Dying to build

By this summer’s end, finances became tight. Even taking odd jobs to pay the rent, finding an extra $15 for a haircut proved more elusive than a tasty cup from Starbucks. As I chose between a few days’ worth of food and shedding a few inches of hair, a bandana became more beloved to me than even my French press.

School begins and with it comes a refreshment of loans. I forget to schedule a haircut – the issue hidden behind cloth – and I continue to wear the black band around my head.

Once more, we ballot for our studio instructors and this time, unlike any governmental elections, my vote counts. I get my first pick, an architect focused on green-building and sustainable urban development. A close contact with DURA, his studio is to focus on the redevelopment of the Welton Street corridor in Five Points.

I enjoy urban theory, discussion, and design, and so I claim my studio desk like it sits at the end of a rainbow with a pot of delicious coffee waiting.

The second day finds our class walking from 16th Street straight along Welton, so that we can get to know immediately the area we’re working in. We reach the actual five points, standing in the shadow of the Deep Rock bottling facility, when a white Crown Victoria pulls up to the red light. Its driver leans out and starts screaming at us. I catch only the words, “Osama bin Laden” several times, delivered with an anger straddling the edge of insanity.

We ignore him, he drives off, and we keep walking.

Blocks onward, a kid on a low-rider bike rides against the grain of traffic, staring me in the eyes as he passes. I stare back, but keep walking. For once, I’m glad I kept my mouth shut. I hadn’t had enough coffee to string together any intelligible sentences anyways.

Only after he rides by does a classmate whisper to me, “Dude, did you see him flashing [gang] signs at you?”

I stopped. At this point, a few others look at me. One stares at my forehead, another brings up the Crown Vic. “He was screaming something about this being ‘the Crips’ hood’ before he stopped…”

I reach up and feel the bandana. I pull it down, fumbling to untie the knot. I start looking around me, hoping not to see the white Crown Vic. If there hadn’t been so many people, if it had been nighttime, if I’d been wearing an even more offensive color…

Or if I’d been in Baltimore…

We learn in school that we need to know our clients, to know the communities within which we work.

I learned from the bandana that it might be imperative to do so. It might be life threatening not to. How can we know when we might offend?

Living for architecture is one thing, but dying for it?

All you architects with war stories, raise your hands and regale.

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