SAH Blog


  • DIANNE HARRIS: Race, Space, and Trayvon Martin

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    Jul 25, 2013

    By DIANNE HARRIS * 

    In a few weeks, I’ll once again begin teaching my fall semester graduate seminar on “Race and Space” at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I hold a faculty position. The seminar examines the relationship between the social construction of race and the construction of the built environment (architecture, urban space, landscapes), focusing primarily on the United States. It also examines the relationships that exist among property ownership, race, class, citizenship, justice, and notions of belonging. The course is meant to emphasize the material (read “built”) dimensions of race, and the ideological operations through which the construction of racial identities and the construction of the built environment are and have been intertwined. An interdisciplinary endeavor, the seminar includes writings by historians and theorists of the built environment and of race; and by anthropologists, geographers, and scholars from ethnic studies, American studies, cultural studies, and African-American studies, among others. The course carries the rubric of my departmental affiliation—Landscape Architecture—but it is open to graduate students from any department in the university. It fills each time I’ve offered it; graduate students from departments as diverse as English, History, Anthropology, Educational Policy, Library and Information Science, Art History, and Art Education have filled the course (far fewer students from the expected professional design degree majors have taken the course). In some instances, the seminar has shifted the direction of students’ thesis and dissertation topics. Notably, and perhaps predictably, the course also tends to attract a far more racially diverse group of students than do some of my other courses. Some of you may teach similar courses on your campuses. I hope so. Here’s why: 

    The events of the past week have demonstrated, tragically and again, that race and space are linked, and that they are matters of life and death. Trayvon Martin died on February 26, 2012, because he was a black youth wearing a hooded sweatshirt in a gated community in a United States that remains characterized by high levels of racism and housing segregation. The man who shot and killed him, George Zimmerman, decided that a 17-year-old black youth was literally and suspiciously out of place, even in what has been described as a multi-ethnic gated community. The case is neither simple, nor easily analyzed. It is surely about the laws surrounding gun control, and Florida’s “Stand your ground” law. It is about a legal and judicial system that overwhelmingly targets and incarcerates black men. It is very clearly about race, about the severely limited  and limiting set of representations of black youth that circulate in our culture today, and about our refusal to confront the most serious forms of racism that persist in the United States. All of these matters have been addressed, to varying degrees, by journalists, by scholars, and by rightfully-outraged citizens over the past week.

    But we’ve not heard or read nearly as much about the restricted spatial freedoms that severely limit and even threaten the lives of those not identified as white, restrictions that are among the most debilitating of the racist practices we need to address, but rarely discuss—restrictions that cost Trayvon Martin his life. We may no longer live in an era of sundown towns and lynchings, but Trayvon Martin’s death shows us that blacks and other people of color cannot move freely in parts of the United States without fearing they will be harmed—perhaps even by the very same police charged with offering protections—and/or that they will be entirely without the security of police protection should they be accosted or attacked.

    What do I mean by spatial freedom? I mean the freedom to travel anywhere at any time without being stopped by the police simply because of one’s appearance; I mean the freedom of access to retail environments and the ability to shop at leisure without being suspected of shop-lifting; I mean the equal ability to find housing in any neighborhood one can afford (and fair access to home loans to insure that possibility); I mean equal access to good schools, fresh food, and clean air and water. I mean the ability to go to a convenience store, purchase a snack, and then walk through a gated community where one’s family is a guest without being accosted or shot by someone who considers you a threat because of the color of your skin or the hooded sweatshirt you are wearing.  These are freedoms that involve the spaces we inhabit and our rights to them—cities, suburbs, houses—so I consider them relevant and important for those of us who study the built environment. And so, by the way, did at least one well-known spatial theorist, Henri Lefebvre.

    How might we work towards a greater level of engagement in professional degree curricula with these issues? What role do courses like my seminar on “Race and Space” play in the pedagogical work and praxis we perform as architectural, landscape, and urban historians? How might we shape educational cultures in design schools that permit a greater breadth and depth of intellectual conversation and debate about the connections that exist between structural racism and the built environment, both now and in the past? 

