had long been removed and the original Supreme Court is now submerged in the sea of high-rises. (Fig. 5) On the south side, the fourth iteration of HSBC headquarter designed by Norman Foster and the Bank of China Tower by I.M Pei parade slick yet costly internationalism design while acting as a political allegory for Sino-British relations.[16] To the west of the square, Hong Kong Land, the largest landowner in Central, owns and operates 12 interconnected prime commercial buildings under the name the Landmark, (Fig. 6) forming a system of towers and elevated walkways with “over 450,000 sq. m. of Grade A office and luxury retail space”. [17]

Figure 5: View from the northside of the Statue Square in 2016. Supreme Court remain visible on the lower left, back from left to right:
Bank of China Tower (1990),
Cheung Kong Center (1999),
Bank of China Building (1947), HSBC Headquarter (1985)– HK Magazine.

Here around Statue Square, developers employ extensive “strategies” to dictate individual’s interaction with the urban space. The public spaces in front of each office tower are constantly monitored by security and many access points are taped off during the weekends to prevent “loitering.” Elevated walkways maintained by the Hong Kong Land create routes for pedestrians to circulate and stay at designated parts of the properties, extending the developers’ control beyond merely the land or the buildings, but all the spaces in between. Statue Square, as an open space surrounding this set of exclusive structures, became a reflection of the perspective and needs of institutional power, where individual acting as passive employee or consumer is only allowed to pass over the space and can be evicted whenever his or her behaviours are deemed “improper.” [18]

Figure 6: Elevated walkways over Chater Road on northwestern corner of the square, connecting Mandarin Oriental Hotel to Landmark Prince, both owned and operated by Hong Kong Land – Hwuweiazhongea.

 

Uninvited Guests: Defying “Strategies”

However, it was also the “strategies” of Hong Kong Land that lead to the unexpected arrival of Filipina domestic helpers on Statue Square. In 1982, Hong Kong Land proposed to close Chater Road to traffic on Sundays to encourage pedestrian access. At the time, Central was deemed a “dead public space” during the weekends without the usual crowd of office employees.[19] Hong Kong Land intended to attract patrons to their Landmark mall, an upscale retail space hosting ultra-luxury brands. Instead, Filipina domestic workers flocked to the down-market World-Wide House down the street to visit small shops carrying goods from their homeland.[20] Beyond shopping, the Filipinas soon established Chater Road and Statue Square as an ideal space to meet up with friends and chatter every Sunday. Cardboard, plastic mats and tents divide up the street, with tens of thousands of women congregating bringing noise and colour into the austere cityscape. Taking a closer look at the activities the Filipina domestic workers engage in every Sunday, we might gain more insights into the “tactics” they developed within an urban space that is deeply dictated by “strategies”.

Figure 7: Filipina domestic workers practicing for the beauty pageant on Chater Road – BBC Chinese.

The first activity one might notice is the beauty pageant practicing taking place right in the streets. Prohibited from expressing their sexuality in the domestic space, the Filipinas flaunt their agency and beauty on Statue Square. (Fig. 7) Throughout the year, beauty pageants are organized by the Filipino community, with the participants covering their own expenses. Every Sunday, Filipinas come together to put on make-up, polish each other’s nails and practice catwalk dressed in skirts and high heels that are not allowed during the rest of the week.[21] Here, their sexuality is displayed not for the entertainment of others, but for the enjoyment of oneself. Bringing commonly indoor private rituals into an outdoor public space, the Filipinas breached the limits and norms created by the “strategies,” making themselves visible and craving their self-expression into the fabric of the city.

Figure 8: Filipinas share food sitting on the ground – BBC Chinese.

A second make-do tactic employed by the Filipinas is through their sharing of food. (Fig 8) Instead of being the passive service provider and prepare food based on the demands of the employers, the helpers are now able to produce cuisine to their own liking and share the dishes with fellow members of the community. The sharing and consumption of food in public spaces is also reminiscent of gatherings in the Philippines often taking place sitting on the ground, allowing the Filipina helpers to relax with their community away from the judgement of the Hong Kong employers. [22]

The “tactics” formed by the Filipinas go beyond supporting each other against the exclusion they face in Hong Kong. In November 2020, the Philippines was hit with Typhoon Goni, suffering USD 415 million in damages and a loss of 31 lives. In an organized effort to support family and friends back home, the Filipinas reappropriate the surface of Chater Road into temporary sorting and storage space on Sunday. (Fig. 9) Under the elevated walkways and in front of boutique stores, the women practice their citizen responsibility by collecting and packing necessities purchased with their hard-earned salary to be sent back to the Philippines. Defying regulations and disciplines imposed on the urban fabric, the Filipinas took control and invented their own space of citizenship, affirming their power and autonomy.

Figure 9: Filipinas packing parcels to be sent back to the Philippines – Stand News.

 

Little Manila”: Success through Perseverance?

As one would expect, the developers and authorities consistently pushed against the Filipinas’ breaching of their controlled urban space with repressive policies throughout the decades. By 1989, properties managed by Hong Kong Land were taping up walkways and pedestrian access to prevent “loitering” and boutiques were racking up complaints about noise and littering. Many other properties followed. (Fig 10.) Developers further attempted to “correct” the poaching in their territory by suggesting to re-open Chater Road and guide the Filipinas to gather instead in the underground car parks.[23] More recently in 2018, a member of the Legislative Council, Eunice Yung Hoi-yan criticized the foreign helpers for being an “inconvenience” and “health hazard” for the gathering.[24] The COVID-19 pandemic worsens the discriminative treatments of the helpers, as in early 2020, law-maker Elizabeth Quat proposed that foreign helpers should be grounded during their days off as they were spreading the virus, despite infection data proving such accusation to be false. [25]

Figure 10: Entrance to the HSBC building closed on Sundays – South China Morning Post.

However, as the “tactics” utilized by the Filipinas are opportunistic and flexible by nature, the gathering every Sunday and the community it created persevere through decades of exclusion. The gathering has become a fixture in the landscape of the Central district, even giving the area the nickname “Little Manila.” International tourists would visit Statute Square not only to experience the architectural wonder and materialistic luxury but also to witness the ever-changing wonder created by the Filipinas.[26] By making themselves and their activities constantly visible, the domestic helpers can alter the course of the invisible power of institutional “strategies,” organizing numerous protests throughout the decades on the square and succeeded in their causes several times. With increasing tension between Hong Kong and mainland China, the public spaces of the city are witnessing more and more conflicts between protesters and the police force, entangled in another set of struggles between “strategies” and “tactics.” Maybe the partial success the Filipinas achieved and the unique space they managed to carve out could inform all members of Hong Kong society to introduce less rigid and more diverse space into the metropolis’s urban fabric in the near future.

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Zhuofan Chen is an undergraduate student at the Peter Guo-hua Fu School of Architecture, McGill University. This essay was written for ARCH 355.

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[1] Lisa Law, “Defying Disappearance: Cosmopolitan Public Spaces in Hong Kong.” Urban Studies 39, no. 9 (2002): 1635.

[2] Christine Retschlag, “Filipino workers flood into territory,” South China Morning Post, December 6, 1993, 3.

Last name, First name. Title of Work. Publisher city: Publisher, Year of publication. Accessed Month Date, Year. URL.

[3] Research Office-Legislative Council Secretariat, Foreign domestic helpers and evolving care duties in Hong Kong, Hong Kong: The Legislative Council Commission (The Commission), 2017, accessed at https://www.legco.gov.hk/research-publications/english/1617rb04-foreign-domestic-helpers-and-evolving-care-duties-in-hong-kong-20170720-e.pdf

[4] As of 2021, Hong Kong’s statutory minimum wage of HKD37.5 per hour (6000 per month calculated by 40 hour per week) does not apply to live-in foreign domestic helpers, who do not have a defined work hour and are instead regulated by a minimum allowable income of HKD4630 per month.

[5] Norman Uy Carnay and Jennifer Sushi Au, Pictures from the Inside: Investigating Living Accommodation of Women Migrant Domestic Workers towards Advocacy and Action, Hong Kong: Mission for Migrant Workers, 2017: 7-15, accessed at https://www.migrants.net/researches.

[6] Norman Uy Carnay and Jennifer Sushi Au, “Pictures from the Inside,” 18.

[7] Han Chinese constitutes the overwhelming majority of Hong Kong’s population at 92%.

[8] Nicole Constable, “Jealousy, chastity, and abuse: Chinese maids and foreign helpers in Hong Kong,” Modern China 22, no. 4 (1996): 450.

[9] Junxian Wang, “Unknow to Employer’s Family of Four, Foreign Helper Prostitutes Online外傭疑賣淫實錄 瞞僱主一家四口上交友App約性交易,” trans. by author, Hong Kong Economic Times香港經濟日報, March 17, 2020.

[10] Kimberly A Chang, Julian Groves, “Neither ‘saints’ nor ‘prostitutes’: Sexual discourse in the Filipina domestic worker community in Hong Kong,” Women’s Studies International Forum 23, no. 1 (2000): 74.

[11] Cynthia Enloe, Bananas, beaches, and bases: Making feminist sense of international politics, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1989), 38.

[12] Nicole Constable, “Sexuality and Discipline among Filipina Domestic Workers in Hong Kong.” American Ethnologist 24, no. 3 (1997): 539-40.

[13] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 31-36.

[14] de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 91-94.

[15] Chua Beng Huat, “Decoding the political in civic spaces: an interpretive essay,” in Public Space: Design, Use and Management, ed. Chua Beng Huat and Norman Edwards, (Singapore: Centre for Advanced Studies and Singapore University Press, 1992), 56.

[16] Ackbar Abbas, Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance, (University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 68.

[17] “Central Portfolio, Hong Kong”, Our Business, Hong Kong Land, accessed March 18, 2021. https://www.hkland.com/en/our-business/cities/hong-kong.

[18] Law, “Disappearance,” 1628.

[19] Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man, (New York: W. W. Norton, 1992), 79.

[20] Nicole Constable, Maid to Order in Hong Kong: Stories of Filipina Workers, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997), 134.

[21] Constable, “Sexuality and Discipline,” 540.

[22] Law, “Defying Disappearance,” 1637.

[23] Law, “Defying Disappearance,” 1635.

[24] Karen Zhang, “Lawmaker Eunice Yung’s brief apology to Hong Kong’s domestic workers ‘just not good enough’ says migrant leader,” South China Morning Post, May 27, 2018, https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/politics/article/2148011/lawmakers-brief-apology-hong-kongs-domestic-workers-just-not.

[25] Kelly Ho, “Covid-19: Lock down domestic workers on their day off, says pro-Beijing Hong Kong lawmaker,” Hong Kong Free Press, December 29, 2020, https://hongkongfp.com/2020/12/29/covid-19-lock-down-domestic-workers-on-their-day-off-says-pro-beijing-hong-kong-lawmaker/.

[26] Law, “Defying Disappearance,” 1638.

