I wanted to start off my first blog post by thanking the Maharam STEAM Fellowship for the chance to be able to pursue an opportunity I have dreamt of for years. Taiwanese Pith Papermaking was first introduced to me while I was working for Carriage House Paper (a paper educational institution and supplying company). While I was there, I saw that we had a short 10 minute documentary in stock on the topic of Taiwanese Pith Papermaking. As a practicing papermaker of over 5 years, it immediately piqued my interest because I had never heard of such a method. After reaching out to many people from the hand papermaking community, I realized not many people had experience with Pith Paper other than Elaine Koretsky (founder of Carriage House Paper) and Jane Ingram Allen. Unfortunately, I could not ask Ms. Koretsky about what she knew of the subject because her health was declining at the time I knew her. I am grateful for the information she brought back, because if not for her, I would not have even known to seek this rare form of hand papermaking. I was fortunate enough to be able to reach out to Jane Ingram Allen who was able to provide a short article on Pith Paper that she had written. In the United States, Allen and Koretsky are the only two known papermakers who have had direct experience researching paper made from Tetrapanax Papyrifer. Neither have had experience making pith paper. Their previous work gives a great introduction into the art of making pith paper. I want to continue their work and expand upon it in greater detail so that many more can enjoy the rich story of Pith Paper and Flower making. I am grateful to my project partner, Eden Tai, who will help make documenting this story possible.
On August 2nd, I began work right away with the members of the Taiwan TongCao Association: Kuei Mei Liang (Environmental Educator), Jerry Chen (Pith Flower Expert) and Professor Lin ( from PingTung University). We met at the prestigious National Taiwan University to discuss our schedule for the next 4.5 months. Jerry graciously gave me a book that he published on how to make Pith Flowers. All of it is written in Chinese and I have been slowly trying to translate the directions as I practice each flower. Afterward, we explored the herbarium which contained two Tetrapanax plants planted by Professor Kuei Mei (Not Kuei Mei Liang. They happened to have the same name). The plant leaves can get to be about 2ft wide.
The stems of the plant have this powdery substance that supposedly protects the plant from drying out in the heat. Jerry said that once he tried to dry out the stems for a personal project, but could not figure out why it would not dry for several weeks in his drier system. Finally, he removed the plant’s powder from the stems and the next day he achieved the results he wanted. Jerry told me that back in ancient times, people used to take the powder from the plant and pack them in their wounds to prevent further bleeding.
Professor Kuei Mei later showed me how to properly bind plants to paper for scientific documentation. There are very specific rules to sewing these plants in place that I would have never thought of. We tried to fold a Tetrapanax leaf for drying so we could sew it for documentation. The leaves can get to be 2 ft wide so there was no easy way to fold the leaf in a nice arrangement. The stock in which you sew onto is approximately 13″x18″. It won’t be dry until a few months from now.
I also got to see the earliest documentation of Tetrapanax in their archives before the institution was even called National Taiwan University. The University was founded in 1928 during the Japanese ruling and was called Taihoku Imperial University.
What is Pith Paper?
Pith paper is made from the plant: Tetrapanax Papyrifer or Tong Cao 通草 in Chinese. The genus, Tetrapanax is in the family Araliaceae in the major group Angiosperms. The leaves of Tetrapanax have been used in herbal remedies to promote lactation in women and the pith has been also been used as a diuretic. The pith of Tetrapanax was also used to cushion the deceased in coffins. It would absorb the fluids from the body as it was decaying to prevent the bones from rotting. Usually only rich people received this treatment. Apparently, whiter bones symbolizes good luck for the deceased person’s offspring in early Chinese folk tradition.
Pith Paper is frequently misnomered as “rice paper”– a term given by Westerners for any type of Asian styled paper. Some papermakers and farmers in East Asia deem this term quite derogatory and disrespectful to their profession as the paper has nothing to do with rice. It generalizes many unique and highly specialized styles of papermaking. Furthermore, paper must be made from cellulose and rice is a grain, so the terminology is incorrect.
Technically speaking, Pith Paper is not quite a paper either. Paper must be made of randomly woven plant fibers, but Pith is made from a complex cell structure. However, because it functions the same way as paper does, it is still called “paper” for convenience. It is a “Paper unlike Paper”.
