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5 February 2018

 

Architects of Rotterdam
c/o Het Nieuwe Instituut
Museumpark 25
3015 CB Rotterdam

 

Dear Architects of Rotterdam,

What does it mean for you to write a letter to your mayor?

After reading all of your letters, I cannot find a clear answer to this question. Since you were given a task adopted from the local tradition of letter-writing to the Mayor of New York City, I feel it is appropriate to go back to that city, to a specific time in its history, when it was undergoing a transformation even more vast and profound than that proposed by the Woonvisie 2030 plan for Rotterdam, to which many of you refer in your letters.

As you read my letter, please think about my opening question, and your role in the city, and your relationship to your Mayor: are you a citizen first, and an architect second? Are you a “designer of the city” looking to the Mayor as a skilled artisan looks to her potential patron? Letter-writing is always somehow personal. And who am I to write to you, dear Architects of Rotterdam? Well, I am your colleague, and your fellow traveler, and fellow lover of cities. I may become a friend or remain a complete stranger. I am, of course, also a critic of your work, and an outsider to your profession and to your city. Please read the following words, with some sense of how we might or might not come to be related to each other, and how my stories may or may not connect to you and to Rotterdam. Now, back to New York:

The Harlem Friendship House files at the Schomburg archives in New York are filled with hundreds of thin, square pieces of paper, now yellowed and translucent with time. Each slip identifies itself simply as “INFORMATION FORM,” in slightly uneven capital letters, likely the work of a worn typewriter. The sheets are covered in blue or black ink or pencil, written in different hands. Short notes play out a litany of everyday discord:

 

Case No. 32
Date: 10/8/55

Premises: 66 West 133rd St.
Name: Lewis, Charlene
Apt. No.: 4E

Inspection to be made: morning

  1. Dining room ceiling falling at time of contact. Hole (5 ft across)
  2. Plaster of ceiling down in small bedroom toward the kitchen. Half down, other half loose from lathe and about to fall.
  3. Kitchen ceiling down in front part of room -- hazard
  4. Toilet, flush box inoperative -- has to use pail to flush
  5. Electric fixture in bathroom snapped off--wire ends bare
  6. Rat holes in kitchen under sink, table and radiator.                     URGENT

 

As I read through the slips, one after the other, brief and brutal tales unfold: Viola Heywood could not pull the light string in her bathroom for fear even more of the ceiling would fall, so she bathed in the dark. A volunteer visiting Linnie Hinson’s apartment at 453 Lenox Avenue was confronted by a rat eating through the right side of the kitchen cabinet at the baseboard. Rose Artis’ window on the first floor opened onto the bottom of an air shaft filled with garbage, causing “a concentration of flies and mosquitoes and bad odor” in her apartment. Dan McPherson, of 490 Lenox Avenue, Apt. 2, complained of having been robbed twice due to his unrepaired apartment door. Fannie Freeman’s newborn died of bronchitis a few weeks after she brought it home to an apartment which remained without heat and hot water, despite her multiple pleading visits to the management office.

Between 1952 and 1955 Harlem Friendship House, a lay Catholic community organization, neighbor to most of the complainants for the previous decade and a half, collected these slips, and stories. During these years, the Friendship House bore witness to the experiences of their neighbors at the hands of a new landlord, the private development, Godfrey Nurse, Inc. This new private development was part of the project of “urban renewal,” a 30-year period between the 1940s and 1970s, in which the US Federal Housing Administration sanctioned and funded the dismantling of poor and working class inner city neighborhoods, especially black neighborhoods, allowing private developers and city agencies to demolish buildings, seize private property and forcefully relocate citizens, often using the most brutal of means.

For years, the Harlem Friendship House had been headquartered on 135th street between Lenox and 5th Avenues, in storefront spaces that kept the workers and volunteers involved in the daily lives of their neighbors. When the new landlord began issuing orders of eviction, and demolishing the entire block, the members of Friendship House began visiting homes and documenting renters’ living conditions. For four years, Friendship House gathered information about tenants’ rights, and helped their neighbors write letters and file complaints with relevant city agencies, trying to force landlords to address their tenants’ abysmal living conditions. Here is one such letter, addressed to the Mayor of New York, typed on the behalf of Mrs. Mary Copely, an elderly neighbor facing eviction from her home in Harlem:

 

September 6, 1955

The Honorable Robert F. Wagner
Mayor of New York City
City Hall
New York, New York

Your Honor:

I am a citizen of New York for 48 years, born in the United States. The 23rd of this month, I'll be 70 years old. I live alone and I have been living in this apartment 24 years. The area that I am living in now is being torn down for projects. The landlord got me two or three places to move, but on the top floor, and I wasn't able to walk up the stairs, and just because I didn't take them, they sent me an eviction notice to get out by the end of this month or they will set me in the street. Dear Mayor, your honor, I have been looking for an apartment. I cannot find any low rent apartment. Everything I find is so very high. I am not able to pay the high price. Dear Mayor, will you please let me have two or three rooms in the low-rent projects. I am on the Social Security and also the Welfare. I am a missionary and live very quiet. I would like to get some place here in Harlem, near my church. I have been living in Harlem 48 years.

I hope to hear from you by return mail. May God Bless You is my prayer.