Cruising on the Collapsing Queer Horizon: Alvin Baltrop’s Pier Photographs, by Hassan Saab and Lan Wang

September 10, 2021
ARCH 355
Professor Ipek Türeli

Pushed to the edge of the city, into the dilapidated Hudson River piers, outside of “civilized” Manhattan, queer men of the 70s and 80s cruised in the rubble. The ruins of the post-industrial city became an uncontrolled, non-commercial space and the site of non-reproductive gay sex. In addition to their spatial isolation from the city, the piers were also isolated culturally and temporally. Alvin Baltrop documented the cruising culture of the piers in the 1970s and 1980s through a series of grainy black and white photographs showing men lounging, reading, fucking, sucking, making art, dancing, sunbathing between rotten wood, broken glass, and rusted metal. Born in the Bronx, Baltrop was a working-class queer black man who, despite great adversity, was dedicated to documenting and preserving the ephemera of an emergent gay subculture on the piers at the historical moment that followed the Stonewall riots and preceded the devastating AIDS epidemic. For most of his lifetime, until his death in 2004,  the racist, white-dominated art establishment grossly ignored his work, and he faced many obstacles such as “inadequate exposure, representation, and funding, that many African-American artists face in the art industry.”1 Despite the rejection and the hurdles, Baltrop, successfully made a place for himself and the marginalized bodies in his photography, especially bodies of colour, in the archive and within the art historical canon. He photographed white men, Latin Americans, African Americans, migrants, poor, and homeless people. These people were rejected by their homophobic and racist society. While many cruisers came from nearby gay bars or bathhouses, a lot of Baltrop’s diverse subjects were excluded from such gay spaces and took refuge in the openness, anonymity, and accessibility that the ruined piers provided for them.2 His obsession with the piers and their frequenters led to an intimate familiarity with the subjects of his photographs: “These two kids here [having sex in a photograph], their fathers found out they were gay and threw them out of the house. At one point the piers were full of kids who had been thrown out. […] This guy was a part-time minister.  This guy was a security man. I knew these people.”3

The piers just south of Christopher Street between Greenwich Village and the meatpacking district were a cruising site long before Baltrop photographed them. By the early twentieth century, the site’s shipping terminals were the busiest section of New York’s port and were flooded by unmarried seamen and temporary workers which made this site a popular gay cruising area by the First World War.4 In the 1930s, the newly built Miller Highway further isolated the site making it a privileged cruising spot well after the Second World War. By the 1960s, the shipping terminals and industries abandoned the piers due to changes in transportation, the labour force, and migration that contributed to the economic decline and eventual obsolescence of the piers.5 This activated the nocturnal cruising territory between the trucks parked on site. By the 1970s and 1980s, the period documented by Baltrop, the policing of gay cruising in public subway stations, bathrooms, and parks, and the repeated raids of gay venues by authorities pushed the cruising territory almost entirely to the ruined waterfront.6 Baltrop’s images offer the viewer glimpses of decaying utopias at the edge of the city where time, very much like the collapsed structures, seemed to be in ruins. It is where spatial isolation, deteriorated time, disintegrated matter, flesh, and its pleasures collide into sexual possibility. We argue that by tending toward this horizon of sexual possibility, the enmeshment between bodies and ruins presented in Baltrop’s pier photographs, expresses world-making potentials through a “queer utopian memory” of cruising, community, and history.

Following the Stonewall riots of 1969, a sexually liberated queer community starts taking over Christopher Street, the main corridor to the waterfront. In 1973, after the collapse of a section of the West Side Highway, the piers at the waterfront were completely shut off from the rest of the city. The area appeared deserted, and no one wanted to go there except, of course, the queers. By appropriation, the ruined liminal landscape of the piers became “a place where gay men, trans people, and sex workers all gathered to participate in social, sexual, and political life. They provided a refuge away from NYPD surveillance, which specifically targeted low-income queer and trans people and trans people of colour.”7 The ruined space was highly libidinal after the riots. Right before the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, Baltrop captured a culture of sexual possibility where, as art historian Douglas Crimp, quoted by José Esteban Muñoz, suggests, “sex was everywhere for us, and everything we wanted to venture.”8 Some of Alvin Baltrop’s pier photographs collapse the material ruination of the site onto the libidinous bodies which eroticizes the architectural ruin into a tool, décor, and temporal frame that sustain cruising practices.

The crumbling of heteronormativity at the edge of Manhattan as it deindustrialized allowed Baltrop to create images of an alternate history of the city, a conflated sedimented history of gay eroticism. This sedimentation of the erotic history of the piers throughout the 20th century gives the site a performative potential. Queer phenomenologist Sara Ahmed considers histories to be sedimented and happening through the repetition of performative gestures.9 She also argues for the performativity of objects where an object is not just a spatial entity, but it exists through what the body does with it or what it allows the body to do with it.10 Based on that, we argue for the material performativity of ruins and their erotic potential. First, architecturally, the structural deficiencies of the ruins render the spaces more appealing to cruising. Art historian Fiona Anderson suggests that, in the warehouses, “long corridors facilitated wandering; empty door frames provided peepholes; and cracked windows and broken floorboards created accidental glory holes.”11 We would like to add to that list the simultaneous openness and shielding that are afforded by the lighting and shadows, the incoherent mix of broken floorboards and falling trusses on the ground, the ragged curtains over the broken windows, and the various sizes of holes.

 

Figure 1: Alvin Baltrop, The Piers (blowjob), 1975-1986. (Source: Galerie Buchholz).

 

At first glance, the photograph on the previous page seems to depict a chaotic collision of metal and wood. Upon further inspection and after reading the indicative title The Piers (blowjob), amid the wreckage, two silhouettes are barely discernable where a man, on his knees, appears to be giving head to another. The intertwinement of their bodies with the decaying materials and the fragmented light blurs the distinction between body and structure, between flesh and materiality. At the same time, Baltrop’s chosen vantage point exposes the bodies all while concealing them. The ruins act as a translucent barrier that envelops the bodies as well as the camera lens in a playfully voyeuristic intimacy.

 

Figure 2: Alvin Baltrop, The Piers (hole in the wall), 1975-1986. (Source: Galerie Buchholz).

 

Despite the somewhat clear discernment of the body through the hole, a certain level of enmeshment still ties the body to the hole or to its potentiality. The exposed wooden beam passing across the hole seems to complete the cruiser’s leather straps outfit, as if he were wearing the wall. In addition, the naked leather-strapped body framed within the hole eroticizes the potential of the hole and its relation to the body. The photograph uses the hole as a framing device. However, within the context, the hole could be a voyeuristic peeping window or even maybe a glory hole. In that last case, the hole could be understood as an orifice that connects bodies through the wall; the hole and the wall become facilitators and integral parts of the sexual act. The layered erotic potentials of the hole would not have existed in a “straight” space outside of the ruined piers, it would have been regarded as a problem and simply patched. This photograph gives the viewer a glimpse into a queer utopia part of a larger scheme of queer world-making.

Second, materially, and temporally, ruins carry memory and potential of the ephemerality of cruising. Author Mark Turner characterizes cruising as “a practice that exploits the fluidity and multiplicity of the modern city to its advantage […] the stuff of fleeting, ephemeral moments not intended to be captured.”12 In the case of Manhattan’s dilapidated waterfront, the practice of cruising exploits anonymity and freedom of movement as well as the “vestiges of [the waterfront’s] erotic uses”13 and the dangerous lack of law enforcement. We think that the sedimentation of erotic histories upon the material ruins and the ruined space, in general, made cruising in the 1970s and 1980s in direct communication with the queer past while looking toward an imminent future of pleasure. This relation to time can be understood in terms of queer utopia as queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz theorizes it. He conceives queer utopia as – in Ernst Bloch’s terms – a concrete utopia that glances back with a forward vision and that opens up to the “not there yet”.14 We believe that cruising is an ephemeral activity that looks forward to a moment of presentness. In the context of the piers in the 70s and 80s, cruising becomes “kinkier” when the present action and its ruined site (the here and now) look back to the lustful history of the site, including the seamen and longshoremen who inhabited these spaces long before Baltrop took his photographs, which materially activates the erotic potential of the ruins themselves. At the same time, the run-down state of the space in Baltrop’s photographs directly relates to the ephemeral temporality of the cruising they depict. Outside of the piers, in the city, time is linear and centred around an expanded capitalist heteronormative reproduction. This is what Muñoz calls “straight time”. In contrast, “queer time” is a collision of temporalities that is non-reproductive, broken up, and spread out. It relates to the past through a vision of the future and refuses the presentness of straight time. That is why cruising, being ephemeral, non-linear, promiscuous, transient, often transactional, or passionate, manifests spatially in the “economically functionless and willfully nonproductive”15 ruins of the waterfront instead of a crowded street or a neighbourhood park.    The impermanent and discontinuous nature of cruising as well as the open, diverse, kinky, and unreproductive nature of gay sex exist outside of straight time’s conception of domesticity. However, a sense of domesticity can still be glimpsed in Baltrop’s photography of cruising on the piers. The ruined waterfront was home for many young homeless, mostly racialized, queer individuals who were rejected by their families and their communities. Queer time within a space of ruin allowed these youth to build their own utopia, a utopia rooted in a historical queer memory of the site and a hope for the future.

 

Figure 3: Alvin Baltrop, The Piers (two men), 1975-1986. (Source: Galerie Buchholz).

 

In the photograph above, two men lay naked on the rotting floorboards. This photograph showcases an intimate moment shared by two men in a supposedly public space. However, we argue that, given the transient nature of queer time in relation to cruising and the sexual culture of the piers, these men’s connection to the floorboards and the ruined landscape is much more permanent than their own one-to-one connection. There are no barriers between their skin and the rotten wood of the floorboards initiating an intimate bodily connection to the ruin. In the photo, their bodies almost merge with the floor and they look like another collapsed structural element of the architecture like the fallen trusses behind them. Their bodies belong to the ruin, it is their domesticity. Within straight time, there would have been a barrier between skin and ruin, a clear separation. However, the inter-permeability of flesh and matter captured in Baltrop’s photographs clearly indicates a performance within queer time which, with a direct connection of the photographed body to the bodies that cruised in the same space before them, opens up the image’s world-making potentials.

 

Figure 4: Alvin Baltrop, The Piers (man in bondage) and The Piers (man hung in bondage), 1975-1986. (Source: Galerie Buchholz).

 

Finally, ruins served as an erotic décor for the sexual activity taking place at the waterfront. For example, the photographs above depict men in bondage tied to the frail structures of the warehouse or the pier. In the photographs, their suspended bodies present as another collapsing structural element that is out of place. The connection between the bodies and the ruin is made even more explicit as the decaying structures of the space carry the men’s weights. Another way the ruin interacts with the body is by offering a stage and a backdrop for the staged bondage performance, possibly enacted for the camera. In the picture on the left, the railed elevated platform acts as a stage and structural support for this man’s bondage exhibitionism. In the other picture, the decaying corrugated metal sheets and scattered pieces of wood offer a backdrop of destruction only suitable for the staging of an extreme bondage act.

 

Figure 5: Alvin Baltrop, The Piers (collapsed architecture) and The Piers (collapsed architecture, couple buttfucking), 1975-1986. (Source: Galerie Buchholz).

 

These photographs above depict massive material degradation on the banks of the Hudson River. Unlike the other cruising photographs referenced in this paper, these two images are much more architecturally expressive and focus on the destruction and decay of the piers, architecture in ruination. While the two images seem to be very similar, a more attentive look at their composition and their titles reveal that even though they both showcase a collapsed architecture, the photo on the right has two men having penetrative sex in front of the ruined structure. Their bodies seem to be muffled between the wood and metal and camouflaged by the textural intensity and overwhelming composition of that decaying formation along the water. The enmeshment of body and ruin is once again present in Baltrop’s imagery eroticizing the ruin by itself, beyond its function as a cruising site. In this particular case of the emphasized architecture, Baltrop invites the viewers to cruise the photograph, to look for the sexual act muffled somewhere in the decay. The performative potential of the photograph lays in the participation of the viewer in this act of cruising from their future position looking into the past. This complicates the photo’s temporality allowing for the ephemeral queer time of the depicted act of public sex to be transferred into a multilayered queer time in the photograph.

The subjects of Baltrop’s photography all seem to dissolve into the ruined context making skin colour and race less prominent in the photograph. He also avoids self-representation most of the time. However, his work is still imbricated with his own marginalized identity as a poor working-class queer black man. His subjects were also diverse and included many racialized and homeless individuals. The importance of his blackness lies in the archival potential of his photography. The work of marginalized groups, especially people of colour, has always been disregarded for archival sourcing. In addition, there has always been a disinterest in documenting and preserving the experiences of people on the fringes. If these were archived, they would usually be considered from a white heteronormative perspective and would most probably end up being fetishizing, ethnographic or anthropological studies of these marginal experiences.

 

Figure 6: Alvin Baltrop, The Piers (River Rats III), 1972-1975. (Source: Galerie Buchholz).

 

The photograph above depicts two black men sitting naked on the edge of the water with a mass of ruins framing their bodies. Alvin brings the viewer closer to the bodies he muffled in the ruins. He gives them agency and puts them in a non-sexual yet intimate context. Their presence in this photograph would have never been documented if not for Baltrop’s photography. He offered them a futurity that was not on the horizon for them. The entire cruising culture of the piers would have been disregarded if not for Baltrop’s interest in documentation stemming from his own marginal racialized queerness. If it weren’t for Alvin Baltrop, pictures like the one below by Mapplethorpe would have been the only ones that represented black masculinity through a fetishizing white gaze. In contrast, Baltrop’s photo of a black man from behind is a sign of agency over the representation of his own first-hand experience of his racial identity.

 

Figure 7: Robert Mapplethorpe, from The Black Book, 1988. (Source: The New York Times) and Alvin Baltrop, The Piers (man leaning), n.d. (Source: Galerie Buchholz).