In Taiwan currently, there is only one remaining Pith Paper craftsman (Tseng Su-hsiang) and one Pith Flower making expert (Jerry Chen). The time has never been more urgent to research the near defunct craft of Taiwanese pith paper making. Pith paper plays an important role in the cultural history of Taiwan. The usage of pith paper dates back to the Qing Dynasty. It was used for prints, paintings and most notably for making beautifully crafted artificial flowers used in ceremonies, cultural celebrations and fashionable hair accessories. Because Pith paper was so abundant during that time, artisans who painted on it often used it for practice before painting on more expensive papers or canvases (more on this in a later blog post, I am still translating the textbook that elaborates on this matter). The local pith industry was encouraged by Japanese commercial interest and reached its peak around 1910 during the Japanese occupation. During this time, pith paper was exported in large quantities from Taiwan and was an important source of national revenue. The production of pith paper thrived in Taiwan until the 1980s when plastic was being more commonly used as a cheap, durable and disposable material. After plastic’s rise to material predominance, these traditional flowers were no longer made from pith paper. Thus, in 1993, the use of plastic forced remaining pith paper factories in Taiwan to migrate to mainland China where there was a better chance for economic survival. Since then, even many of the factories that have moved have closed down. As the demand for Tetrapanax diminished, farmers switched their crops to grow produce instead. Kuei Mei Liang took me to Yang Ming Shan (Yang Ming Mountain) where Tetrapanax was once abundant. Now, most of it has been chopped down to make room for other crops. We found a couple Tetrapanax plants in the back of a restaurant we went to at the bottom of the mountain. Kuei Mei told me that she remembered this whole valley being full of Tetrapanax over 30 years ago. There were still some rice patties in the mountains during that time but they did not interfere with the Tetrapanax crops. After the government turned Yang Ming Shan into a national park in the 1980s, most of the rice patties eventually turned into Calla Lily Farms for tourists.
In Kuei Mei’s own attempts to bring back more Tetrapanax to the mountain, she planted seven plants along a trail during a residency in 2017 sponsored by the government. Currently, there are only two left from what she first planted. She suspects that perhaps she didn’t plant them properly or that tourists may have accidentally damaged them. We still went to go see the Tetrapanax plants that remained however. I really admired Kuei Mei’s dedication to the plant. Kuei Mei is retired now, but now she volunteers a lot of her time to promoting the education of pith paper. When she was 65, she went back to graduate school to write her dissertation on Tetrapanax.
How is Pith Paper made?
Pith paper is produced by chopping the stalk of the plant into pieces, then pushing out the pith of the Tetrapanax. The pith is then pared spirally to form long narrow sheets. The end result is a thin, delicate, and translucent paper.
Sometime next month, we will be meeting with the Pith Paper master who will demonstrate Pith Papermaking for us. While we are there, we will provide photo and video documentation.
Lack of Tools Becomes Major Issue
What we recently discovered is that one main reason it has been difficult to carry on the tradition of Pith Papermaking is that there has been an extreme lack of tools since factories closed down in the 1990s. I was informed that some factories just threw all their tools away once there was no more need for production. There are no knife makers left in Taiwan who can make the exact tool needed. As a result, the remaining Pith Paper maker in Taiwan will not teach anyone who does not have their own tools for fear of having a student accidentally break theirs. Jerry Chen, Pith Flower expert, has tried to recreate the knife several times but has been unsuccessful so far. He informed me that the papermaker would not let him measure her knife (maybe for fear that the measuring tools would knick her knife). Jerry informed me that the only craftsman who knows how to handle her knife lives in the Guang Dong area in China. Therefore, it is extremely inconvenient to get the knife repaired.
Pith Flower Making
I attended my first Pith Flower making class on August 5th. It has been an incredible experience to work with Jerry. He was very welcoming and happy to share his knowledge. I felt so honored to be in his presence. On first impression, I could tell he was genuinely passionate about what he was doing. It was funny because Jerry was a Furniture Designer turned Pith Flower maker. Which is honestly what I think I might become (for those of you reading who don’t know already, I just graduated RISD from the Furniture Department).
Here are some examples of his work on display at NTU:
On the first day, we learned the most simple type of flowers: Morning Glories and Gardenias.
The pith of Tetrapanax is an incredible material. You must dampen the paper in order to manipulate it, otherwise it is quite brittle when dry and will easily break. It swells and come alive when you spray water on it. When I was first making the Morning Glories, I pinched and squeezed the paper until it looked like the flower was closed. Then I sprayed it with water and slowly grew to open. I was really amazed. I might make it again and ask Eden to help me film this phenomenon
We used molds to make the leaves. Unfortunately the person who made Jerry’s mold no longer makes them anymore, but fortunately I have the skills to learn how to remake them (my senior thesis required a lot of mold making and bronze casting)! That may be an endeavor for later during this project.
