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The last vehicle in the world....

.....that I imagined Shannon Flattery might be driving was a gold Mercedes. But the fact that she was made her all the more interesting, I like it when people don’t fit patterns of expectation. And besides it was a kind of retro 1970s model. So we drove around Richmond, homicide capital of the Bay Area, and she gave me a short history of her work and the project that she has been developing in the last couple of months.

I had contacted Shannon after receiving an email via a Berkeley list about her project in Boston, Touchable Stories, which engages neighbourhoods which suffer from high crime rates, poor employment prospects, gentrification pressure or all three. Similar to the premise of the Neighbourhood Story Project in New Orleans the idea is to empower residents to tell their own stories about where they live and in the process to challenge negative stereotypes. I wanted to meet Shannon because I am increasingly interested in what architects can learn from the qualitative methods used by artists working in the field of urban revitalisation. As a professional, your analytical tools inevitably condition how you come to understand a place and in turn how you choose to intervene. Architects tend towards information that can be represented in a diagram - physical attributes, quantifiable data, classifiable typologies (residential, commercial, open space, infrastructure etc). What can we learn from anthropological methods that seek to understand and define a place and its needs through narratives and stories?

The final outcomes of Shannon’s projects are interactive installations in a local ‘non-art’ space (a church hall, a disused municipal office….), a series of rooms by different artists, each exploring a particular theme which in some way defines the neighbourhood (for example languages, industries, landmarks, dreams, housing, spirituality, violence). The exhibit is open to the public for a year and often becomes a temporary social hub in the neighbourhood. During this time the organisers (a collaborative of artists and local residents) arrange special tours for ‘targeted’ groups. These are the people they believe need to hear the stories in particular - city officials, police, local businessmen, future investors, school teachers and so on.

The installation only begins to materialise after eighteen months of intense local interactions. This process takes a number of different forms, from interviews with up to a hundred individuals from a range of backgrounds, to community dinners (“to get people at the table whose voices should have been heard long ago”) and weekly volunteering for local organisations (“making ourselves useful too”). My favourite anecdote was about the tours of the city which Shannon has been given by cops of four different ethnic origins, African American, White, Hispanic and Asian, and the different perspectives they each have on the city. It was one of those who had introduced her to the best view of Richmond, which turns out to be from the parking lot of the golf course on the hill and which is also where we sat in the gold Mercedes while she explained how Richmond developed.

Since the realisation of each project depends on the participation of a network of local artists Shannon organised a dinner to which she invited a hundred artists who live in the area. She described how pleasantly surprised she was when sixty came and each one expressed a desire to help in any way they could. It was an interesting reminder that an ‘outsider’ can be a positive catalyst for local action.

I was also fascinated by how she had interpreted the relationship between Berkeley and Richmond, “two totally different worlds”. A wealth of research has been produced about Richmond in the past, “though you wouldn’t know it to look at the city”. Since much of it is stored at Berkeley, one of her goals is to provoke a discussion about how all that intellectual and financial energy can be channelled towards the city in more productive ways. So another of her dinners involved getting together as many academics as she could in Berkeley who had studied various aspects of Richmond in recent decades.

As we drove through the Iron Triangle, the ‘no-go’ area in the centre of the city so-called because it is framed by three railway tracks, Shannon was emphatic about the one thing she has continually learnt from her experiences - “that no-one has ever really taken the time to listen to the people who live here”. She is certainly honest about her bias against well-paid officials, consultants and….architects! Interestingly, her past installations have often been a catalyst for an influx of neighbourhood investment though this is not an explicit or even implicit goal. In this sense it will be interesting to follow her progress in Richmond which has suffered from disinvestment ever since the shipyards which effectively brought it into being closed after the Second World War (though a planning and design group in Berkeley has just been paid $1.5 million to draw up a new masterplan for the city…..) She drove us (Jay and me) out to an old Model T Ford Factory, the first on the West Coast (?), a giant edifice of a warehouse, which sits empty on the edge of the bay, beautiful and bleak, right next to the displaced city hall which apparently moved out into an isolated strip development while refurbishments were taking place and seems not to have raised the money to move back into town.

I had only a snapshot glimpse into Shannon’s project but her mode of working corresponds with what has caught my imagination about the people that I’m going to work with in Europe (more about that in another post), some of the speakers at Structures for Inclusion and the Rural Studio – the notion of the on-site presence, where interaction through everyday activities in everyday spaces dissolves the formal boundaries and professional divides of official ‘meetings’ allowing more subtle, complex understandings of a place to emerge. This unfortunately is the ‘time’ which is not easily categorised in the balance sheet of budget-tight consultation processes.
I’ll look forward to seeing her developments when I return to Berkeley next Spring!
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