 

In conclusion, Alvin Baltrop’s photographs reveal a malleable boundary between body and ruin as they spill into each other to the point of becoming indistinguishable at times. This relationship eroticizes the ruin and relates it to the cruising practices at the piers through an unreproductive and broken-down temporality. The permeability of bodies and ruined architecture allows for glimpses of utopia to emerge through the overarching photographic project of world-making.

The piers that Alvin Baltrop photographed were cumulatively cruised, decayed, permeable, porous, promiscuous, and perverse. In contrast, in the “straight” city, borders were strictly defined, no overspills allowed, routine, consumption, monogamy, and respectability all imposed upon the body. The city and its authorities largely disregarded the piers up until when the 1980s’ HIV/AIDS crisis hit the queer community and then they consequently became a site of contamination and disease. Thus, permeability was increasingly conflated with contagion, rendering the porosity of the piers unsanitary, disease-ridden, and dangerous. New York’s epidemic response demanded the repression of the queer community and their spaces in an effort to further isolate and marginalize them.  In addition, health authorities, the government, and the media all collaborated to stigmatize the community and insinuate AIDS appear to be some sort of a gay disease. The city also responded to the epidemic architecturally by destroying the ruined waterfront and restoring it into a capitalist heteronormative space like the rest of the city. The community of marginalized Latin Americans, black people, homeless individuals, migrants, sex workers and gender non-conforming folks were pushed toward the fringes again. However, this time there were no more margins, only water. The motives were not only homophobic, but they were xenophobic and racist as well. The piers were accustomed to murder, gay-bashing, and muggings. It is part of what Baltrop documented on the ruined site. The photograph below shows a murdered body picked up from the water. Despite the sexual liberation and fostered sense of community the piers hosted, it was still a dangerous site of homophobic attacks and crimes especially with practically no presence of law enforcement in that liminal space.

 

Figure 8: Alvin Baltrop, Untitled, 1975-1986. (Source: Exile Gallery)

 

Liberal gay people, mostly cisgender men, who already conformed to straight time through an exclusionary cishomonormativity circumvented such depredation and they were unwilling to help the communities on the piers. Using trans activist Sylvia Rivera’s terms, the pier community members and their dwellings were, “sweep[ed], like we’re trash.”16 This necessitated the community to self-organize and resist the destruction and gentrification of their acquired territory. Group resistance in the 1990s led by marginalized folks like Marsha P. Johnson (photographed by Baltrop on the next page) and Sylvia Rivera, two trans women of colour who opposed the gentrification of the waterfront and contributed to the creation of a community around AIDS awareness, practices of care, and cultural projects inspired by their environment. Unfortunately, in the 1990s, the plans to sanitize and gentrify the waterfront went through, breaking up and displacing a whole community.

 

Figure 9: Alvin Baltrop, Marsha P. Johnson, 1975-1986. (Source: Galerie Buchholz)

 

For Baltrop, the construction and opening of the new waterfront with its park and shiny buildings would recall a sense of loss similar to when he captured one of the piers’ buildings ablaze (pictured on the next page). The destruction and dismantling of the ruins signified a loss of community full of pleasure, hope, and queer potentials. Despite the gentrification of this site, queerness persists through Baltrop’s charmingly haunting photographs and his documentation of the edge of the city offers glimpses into queer utopias that may guide our queerness today.

 

Figure 10: Alvin Baltrop, Untitled, 1975-1986. (Source: Artforum)

 

The post-Stonewall, pre-HIV/AIDS epidemic historical moment in which Alvin Baltrop took his pier photographs can be understood in the homophobic Pompeii-esque tale of unbound sexual liberation preceding the downfall and the inevitable decay. However, we think that Baltrop’s photographs activate the potentials and pleasures of looking toward the past with a hopeful outlook onto the future without any consideration of the pre-AIDS moment, just like when Alvin documented a striving sexual culture on the ruined edge of the city.

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Hassan Saab and Lan Wang are undergraduate students at the Peter Guo-hua Fu School of Architecture, McGill University. This essay was written for ARCH 355.

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1 Leslie Wooden, “Alvin Baltrop: Queer Photography as a ‘Counter Practice’ in the Archive,” SQS – Suomen Queer-Tutkimuksen Seuran Lehti 14 (2021): 103.

Wooden, 104.

3 David Hirsh, “Piers: Alvin Baltrop, The Bar, 2nd Ave at 4th St, April 17-May 8,” New York Native, May 11, 1992.

4 George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Makings of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, (New York: BasicBooks, 1994), 136.

5 Fiona Anderson, Cruising the Dead River: David Wojnarowicz and New York’s Ruined Waterfront (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), 135.

6 Anderson, 137.

7 Grace Dunham, “Out of Obscurity: Trans Resistance 1969–2016,” in Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility, eds. Reina Gossett, Eric A. Stanley and Johanna Burton (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2017), 91.

8 José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 33.

9 Sara Ahmed, “Orientations: Toward a Queer Phenomenology,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 12, no. 4 (2006): 553.

10 Ahmed, 550.

11 Anderson, 138.

12 Mark Turner, Backwards Glances: Cruising Queer Streets in London and New York, (London: Reaktion, 2003), 9–10.

13 Anderson, 13.

14 Muñoz, 39.

15 Anderson, 44.

16 Iván López Munuera, “Lands of Contagion,” e-flux Journal (November 2020), https://www.e-flux.com/architecture/sick-architecture/363717/lands-of-contagion/.

 

Additional References

Crimp, Douglas. “Alvin Baltrop: Pier Photographs, 1975-1986.” Artforum International 46, no. 6 (2008): 262.

The Face of a Nation Divided: Discrimination Immortalized Through the Monticello on the Jefferson Nickel, by Sara Cipolla

August 28, 2021
ARCH 355
Professor Ipek Türeli

Figure 1: The “Jefferson Nickel” (obverse), 1970.

Figure 2: The “Jefferson Nickel” (reverse), 1970.1

My grandparents immigrated to Canada in 1964. Along with them came a small, beaded pouch filled with coins dating back to as early as 1918. The coins ranged from Italian euros to a Canadian silver dollar, yes, silver. My fascination with these antiquated coins came and went throughout the years. It was not until recently as I was determining where to start my research that a genuine interest in the coins re-emerged. I stumbled across an American nickel depicting the United States of America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson on the obverse, and Monticello on the reverse. (Fig. 1 an 2) The more I researched, the more tragedies around these two characters surfaced.

 

Architecture and currency similarly influence the beliefs of a nation at the time of inception, in form and function. Occasionally, currency in the form of coins and paper bills displays historical buildings alongside important historical figures to commemorate specific points in time. What designs qualify as worthy to circulate in the hands of an entire nation? What happens when the values conveyed are harmful towards a group of people? Whose story is truly being exchanged in the process? This essay proposes that the inclusion of the Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s historical home that served as a slave plantation, on the American five-cent coin reinforced racism in America. Since currency serves as a token of national identity, this decision widely propagated these unjust values and immortalized them throughout the nation.

 

On January 25, 1938, Henry Morgenthau, Secretary of the United States Department of Treasury, announced a national competition for a new five-cent coin. The winning design would be awarded a prize of $ 1000.2 The competition, open to all American sculptors, concluded in April of that same year. But what exactly graced or rather, disgraced, the sides of this competition coin that would be in circulation well into the twenty-first century? The exact competition rules stipulated:

“‘The subject matter,’ according to the invitation of the Section of Painting and Sculpture, ‘must contain on the obverse of the coin an authentic portrait of Thomas Jefferson. On the reverse side the subject matter will be a representation of Monticello, Jefferson’s historic home near Charlottesville. In addition to the words required by law to appear on the coin, the coin may contain the inscription ‘MONTICELLO,’ in order to identify the architecture.”3

Franklin D. Roosevelt of the Democratic party was president at the time of the coin’s design. It is commonly assumed that Thomas Jefferson was selected to appear on this coin due to Roosevelt’s admiration of Jefferson and his role as co-founder of the original Democratic Republican party of 1792.4 These criteria completely disregard the true history of Jefferson’s Monticello as a plantation housing slaves, placing sole emphasis on the architectural structure.

Additionally, discrimination was inherent in the makeup of the committee of judges for the “Jefferson Nickel,” as it was colloquially termed. It was comprised mostly of white men and two white women, one of whom owned a plantation herself. The committee members failed to acknowledge the enslaved community who tended to Thomas Jefferson and his home in the design. Instead, they insisted on enshrining Jefferson as an American symbol, circulating the misrepresentation of history throughout the nation.

 

Sculptor and German immigrant Felix Schlag won the competition for his accurate depiction of America’s Third President. Production of this competition-born American nickel started in October of 1938 and circulation of the piece began the following month. This coin inspired a series of reproductions of Thomas Jefferson and the Monticello on numerous American collectibles such as the 1956 United States postage stamp and the 1994 commemorative Thomas Jefferson 250th Anniversary Silver dollar. People purposely withheld circulating the Jefferson Nickel as it was likely to become a collector’s item and ignorant to its veneration of a dark era in American history.

 

The five-cent coin that preceded the Jefferson Nickel was the “Buffalo Nickel.” This 1913 design featured a Native American on the obverse and the United States’ national mammal, a bison, on the reverse. (Fig 3 and 4) According to the Fifty-first Congress of the United States, the 25-year Rule says that new designs will not be changed more than once in a twenty-five-year period.5 Winning sculptor, James Earle Fraser, specified that the obverse character was not an actual person but rather a combination of three Native American models. According to the September 10th issue of the Lawrence Kansas Daily Journal-World, the Native American community was allegedly unfazed by the discontinuing of the Buffalo Nickel because of this composite representation of a Native American.6

Figure 3: The “Buffalo Nickel” (reverse), 1913.

Figure 4: The “Buffalo Nickel” (reverse), 1913.7

To most, Monticello stood simply as the home to Thomas Jefferson, America’s third president. Jefferson has been memorialized across the United States despite his controversial behaviour. He famously advocated for the rights and freedom of his nation’s people in The Declaration of Independence. He also enacted the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves in 1807 and founded the University of Virginia in 1819. None of his achievements change the fact that his historic home—the Monticello—was a plantation, built and maintained by a community of enslaved people. Monticello was home to the many injustices of slavery and yet continues to be praised in isolation for its architectural ingenuity. The same man who penned “all men are created equal” on The Declaration of Independence owned and enslaved those people.8 Jefferson was an influential public voice against slavery and yet owned approximately 600 slaves in his lifetime, some of which were inherited, as objects are termed to be, from his father. He died at Monticello nearly fifty years after signing the Declaration, only for those enslaved under his name to be sold as compensation for his debts.

 

The term Monticello in Italian refers to a mound. (Fig. 5) The building atop this mound in Albemarle Country, Virginia has been dubbed a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Fig. 6) According to their “Statement of Significance,” Monticello displayed architectural ingenuity with neo-classical flare. 9 The committee noted that Jefferson’s architecture symbolized enlightenment and awareness of the site’s natural context.10 Yet again the cultural reverence of the design neglects the longsuffering injustices that occurred about its walls. Leslie Greene Bowman, President and CEO of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, adds, “on the world’s stage, Monticello symbolizes how Jefferson took Enlightenment ideals about the rights of man and crafted them into a new nation introducing self-government, liberty and human equality.”11 The residents of Monticello could likely attest to a different character.

Figure 5: The Mound’s Site Plan12

Figure 6: Monticello, Main House13

The main house displayed on the Jefferson Nickel fails to recognize the people who kept this plantation functioning. In an effort to improve slavery, Jefferson seized the growth of tobacco, a crop that required exhaustive manual labour to maintain. He replaced tobacco crops with others that required less tending to, such as wheat. This change significantly reduced the labourers’ daily workloads. It was due to Jefferson’s newly acquired labourer surplus that many slaves transitioned from groundwork to specialized craftwork. Instead of toiling outside, the labourers kept in shops along Mulberry Row.

Mulberry Row was the main plantation street and industrial hub at Monticello. There, the enslaved workers tested out new trades—cooking, blacksmiths, nail-making, and carpentry—all the while remaining at the mercy of America’s president. The Row was populated by more than 20 dwellings, workshops and storehouses, and all kinds of people, enslaved and free, between 1770 and the selling of the Monticello in 1831.14

 

Jefferson died in 1826, leaving behind a debt of over $100,000. The inheritors of Monticello sold nearly everything from the house and plantation, along with 130 black bondservants to make up the costs. Despite Jefferson’s public reputation defending human rights, his hand-me-down labourers were traded away, carelessly tearing up families.