The next day, I wanted to make sure that I could remember everything I learned so I tried both flowers again. These were the results:
On August 12th, I took a class with Eden after she arrived! We learned how to make Jasmine Flowers and Cherry Blossoms. Eden wanted to try making some flowers before she started filming to get a better sense of the craft.
On August 19th, I learned how to make roses and Cosmos. Eden did her first day of filming. The shots looked great! I was glad she could take over photo documentation because my phone camera is very blurry! Now that she is here, our photos will look more professional. Yay!
Although the Cosmos looked the most simple, I actually thought they were the hardest to make. For some of the previous flowers, if you made a mistake, it was a bit easier to hide them underneath other petals. However, with the Cosmo, your mistakes were in plain site.
Here is some of Eden’s beautiful photos of my flowers from yesterday:
Tomorrow, Eden and I will be heading to Taoyuan City to go to Jerry’s office. We will be learning how to properly dye Pith paper and how to arrange the flowers we have made in vases. Eden will also film Jerry’s process and we will interview him for the documentary. Next Monday, we will spend the entire day learning how to make Peonies (my favorite flower!!) Stay tuned!
Throughout my time at Walk Bike, I’ve been slowly chipping away at my primary summer project when I haven’t been doing other design work and strategizing with my organization. It’s about time I catch y’all up on this!
Entering my internship, my goal was to make a guide to the politics and decision-making around street infrastructure in Nashville. In my initial talks with Walk Bike Nashville’s executive director, Nora Kern, she shared some of the nonprofit’s needs, and a guide to making changes in the streets jumped out at me as a great personal learning opportunity as well as a helpful resource for Nashvillians.
When I arrived at Walk Bike for the summer, Lindsey and Nora immediately connected me via email with a handful of people in city planning and urban design and beautification roles to talk to. I also reached out to someone at the Nashville Civic Design Center, The Cumberland River Compact, and two different community activists who had successfully made changes in their neighborhoods’ infrastructure. My questions starting out were: What are the frequently asked-for improvements? What infrastructure changes are most difficult, most do-able, and most worth highlighting in the guide? Additionally, I wanted to know what resources on this topic already existed, where the gaps were, and generally how my work could be most helpful.
After talking with Nora and Lindsey, my mentors at Walk Bike, we decided the guide would best be organized by issues people might care about, with a page of strategies and tactics for addressing each issue leading to individual How-to’s for various specific tactics. For example ‘Better Walking’ would lead to strategies like ‘Traffic Calming’ which includes tactics like ‘Building Sidewalks,’ ‘Planting Street Trees,’ or ‘Lowering the Speed Limit,’ among others. Then each of those changes could be featured on its own page with a list of steps, people you’d talk to, and helpful resources. Lindsey, who worked on Traffic Calming in New York City before moving to Nashville, wanted to emphasize that there are many different ways to approach an issue like ‘Better Walking,’ or ‘Safer Streets,’ and warned against a format that might lead someone to fixate on just one solution.
My next step was to make my Strategies and Tactics ‘menus,’ then start gathering info on how to achieve specific infrastructural changes. With all of this information in a rough draft, I turned my attention towards developing the graphics. In order to get inspired and generate ideas, I started some paintings that could be used to illustrate different concepts in the guide, and make the document a little more visually interesting. Because my first week at Walk Bike ended with their art sale fundraiser, I was also thinking these paintings could also be sold at their next art fundraiser, raising extra awareness about the guide as well as money for the organization.
I’m spending my last few weeks this summer crystallizing the graphics and finalizing the guide. More on this soon!
It’s content time! :~) One of my biggest weaknesses as an artist is my tendency to forget to reflect on the work I’ve been doing – I’m the type to just keep pushing through, because I’m also the type to always take on an never-ending stream of work. So,
When I was first starting out at IntegrateNYC, I was tasked with looking over integratenyc.org and thinking about what needed tweaking. The biggest thing that stuck out to me was that the website didn’t put any emphasis on the individual members of the organization, while the actual work that was being done revolved around the high visibility of and the strengths + experiences of our youth leaders. Before the website became a back-burner project, I whipped up a little motion graphic fantasy on what team profiles might look like.
