An Artist’s Perspective On Community And Housing: Undervalued And Overdue

A pair of women stand beside a shoeshine received by a soldier in a black and white mid 20th century photo
shoeshine photo by Harriett Hilton is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Harlem, NYC, mid-20th century: a glimpse of both housing and community.

Artists of many stripes often expect and receive a rough ride when it comes to public understanding and appreciation of their work, let alone in convincing someone or anyone that their work is deserving of some form of funding.

Architects (who have been known to lay claims to being artists of building style) may fare better than most, since buildings are displayed to the public everywhere. Architecture’s artistic achievement is lauded at best and tolerated at worst, at least in comparison to ham-fisted building design from complete amateurs, including works woefully lacking in any form of apparent artistry from experienced but non-architect builders.

Occasionally, however, an amateur can bring thinking to an architectural project that outshines that of architects themselves. This post introduces just such a historic housing project for Harlem, the largely Black community on Manhattan Island in New York. The principal architect, Buckminster Fuller, received a lion’s share of attention compared to his partner in the project, Black poet and enthusiastic amateur of the architectural form, June Jordan.

While world-famous Fuller was sketching yet another grandiose monument of neighbourhood-swallowing, Jordan saw a way to replace decrepit buildings while preserving the community itself.

It is a glimpse of a vision of urban renewal that is exactly that — renewal, not eradication and replacement with something else. This ‘sweep clean’ approach to aging tenements is founded on deep-seated prejudice, since it consciously or unconsciously devalues the existing neighbourhood community to the worthless state of the old and crumbling buildings that contain it.

Within Jordan’s understanding of the immense value of the community in which she grow up, we can imagine a fundamentally worthy core for Fuller’s overblown building-oriented vision. It is, however, in the process of changing from an older architecture to a possible new and life-enhancing one that Jordan captured the meaning of community itself as a work of art. With Fuller’s help, she was able to describe at least one means of preserving it in place.

Read the entire story of community renewal that alas went architecturally nowhere, in The New Yorker: When June Jordan and Buckminster Fuller Tried to Redesign Harlem