Monticello was many things, but to Jefferson, it was where his “family” resided.15 He used the term family to not only designate blood relatives, but also to denote all those under a head of household, or in his case, a plantation owner. He formed a census of the “number of souls in [his] family,”16 which amounted to 117 including 16 free men, their wives, and children and 83 slaves. Although they all fell within this family bracket, there was still a distinct spatial arrangement on site. The Jefferson family lived inside the Monticello house and the black men, women, and children, lived in cabins along Mulberry Row. This obvious segregation is likewise shown in the Jefferson Nickel, wherewith the depiction of Monticello does not also feature Mulberry Row or the workers who abided there, but only Jefferson and the main house.

 

Currency expresses a nation’s values and therefore can perpetuate ideas across generations. These ideas may prove harmful due to misrepresentation or rather, the underrepresentation of various cultures involved. As Benedict Anderson puts it in Imagined Communities, “The fellow members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of the communion.”17 The same notion can apply to currency. One of the uniting factors of a nation is the underlying commonality of its shared currency. Much like   puts it, in the case of the Jefferson Nickel, the images of those depicted on the nation’s bills and coins lives in the minds of every American citizen.

 

The global discussion regarding fair and unbiased representation on currency is growing, but more must be done to ensure past errors are not repeated. Much like a coin, every debate has two sides. One British columnist for The Guardian, Afua Hirsch, presents both sides in the article “Do We Need Black People on Our Banknotes?” The author concludes the piece with these sentiments, “Including black figures on banknotes can’t resolve our real problems of racial injustice. But the refusal to include them is a powerful reminder of how little our institutions seem to care.”18 There is no denying that “racial distrust of American capitalism” is real. 19 Writer Afua Hirsch reframes the argument saying, “the question for me is not whether black people deserve to be on the money, but whether the money deserves us.”20

 

The problem is the one-sided view of history that is circulating on this currency, celebrating slavery under the guise of American history commemoration. The property of Monticello represents people as property. Selecting historical monuments and buildings is a longstanding process, as writer Ellen Feingold comments, “For the past century, U.S. banknotes have featured a static set of Founding Fathers and presidents, government buildings and national memorials.”21 The debate concerning who should be featured on the new American twenty-dollar bill has been ongoing since the Obama presidency. It is reported that the bill will feature Harriet Tubman, a Black, female American abolitionist and political activist. This bill is still in the works but would make for a step forward in the right direction. A nation’s currency should not only represent a country’s origins but how that country has improved and how it can continue to do so.

 

A token of national identity should tell the story of a country’s progress from all perspectives. A diverse committee should be involved in the decision of who and what affiliated items should circulate throughout a nation. The Jefferson Nickel failed to truly address the troublesome history of Monticello and all it stood for in the name of slavery. Additionally, it normalized a process that would require many years of retribution and undoing of damage in the years to come. There is no way to change what has been done, but there are lessons to be learned and hope for a more enlightened and inclusive approach going forward.

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Sara Cipolla is an undergraduate student at the Peter Guo-hua Fu School of Architecture, McGill University. This essay was written for ARCH 355.

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1 Sara Cipolla, “The Jefferson Nickel,” 1970. Canada: Personal Collection.

2 “The Jefferson Nickel Competition 1938,” 2019, http://www.felixschlag.com/nickel.html.

3 See note 2 above.

4 “Monticello,” Jefferson Nickel, n.d., https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/jefferson-nickel.

5 “Legislation to Allow for New Coin Designs,” United States Mint, n.d., https://www.usmint.gov/learn/history/historical-documents/legislation-to-allow-new-coin-designs.

6 “The Jefferson Nickel Competition 1938,” 2019, http://www.felixschlag.com/nickel.html.

7 “5 Cents, Pattern, United States, 1913,” National Museum of American History, n.d., https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_1100265.

8 “Thomas Jefferson and Slavery,” Monticello, n.d., https://www.monticello.org/thomas- jefferson/jefferson-slavery/.

9 “Monticello, a UNESCO World Heritage Site,” Monticello, n.d., https://www.monticello.org/thomas- jefferson-foundation/monticello-a-unesco-world-heritage- site/#:~:text=The%20World%20Heritage%20Sites%20were,the%20UNESCO%20World%20Heritage%20List.

10 See note 9 above.

11 See note 9 above.

12 “Monticello,” Reuniting Monticello’s Landscape of Slavery: Reconstructing Jefferson’s Roads, n.d., https://www.monticello.org/site/blog-and-community/posts/reuniting-monticello%E2%80%99s-landscape- slavery-reconstructing-jefferson%E2%80%99s.

13 Dr. Bryan Zygmont, “Thomas Jefferson, Monticello,” Khan Academy (Khan Academy, n.d.), http://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/later-europe-and-americas/enlightenment- revolution/a/jefferson-monticello.

14 “Monticello,” Landscape of Slavery: Mulberry Row at Monticello, n.d., https://www.monticello.org/mulberry-row.

15 Lucia Stanton, “‘Those Who Labor for My Happiness’: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello,” in “Those Who Labor for My Happiness”: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012), p. i-369, 4.

16 See note 15 above.

17 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism

(London: Verso, 2016), 6.

18 Afua Hirsch, “Do We Need Black People on Our Banknotes?,” The Guardian (Guardian News and Media, June 7, 2019), https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jun/07/black-people-banknotes-bank-of- england.

19 See note 18 above.

20 See Note 18 above.

21 Ellen Feingold, “Opinion: A Harriet Tubman $20? That’s Just the Beginning,” POLITICO (POLITICO, February 19, 2021), https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2021/02/15/tubman-america-history-redesigning- money-468839.

Strike a Pose: The Importance of Black Queer Spaces in the Late 20th Century, by John Vaccaro

August 20, 2021
ARCH 355
Professor Ipek Türeli

Harlem’s Imperial Lodge of Elks, commonly known as Elks Lodge, is located on 129th West Street in Central Harlem, New York City. It was constructed from 1922-24 and designed by African American architect Vertner Woodson Talley (1885-1949). Talley was an important Black figure in the Harlem community of NYC, co-founding the first African American fraternity in the United States in 1906 during his undergraduate studies. This fraternity, the Alpha Phi Alpha Society, helped bring up prominent Black scholars and political activists like Martin Luther King Jr.2 Furthermore, Talley became the first Black registered architect in the state of New York.

The Elks Lodge initially hosted fraternal functions and various community events. Today, the building still stands proudly having been converted in recent years into the Faith Mission Christian Fellowship Church. This paper, however, will not focus on the most distant or recent history of Elks Lodge, but rather somewhere in between. Specifically, around the time the lodge famously appeared in the classic, often criticized queer documentary Paris Is Burning (1990).

The film—directed and produced by Jennie Livingston—explores the lives of prominent Black and Latino/a queer figures in the New York City Ballroom scene. It particularly centers the balls held in the Elks Lodge and the Harlem Black queer landscape throughout the mid to late 1980s. Despite the many controversies following the release of the documentary, it provides a rare look into the Imperial Elks Lodge in Harlem and queer life at the time. Analysis of the film, in conjunction with adjacent queer texts, establishes the socio-spatial importance of the Ballroom to Black and Latino/a queer culture and the formation of identity within the context of late 20th century urban America. The typology of the Ballroom catalysed the creation of Black and Latino/a queer infrastructural networks, greatly benefiting the mental and physical health of the marginalized communities it served. Glimpses into these balls also allow for further dissection into the hierarchical relations of the Ballroom participants.

“I remember my dad, he said you have three strikes against you in this world. That every black man has two–that they’re just black and they’re a male–but you’re black and you’re a male and you’re gay. You’re gonna have a hard fucking time. But he said if you’re gonna do this you’re gonna have to be stronger than you ever imagined.”3

These first words spoken in the documentary essentially establish the thesis statement of the Ballroom. What follows is a scene capturing one of the most important and highly respected figures of the Harlem Ballroom scene in the 80s and 90s, Peper Labeija, Mother of the House of Labeija, entering a nondescript building (the Elks Lodge) past dusk. Peper, wearing an extravagant garment covered in glittering gold fabric, appears as a shining star in the vast dark universe of New York City at night. As they strut directly from the entrance and onto the floor—also referred to as the runway—members of the LGBTQ+ and Ballroom community surround and praise them. The Ball has officially begun.

Figure 1: Stills from Paris Is Burning (1990); (left) Peper Labeija entering the Elks Lodge Ballroom, featuring the Elks’ fraternity crest in the upper left corner. https://www.nyclgbtsites.org/site/imperial-lodge-of-elks/.4

Figure 2: Stills from Paris Is Burning (1990); Willi Ninja, Mother of the House of Ninja, vogueing on the Ballroom floor. https://www.nyclgbtsites.org/site/imperial-lodge-of-elks/.5

The Ballroom itself is an ephemeral space that seeks to affirm and celebrate Black queer and trans identities within a safe setting removed from the racism and homo/transphobia of the rest of the city. The onslaught of the AIDS epidemic in the 80s and 90s ravaged the LGBTQ+ community and stigmatized them in the eyes of heteronormative society. AIDS and gayness were linked in various ways. The use of slang terminology to describe the disease, such as gay-related immunodeficiency (GRID), and sensationalist headlines contributed to the idea that this was a queer problem, amplifying the overall apathy held by most government officials and cisgender straight Americans.6 On top of the general violence directed at the LGBTQ+ community, racism was (and still is) very much ingrained within the community itself, as well as within the general public’s tolerability of queerness. The more acceptable forms of queerness are directly linked to whiteness. The generally white gay districts of big cities that host popular gay bars, clubs, shows, etc., and gay representation in media all affirm gay identities without necessarily challenging the white supremacist foundations of the systems they function within.7 LGBTQ+ communities and spaces created in big cities often isolate queer people of colour (most of whom are Black) from their white counterparts.8 Black queer feminists and activists like Bell Hooks criticized Paris Is Burning and it’s queer—albeit, white—director. Hooks criticizes Livingston’s stale portrayal of whiteness as the aspirational standard. This basis forms much of the dialogue between figures in the film and is even visualized through collages of white models and TV stars on magazines, posters and advertising.9

All things considered, the creation of the Ballroom made space for Black and queer individuals in the city. Crystal Labeija, a Black drag contestant, vocalized frustrations with the evident bias in the judging of white queens versus queens of colour in drag pageants and began hosting her own pageants as a form of protest—the genesis of the Ballroom.10 These new pageants, or balls rather, became a place where queer people of colour could embrace their gender, race and sexuality among peers in ways their biological families and the queer community at large perhaps failed to.11 This authentic joy is evident in many of the events filmed in the Ballroom, as Livingston captures drag queens strutting across the floor and getting their life.12 One member of the primarily Latino/a House of Xtravaganza even goes on to compare entering the space as “crossing into the looking glass in Wonderland,”13, indicative of the transformative and otherworldly nature of the Ballroom.

“The house, the house, let’s see if we can put it down sharply. They’re families. You can say that they’re families, for a lot of children who don’t have families. But this is the new meaning of family.”14

Dorian Corey, founder and Mother of the House of Corey

The Ballroom also fostered familial groups known as houses. These houses, comprising almost exclusively of Black and Latino/a queer and trans folks, were intrinsic not only to the success of Ballroom events but to the survival of the urban youth who participate in them. The houses were run by house mothers and fathers tasked with ensuring the comfort and safety of their house members and providing them guidance as would traditional biological parents.15 Peper Labeija, the Mother of the House of Labeija at the time of filming, speaks about their personal experience with these familial relationships as they sit on the couch with two of their children16 nearby. They explain how many of the kids who perform in the balls have been kicked out by their biological parents for being gay and have next to nothing. The network of houses connected to the Ballroom makes up for what these children have lost, at least in part, by providing some money for food and other necessities and a place to stay.