This wouldn’t really be possible for one tiny artist to implement on a Squarespace website, but I just wanted to get across the idea of an activist “web.” IntegrateNYC is unique in that basically all of its youth + adult leaders are involved in a wide array of activism and community work. What connects them, beyond IntegrateNYC, are their leadership skills – I felt like these skills would be a neat way to take a user from one profile to another, so that looking at our team would be like looking at a spider’s web of activism rather than highly individualistic + unconnected leader profiles.
This went a lot of places after this initial sketch, and I’m really excited to unveil the changes to the website at the end of August.
Since the Gala I mentioned in my last post required all hands, I was put on Integrate Museum duty. I had to recreate a litany of “artifacts” from our past work, such as post-it notes that were used to brainstorm when formulating the 5 R’s, signs from protests, and so on. The importance of physical artifacts and the roles museums play in a digital world has been on my mind since spring semester, so this assignment felt timely. Little synchronicities like that are always reassuring for an over thinker such as myself.
^ Two signs from a march hung on the curtain, and a mock sound device permit in the frame.
^ Post-it notes from past brainstorming sessions, a sign from a protest on the right, and a silhouette + sign from a pop-up mural.
What’s so intriguing about it for me, now and in the moment, is the act of recreation. The importance of an activism artifact is the activism itself, and yet these physical objects I created were technically never a part of that. They were representations of a time, fabricated snapshots of the labor and love of the youth leaders who made and marched the originals.
At the same time though, to agonize over the accuracy of every sharpie’d letter felt kind of… magical? Studying a photo for reference isn’t a foreign act to me as an Illustration student, nor is plain old imitation, but to sit there and tear the cardboard and position the marker and capture the natural handwriting felt more like a performance within itself. I could never embody these young leaders, but I can pay them homage. I can give their labor physical space and a paying audience. It’s hardly praxis, but it’s certainly a tender moment – it was nice to see the youth leaders who once held those signs or write the post-its come back and re-live their work.
There were lots of little things that came after that. Thanks to the trust of my supervisor, I’ve been able to infuse design into all of them, regardless of whether they even really called for it. :~)
Like I mentioned in my previous post, the NYC DOE passed 62 policies based on the recommendations of our student leaders. I worked with my supervisor to summarize those policies in plain language, and then made them into little images that could be easily shared on social media. Here are some of those:
Speaking of social media, I’ve been working on that too! Follow us on Instagram @integratenyc or Twitter @integratenyc. I made a really long thread about how segregation in housing leads to segregation in schools, which you should definitely check out if you want to get educated!
Another small project highlight is a grant report I helped complete – usually these are just plain write-ups, but I convinced my supervisor that it’d be even better with a companion pamphlet with photos from our work over the year. I can’t show you the finished version we sent in, but here’s an early version of one of the pages:
Even though these pieces aren’t revolutionary by any means, I feel like it’s an important reminder that sometimes creating a visual is literally just about making things clearer for the consumption of the majority. There’s a lot of pitfalls in that, namely in that working for the majority often means excluding many vulnerable people, but it feels good to be able to simply share the things we’ve done as an organization with the people we’re doing it for.
The “big” project, which has taken up a huge chunk of time for us since the Gala, is putting together materials for Integrate’s Back to the Vision Board campaign.
^ Here’s a graphic I made to promote the campaign! Essentially, from August 5th until September 5th, we’re pushing to reach our first fundraising milestone of 75,000 by the time school starts back up for NYC students. Our first milestone towards what, you ask? We have the pretty lofty goal of raising 1.1 million dollars over the next 5 years – that’s a dollar for every NYC student.
Besides coordinating the outreach to fundraisers and participating communities, I made a campaign video! It was incredibly challenging to stitch together videos from multiple sources (shot with all types of equipment, I may add) in order to create a cohesive narrative, let alone create one that paints a clear enough picture of IntegrateNYC to convince the viewer to donate. I could have tweaked it forever, but if you want to see how it all came together by the time August rolled in, here it is:
Please please PLEASE check out our fundraising page if you’re interested in donating, or even if you’re just interested in seeing our progress towards 75k.
Next week we have our Summer Institute, during which I’ll be teaching a small workshop on Artivism in history and in practice. I’ll be sharing that lesson plan with y’all in my final update, as well as a website unveiling, some more social media stuff, and reflections on the Summer Institute (and the whole IntegrateNYC experience).
Four days after arriving to Taipei on August 8, I joined my project partner Irene at a pith paper flower class taught by Jerry Chen. We were greeted by Jerry and Kuei Mei, our main advisor, at the Taiwan Nature Trail Society office. Although Irene had arrived a few days before me and therefore already met everyone, it was my first time meeting the people we would work with for the next five months. Everyone was so welcoming and eager to work with us to support the continuation of pith traditions.
