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Saturday, 20 July 2013 23:38

Ethnic Cleansing and Urban Design: Valencia Gardens

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valencia-1943   valencia-2004

                Valencia Gardens 1943                                                    Valencia Gardens 2004      

"As I squinted through the viewfinder, I heard the sound of running feet approaching, and looked up just as the camera was wrenched from my hand.
I still held the strap, and clung tight to it determined to not give way to my fear as the young man on the other end tried to pull it from my grasp. We faced each other.
He, (6 foot six, black, broad and all muscle) “Let go the camera!”
Me (too dumbfounded to think) No!

There we stood, face to face and at two-arms length apart, as the rest of his group caught up to him and slowly formed a semi-circle, edging me back up against the brick wall of a body shop. The street, which until then had been thronged with workers and passers now strangely empty and quiet.

“Let go the camera!

“No!” (surprised that he had not used a profanity).

Whereupon he reached over with his other free hand, took the lens in one hand and the body in the other and quickly snapped the two apart.
I felt a deep rage welling up inside, and insanely I moved towards him, only to have a much smaller youth of about 14 step in my path. I stopped, confused. He was wearing a dirty raincoat pulled closed in front of him, and was smiling broadly. Slowly, he opened the front of his raincoat to reveal the twin barrels of a sawn-off shotgun.....

In early 1993, I was visiting my family in San Francisco. Reading the S. F. Chronicle I noticed a debate going on about the City Council’s decision to locate a number of very expensive and modern abstract art sculptures in the internal courtyards of Valencia Gardens at 15th and Mission. The Gardens were an award-winning public housing project designed in the late 1950s, early 1960s, by William Wurster, a prominent Bay Area architect (and founder of the famous Berkeley College of Environmental Design (and School of Architecture where I had earlier taught).

The projects were now reduced to total slum status – graffiti everywhere, boarded up windows, litter and trash, and unliveable apartments, many with missing or un-maintained plumbing. The cost of the Beniamino Bufano sculptures was enormous – reputed to be around $5M – a sum which, in the properly supported hands of the residents themselves might have gone a long way to developing an environmental self-help process that could have significantly improved their quality of life. The San Francisco City Planning Department, had, in its wisdom, decided instead to install some “uplifting” art in what could only ever have been a complete misunderstanding of the culture of the residents themselves. The idea that the imposition of a white, middle-class aesthetic upon the predominantly black and Latino residents would have been laughable, were it not so patently paternalistic.
I had the idea to go to the Gardens, and photograph the sculptures in the context of their actual surroundings, and put together a lecture for my students in New Zealand. The lecture would cover issues of critical aesthetics, culture and power, hegemony and neo-colonialism. What happened next was a literal eye-opener.

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