Figure 3: Stills from a deleted scene in Paris Is Burning (1990); Peper Labeija in their home with two of their house members, or children (Paris is Burning – Deleted Scenes Outtakes, 2020). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J55aX7MTA2I&ab_channel=Antoniach.17

Figure 4: Stills from a deleted scene in Paris Is Burning (1990); Peper Labeija in their home with two of their house members, or children (Paris is Burning – Deleted Scenes Outtakes, 2020). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J55aX7MTA2I&ab_channel=Antoniach.18

Angie Extravaganza, Mother of the House of Extravaganza, mentions the socio-spatial relations of their house to the Ballroom. Many house mothers and fathers will host parties in preparation for a ball the night of, full of singing, dancing, doing each others’ makeup, etc.19 In essence, the Ballroom facilitated the grouping of deserted individuals and created new families that protected each other. The variety of houses, many of which are still active in the Ballroom scene to this day, provide Black and Latino/a queer and trans youth with a network of safe spaces they can rely on, acting as both the metaphorical and literal definition of home that they otherwise have been robbed of.20

Throughout Paris Is Burning, Livingston collages scenes of the Ballroom events in the Elks Lodge in and between these interviews demonstrating the spatial order of the culture and subsequent social implications. The layout of the Ballroom can generally be divided into four spaces: the observing space, the floor/runway, the commentator’s podium, and the judges’ panel.21

Figure 5: Still from Paris Is Burning (1990); Venus Extravaganza, center, walking the runway at a ball, with spectators to the left and right and the commentator’s podium and judge’s panel positioned in the back. https://www.nyclgbtsites.org/site/imperial-lodge-of-elks/.22

At the ground level, the seating (observing space) flanks the floor/runway (performing space) and together they make up the largest portion of the Ballroom. The borders between the observing and performing areas are often blurred as performers emerge from the seats directly onto the floor/runway to perform. Alternatively, depending on the category of event, those not currently performing will surround those performing in celebratory praise. The commentator’s podium is located at the back of the floor/runway and in front of the panel of judges. The commentator announces the categories and special events of the night, providing lighthearted shade and generally keeping the show moving forward. At the very back of the Ballroom is the judges’ panel, where the judges score the performances on the floor and award prizes. Both the commentator’s podium and judges’ panel are elevated above the rest of the Ballroom on a stage, providing them with a better view of the entire floor and performances. In a strikingly similar fashion to that of a church altar, positioning the commentator and judges on the stage demarcates their authority over the competitions. The ritualistic nature of the Ballroom performances can also be compared to the liturgy of church.23 In a sense, the Ballroom is a church in service to Black and Latino/a queer folks.

“In real life, you can’t get a job as an executive unless you have the educational background and the opportunity. Now, the fact that you are not an executive is merely because of the social standing of life. That is just pure thing. Black people have a hard time getting anywhere. And those that do are usually straight.”24

Dorian Corey, founder and Mother of the House of Corey

It is interesting to chart the evolution of the Imperial Lodge of Elks since its opening in 1924 to today; it has, in some way, provided safe spaces to the different subgroups and cultures within the large Harlem Black community. Elks Lodge can be understood as an architecture of survival, affirmation, and celebration, uplifting the communities who inhabit its walls.

Figure 6: Elks Lodge as it stands today after being converted into a Church recently (NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, 2017). https://www.nyclgbtsites.org/site/imperial-lodge-of-elks/.25

Furthermore, the Ballrooms of big cities in North America like New York City were and continue to be an integral part of the Black and Latino/a queer community, serving as not only a fantastical place of gathering but a space that protects marginalized folks from the dangerous public urban realm. These safe spaces allow for an exploration of gender, sexuality, identity, family, and community that at times succumbs to and at other times challenges notions of white heteronormativity in the United States. Despite the golden age of the Ballroom having passed, many of the houses featured in Paris Is Burning still exist today under new house mothers and fathers and remain active in the Ballroom scene. Additionally, several new houses have emerged in different cities that go even further to provide sexual education and awareness to protect the health of the Black queer community at large.26 There might never be another Ballroom like the Elk’s Lodge in Harlem, but its impact in the Black and Latino/a queer community is undeniable and will resonate for decades to come.

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John Vaccaro is an undergraduate student at the Peter Guo-hua Fu School of Architecture, McGill University. This essay was written for ARCH 355.

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Lakeisha Harding, “Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity,” April 12, 2009, https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/alpha-phi-alpha-fraternity-inc/.

Ibid.

The Black Experience Archive, “Paris Is Burning 1990 Documentary,” YouTube video, January 20, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9LUH8sRwzBs&ab_channel=TheBlackExperienceArchive.

Livingston, Jennie. Paris Is Burning. Film. New York City: Off-White Productions Prestige Pictures, 1990. NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project. https://www.nyclgbtsites.org/site/imperial-lodge-of-elks/ (accessed March 21, 2021).

5 Ibid.

Lawrence K. Altman, “New Homosexual Disorder Worries Health Officials,” New York Times, May 11, 1982, https://www.nytimes.com/1982/05/11/science/new-homosexual-disorder-worries-health-officials.html.; Andrew Anthony, “‘We were so scared’: Four people who faced the horrors of Aids in the 80s,” The Guardian, January 31, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/jan/31/we-were-so-scared-four-people-who-faced-the-horror-of-aids-in-the-80s; Antonia ch, “Paris Is Burning – Deleted Scenes Outtakes,” YouTube video, April 23,2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J55aX7MTA2I&ab_channel=Antoniach.

Bell Hooks, “Is Paris Burning?” In Black Looks: Race and Representation, (Boston: South End Press, 1992) 145-155.

Marlon M. Bailey, “Engendering space: Ballroom culture and the spatial practice of possibility in Detroit,” Gender, Place & Culture 21, no. 4 (May 2013): 490.

Hooks, “Is Paris Burning?” 145-155.

10 Kinolorber, “Crystal Labeija’s epic read from The Queen (1968) – ‘I have a right to show my colour, darling!’” YouTube video, June 16, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RYCQEl8TPeM&ab_channel=kinolorber.

11 Emily A. Arnold and Marlon M. Bailey, “Constructing Home and Family: How the Ballroom Community Supports African American GLBTQ Youth in the Face of HIV/AIDS,” Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services 21, no. 2-3 (April 2009): 178.

12 Gay slang for “having a great time.”

13  The Black Experience Archive, “Paris Is Burning 1990 Documentary.”

14 Ibid.

15 Arnold and Bailey, “Constructing Home and Family,” 179.

16 Members of the Ballroom community brought into a house.

17 Ibid.

18 Livingston, Jennie. Paris Is Burning – Deleted Scenes Outtakes. 35mm film. New York City: Off-White Productions Prestige Pictures, 1990. Antonia ch, Personal collection. YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J55aX7MTA2I&ab_channel=Antoniach (accessed March 20, 2021).

19 Ibid.

20 Arnold and Bailey, “Constructing Home and Family,” 174.

21 Bailey, Marlon M. “Engendering space: Ballroom culture and the spatial practice of possibility in Detroit.” Gender, Place & Culture 21, no. 4 (May 2013): 489-507.

22 Livingston, Paris Is Burning., 1990.

23 Bailey, “Engendering space: Ballroom culture and the spatial practice of possibility in Detroit,” 500.

24 The Black Experience Archive, “Paris Is Burning 1990 Documentary.”

25 Washington, Eric K. Photograph. New York City. NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, https://www.nyclgbtsites.org/site/imperial-lodge-of-elks/ (accessed March 21, 2021).

26 Matt Baume, “Learning from the Ballroom History: Older Generations vs. Today,” YouTube, July 28, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zjfzvo-zRPo&ab_channel=MattBaume; Emily A. Arnold and Marlon M. Bailey, “Constructing Home and Family: How the Ballroom Community Supports African American GLBTQ Youth in the Face of HIV/AIDS.”

Toys build Empires. Or How Toys Act as Tools of Architectural Colonialism, by Hermine Demaël

August 12, 2021
ARCH 355
Professor Ipek Türeli

Note

Throughout this reflection, I use the umbrella term “Indigenous Peoples” to refer to Native people and communities living in North America.

This reflection addresses the erasure of Indigenous individuality and traditions by European toy manufacturers. While this reflection does not refer specifically to one Indigenous group, North America is home to many people with rich and diverse traditions, histories and languages. In the United States, 567 entities are recognized1 while Canada has recognized 634 First Nations governments or bands.2

 

Figure 1: Western Super Combination Set (set no.9998). Playmobil®, 1995. From Coleka Online Catalog. Added November 22, 2018. https://www.coleka.com/en/playmobil/far-west-playmobil/western-super-combination-set_i373842 (accessed March 21, 2021).

As Black Lives Matter movements re-emerge across the continent there comes a need to address forms of racism deeply ingrained in our cultural psyche. Although the role of children in the construction of political narratives is often overlooked, Eurocentrism has pervaded all levels of our Western society and continues to be conveyed through white, middle-class children’s toys.

Many scholars have assessed the representation of housing and cities per children’s toys, revealing shifting narratives in the nineteenth and twentieth century.3 Countless studies have addressed how toys shape the minds and psychology of children. The discourse often focuses, through a prism of gender, on how children learn social roles through exposure to repeated stereotypical images.4 The systematic oppression of certain populations disseminated through toys to children, has gone largely unaddressed.

Toys often place figures in space and within architectures, rendering them powerful vehicles of architectural colonialism. While these toys are plainly brilliant from design perspective, this essay demonstrates that some toys perpetuate racism through misrepresentation. Particularly, Playmobil® and LEGO® toys single out Indigenous people and their architecture, portraying it as placeless and rootless. Ultimately this necessitates a more diverse and comprehensive representation of the architectural canon in objects as seemingly innocuous as children’s toys.

 

Playmobil® and LEGO® evolved from the 20th century’s interest in construction toys, providing children with a miniature and colourful replica of society. Playmobil® is a German toy brand founded in 1974. Targeting primarily children aged four to twelve, the “Native Indians” were among the first toy sets released alongside knights and construction workers. The series culminated in 1995 with the release of set no.9998, a complete “Western” Collection. The set critically conveys that Indigenous people do not exist as a self-sufficient set but are designed to be completed by cowboys and white policemen.

Rarely is Playmobil® analyzed without comparison to its counterpart LEGO®. Originating in Denmark, LEGO® began with the production of wooden toys in 1932 and transitioned to plastic figurines and building blocks following World War Two, gaining popularity mostly in Europe and North America. Introduced in the late summer of 1996, LEGO®’s “Western” series proposed twelve comparable sets to the Playmobil® “Western” Collection, which were all discontinued after a re-edition in 2002.

Figure 2: Boulder Cliff Canyon (set no. 6748). LEGO® Group, 1997. From Brickset Online Catalog. Added September 29, 2018. https://brickset.com/sets/6748-1/Boulder-Cliff-Canyon (accessed March 21, 2021).

Figure 3: Fort Legoredo, (set no. 6769). LEGO® Group, 1996. From Bricklink Online Catalog. https://www.bricklink.com/v2/catalog/catalogitem.page?S=6769-1#T=S&O={“iconly”:0} (accessed March 21, 2021).

The Playmobil® and LEGO® sets are practically mirror images of each other. Both sets include a canyon with “Indian” mini-figures, a canoe, decorated horses and bow and arrows.  LEGO®’s mountain includes a boulder positioned to roll onto and destroy the site composed of a tipi, fire, and totem pole. The Playmobil® set includes a wagon, recalling settler’s mode of transportation to “conquer” the West.

Both forts are composed of rearrangeable sections protected by a main gate and watchtowers overlooking a central courtyard and jail cell. Revolvers, rifles, and a gun on limber complete the set, clearly outnumbering the Indigenous both in artillery and manpower. Cavalry, colonels, soldiers, and bandits occupy the space exuding a sense of control.

While the Playmobil® or LEGO® games lack set objective, they allow children to develop an understanding of space and belonging. The architectural elements do not emulate a real destination, but the implications are not trivial. The landmarks and structures opposing the tipi remind the child of the triumph of the white sheriff and cowboy, forging a sense of space in which the “Indian” never seems to belong. These toys are more than harmless plastic blocks; they are equipped with the ability to stage complex dynamics of identity, race and belonging.

 

Toys to Narrate and Educate

The current concept of toys as a child’s plaything emerged in the 19th century, when for the first time, children formed an autonomous category that required its own tools to support its cultural development. There is a strong lineage of construction toys marking the 20th century that architects, such as Bruno Taut or Charles and Ray Eames, have used to express forms and ideas. Such toy sets inherently influence a child’s social and spatial education.

Toys are educational devices, representations of culture and ideology. The Playmobil® set glaringly identifies which core ideas of adult culture are to be passed down to the younger generation. A toy is a carefully curated representation of a real or fantasy world, which serves as a dissemination device for architectural and historical narratives. As Roland Barthes has explained, “toys always mean something, and this something is always entirely socialized, constituted by the myths or the techniques of modern adult life.”5 Toys translate imagery into physical objects designed for engagement and knowledge acquisition through the act of play. The sociologist Gilles Brougère further explains that for children, play is not limited to acts and objects bound by logic but rather allows the creation of images with a logic of pretending.6

Children are imitators, they will reproduce the scheme given to them.7 Playmobil® set no.9998 clearly evidences a connection between the transfer of adult spatial and racial dynamics into a child’s world. The Playmobil® set, akin to LEGO®’s equivalents, behaves as a historical and anthropological device within which we can read different architectural narratives.