Jerry Chen, who originally majored in furniture design, learned about tong cao(pith) through an assignment given by a client who was interested in “green” materials. After doing research about existing materials which are marketed as sustainable, Jerry came to the conclusion that many “green” options did not meet his own standards of sustainability. Although he is a skilled pith flower maker and teacher, Jerry also wants to explore the possibilities of using pith beyond arts and crafts. But for today, the focus was on flowers.
Jerry gave us each a kit in a ziplock bag which included hand-dyed and cut pieces of pith. Today’s lessons would be on jasmine flowers and cherry blossoms. Working with pith for the first time was way more fun than I expected. It looks like normal paper, but feels like thin foam. When sprayed lightly with filtered water (tap water can cause the pith to discolor over time), it becomes soft and moldable. When dried, it keeps its new shape. The lesson involved lots of spraying, manipulating with various tools, drying, and assembling pieces with string and glue. Jerry, who has been practicing pith flowers for about 20 years, makes it look effortless. As a first-time student, there was a lot of trial and error. I was so focused on the project that I didn’t realize how much time had passed! After six hours, we still hadn’t completed our flower arrangements. We took the remaining pieces home to complete ourselves.
Handling the material for the first time gave me a new appreciation for pith paper, pith flowers, and the community surrounding it. I have never worked with anything like this before! Now that I have experience with pith, I feel more prepared to help Kuei Mei and the other tong cao researchers, artists, and enthusiasts research new applications for pith paper. This is an aspect of our collaboration which I hadn’t considered before. Soon, I will begin collecting footage for our documentary as Irene continues her writing, research, and flower lessons.
As a month has passed since my fellowship started, the core question I had in my mind was what is the true mission I hold as the Maharam STEAM Fellow. Last week, I had a meeting with Sue Anderbois and she helped me redefine what is the true mission I want to serve as a fellow. Sue is a director of the Food Strategy and she supports a local food system and fights for anti-hunger. Her position is very unique because, witnessing problems of communication, she invented her own job in the government. She has the flexibility to work interdisciplinarily as she listens to people from different organizations and individuals of the community. She seeks opportunities where they can interact and have a partnership through innovative projects. I truly enjoyed listening to her mission as her flexibility and innovative pursuit resembled the core mission of Maharam. Over the month, I was thrilled with exciting projects and ideas that came up through visiting sites and meeting community leaders. However, as my ambition grows, I encountered numerous challenges that relate to responsibility and limits of time and budget. I am a young designer who is very passionate about working with the community. However, how should I balance the line between my limit and aspiration?
Eliza is my colleague who received a year grant for facilitating a large network of community gardens owned by the City. She is a perfect partner with me because we visit a lot of community gardeners and discuss problems together. One of the most recurring topics of the challenge was the absence of visual signage for people to identify the garden. When I visited Joslin Park Community Garden to meet Roby, who is the garden leader, she was very interested in installing physical signage. According to Roby, a lot of gardeners are unfamiliar with digital media and the way people get involved in the team is by visiting the garden in person. If there were physical signage, it would be a lot easier to gather attention from the street.
As a designer, I have a tendency to imagine what is possible when I listen to problems people have. Although it was not a request for me, here I am designing a street interactive signage for the community garden. I am planning to include chalkboard as part of the signage to write down their open garden workshops or public events. The visual description of the plant can relate to special vegetables people grow in their own garden. In other words, the template of signage can start to provide consistency and brand of community garden but still possess individuality based on the plant’s that people grow.
This is the original signage for the park and I overlaid a new design of the signage for the community garden!
So, how did I make this happen? I requested a meeting with Wendy who is a superintendent of the Parks Department. I showed her the design overlaid on existing Park signage and told her what can be possible with a simple gesture. Fortunately, she was very accepting and gave me the budget and feedback to proceed with the project! As I still have a story map project going, I will only produce signage for one community garden during this fellowship period and if it works well, it can be manufactured on a larger scale in the future. From this, I learned that creative individual works with the challenge by observing struggles people encounter and make actions through imagining what is possible in the situation.
Another mission I hold as a Maharam Fellow is to seek opportunities for partnering with other organizations for serving the need that the government cannot provide. I enjoyed visiting the Davis Park Community garden a lot and it was exciting to hear visions the leaders had in growing their garden. Nina, the garden leader, shared an interesting idea where she wants to install furniture that provides opportunities for gathering people from the park. As a buffer space, the current field between the park and the community garden is underutilized as an empty lot. By installing a shelter that also provides a sitting space, Nina imagined activating the space by installing the furniture that responds to the public park and the community garden.