Sincerely yours,

Mrs. Mary Copeland
59 West 133rd Street
New York 37, New York

 

Reading through the letters of Rotterdam’s architects, addressed to Mayor Aboutaleb, I could think only of Mary Copeland’s plea. She had such specific needs: two or three rooms, low rent, near her church, not so many stairs to walk up. Her needs could easily become a clear brief to any architect in New York at that time, or any other time, really. Consider also, the tone of Mrs. Copeland’s letter: The way she so clearly implores her mayor to hear the details of her case, and to respond; the way she establishes her long-time citizenship and residency in New York; the way she addresses him as Your Honor, a formal version of the more colloquial “Yer Honner,” a regular New Yorker’s way of calling the Mayor. It is clear that Mary Copeland sees herself as a member of her church, a resident of her specific neighborhood, and a citizen of New York, and it is on these grounds that she asks the Mayor to hear her case. It is his job to make sure every citizen is housed properly, and as such, she humbly and firmly calls on him to do his job. When I compare Mrs. Copeland’s letter to her Mayor to the letters of Rotterdam’s architects, I am immediately struck by how most of the letters seem less like a citizen communicating with her elected representative and steward of her town, and more like the pitch of a skilled artisan looking for work from a patron.

So again I ask, are you architects also citizens of Rotterdam? Architects first? Or citizens first? These roles indicate different relationships to the city, its ruling classes and its people, so consider your answer carefully.

Here, I note another clear commonality between almost all the architect letters to Mayor Aboutaleb, namely that most of you present yourselves as “designers of the city.” Positioning yourselves as designers of the city preserves a “classical,” or “neutral” or “innocent” role for the architect, which speaks to an anachronistically holisitic vision of both “the city” and “design.” It gives the impression that architects (still) have access to some kind of clear, clean perspective on the city, on Rotterdam for example, and the power to transform it according to their own skill and thoughts. However, we know that many architects tend to work deeply embedded in spheres of global capitalism, for developers and rulers alike. As one Rotterdam architect-friend describes it: “I am doing a shopping mall in China right now. I never go into the city I am designing. I am not a citizen of that city.” It seems this Rotterdam architect should rather send a letter to the mayor of that Chinese city, no? Or better yet, to the people of that city! And probably this letter should not be written from the grand perspective of “designer of the city,” as the design directive was clearly dictated even before the project began: “Design a space where visitors want to take a selfie.”

My architect-friend continues: “To be a citizen and to be engaged, you need time. And time is scarce in the competitive global architecture business.” This architect does not feel like a citizen of Rotterdam, though they have lived there for years, and they no longer feel a citizen of the city where they grew up, and of course, they are not a citizen of any of the cities in which their buildings are rising. This lack of “citizen-feeling,” a result of the demands of a precarious life working in global capitalism, could be one reason that makes the letters of Rotterdam’s architects to Mayor Aboutaleb, feel so different to me than the letter of Mrs. Mary Copeland to Mayor Wagner of New York.

And now, to return to my very first question: What does it mean to write a letter to your Mayor? Well, in New York, where I come from, it usually means that you feel yourself a citizen of the town, and you want your mayor to understand that he works for you because you have elected him. There is a long tradition of letter-writing to the mayor of New York, and so it is no wonder that the Storefront for Art and Architecture launched this now-global letter-writing project in that city. However, the relationship of the citizens of Rotterdam to their mayor is not the same, neither formally nor informally, as the relationship of citizens of New York to their mayor. Additionally, the relationship between architects and the cities in which their works rise is not the same as that of citizens to their own cities. This may explain the strange tone that many (not all) of the architects’ letters have: as if they were pitches for new work, or letters to an audience of fellow global architects, rather than feeling very local, related to realities of the people of Rotterdam and the conditions in which they live today.

In the 1950’s the Harlem Friendship House undertook a huge project, to document the destruction of the homes and lives of their neighbors, and to advocate for the better housing of these neighbors. In the process, this group of students, young Catholics, and concerned citizens, and friends, turned themselves into an organization of expert urbanists, making their own reports on housing conditions and proposing alternative plans for the renewal of their neighborhoods, and communicating directly with the mayor and the developers. In the end, almost all the buildings on their Harlem block were demolished, including their own. It strikes me that Harlem Friendship House acted in ways I imagine you architects might want to learn from, if you wish to be better citizens of your town. They stood together with people, losing their homes alongside their neighbors, and learned how to see what others experience and how to speak to power, as friends, as urbanists, as citizens of New York.

Thank you for your kind consideration of my critique, extended in the hopes we might all become better friends, to each other and to all the cities which we love, and serve.

Sincerely,

Dr. Adeola Enigbokan

Department of Sociology, University of Amsterdam

Adeola Enigbokan

Adeola Enigbokan is an artist and urbanist based in Amsterdam. Her research practice is informed by theory and methods from environmental psychology, anthropology and historical studies. She conducts research on urban experience with architects, designers, educators and other social researchers in neighborhoods of New York, Tel Aviv, Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Beijing, Mexico City and Amsterdam. In Piece-Walk/Free Zone, she created a walk through New York’s Garment District, based on research into the living conditions of garment workers between 1930 and 1980. For Under Construction/Working at the New Queens Museum, she designed a participatory public performance based on eight weeks spent working alongside a custodian, a curator, a development officer and an artist at the museum. She holds an MPhil in Anthropology and Historical Studies from The New School for Social Research, and a PhD in Environmental Psychology from the City University of New York, based on her doctoral dissertation, Archiving the City: A Guide to the Art of Urban Interventions. She has taught in the Department of Technology, Culture and Society at New York University. She currently teaches Urban Sociology at the undergradute and graduate level at the University of Amsterdam. Her writing appears in the Journal of UrbanismCultural GeographiesThe New Inquiry and Art and the Public Sphere.

Letters to the Mayor was made possible thanks to the generous support of:

Marina Otero Verzier, Marten Kuijpers, Michiel Raats
Eva Franch, Carlos Mínguez Carrasco
Arna Mačkić & Lorien Beijarts, Studio L A
Rudy Guedj
Arif Kornweitz
Sophia Seawell, Malique Mohamud
Yev Kravt
Rogier Goetze