Community Landscapes

    We invite Dr. Jules Odendahl-James of Hidden Voices to join us for a workshop on documentary theater. As the students crowd around the table in our usual classroom, I sense something strange in the atmosphere of the room. Our discussion with Jules, about the Outsider Festival, the forms of documentary theater works and the work of Anna Deavere Smith, isn’t out of the ordinary for a discussion in Bull City Dignity. I’m suddenly struck by the Duke-ness of the seminar table, with Dr. OJ at the head and Kari and me at either side, as the students lean over their notebooks dutifully taking notes.

 

    It was in one of these East Campus seminar rooms that I remember first really thinking about the power of design to change the way we experience space. One of my first-year political science professors was lecturing on the architecture of my native city, Washington, D.C. We talked about the architecture of the Washington Monument, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial-- A scar in the earth, we described it. A gash in the landscape.

 

    Kari picks me up from the airport after a visit with my family, and as we drive down Interstate 147, those words ring loudly in my ears. Highway as wound, pavement as scar tissue. In Bull City Dignity, we’ve been telling the story of I-147, a highway funded by referendum in the 1960’s and finally completed in the 90’s. 147 was built through Pettigrew St, straight through the heart of Durham’s Black business district, in the area known as Hayti. Last week, one of our students spoke with a public official who oversaw the passage of the bill that lead to the construction of 147. He used terms like urban renewal and revitalisation to explain the motives behind the highway’s construction through Durham’s historic Hayti region. As Kari and I drive past exit 12, we see the small footbridge that is now the sole link between Hayti and Downtown Durham. Another interviewee tells us: That highway decapitated Black Wall Street. It split the city in two.

 

    I think again to the classroom on the day of Dr. OJ’s visit, with two Duke facilitators and a Duke professor on one side of the room, and the high schoolers on the other. A gash in the landscape. We began noticing that the students were less vocal during this workshop than our usual rehearsals. They seemed intent on taking notes and answered our questions as if searching for the answer we had in mind. As they packed their bags to leave, we wondered why it felt as if we were dismissing them from a lecture. And then I looked again at where I was sitting.

 

    Intentionally or not, those in power constantly build landscapes in a way that alters communities. From the way we center ourselves in a conversation to the physical spaces-- classrooms and highways and warehouses--that we transform, the way we stake a claim to space conveys the way we view our position in the world. Over the past weeks, we’ve asked the students to consider what it means to take up space in Durham. Who feels a right to occupy communal spaces like Old North Durham Park or American Tobacco? Whose claims to space in Durham do we hear, and whose do we silence?

    Our group conversations about the built environment of Durham sound similar to our discussions of Durham’s history. When we talk about who controls the narrative of Durham’s gentrification or Duke’s role in discussions of Durham, the students come to the same question: Who gets to take up space?

 

As we move into the writing process of Bull City Dignity, I’m hoping the students will continue to question the architecture of power not only in the physical landscape, but also in their spaces of conversation. As the students walked into today’s rehearsal, we put a sign up pointing to a new room just down the hall: slightly smaller, with a nice, big table, where Kari and I can sit towards the back and let the conversation flow. First Benji came in, then Tra, and soon Hannah and Khalil. We sat around chatting until 6:30, then started to write.

 

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