 

“Timeless” and Insignificant

The Western architecture in both toy sets displays modernization and expansion, whereas the Indigenous people are portrayed as fixed in an obscure time period. It is alarming that even in the re-editions, these populations have neither enriched nor evolved and it remains geographically hard to decipher where these people belong.

By never proposing the tipi as a structure that can be built, but as a ready-made complete element, the narrative of the insignificance of the building process is reinforced. By buying the complete no.9998 set, the child is urged to spend a greater amount of time erecting the infrastructures of the colonial oppressor.

Interpreting the set’s staging of the individual parts, the importance is placed on the architectural elements of the white colonizer, emphasizing an architecture of violence and control. Indeed, the fortified structure of “Fort Glory” underlines that there is a clear spatial boundary between populations. Highly secured entry points thus filter who belongs and who doesn’t. The name of the fort itself implies a conflict and explicitly identifies the winner. Nationalistic symbols such as the flag and uniforms are central to the presentation of the set, while the presence of the tower reinforces surveillance as a tool of control over Indigenous populations.

 

Toys of Genocide. Icons of Colonialism.

There is no doubt that even a child of Indigenous descent would rather be a Playmobil cowboy and re-enact a war where the Indigenous populations are displaced. The colonial canon upholds white supremacy and Indigenous inferiority, feeding into fantasies of a superior race entitled to occupy all spaces.

Indigenous scholars have addressed the coloniality and aggression embedded within cowboy and Indian toys. Scholar Michael Yellow Bird writes that “cowboys and Indians [symbolize] America’s past and current infatuation with colonization and genocide” which “create a subconscious desire to kill real Indians”.8

Today, white parents remain unconcerned by such imagery and vocabulary. Michael Yellow Bird urges us to view these as toys of genocide, as toys of supremacy and icons of colonialism. Indigenous culture is reduced to a caricature that distorts Indigenous past, present and future experiences. Indigenous populations, presented as unreasonable savages are outnumbered and readily defeated by cowboys who, despite their oppressive weaponry are portrayed as the heroes.

 

Status Quo

While the LEGO® set allows pieces to interchange, Playmobil®’s narrative is controlled by the manufacturer. This dynamism of LEGO®’s pieces does not insist on a single structural hierarchy but leaves that up to the user. In 2002, Tom Morton in Frieze Magazine wrote “Playmobil isn’t about… the limitless possibilities of Lego; it’s about the plastic preservation of the status quo”.9 One will however notice that LEGO® proposes a tipi as a mere accessory (Fig. 2), for it can’t be built by the child.

These toys thus uphold systemic racism. The toys legitimize the idea that Indigenous populations can be removed from space. The mass production and popularity of these toys systemically supported the proliferation of this discourse. This narrative has even been exported to other countries due to the success of the toy. Playmobil® and LEGO®’s built an economic market that contributes to the material and cultural oppression of Indigenous populations through infantilization and misrepresentation.

It is fraudulent to insinuate that all Indigenous people live remotely in depictions of deserts, which lack clear geographical references, therefore such toys romanticize a Eurocentric fiction of the past. One could argue that these toys, like Viking sets or Pharaoh and Pyramids, simply represent history, but solely representing Indigenous populations in the historical Western collection toy set frames their presence as a historical anecdote and refuses to acknowledge the multi-dimensional complex history of an entire culture. The re-edition (Fig. 5) of cowboys and “Indians” demonstrates absolutely no attempt to promote culturally accurate models. A systematic racial division and classification of space and architecture—of form, style, colour, materials—is still imposed. As if the tools, objects, and architecture were not enough to convey that the Indigenous populations did not belong, stereotyped physical features are accentuated: indeed the “Native Indian” figures were the only figures on which LEGO® has printed noses.

 

Geometry and Generalizations

The idea that such simplifications in the architecture and portrayal of standard elements were made to be better understood by children must be refuted. Indeed, countless western housing typologies, both ancient and modern, exhibit deeply nuanced and comprehensive architectures. For example, the Medieval Blacksmith (set. 6329) released in 2014, boasts minute architectural details and the house must be completely assembled for the enjoyment of the child. The White characters are presented in countless spaces and configurations further asserting that variety is possible.

Figure 4: Medieval Blacksmith (set no. 6329). Playmobil®, 2014. From Klickypedia Online Catalog. https://www.klickypedia.com/sets/6329-medieval-blacksmith/. (accessed March 21, 2021).

We should also refute the idea that Indigenous architectural typologies are simplified because of the inherent cone-like and circular forms. Both LEGO® and Playmobil®’s catalogues showcase countless projects that disprove this supposed constraint. The Coliseum, for example, is built for assembly despite the circular architecture. While it could be argued that the toys represent the textile surfaces, there is precedent for fabric objects being offered as buildable elements, as with the 2020 Pirate sails (no. 31109).

Furthermore, these toys convey numerous architectural inaccuracies and gross generalizations regarding the Indigenous cultures. Tipis and totem poles cultural forms from different native groups. The tipi was used by Plains groups of the Plateau region10 while totem poles were cultural traditions of the groups of a narrow strip on the Pacific Northwest coast.11 Mixing and homogenizing the diverse native heritages is another example of racist misinformation in media and popular images, further rendering invisible the existence of permanent villages, pit houses and wood frame structures.12

These toys influence racial and spatial thinking. While attempting to represent different architectural languages, they reinforce a dominant architectural language rooted in the coloniality of power. Colonization is founded on the forced erasures of tradition and culture. These toy sets, through mass production and dissemination, are tools employed to erase authentic Indigenous culture, prioritizing White architecture and existence. These toys evidence the systematic representation of Indigenous populations as physical obstacles to American progress. The cover of the Playmobil set places the Indigenous populations at the side, a mere obstacle in the path of thriving white men. Their displacement is implied as a necessary step in the heroic white Anglo-Americans conquest over savage, subhuman populations for the “greater good” of Americans.

 

Toys to Topple down and Figurines to move Forward

Unless we challenge the false histories conveyed through harmful representations of population hierarchies and dynamics through a concerted, collective endeavour, these toys will continue to legitimize the narrative of European colonialism, stereotyping Indigenous populations through the reduction of tipis, headdresses and tom-toms as toys.

Companies like Playmobil® must immediately cease employing racist terms to refer to Indigenous People such as “Indians”, “American Indians” or “Native Americans”. While “Fort Glory” is no longer for sale, it has been replaced with “Fort Brave” still conveying cowboy heroism.

Figure 5: Native American Camp (set no. 9899). Playmobil®, 2020. From Playmobil® Online Shop. https://www.playmobil.ca/en/native-american-camp/9899.html (accessed March 21, 2021).

 

Figure 6: Western Fort (set no. 6427) building instructions. Playmobil®, 2016. From Playmobil® Online Shop. https://www.playmobil.ca/en/western-fort/6427.html (accessed March 21, 2021).

To counteract the paucity of non-white architectures deemed valuable, we must develop architectural pedagogies imbued with and inspired by decolonization. The popular corporate-driven narrative of Indigenous populations must shift to reflect the reality of their culture. Indigenous architecture and sacred cultural elements are not simply toys for white children. Neither LEGO® nor Playmobil® offers toys with slave boats or concentration camps, reflecting the widespread condemnation of such barbarous historical events. The glamorization of colonialism and the genocide of the Indigenous people in America apparently still leaves parents unoffended, and this must be addressed.

Human history is arguably a long series of violent events. Perpetuating the erasure of oppressed cultures is certainly not the solution. Instead of reducing Indigenous architecture to a single tipi, these toy sets should include a diversity of representations. These toy manufacturers must expand their current canon of what they advertise as architecture. Today there is a tendency to create toys replicas of a specific building, architect or city. This is highlighted in LEGO® Architecture’s new series that reproduces architectural icons such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Falling Water” or Mies Van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House and landmark cities, often emblems of Capitalism or icons of an antique empire. It is time to expand the educational applications of toys with diverse, rich and comprehensive knowledge.

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Hermine Demaël is an undergraduate student at the Peter Guo-hua Fu School of Architecture, McGill University. This essay was written for ARCH 355.

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1  International Work for Indigenous Affairs, “Indigenous People in the United States”, accessed March 27, 2021, https://www.iwgia.org/en/usa.html.

2 Bob Joseph, “21 Things You May Not Know about the Indian Act,” Indigenous Corportate Training Inc., accessed March 27, 2021, https://www.ictinc.ca/indian-act-art.

3  “Toy Town,” CCA, accessed March 23, 2021, https://www.cca.qc.ca/en/events/2746/toy-town.

4 Danielle Barbosa Lins de Almeida, “On Diversity, Representation and Inclusion: New Perspectives on the Discourse of Toy Campaigns,” Ling. (dis)curso, Tubarão  17, no. 2  (May  2017): 257-270, https://doi.org/10.1590/1982-4017-170206-6216.

5 Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Jonathan Cape (New York: The Noonday Press,  Farrar, Straus & Girou, 1972), 53.

6 Martin Fournier, “A quoi sert le jeu ? Entretien avec Gilles Brougère,” Sciences Humaines, no. 257 (March 2014): 8.

7 Wang Zhidan, Williamson Rebecca A., Meltzoff Andrew N., “Imitation as a mechanism in cognitive development: a cross-cultural investigation of 4-year-old children’s rule learning,” Frontiers in Psychology, volume 6 (2015): 256, https://www.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00562.

8 Michael Yellow Bird, “Cowboys and Indians. Toys of Genocide, Icons of American Colonialism,” Wicazo SA Review, no. 19 (Fall 2004): 33-48.

9 Tom Morton, “ Plastic People,” Frieze, June 6, 2002, https://www.frieze.com/article/plastic-people.

10 Pauls, E. Prine. “Plateau Indian,” Encyclopedia Britannica, November 11, 2020, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Plateau-Indian.

11 Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia, “Totem pole.” Encyclopedia Britannica, March 18, 2021, https://www.britannica.com/art/totem-pole.

12 Heather Ramsay, “Totem Poles: Myth and Fact,” The Tyee, March 31, 2011, https://thetyee.ca/Books/2011/03/31/TotemPoles/.

 

Additional References:

Aisha Gani, “Playmobil accused of ‘perpetuating ugly stereotypes’ by UK parent,” The Guardian, October 9, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/09/playmobil-toys-accused-stereotypes-racism.

Arlene Hirschfelder, Paulette F. Molin, “I is for Ignoble: Stereotyping Native Americans,” Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, Ferris State University, February 22, 2018, https://www.ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/native/homepage.htm.

Corey Snelgrove, Rita Kaur Dhamoon, Jeff Corntassell, “Unsettling settler colonialism: The discourse and politics of settlers, and solidarity with Indigenous nations”, Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, vol. 3, no. 2 (2014): 1-32,
https://www.ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/native/homepage.htm.

Jason Wilson, “The Playmobil Conundrum,” The New Yorker, October 9, 2015, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-playmobil-conundrum.

Kevin Gover, “Five Myths about American Indians,” The Washington Post, November 22, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/five-myths/five-myths-about-american-indians/2017/11/21/41081cb6-ce4f-11e7-a1a3-0d1e45a6de3d_story.html?utm_term=.c73ca14f9617.

Race and Gentrification: Investigating the Racialized History of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Boyles Heights, by Ella Fortney

July 29, 2021
ARCH 355
Professor Ipek Türeli

Figure 1: Orozco, Ernesto, Members of Defend Boyle Heights Protest in Front of Weird Wave Coffee Brewers, photograph, July 17, 2017, (Boyle Heights Beat).1

It’s July of 2017 and a group of protesters gather outside of Weird Wave Coffee on East Cesar Chavez St. in Boyle Heights Los Angeles. They are here to demonstrate against the shop’s presence in the community – it is seen as the most recent perpetrator in the ongoing process of gentrification unfolding in the neighborhood. The shop had opened earlier in 2017 and almost immediately faced backlash from the community. It has been vandalized nine times in the past four years, and there are regular demonstrations in front of it. Other new businesses, particularly art galleries, have faced similar opposition and sometimes even more extreme acts of resistance (in one case, protestors stormed an exhibition and threw laundry detergent at attendees). To someone outside of the community, who might not be aware of its history or who lacks the perspective that comes from facing housing instability, these actions might seem like an extreme response to coffee or art. However, if we situate this response in the broader discriminatory history of housing and planning in LA, it becomes clear that the fight is not about coffee, it is about the power to control space. From this perspective, we realize that the anger from the community makes complete sense.