A map of Davis Park Community Garden in the context of the park and urban district. The red curve indicates the space Nina imagines to have a piece of furniture for gathering people toward the garden.
As an architecture student, I was really interested in working with Nina to design furniture. As I presented the idea, I encountered challenges. My position as an intern in the Botanical center that is part of the Parks Department and the City of Providence implies the responsibility of the government for every action I make. There is a boundary in how much government can offer in order to sustain a larger network of relationships and support community gardens on a city scale.
As I was talking to Laura, a professor of RISD Architecture and who is a great mentor to me, she encouraged me to reach out to DownCity Design. Every year, the organization provides a grant to one RISD student to lead a workshop that provides a build-up structure for the community. Although I was very frustrated to face restrictions, this situation encouraged me to reach out to other organizations that can work with the government and the community to serve creative visions of the individuals. Once I got the idea of working with DownCity Design, I suddenly imagined how the project can grow to become more equitable and comprehensive for other community gardens that can benefit from this design. The challenge will reoccur in terms of time and budget but the limit is what motivates me to find another resource that helps me grow the project and make a larger impact on the community.
This was a great learning for me to understand how collaborative work with a non-profit is another route for making things happen and have an influence on the work system. So again, what is my core mission? It is to research, observe, and understand the complexity of relationships among government, organizations, and the community and how my intervention can open up new methods of working collaboratively and actualize innovative ideas into real projects.
My first garden workshop at Summit Community Garden lead by Michael who strives for the growth of community gardens and a larger network of a compost system. His website on Earth Appliance Organics has more information on what they do!
It is so exciting to see my garden table being filled up! I am still trying really hard to visit all of them before the fellowship ends. It is a huge delight to see how each garden has individuality and uniqueness in how they operate.
A major focus of my time here at Walk Bike Nashville this summer has been an event called Open Streets Nashville. It’s an annual block party for which the city closes down 1-2 miles of roadway to cars for an afternoon, allowing people and organizations to take over the street with art, performance, and other programming.
I’ve helped update Walk Bike’s graphics for the event and come up with new designs for posters, palm cards, bingo cards, informational mailers, and signs that will go along the route. This has been a really fun exercise in graphic design. I’ve learned a lot about the graphics needed for an event like this, and how to have fun but also give people the information they need.
One of the challenges I was given at the beginning of the summer was to come up with a super cheap but effective way to help people recognize different locations along the route and get a sense of place and celebration. They wanted something that would be visible enough to attract people from afar to the next stop on the itinerary. With little to no extra money in the budget, this was a bit of a tall order. I spent some time looking at precedents: Gay Village in Montreal, Spanish street festivals, tactical place-making, and other approaches towards colorfully turning a stretch of road into a festive, liminal space. Cost being prohibitive, I kept it pretty simple.
After some deliberation and sketching, my proposal was fairly straightforward: to “build the diagram” (as they often say not to do in the landscape architecture department), creating tall signs featuring a colored shape at each location that would correspond to the colored shape on the maps on everyone’s event literature. To me, this solution seemed like the right combination of simplicity, cost, and visual impact. My only concern was that they might look smaller out on the street than they did in my garage while I was building them.
6— 8 foot long 2x4s
2— paint buckets
2— bags of Quikcrete
1— 4×8 piece of 1.5-in. insulation foam
Open Streets is being held in North Nashville this summer for the very first time. The route is 1.5 miles long and stretches from Germantown to the Buchanan Arts District.
Germantown has been gentrified for some time. It is known as a longstanding home to some of Nashville’s gay community, with a handful of super nice restaurants and nicely renovated historic houses. Moving West along the route (map below), Buchanan Street is on the cusp of gentrification in North Nashville. This is one of the few neighborhoods in a few miles’ radius of downtown where housing is still relatively cheap, but it’s changing fast, with the typical host of issues that accompany gentrification. This neighborhood is and was historically majority black, home to a rich and vital piece of Nashville’s history, including renowned HBCUs like Fisk University, Tennessee State University, and Meharry Medical College. The neighborhood thrived as much as was possible in the early part of the last century, home to vibrant black businesses and an energetic music scene. With the era of urban renewal, however, the neighborhood was hit hard with the construction of I-440 that cut off the heart of the historically African American neighborhood from the rest of the city, and left only a few awkward ways to pass back and forth under the interstate highway. Car infrastructure was used as a weapon for de facto segregation. This structural blow, along with racist housing and loan policies, and a multitude of other structural, cultural, and political aggressions of the last century towards people of color, left the neighborhood to struggle economically for the past 50 years.
