The Politics of Dis-Belonging

Posted by Joyce Fernandes on September 21, 2016

The field of creative placemaking has been challenged for its aversion to addressing the politics of social space as well as its dismissal of the feeling or idea of “belonging” as a critical ingredient of place. In Chicago, arts-based community development organization archi-treasures is known for its community engagement practices, and La Casita de Don Pedro was an early example of a placemaking strategy that directly confronted the politics of social space, or, as described by Roberto Bedoya, “the politics of belonging and dis-belonging.” 

In 1997 after decades of displacement, Chicago’s Puerto Rican community staked their claim to an eight block stretch of Division Street between Western and California avenues. In the mid-1990s, two issues coalesced to stir a community movement. The first was the refusal of the Chicago Park District to allow a statue of Don Pedro Albizu Campos to be placed within Humboldt Park, which is part of Chicago’s historic boulevard system. The second was the desire and savvy knowledge of local activists to stake a neighborhood claim by both owning property and creating culturally specific visual signifiers. At the time, this stretch of Division Street was dotted with vacant lots, one of which was purchased by the Puerto Rican Cultural Center and developed as a community cultural space with the help of archi-treasures.

The refusal of the Chicago Park District to support the installation of a statue honoring Albizu Campos clearly demonstrates a politics of dis-belonging. Like many urban neighborhoods, Humboldt Park has a layered history where different ethnic groups have gained, given up, and lost control of the space. These transitions are memorialized in the park itself with a diverse selection of public art, most of which are statues that were purchased and placed by cultural groups. The Norwegian community supported a statue of Leif Erikson, and the German community erected statues of Alexander von Humboldt and Fritz Reuter. But when the Puerto Rican community sought to insert Albizu Campos into this mix, they were met with resistance. The unacceptable politics of Puerto Rico’s independence movement overrode the city’s tradition of allowing ethnically specific representations in the park.

La Casita de Don Pedro evolved from this very specific politically charged context. Working to redesign the vacant lot on Division Street in order to host the statue of Don Pedro, archi-treasures enlisted the help of students at the Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School. Students developed models of the space and decided on a combination of raised planters, paved areas for gathering, and transitioning an existing garage into a traditional Puerto Rican structure (“la casita”). Centrally placed within a star-shaped planter sits the dispossessed statue of Albizu Campos. For the past 20 years, this space has hosted hundreds of cultural events, political rallies, and neighborhood celebrations. There is no question that archi-treasures’ strategies of community engagement, including strong partnerships and respect for the existing aesthetics and politics of the community, have created a strong sense of belonging.

La Casita de Don Pedro Albizu Campos was one of four projects in archi-treasures’ 1996-1997 pilot program. The Garden Gallery Project, in which youth identified an underutilized outdoor space in their own community then redesigned it as a much-needed community gathering space. An archi-treasures team comprised of architects, artists, and educators worked with high school students as they learned skills in site assessment and measurement, scale drawing and model making, participatory design and critique, and finally, presentation.

An aerial view of the final design for La Casita reveals an image of the Puerto Rican flag with its red stripes and star on a blue background, the red stripes formed by curved concrete retaining walls topped with red tile, and the star comprised of a low planter that is painted white. The student designers were hired as construction workers, landscapers, and artisans to build their design for La Casita during a six-week summer youth employment program. With the assistance of the archi-treasures team and community volunteers, they built a front porch on the existing garage and outfitted it with a new metal roof, poured the concrete retaining walls, laid pavers, built benches, planted trees, and installed a politically controversial, but much-loved statue of Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos.

Creative placemaking should prioritize creatively engaging indigenous communities rather than emphasizing strategies of artist engagement that result in gentrification and displacement. Without intentional, authentic community engagement, a place will retain too much of its relationship to the concepts and plans of outside professionals who are driving the project.

As an arts-based organization, archi-treasures strongly advocates for the inclusion of artists in community development, but also challenges the field of creative placemaking to question and define the artist’s role and to achieve a deeper understanding of the ingredients that comprise successful placemaking and a sense of belonging.

Photo credits, from top to bottom: A statue of Don Pedro Albizu Campos; a cultural event at La Casita de Don Pedro; and a "before" photo of the lot where La Casita is now located. All courtesy of archi-treasures.

About the author more »

Joyce Fernandes is executive director of archi-treasures. She is a cultural worker whose career encompasses experience in arts administration, lecturing and teaching, critical writing, and visual arts practice. She received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and her BFA from Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia. Her primary focus has been to develop innovative community arts practices. She has a history of facilitating strong community partnerships by recognizing and honoring the tremendous assets and resources that are available in all communities by designing creative projects that leverage and complement those assets. She has also worked as the director of Exhibitions and Events at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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