Saturday, January 23, 2016

Right to the City in Baltimore and Design Anthropology

Note: the narrative for my Design Anthropology class for Spring 2016.

People in Baltimore demand a “right to the city,” i.e., to live in a city that allows them to develop human and community potentials without pernicious race- and class-based inequalities.  But, a year after the Baltimore Uprising, we are still confronting the city’s systematic, structural inequalities. And while there are numerous (pressing) injustices to be addressed, one of the most challenging questions we could ask people in power is simply that: where is the “right to the city” for the majority of Baltimore’s residents?

This doesn’t mean the right to buy and consume in Baltimore’s tourism spaces.  Instead, it’s about heretofore marginalized peoples “fighting for the kind of development that meets their needs and desires” (Harvey 2013: xvi).  And not just in the short term.  As Henri Lefebvre wrote in the shadow of the Paris Commune, “To the extent that the contours of the future city can be outlined, it could be defined by imagining the reversal of the current situation, by pushing to its limits the converted image of the world upside down” (Lefebvre 1967: 172).

In other words, it’s about imagining radical alternatives to the city.  To re-forge it, in Robert Park’s words, into “the heart’s desire” for the ordinary citizens of the city, rather than for a handful of the wealthy and privileged.  This is the challenge for anthropology.  Despite the growth of a public anthropology, the field still often divides into a theoretical concern with power and politics, on the one hand, and an applied anthropology that packages its portmanteau methods for sale, on the other. In public anthropology, critical interventions are oftentimes uncomfortably grafted onto traditional, descriptive research—a sometimes grudging admission that anthropology may contribute to the public weal.  But how do we forge an anthropology where political change is part of our methodical and theoretical approach from the outset, rather than the newspaper editorial that may follow the publication of an ethnographic monograph?

This is our challenge: to imagine a design anthropology that originates in “the cry and the demand” of the disenfranchised (Lefebvre 1967: 158).  Moreover, it must be premised on the practice of radical alternatives to the status quo.  It cannot be an accommodation to power in the form of bland palliatives to inequality.  Instead, design anthropology must take the “right to the city” as a call for dismantling the institutions that reproduce inequality and re-building a city where, as Harvey writes, we can claim the “freedom to make and remake ourselves and our cities” (Harvey 2013: 4).
Doing this means re-imagining anthropology as well.  If we would like to “restore design to the heart of anthropology’s disciplinary practice” (Gatt and Ingold 2013: 140), then we must also dismantle the hoary dichotomies that have undermined possibilities for an anthropology defined by political practice.  Doing thus may be achievable through a design anthropology infused with a Bloch-ian hope for alternative possibilities.  And through this, we may be able to sketch the possibility for an anthropology that engages what it really means to be human, i.e., to be a person desirous of a better world.

This class will explore design anthropology through its relevance to the continuing struggle of people in Baltimore to achieve justice and equality.  We begin with a critique of Baltimore’s top-down developmental model, one that has given the city temples to capital (Charles Center and the Legg-Mason Building) and hollow quotations of urban life in tightly scripted, touristic spaces structured to exclude the majority of Baltimore’s residents (Inner Harbor, Camden Yards, Canton).  From there, we consider a series of design interventions that were accomplished through various participatory structures: community gardens, bikeshare programs, community mapping, digital storytelling.  But even these, as we shall explore after the midterm, ultimately buttress the system they purport to critique—they “humanize” the developmental city without challenging the institutions and practices that invariably privilege elites.  From this realization, we move to a literature demanding something more than the mollification of Baltimore’s citizens.  These “guerilla” urbanisms point towards the efficacy of direct action in creating a just city.  Finally, we return to an insistence on utopia, not in terms of some fixed version of perfection, but as an evocation of virtualities that we may not be able to fully articulate, possibilities of a new “urban being” just over the horizon of our political consciousness.