Now, as gentrification creeps over from Germantown, real estate developers are tearing down old houses left and right, replacing them with “tall skinny” houses, sometimes two-to-four to a lot, and selling homes as cheap investments close to the city center. Right now is a good time for the city to think about how to make sure we aren’t sacrificing people and places that make Nashville special to greedy (and usually architecturally unimaginative) real estate developers. This is the case in many neighborhoods around the city but feels especially important in a neighborhood that has experienced the mal-effects of predatory real-estate practices as well as neglect from the city in the past.
There have been handfuls of stories lately about renters in this area getting pushed out of their homes. Conversely, other homeowners from the gentrifying area have enjoyed this sudden increase in their property values. Businesses like black-owned- and-operated Slim and Husky’s are prospering from the attention it’s helped bring to the neighborhood.
So, getting back to Open Streets, I wondered how the event fit into this neighborhood’s current dynamic reality. Infrastructure elements like parks, greenways, and bikeways, after all, often contribute to rising property values and gentrification, and this is something we haven’t shied away from talking about in the landscape architecture department at RISD. Since I’ve just come back to Nashville for the summer and am not from this community, I’m not really qualified to say for sure how this event will have impacted people positively or negatively, and how everyone felt about it, but I heard a lot of support for the event when I went out flyering on the route and from our community partners. After getting to know our planning process, I was reassured that Walk Bike went about organizing the event the right way and that the context of the event was something everyone was keenly conscious of.
Partners from the community have talked a lot about a desire to shift the narrative around their neighborhood. In this way, my blog post’s focus on some of the negative history/context may not be helping. What’s most important to know is that people in North Nash are rightly proud of their community and are taking time to celebrate it. That’s what this event was about!
Walk Bike partnered from the beginning with North Nashville community groups, North Nashville artists, and community advocates to plan the event. Members of the (City Council) District 21 Neighbors wanted the event in their community. They helped decide the route, sought out neighborhood involvement in programming, and got the word out. I was in direct contact with one of our community partners for graphic design questions and requests. We went around the community putting out flyers and road signs and told everyone the day was for them to do whatever they wanted in the street. Our goal was to make sure that this event felt like it was for the community and not an imposition into it or a showcase of a ‘hot real estate market.’ WBN hoped, rather, that the event would bring together several adjacent communities that may not have had many reasons to come together in the past. We wanted Open Streets to get people outside, enjoying their own community, seeing the potential of the street as public space, meeting their neighbors, and feeling comfortable to walk, bike, and play out in the street without fear of cars.
As the pictures suggest, the event was a success! There were art installations by about a dozen local artists along the route, as well as performances, good food, fitness classes, biking, walking, and more! Mayor David Briley came out to our kick-off parade to speak alongside speakers from the community group that helped organize the event. Lots of people from the different neighborhoods involved came out and made the day their own. Everyone involved seems really excited to plan Open Streets here again next year and improve upon this year’s event as much as possible.
Our local News Channel 5 station even covered the event: https://www.newschannel5.com/news/roads-closed-for-open-streets-nashville
After spending about nine weeks with ABCittà, I am now approaching the end of my RISD Maharam Fellowship experience. As the city of Milan starts to slow down and become oddly silent for the summer holiday period, I would like to give a few updates on the latest developments that I have been a part of project-wise, reflect on my takeaways from this experience, and briefly try to make sense of my (many!) hopes for the implementation of the work I’ve done and knowledge I have acquired in my future design practice.
Before I get into some end-of-internship reflections, I would like to share some of the most recent developments that have been occurring on the Museums and Stereotypes kit I have been developing with Chiara and Anna. After testing the kit as a fully formed prototype of a product, we have been working to develop a second version which incorporates the feedback received, and that will be presented in October during the Museums and Stereotypes International Training School. Accessibility –both conceptual and physical– has been an extremely important factor in the production and development of this training tool. Type size, image contrast, color combinations and linguistic subtleties have been aspects that I have been forced to consider closely, and that I hadn’t thought about so intensely before starting my Fellowship in ABCittà.