Boyle Heights is a working-class neighborhood located on the Eastside Los Angeles, right across the LA River from Downtown. It is a historically Jewish and Latinx neighborhood that has had a significant Black and Japanese presence as well. The multiculturalism of the area was born out of racist real estate and zoning practices from the early 1900s that essentially established West Los Angeles (the area closest to the ocean) as a middle class residential “zone of whiteness” and East Los Angeles as an industrial area with housing for immigrant workers2. These practices, which continued well into the 1960s have laid the foundation for the racially and economically segregated reality of Los Angeles today. Though the residents of Boyle Heights did not have control over the processes that pushed them into this area, they exercised much autonomy in shaping the community in the years that followed. Since its establishment, the neighborhood has been a center for activism and social resistance. In the 40s it housed much of Los Angeles’ Jewish socialist organizing and in the 50s it became a key space in the Chicano Movement. Today Boyle Heights is known for its murals, mariachi, colorful infrastructure, and rich community involvement. Over the years the racial makeup of Boyle Heights has transformed, in part due to shifting notions of ‘whiteness’. By the end of the 1950s, much of the Jewish population had moved to the Westside or suburbs of Los Angeles, and Boyle Heights became majority Latinx. In the 60 or so years since, this has remained the makeup of the area. Recently though, with the loom of gentrification, the community has been faced with another potential demographic shift. However, this time people are not leaving because of newfound privilege or opportunity, they are leaving because they are being pushed out of the community they built.

The architecture of the neighborhood documents all of these changes – through it we can read the multicultural history of the neighborhood. Architecture though does not just passively reflect the community that makes it. It of course also has the potential to shape the cultural, aesthetic, and economic reality of its surroundings. Because of the way architecture is tied to property it is important to understand the way power is embedded in the execution of these changes. This lens shows the complicated position of architecture in gentrification: as both an expression and source of community and as a weapon that can be used to dismantle it.

The role race plays in contemporary conflicts over gentrification in Boyle Heights is rooted in the broader racialized history of Los Angeles. The racially segregated zoning of the city and unequal access to resources and investment were deeply harmful but, incredibly, they produced neighborhoods with a strong sense of community. Because people couldn’t rely on the government or institutions for support, they learned to rely on each other and developed their communities themselves. Professor George Lipsitz of UC Santa Barbra’s Department of Black Studies refers to this phenomenon as turning “segregation into Congregation”3. This means that there is a strong attachment to these spaces – they are rightfully a source of pride and a symbol of the community’s resilience. In the past, Boyle Heights and other parts of East LA had been ignored by investors. In “Guerrilla Urbanism: Urban Design and the Practices of Resistance.” Dr. Jeffrey Hou of Washington University describes the irony of the current attention the area is getting from developers – people are excited about the same conditions that scared them off just a few decades ago. All that has changed is the framing: street vendors that were once seen as a nuisance are now part of the neighborhood’s valued ‘small business economy’; the history of social resistance once seen as threatening is now received as friendly community activism4.

Unfortunately, the generational labor that has gone into producing these newly valued spaces is not acknowledged in the current system of property ownership. This makes the fruits of this labor easily exploitable, which is where gentrification comes in. Around 75% of Boyle Heights residents are renters – a reality connected to the systemic discrimination that has made it incredibly difficult for communities of color to accumulate wealth and own property5. Not only does this mean that they are often unable to profit from their cultural and spatial contributions to their neighborhoods, it additionally puts them in a vulnerable position where they can be displaced from the very community they helped build. This is especially cruel when you consider the fact that the people who have the money and resources to move in often do because they have profited off of the same system that has made the people they are pushing out so vulnerable. Take the example of the historic murals of Boyle Heights. These pieces are not just beautiful, they are physical manifestations of the community’s dedication to creating a space for themselves within a city that did not accept them. They are a form of speech – communicating to the rest of Los Angeles that even after decades of being ignored, or worse, the community is still here and they are beautiful and proud. Institutions that have never shown interest in the past are now finally taking notice. But their interest isn’t in respect or justice for the people who are responsible for the culture of the area that outsiders now value. They are interested in the profitability of what the community has produced. Investors aren’t excited about the murals because they are internalizing their message, they are excited because public art makes for better property values.

One way of understanding this process is as a capitalist derivative of extractive settler colonialism. In “Gentrification and the Aesthetics of Displacement”, doctoral candidate Anastasia Baginski and Dr. Chris Malcolm of UC Irvine build on traditional understandings of gentrification as displacement, which often frame cheap property as the only resource developers seek to take advantage of. In their expanded definition, they establish that gentrification additionally involves “extracting aesthetic value from previous cultural forms embedded in resistance and oppression.”6. This value is then transformed into a sanitized version of itself to be sold to outside (mostly white) consumers. Even seemingly innocent talk of Boyle Heights as an ‘up and coming neighborhood’ bears an eerie similarity to the colonial strategy of “invasion and transformation of supposed new territories”7. The process is then justified by the same logic of traditional colonialism: the idea that the existing community is incapable of capitalizing on its resources without outside intervention. This framing is problematic not only because it paints the community as ignorant and powerless; it additionally wrongfully assumes that they are static. The community is resistant to gentrification not because they do not want to grow and improve, or to have access to better resources. They are resistant because they desire autonomy over these processes to maintain the sense of community and place that they have developed over generations.

Though the threat of outside forces coming in and profiting off the established culture of Boyle Heights is troubling, an alternative concern is that instead of appropriating the existing atmosphere, newcomers will simply get rid of it. A big part of this has to do with the aesthetics of the structures moving in. As philosopher Henry Lefebvre establishes in The Production of Space “Space is a contested field that competing ideologies attempt to shape according to their goals and needs”8. In other words, the aesthetic of a space is not neutral. It tells us about the people who design it, what purpose it serves in the community, and who it seeks to serve in the community. Aesthetics communicate ideologies – conflicting styles are often symbols of groups fighting over control of a space. In the case of the coffee shop, we see the clash of the minimalist white facade with the colorful buildings in the surrounding area. These aesthetic concerns might seem superficial, but they are symbolic of deeper cultural and racial tensions. The racist zoning practices discussed earlier were about keeping out non-white bodies but also any spatial and aesthetic manifestations associated with the poor or people of color. This infrastructure, just as much as the people themselves, was seen as a threat to what George Lipsitz calls the “White Spatial Imaginary.” In his piece Rasquachification, Race and the City9, Roberto Bedoya describes growing up in San Francisco’s East Bay. He recalls the way white attendees of a nearby church would react with disgust to the colorful houses of his neighborhood. In some sense they were reacting to the loudness of the homes – the way they challenged the city’s narrative, enacted through policy, that these people do not deserve to take up space. Bedoya argues that this aesthetic of ultra visibility is a form of resistance which he calls the “Rasquache Spatial Imaginary”, in reference to Lipsitz’s work.

All of this raises important questions about ownership and rights over space (neighborhoods, cities, etc). The community of Boyle Heights sees their neighborhood as something that needs to be protected from outside investors (one of the activist groups central in the fight over gentrification is appropriately named Defend Boyle Heights). The investors however don’t necessarily view Boyle Heights as belonging to a distinct group – anyone who can afford to move in and own land in the area has a right to do what they will with it. One might look at that percentage of people renting in Boyle Heights and conclude that the community doesn’t have a right to protest newcomer’s use of land due to their lack of traditional ownership. This however ignores the decades the community has dedicated to building the character and culture of the neighborhood. The labor, again, that has produced the recent interest in the first place. The central question then is what determines a legitimate claim over a space: is it the legal documentation that establishes ownership (our current system seems to think so), or could it be something less tangible but more meaningful, and account for the historical and cultural connection the people of Boyle Heights have to their neighborhood. Marxist geographer Dr. David Harvey tackles this question in his book Rebel Cities: from the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. In the preface, he argues that we will only achieve a just and logical politics of urban space once “it is understood that those who build and sustain urban life have a primary claim to that which they have produced, and that one of their claims is to the unalienated right to make a city more after their own heart’s desire”10. This would require a radical rethinking of the way we currently understand property. It would also presumably transform the way we think about and approach architecture. Going forward I think this will be an interesting and important concept for architects to try to imagine and maybe start navigating.

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Ella Fortney is an undergraduate student at the Peter Guo-hua Fu School of Architecture, McGill University. This essay was written for ARCH 355.

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1 Orozco, Ernesto. “Members of Defend Boyle Heights Protest in Front of Weird Wave Coffee Brewers.” Boyle Heights Beat, July 17, 2017. https://boyleheightsbeat.com/defend-boyle-heights-sparks-controversy-with-anti-gentrification-push/.

2 George J Sanchez, “‘What’s Good for Boyle Heights Is Good for the Jews’ : Creating Multiculturalism on the Eastside during the 1950s.” American Quarterly 56, no. 3 (2004): 633–61. https://doi.org/10.1353/aq.2004.0042.

George Lipsitz “The Racialization of Space and the Spatialization of Race: Theorizing the Hidden Architecture of Landscape,” Landscape Journal 26, no. 1 (2007): 10–23. https://doi.org/10.3368/lj.26.1.10.

4 Jeffrey Hou “Guerrilla Urbanism: Urban Design and the Practices of Resistance,” URBAN DESIGN International 25, no. 2 (February 19, 2020): 117–25. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41289-020-00118-6.

5 Susan Carpenter “LA Proposes ‘Community-Driven Housing’ Plan for Boyle Heights,” Spectrum News 1, September 4, 2020, https://spectrumnews1.com/ca/la-west/housing/2020/09/03/la-proposes–community-driven-housing–plan-for-boyle-heights.

6 Anastasia Baginski and Chris Malcolm, “Gentrification and the Aesthetics of Displacement,” Field Journal of Socially Engaged Art Criticism, n.d.

7 Ubaldo Escalante, “There Goes the Barrio: Measuring Gentrification in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles,” Master’s thesis, Columbia University, 2017.

8 Mareike Ahrens, “‘Gentrify? No! Gentefy? Sí!’: Urban Redevelopment and Ethnic Gentrification in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles,” aspeers, n.d.

9 Roberto Bedoya “Spatial Justice: Rasquachification, Race and the City,” Creative Time Reports, October 10, 2014, https://creativetimereports.org/2014/09/15/spatial-justice-rasquachification-race-and-the-city/.

10 David Harvey, “Preface,” in Rebel Cities: from the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (London: Verso, 2019).

 

Additional References

“Defend Boyle Heights Points of Unity.” Defend Boyle Heights (blog), n.d. http://defendboyleheights.blogspot.com/p/points-of-unity.html?view=timeslide.

Delgado, Emanuel, and Kate Swanson. “Genteficationin the Barrio: Displacement and Urban Change in Southern California.” Journal of Urban Affairs, 2019, 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1080/07352166.2019.1680245.

Franco, Dean J. The Border and the Line: Race, Literature, and Los Angeles. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2019.

Harvey, David. The Right to the City. New Left Review, 2008.

Jan, Tracy. “A New Gentrification Crisis.” The Washington Post, July 31, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/podcasts/post-reports/a-new-gentrification-crisis/.

Kruzman, Diana. “Weird Wave Coffee Reports Ninth Vandalism.” Boyle Heights Beat, February 15, 2019. https://boyleheightsbeat.com/weird-wave-coffee-reports-ninth-vandalism/.

Lipsitz, George. How Racism Takes Place. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011.

“People Are More Important than Property: in Response to Huizar’s Defense of Weird Wave Coffee.” Defend Boyle Heights (blog), August 4, 2017. http://defendboyleheights.blogspot.com/2017/08/people-are-more-important-than-property.html.

Reft, Ryan. “The Shifting Cultures of Multiracial Boyle Heights.” KCET, January 1, 2017. https://www.kcet.org/history-society/the-shifting-cultures-of-multiracial-boyle-heights.

Zubrinsky Charles, Camille. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Race, Class, and Residence in Los Angeles.” Urban Geography, 36, no. 3 (2015): 465–67. https://doi.org/10.1080/02723638.2015.1005415.

