Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Sondheim and Social Justice

BDC's Geodesic Dome on the terrace outside the Baltimore Museum of Art.

ometimes the conceit wins.”

My husband said this to me as we walked from the Baltimore Museum of Art on Saturday night. We’d just attended the announcement and party for the 2009 Janet and Walter Sondheim Award, the city's premier annual arts award that offers one lucky finalist a $25,000 prize. Selected by a jury of national curators and artists—and plucked from a pool of incredibly talented competitors—the winner also earns the prestige of recognition.

As someone who covers architecture and design for magazines and who often writes about fairness in the built environment and community-centered design, I should have been happy with the outcome. The winners created, among other things, a site-specific project focusing on democratic public space in a struggling section of the city. And yet, I am not thrilled that the Baltimore Development Cooperative beat out the other artists (including, full disclosure, a friend of mine).

A photo of the winners at Saturday's Sondheim Award. Photo from Cara Ober's blog.

If I were a true critic I wouldn't begin to type this because I am woefully ill informed. I don't know the three participants who founded the BDC in 2005—Scott Berzofsky, Dane Nester, and Nicholas Wisniewski. I am only vaguely familiar with their work, including Participation Park in East Baltimore. The reporter in me would never go to press. But this is a blog. So disclaimer in place, why am I miffed by the BDC win?

Two words: Social Justice.

The intent of the BDC, on paper, seems admirable enough. Get through the chewy curatorial jargon and hyper-politicized prose explaining Participation Park and you learn that their stated intent is to gather the community around a vacant plot of land in order to foster democratic public space and a dialogue about development. They located the Park at the epicenter of urban controversy: East Baltimore. The neighborhood struggles with crime, violence, drug addiction, and poverty. There is also the greater evil, the BDC points out, of eminent domain and the efficient march over the land by organizations—like Johns Hopkins—with more power than the people. Homes have been demolished and hundreds of people displaced for a new biotech park.

In 2007, the BDC decided to illegally squat on a piece of land on Forrest Street. They began gardening and I give them lots of credit for testing the soil—which they say they did—to confirm no harmful traces of lead or other toxins. Their goal, they say, is to turn this vacant lot into “an urban farm, social space, community kitchen, radical planning studio, free store, and adventure playground.”

They also say that that they are doing this in the name of the people who have been wronged by East Baltimore development and that the residents are very much involved.

(I sought out someone from the community at the awards ceremony on Saturday night because I hoped to ask them some questions. Why a garden? Why this spot? How is this impacting their community? What other needs, besides gardening, does the community have? Do they want an "adventure playground" or a place to organize radical activities? But I couldn’t find anyone from the neighborhood and my questions went unanswered. I wonder: was anyone from the community invited by the BDC to join the fesitivities?)

Valerie Cassel Oliver, curator at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, was one of the judges of the Sondheim and she told the Baltimore Sun that the jury liked the BDC’s social activism and community engagement. “What they are doing is part of a pulse that's happening around the country, an activism that's reminiscent of the '60s and '70s,” she said.

Oliver is correct. The BDC’s work speaks to a broader trend in the arts and architecture community. We are living in an age where architectural stars like Frank Gehry wait for stalled projects to find their funding, but Bryan Bell and Cameron Sinclair travel the globe and build. It is a time when Fritz Haeg, who turns front lawns into edible gardens, wins the 2008 Whitney Biennial (Elisabeth Sussman, curator at the Whitney, was one of this year's Sondheim judges).

The symbols of this new movement appear to be gardens and geodesic dome; back to the land sustainability coupled with Buckminster Fuller’s humanitarian dome design. BDC constructed a dome on the terrace outside of the BMA using found materials and billed it as a place for the community to gather. (It was a nice idea when Fritz Haeg conceived of it nine years ago and turned his home—a geodesic dome in California—into a community schoolhouse with a garden.)

The BDC clearly won over the judges for its “social justice” approach, a phrase that was bandied about quite a bit on Saturday night. One top BMA official told me, “Isn’t this great? Social justice won the day.”

But is this social justice?

Dig a little deeper and you learn that the real intent of the BDC is to stir up trouble. It’s very name, a riff on the Baltimore Development Corporation, is meant to draw attention to the city’s sanctioned development process and to compare and contrast the Cooperative’s actions to those of Baltimore’s quasi-public development arm with the same acronym.

An important component of Participation Park is that it is an illegal squat. In an interview with Alyssa Dennis on the Go For Change Web site last year, BDC artist Scott Berzofsky explained why the group explicitly decided against protecting the land that they garden. They do not want to raise the funds to buy it or take the steps to make it a 501c3 and put it into the community land trust. Why?

“Both of these approaches reinforce the dominant relations of private property ownership that we want to question,” he said.

More than building community, they want to build conflict. They want to bring something to a head. “If there were an attempt to evict us,” he continued, “I would invite it because I think the struggle over the space would generate a productive dialogue about who has the right to the city in Baltimore.”

The BDC believes cooperating with the system perpetuates the system. And the system is the problem. They are not wrong. The system is flawed. It is, at times, unfair and unbalanced.

Trouble is, this neighborhood has been through all this before. They know full well that the system doesn’t work in their favor. They know what it means to fight the city and the private developer and lose. A very organized and passionate group of activists in East Baltimore has worked tirelessly to challenge the eminent domain process and to bring real change. Activist like Glen Ross. The BDC approach is not offering social justice for those in the neighborhood. Rather, the group is traveling over well-worn territory with careless regard for the outcome. Participation Park is less about the community’s needs and more about sticking it to the man.

Let’s say the young artists of the BDC are still around and interested in this plot of Earth in East Baltimore in five years. Let’s say the land is thriving. It becomes a viable and vital gathering place and a means for fresh food. Then the landowner decides to build or to sell. A fight ensues. With no legal claim to the property, Participation Park is closed. Perhaps a few articles on the struggle appear in the paper. Perhaps the artists get more press. Then what?

A more “productive dialogue" would be to find solutions rather than merely poke the bruise. What is the answer to diminishing public space in urban environments? Or the lack of fresh food and jobs?

Compare Participation Park to the work of Milwaukee’s Will Allen. Since 1995, Allen’s Milwaukee-based Growing Power, Inc, has worked a modest 2-acre lot to create fresh food sources as well as innovative and progressive food distribution models for the city.

The layout of Growing Power's headquarters in Milwaukee. I don't see a "radical planning studio," or an "adventure playground," but I do see classrooms, a kitchen, training studios for community members to learn job skills, and a fully sustainable urban farm. (Click on it for a larger image).

Allen won the MacArthur Grant in 2008 for his work. “Rather than embracing the ‘back to the land’ approach promoted by many within the sustainable agriculture movement, Allen’s holistic farming model incorporates both cultivating foodstuffs and designing food distribution networks in an urban setting,” the MacArthur site explains.

A diverse community gathers at Growing Power. Image from their Web site.

Allen is in it for the people in the community. He took the time to form the 501c3, he got the land into a community trust, he partnered with existing entities in the city—those same kinds of entities that the BDC shuns—and he changed policy in order to forge new programs and make real connections.

Social justice is not about whining about how things are. It is not about generating a conflict for conflict’s sake. Social justice is about working the flawed system to promote a new approach. It is about commitment, longevity, and standing up to the harder injustice: the slow and painful process of realizing actual change.

To call Participation Park social justice is wrong. Call it what it is. Activist art. Performance art. Performance farming? But, please, do not call it social justice.

An Additional Note: After posting this, I learned that Will Allen will speak in Baltimore on Friday, July 17. For more details, visit Baltimore Green Works.