The constant desire to produce objects and publications that are visually pleasing and aesthetically avant-garde (which is definitely a desire I have experienced at RISD many times!) often causes all that surrounds the realm of accessibility to be forgotten. Type size, color combinations, overlays and overlaps are all design elements that can be extremely intriguing to experiment with but, without proper consideration for the needs of the audience experiencing the end product, I ended up realizing that a “cool” design can jeopardize an effective delivery of the intended message. Because of this, we have been experimenting with increasing the size of the overall tool, using alternate technologies and seeking advice from experts in the field of accessibility, in order to present a re-iterated prototype that caters to a broader and more diverse audience.
In October, during the Museums and Stereotypes International Training School program, I will be presenting (through a Skype call or prerecorded video!) the work that Chiara, Anna and I have been doing on this product, articulating a series of reflections on design methodologies that we explored and critically assessed during the conceptualization of this project. Demystifying how projects like this come to life, and recognizing the contributions that external individuals make are in my opinion actions that as designers we ought not only to engage in, but also promote, as they allow people to recognize not only the importance that designers and artists have within frameworks other than the fine arts and strict architecture and design, but also the need to apply new, sometimes divergent ways of thinking to contemporary problems in order to come up with new solutions.
Working in a participatory planning context all summer, across a variety of areas, has been an incredibly transformative experience for me as a creative thinker and designer. The willingness to not only let go of one’s individual ideas, but also consider how non-designers have contributions to make that are just as valid –if not more!– are skills which are sometimes challenging to master, especially when one operates in a design environment for the majority of the year, but I firmly believe that seeing how ABCittà seamlessly operates through five interdisciplinary areas (Urban Regeneration, Education, Museums and Society, Communication and Inter-culture) gave me a whole new perspective on co-design, its importance and potential avenues for implementation in projects that range from architectural design to concept and product development.
I am so grateful to have had the chance to meet and work with every single person I crossed paths with in ABCittà. As I start to write my usual packing list to return back to the United States after the summer, I am noticing that I am adding a lot of non-tangible things I want to bring back to RISD, many of which I have learned and acquired from all of the ABCittadini (literally, ABCitizens) I have worked with. Cristian’s mind-blowing mind mapping and visual facilitation skills, Diego’s unprecedented calm and collected approach to the most tedious of projects, the beyond-imaginable energy of the Museums and Stereotypes duo and Marta’s incredibly wholesome approach to design and visual communication are some I can think of off the top of my head, but there are so many more that I will be slowly processing in the coming weeks. In all honesty though, I think the biggest thing I will be taking with me is the tenacious desire to “just do things” that everyone in ABCittà has: I confess that I know very few people who fully believe in the projects they work on or collaborate within, and the extremely passionate way of approaching (literally!) everything that I witnessed in ABCittà was of great inspiration to me. All of my newfound ABCittà colleagues and friends will always be the superheroes of participatory planning in my eyes!
As a celebratory moment at the end of my time in ABCittà, we all gathered for a classic Italian aperitivo, which was a wonderful way to get together outside of the office, reflect on all of our experiences during the summer and discuss our hopes for future collaborations and projects.
I now believe it is “that time of the blog post:” time for some very overdue thanks to everyone I had a chance to work with during these incredibly fast-paced nine weeks. First of all, a very special thanks to my incredible fellowship supervisor Chiara who not only managed all of the admin-related aspects of my time in ABCittà, but also allowed me to work on such engaging components of the Museums and Stereotypes program. Also, a huge thank you to Cristian, who involved me in the day-to-day life of ABCittà’s Urban Regeneration area since day one, becoming not only a wonderful mentor but also a sounding board for ideas and the most varied of design challenges. Thank you to Ulderico, ABCittà President, whom, despite having one of the busiest schedules, was always able to make time to crack a joke or discuss the newest updates on projects. Thank you to Anna, museologist with an unprecedented willingness to smile and approach everything in the most positive of ways. Thank you to Simone and Valentina for involving me in the design process of Dairago’s new green space for children. Thank you to Marta, Diego and Paola, for always being such welcoming presences in the office (and great lunch break companions!) And finally, despite the fact that I haven’t had a chance to work with them directly, thank you to Renata, Annamaria, Marta, Simone (and Simone!) for welcoming me with a smile.
And finally, as a closing thought, I would like to share a reflection from Bruno Munari’s famous book Da Cosa Nasce Cosa – Notes for a Methodological Design which I have always admired, but that has found new fertile ground after this Fellowship experience: “Progresso è quando si semplifica, non quando si complica.” (Progress is when one simplifies, not complicates.)
Grazie ancora ABCittà!