    I’ve been fortunate to teach this course as a graduate seminar, where students elect to engage in what can be difficult conversations. After all, race talk makes most white-identified folks in the United States very uncomfortable. The subject of white privilege is challenging and even disturbing for many students, especially for white students (the majority of the architecture students at Illinois are white—your demographics may vary). Our national conversations about race are ridiculously impoverished; It was a great relief, and perhaps one of the most important moments of his Presidency when Barack Obama finally spoke publicly about his own experiences with racism and spatial mobility on Friday, July 19th, noting that he, too has been followed in retail environments and treated with suspicion on urban streets. Students also may feel ill-prepared to engage in conversations about race since they’ve likely been asked to do so little of it in the years leading up to their graduate work. Moreover, the vast majority of those engaged in (and especially leading) professional practice in the United States are white. The vast majority of teaching faculty in design schools in the United States are categorized as white. The vast majority of students in professional schools of architecture and landscape architecture in the United States are white. Their white privilege allows them the freedom to ignore racism, to see it as something that is outside the realm of professional practice, and even (and more perniciously) to imagine that we now live in a so-called post-racial society. I am white, so I know this very well. I can decide not to think about race whenever I choose to do so, and I can walk through gated residential neighborhoods without having my presence questioned.  

    We owe it to our students and their peers to bring these issues of racial justice into the core of design education. And into our courses in architectural history and theory. As a starting point, perhaps SAH members would like to join me in starting a syllabus exchange for courses that engage with the subject of race and space. I am happy to make the syllabus for my seminar available to anyone who would like a copy (for now, just send me an email request: harris3@illinois.edu). By confronting racism in its many forms, architects, planners, and landscape architects can do their part in the work for racial justice and equality. Hopefully, young black men of the future will have no limits placed on their freedom of spatial mobility, and on their sense of where they belong.  

    * My thanks to Dr. Sharon Irish and Dr. Michael Burns for commenting on drafts of this essay.


    Dianne Harris is professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign specializing in the history of housing and suburban development in postwar America. Her groundbreaking publications on "race and place" include Little White Houses: How the Postwar Home Constructed Race in America (2012), and the collection of essays, Second Suburb: Levittown, Pennsylvania (2010). She is former editor of SAHARA, a regular contributor to JSAH, and the director of the Illinois Program for Research in Humanities.
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  • The Revitalized and the Neglected: Rapp and Rapp's Movie Palaces in Chicago

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    Jul 17, 2013

    by SAH Metcalf Intern Christine Shang-Oak Lee

    C H I C A G O

    The red and yellow neon letters of this instantly recognizable marquee sign that brighten up the corner of State and Lake are one of the defining landmarks of the city’s nightscape – immortalized on the posters for the popular musical film Chicago (2002).  The masterminds behind this Chicago emblem were Cornelius W. (1861-1927) and George L. (1878-1924) Rapp who established their own successful architectural firm Rapp and Rapp.  Trained at the University of Illinois School of Architecture, the brother-duo designed several hundreds movie palaces throughout the country in the early twentieth century.  By teaming up with the Balaban and Katz theater chain – the forerunner of today’s Paramount Pictures – the brothers constructed their most famous works in Chicago.

    Rapp and Rapp’s theaters reflect the rapidly changing forms of the movie-going experience in the twentieth century – not only in their initial designs but also, and perhaps more significantly, in what is done with these buildings after their inaugural years.  The exhibition of films originated in vaudeville houses, with the earliest films – which were only ten to fifteen minutes long – being shown as one of the vaudeville acts.  The present-day Bank of America Theatre (1906), which was designed by Edmund R. Krause aided by the young C. W. and George L. Rapp, was initially a vaudeville house.  The theater joined the Orpheum Circuit in the 1920s and later began screening movies in the early 1930s.  The Bryn Mawr Theatre (1914) also originally operated as a vaudeville theater, switching to functioning as a nickelodeon, a small storefront theater charging a nickel for admissions, in its later years before closing in the 1980s.  This modest two-story building which was built right next to the Bryn Mawr Stop of the elevated L tracks on the Red Line has surprisingly survived, currently being utilized as a retail store and storage space.

      

    With the advent of the feature film and innovations in sound cinema, bigger auditoriums were necessary to accommodate larger audiences – thus ushering in the era of grand movie palaces.  The theaters boasted of excessive ornamentation and utilized motifs of the royal palace, the Exotic, and the Atmospheric in order to fill the audience with awe and wonder.