The Savoy Ballroom: Rejecting Black Exoticism Through Community-Driven Design, by Clay Moon

June 10, 2021
ARCH 355
Professor Ipek Türeli

In the 1930s, New York City’s Harlem neighbourhood found itself at the center of many political, cultural, and economic issues. During this post-war period known as the Depression-era, over three hundred thousand African Americans from the south known as “the Great Migration” flooded Harlem searching for employment. This sizeable demographic movement, among other social factors, led to Harlem becoming the largest African American community in the United States.Additionally, a nationwide alcohol ban known as Prohibition catalyzed an organized mafia crime scene and countless clubs throughout Harlem. The resulting energetic and relentless nightlife was, according to many, the source of the neighbourhood’s artistic creativity and collaboration.2

This explosion in diverse, Black creative works, known collectively as the Harlem Renaissance, is a problematic cultural movement to navigate. Although praised for its success in popularizing a new, national Black identity, the “New Negro” was often tailored for the whites of wealthier areas.3 For this reason, the Harlem Renaissance is often criticized as a movement that, although “successful,” failed to ease many of the underlying racial tensions. If anything, it reinforced the idea of the Black artist subordinate to the wealthier white man.

Between 140th and 141st street in Harlem, a typical brick building would oppose these pervasive stereotypes and impact the African American cultural identity for generations to come. More specifically, the Savoy ballroom housed on its upper floor would give off a more prestigious Black persona, one that rejects the stereotypical exoticism constructed by whites-only cabarets. Ahead of its time, the Ballroom is a unique success story that provided Blacks with an environment in which they could freely connect and thrive. Besides Small’s paradise, a little basement nightclub, the Savoy was the first major racially integrated venue in America. In retrospect, it was part of America’s earliest placemaking efforts for minorities, unifying a neighbourhood that struggled with financial stability and collective identity.4 For the Black locals who regularly visited, the ballroom was not only a temporary escape from work but from the restrictions of a suffocating set of explicit and inexplicit racist policies. Above all, the Savoy Ballroom’s design improved African American artists’ integrity and professionalism by enabling a raw portrayal of Black culture undeterred by a white social agenda.

When engaging in race and architecture, the academic field often aims to reveal hidden, subtle, and negative sociopolitical biases detrimental to minority groups rooted within it. In this speculative essay, the goal is the opposite. The ballroom’s ability to daringly ignore the temptation of a white money-driven business model was unprecedented for a venue of its scale.  It drew a diverse crowd and granted its performers autonomy and expressive freedom, all of which link back to the unique layout. Using an investigative approach, the chosen image (see fig. 1) of the ballroom plan, among others, will guide and correlate the Savoy’s underlying sociopolitical intentions with its architectural attributes.

Figure 1: The Savoy Ballroom floor plan (not to scale). From The Savoy Ballroom Reservation Guide (undated) courtesy of Ms. Irene Phipps in memory of her father Edgar Phipps. http://www.welcometothesavoy.com/details/the-savoy-ballroom-reservation-guide/

The Savoy’s interior layout contributed to its overall success in several ways. The large size ensured it could rival the status of other significant venues such as downtown’s Roseland ballroom. Additionally, the two may have been similar in size, but only the Savoy welcomed guests of any race, status, or age. The large size was also a pragmatic solution. With the increasingly popular subgenre of swing jazz and its “big bands,” players needed more space on stage. Due to the Great Depression, musicians were willing to be paid less; therefore, a bandleader could hire more people at the same cost. Thus “big bands” came to be the most entertaining and cost-effective band structure. To fully understand the scale, the Savoy usually allowed anywhere from four thousand to five thousand guests on its five public nights.5 In comparison, the competing nearby clubs (see fig. 2) never exceeded fifteen hundred occupants. The sheer number of people regularly attending, of whom eighty percent were Black, thus supplied a hefty and steady income. This income would help fund the renovations of the iconic, prestigious interior and maintain low prices for the Black working-class.

Figure 2: “A Night Club Map of Harlem.” Created by E. Simms Campbell, considered the first commercially successful African American illustrator, [c1932]. From James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection, Beinecke Library. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/prohibition-harlem-night-clubs-maps

The luxurious décor, frequently updated to reflect the times, directly indicated that the longstanding manager Charles Buchanan6 held an unwavering vision for Black people’s dignity and identity in light of the Harlem Renaissance. Everything was professionally and politely executed, never hinting at “[…] African jungle motifs, southern stereotypology, [or] lurid eroticism”7 that far too many whites-only venues employed. These other segregated cabarets, such as the famous Cotton Club, caricatured, objectified, and commoditized the Black performer (see fig. 3, fig. 4).

Figure 5: “Cab Calloway and His Orchestra, Chorus girls in the background. Cotton branch décor overhead.” From Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed March 28, 2021. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/fcfafba0-1346-0136-de9c-396c77d77bb6

Figure 4: “Jimmie Lunceford and His Glee Club, at the Cotton Club. Note the Jungle motif of the curtains behind.” From
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed March 29, 2021. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/83324840-7edd-0135-f3bf-0511acf52acf

The Savoy’s interior had two mirrored flights of marble stairs, various chandeliers, a fountain, decorated columns, and copper-clad bandstands (see fig. 5).8 At its peak, the ballroom screamed the clean, high-quality aesthetics of Art Deco.  The materials and design were, from various accounts, “much bigger, more glamour[ous], [and of] real class”9 compared to previous night clubs. In fact, the venue’s name was inspired by the classy Savoy Hotel in London. Importantly, even though the décor expressed wealth, the cover charge was always cheap, averaging about fifty cents during the depression era. The manager Charles Buchanan always played a crucial role in aligning the Savoy’s goals with those of the locals.  It was not only “The World’s Finest ballroom,” it was the world’s finest ballroom for all.

Figure 5: “1941 Savoy Ballroom postcard.” From
http://www.welcometothesavoy.com/research/savoy-renovations/

In the plan, the dancing floor and the two bandstands were the most prized possessions at the Savoy and arguably the most symbolic. “The Track,” as it was called, was a spring-loaded, wooden dancefloor among the largest in town, with a total area of over ten thousand square feet. The floor was maintained religiously. No smokers were allowed near, and night cleaners would polish it every night. The boards were even swapped every three years.10  “The Track” was particular because it allowed the popular swing jazz to be fully expressed through various dance styles, namely the Savoy’s signature “Lindy hop.” Characterized by its energetic, often aerial moves, the Lindy Hop no doubt developed to take advantage of the large, unobstructed floor. Unlike other Harlem clubs, whose dancers were on stage with the band, this dance floor was flush with the surrounding carpet, covering the entire area surrounding the bandstands (see fig. 6, fig. 7).

Figure 6: “A newly laid floor inviting you to dance.” From Savoy News, Vol. 1 no. 2.

Figure 7: “View from the top right corner, looking towards the bandstand.” From
Savoy News, Vol. 1 no. 2.

Other than at the “showtime,” when professionals showed off their new Lindy hop skills, dancers of any skill level could quickly join. The layout naturally encouraged participation on the dance floor (see fig. 8).  Judging from the photos, one would have a hard time avoiding a dance. The Black female dancers were not overly sexualized either, unlike at the Cotton Club. Instead, the dancers often blended in with the crowd. This is partly because the dancing did not have to be a significant source of income. The seamless floor design also encouraged people to sit and gather informally around the dancers in an impromptu semi-circle (see fig. 8), echoing the Savoy’s communal spirit. In contrast, Small’s Paradise, another racially integrated club, could only host dances in its small basement if it moved its furniture aside. In the same vein, Buchanan had explained that he wanted “an atmosphere of tasteful refinement” instead of “the small, […] stuffy, […] foul-smelling, cellar nightclubs.”11

Figure 8: “Wide-angle view of the dancefloor. From Source Unknown, [c1941]. http://www.welcometothesavoy.com/gallery/

The bandstands held an equally important and complementary role to the dancefloor. Unlike its competitors, the dual bandstands lacked curtains, so they could always be viewed from three sides. The stands, although elevated, continued the same seamless, intimate spatial quality as the ballroom floor. Not having curtains or partitions on its sides signalled a degree of transparency in how things were run. It also gives the adjacent dancing audience a closer, intimate view of them. Ultimately, the lack of curtains instilled a level of trust and further reduced the artificial barrier between audience and performer. The only significant closed-off rooms were the washrooms, as shown in the plan (see fig. 1). In general, the open view of the room, from one end to the other, added to the informal atmosphere and took the pressure off the performers.

The location of the bars and the boxes are relevant as well. Placed far from the stair entrance, the bars were far from the action and featured no waiters.12 It, therefore, minimized excessive drinking and distanced behaviour. There was even a drink limit to discourage people from attending simply for the drinks. Buchanan summarizes the ballroom’s agenda perfectly, claiming that “[the staff] are not partial to white people who come to gawk […] besides [the staff] is not geared to make money out of them. They can’t spend more than the admission fee and a couple drinks.”13 This limit, combined with the various bouncers, ensured a safe and happy environment. The semi-circular layout of the boxes flanking the dancefloor, where many lounged, allowed people to join the crowd spontaneously (see fig. 6, fig. 7). Other venues did not create this enticing interactivity. If someone did want a break to socialize in a quieter setting, the Savoy offered that too. The tables and lounge chairs were placed further away, beyond the boxes.  Many were even caught dozing off peacefully on camera. The bars’ arrangement, the boxes, and the tables stimulated positive interactions, especially for the uptight white guests. In a written anecdote by Calvin Rosten, Buchanan fittingly explains that “As long as they [those drinking and socializing] behave, we ignore them. That is our policy.”14

By investigating the Savoy ballroom’s various relevant architectural features, guided by its well documented reputation as a Black community center, a new racial narrative emerges. Hopefully, such analyses will challenge architects to study race and architecture not only as a bitter past, but also as one that contains positive examples that can help build a better future.

Unfortunately, “The World’s Finest ballroom,” as it was advertised, is now nothing more than a set of memories and documents. At the site, which now houses much-needed social housing and a community park (see fig. 9), a plaque was finally erected in the Savoy’s honour. Demolished in 1958, with Harlem’s economic and cultural decline, the Savoy not only still holds an artistic presence but an experiential presence that lives on in the Black people. Hopefully, the magical synergy of the architectural qualities, the performers, and the diverse, unrestricted audience can be replicated in placemaking efforts today. It’s hard to conclude whether the Savoy’s interior was successful through association with the activities housed within or if the interior was the reason for the building’s legendary reputation. The answer likely lies somewhere in between these extremes. Regardless, the Savoy ballroom forever changed African American identity and culture by pioneering a safe, humanizing environment where music and dance were presented free of racial exoticism.

Figure 9: The Savoy’s footprint overlaid on Google maps 3D satellite view. From
http://www.welcometothesavoy.com/research/figuring-out-the-size-of-the-savoy/

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Clay Moon is an undergraduate student at the Peter Guo-hua Fu School of Architecture, McGill University. This essay was written for ARCH 355.

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1 Gerald Meyer, “Black Harlem in the Great Depression: A Review Essay,” New York History 74, no. 1 (1993): 97-104. Accessed March 27, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23181759.

Greg Miller, “During Prohibition, Harlem Night Clubs Kept the Party Going,” Culture, (February 10, 2021). Accessed March 28, 2021. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/prohibition-harlem-night-clubs-maps)

Cary D. Wintz, “Harlem Renaissance,” In Encyclopedia of African American History 1896 to the Present: (Oxford University Press, 2009).

Annette Koh, “Placemaking When Black Lives Matter,” Project For Public Spaces. Accessed March 25, 2021. https://www.pps.org/article/placemaking-black-lives-matter.

Barbara Engelbrecht, “Swinging at the Savoy,” Dance Research Journal, 15 no. 2 (1983): 3-10, 5. Accessed March 29, 2021. doi:10.2307/1478672.

L. Calvin Rosten, The strangest places (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1939), 185.

Maureen Maryanski, “The Aristocrat of Harlem: The Cotton Club,” New-York Historical Society, (February 18, 2016), 1.

“Redecorated Savoy to Open Thursday,” The New York Age (New York: November 15, 1930), 1.

Marshall Stearns and Jean Stearns, Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance (New York: Schirmer Books, 1979), 321. Accessed March 27, 2021. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.32106015219014&view=1up&seq=363)

10 Engelbrecht, “Swinging at the Savoy,” 5.

11 Ibid, 3.

12 The Savoy Ballroom Reservation Guide (undated), http://www.welcometothesavoy.com/details/the-savoy-ballroom-reservation-guide/

13 Engelbrecht, “Swinging at the Savoy,” 6.

14 Rosten, The strangest places, 187.

Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.