    Rapp & Rapp’s theaters featured designs that relied heavily on historical references to the Old World.  The Chicago Theatre (1921) – the flagship of the Balaban & Katz chain, the State-Lake Theatre (1919) and Cadillac Palace Theatre (1926) of the Orpheum Circuit, as well as the Riviera Theatre (1918) in the North Side Uptown neighborhood all recall the lavishly ornate designs of the French Baroque style inspired by the Palace of Versailles.  Gold leaf ornamentation, crystal chandeliers, rose marbled walls, towering columns, and successions of lobbies and foyers characterized the interior of these theaters.  Another prominent Old World style was the Spanish Revival that characterizes the Central Park Theatre (1917) and the Uptown Theatre (1925) of the western and northern neighborhoods, respectively.  Despite these overt architectural references to the European royalty, it is interesting to note that the architects' philosophy included the democratization of the theater-going activity.  George Rapp said of one of his theaters, “Here is a shrine to democracy where the wealthy rub elbows with the poor.”

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    The Oriental Theatre (1926), now called the Ford Center for the Performing Arts Oriental Theater, is an example of theaters that drew on exoticised motifs in order to satiate the cultural hunger for styles of faraway lands.  Inspired by the architecture of India and the Far East, lights consisted of elephant heads with tusks, the walls were adorned with soft silk and regal velvets, and the ceiling was  garishly decorated with plasterwork elephants and other exotic beasts.



    Another popular architectural style that characterized movie palaces was the Atmospheric.  Instead of decorating the ceiling with the standard ornate dome, the plaster ceiling of the Gateway Theatre (1930) was left bare, resembling an Italian outdoor garden complete with twinkling stars and floating clouds.  The open-air illusion reinforced the fantasy world that the architects wanted to create for the theater patrons.

    What the architects wanted to provide for the audience was an all-encompassing experience by creating a total environment.  The original architectural drawings and floor plans held at the Chicago History Museum reveals the elaborate designs with which the imaginative architects decorated every corner of these movie palaces.  What they had in mind was the experience of the moviegoers, carefully planning out the path that they would take as they first came upon the theater's facade, through the doors into the ticket lobby, then into the grand lobby and up the grand staircase, and past the ushers into their seats where they would be able to gaze up to the high ornate ceilings of the auditorium.  The minutest details of ladies' powder rooms and gentlemens’ smoking rooms to the water fountains and grills for the air conditioning vents were deliberated upon and lavishly decorated accordingly.

    With the introduction of personal television sets that brought entertainment for the masses into the home and the burgeoning growth of cinema complexes at the suburban mall, movie palaces experienced a decline of theatergoers in the 1950s.  Many of Rapp and Rapp’s theaters were closed and razed in the 1970s and 1980s.  Luckily, the theaters standing in the Loop have been able to go through major renovations costing hundreds of millions of dollars, due to Mayor Richard M. Daley’s revitalization efforts in developing the North Loop Theater District in the last decades of the twentieth century.  Today, Rapp & Rapp theaters downtown are still bustling hubs of entertainment with the capability of drawing in crowds from around the world for the performing arts (save for the State-Lake whose interior was gutted and converted into studios and offices for the ABC network in 1985).

    The extant theaters in the Northern and Western neighborhoods have been, however, in varying states of disrepair.  Even the Riviera Theatre, which is now a popular concert venue, is covered up with a white tarp across the top arches of its facade. Just down the street, the Uptown Theatre, which has gone through an unfortunate series of failed efforts of renovation, sits frozen in time with its windows and doors boarded up, the marquee baring its rusted metal grating, and its once beautiful arches covered up by a tarp.  The huge spaces inside these buildings have, however, given specific communities in Chicago a place for communal gatherings.  The Central Park Theatre, although it had lost the glitzy shine of its better days, was purchased by the House of Prayer, Church of God in Christ in 1971 and has since been used for congregations.  The Gateway Theatre, now called the Copernicus Center, was acquired by the Polish-American Congress in 1985 and subsequently restored as a place for community gatherings for the huge Polish population in Chicago.

    In the next several years, Rapp and Rapp's theaters will celebrate their hundred-year anniversaries. The active theaters in the Loop will undoubtedly take advantage of this milestone with celebratory events, but it will be important to keep an eye out for the next steps for these neglected theaters in the Northern and Western neighborhoods which have enormous architectural and historical value for the city of Chicago.

    Christine Shang-Oak Lee is a 2013 Jeff Metcalf Fellow at the Society of Architectural Historians, and a fourth-year undergraduate at the University of Chicago studying art history.  She is currently researching Western-style architecture in Korea built during its colonial period.  On campus, you can find her in the projectionist booth with her hands tangled in old film reels at the student-run Doc Films, or drumming away infectious beats in the traditional Korean percussion group. 

    Use these photos for teaching or research! Hi-res versions of Christine's photos can be found in SAHARA: saharaonline.org

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  • Links of the Week

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    Jun 27, 2013

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