Another Architecture

by Mitch McEwen

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    I Can't Breathe = You Can't Dance

    Mitch McEwen
    Jan 19, '15 5:13 PM EST

    Thank you Archinect Sessions podcast for featuring me on the first podcast of 2015.  It looks like with everything happening in December I missed a chance to post here on Another Architecture.  Let's catch up.    

    Mimi Zeiger wrote a great opinion piece for Dezeen last month asking why architects have remained silent during Ferguson protests.  She quotes me toward the end of the piece saying: Architects and urban designers can take the #BlackLivesMatter campaign as an opportunity to look deeply into the ways that the tools of the discipline have been defined through attempts to erase black people from American cities.  I don't mean 'in conjunction with', but actually the tools of the discipline emerging through the very acts of controlling, erasing, and displacing black bodies.

    This is not work that black architects and urban designers can do alone, anymore than work on climate change can be left to only those living in threatened coastal areas.  I am looking forward to participating on a panel in a few weeks at Columbia titled We Can't Breathe that invites a cross-disciplinary conversation on the topic of space, violence, and race.   As much as I value cross-disciplinary work, I consider it even more crucial that we do this theorizing and researching and retooling within  the discipline, as well.  

    With this intent, and in honor of the MLK holiday today, I am reposting here a portion of an article that I wrote for the current issue of STUDIO magazine in Italy.  Titled Crime! Crime! Crime!: Black Leisure and American Cities, the article traces the illegality of Black leisure through late nineteenth century public health epidemics, dance in the jazz era, queer loitering, and urban parks.  When considered as processes of design, these patterns reveal that the illegality of black leisure has impacted not only the formation of American cities (in their segregation and hyper-segregation), but the very design tools of American urbanism, creating patterns and protocols that extend far past their phase of racialization.

    The text below is fairly academic, but the title of this post is meant to underscore the point.  Our understanding of American cities and our ability to critique the tools of urban design and planning desperately require some concerted investigation into the spatial protocols of race in America.  After all, do you know why nightclubs in New York City are near manufacturing buildings and not offices (both non-residential)?  If the retroactive manifesto of Manhattan is all about the freedom of the grid, then how can New York City repeatedly lend itself so easily to Disneyfication and zoning controls? Some speculations below....      


    Excerpt from Crime! Crime! Crime!: Black Leisure and American Cities without footnotes:

    Theory of active form: switches, protocols, remote controls

    The theoretical work of Keller Easterling advocates the possibility of hacking or working in the failures of urbanism.  Her work reveals the great disparity between modes of value and exchange assessed in spatial variables compared to the abstract variables at play in finance, insurance, and other means of assessment.  This paper makes the case that the illegality of black leisure has operated as something like a remote control or a protocol unfolding in volumetric space, not only coded in the abstract laws or social mores that generate race as a fiction.  The volumetric space that this paper explores is the space of New York City.  In this analysis, the volumetric space of the city leads other modes of abstraction and intersects various bodies at leisure.  We find that the illegality of black leisure precedes even public health in urban policy, shaping the ways in which various leisurely acts might generate urban effects.  Protocols of black leisure and the possibility of coding such leisure as illegal produce effects as varied as the typology of the mega-nightclub that has defined American club culture, or standardization of the urban sidewalk as both a legal and physical territory.       

    Interracial dancing and use-based zoning

    In the summer of 2001 I visited New York City from San Francisco and dropped in on an East Village lesbian night at Starlight.  It was probably Sunday.  I know it was the spring or summer of 2001 because neither Bloomberg nor 9/11 had happened yet.

    The place had a lounge in the rear with a DJ and sometimes a flutist, a bar and coat-check in the front.  It got crowded.  I was dancing near the front bar, close to the coat-check when the coat-check woman looked at me, and said “Please don’t dance.”  I said “What?”  She pointed to a sign on the wall to her left.  It said “No dancing.”  I stared at her in disbelief.  “How does anyone even define dancing,” I asked?  “How does anyone know the difference between me dancing versus walking and gesturing rhythmically?”  She said, “It’s not up to us.  We’ll get fined.  It’s [Mayor Rudy] Giuliani.  Please, stop.”

    As of today, the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs presents this Cabaret License Description: “Any room, place, or space in New York City in which patron dancing is permitted in connection with the restaurant business or a business that sells food and/or beverages to the public requires a Cabaret license.” This bizarre practice dates back to a law created in 1926 designed to control jazz cabarets in Harlem. This regulating and criminalization of dancing occurred at a moment of intense cultural transfer between New Orleans and New York.  Jazz lounges were popular not only for their music, but as racially integrated spaces of socializing.  


    The Cabaret law emerged within two years of the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act that instituted land use-based zoning.  Once regulated, dancing while drinking or eating could then be assigned to land use zones.  Cabaret licenses were limited to Use Group 12, which includes manufacturing zones. This would, later in the 20th century, eventually generate the protocols for urban phenomena such as the Meatpacking District, as only a huge dance floor tended to justify the additional cost of the cabaret license, and these could only locate legally near heavy manufacturing.   

    The Cabaret law has been challenged in the past 10 years on 1st amendment grounds of free speech, but failed.  The plaintiff's brief in that case articulated,

    “The City Planning Commission (CPC) oversees the Zoning Resolutions; the Department of Buildings (DOB) enforces the building and electrical codes; DCA [Department of consumer Affairs] enforces the cabaret law and issue summonses to eating and drinking establishments that permit social dancing without a cabaret license.”  

    It takes these various entities of urban planning and architectural authority to make collective dancing illegal. The ruling found that the body does not speak through dance, the body just dances.  There is no protection because this ‘social dancing’  is not speech - it is leisure.  

    Slave leisure becoming coded activities: Legal, illegal, and traded

    The criminalization of leisure precedes Black America or jazz, of course, in that it traces all the way back to roots in European serfdom and feudalism.  Vagrancy and disorderly conduct laws in the United States hearken back to English law from the mid 14th century.  As various iterations of the Enclosures Act spread throughout England from the 12th through the 14th century, the feudal system of agricultural serfdom transitioned to something closer to rent and wage labor.  Vagrancy laws appeared as this transition completed, and following the labor crisis of the Bubonic Plague (also called Black Death).

    The loitering laws of New York City, however, evolved from not only the English colonial law, but also the Dutch colony’s tight spatial management of the markets and quarters for the slave trade.  British colonial rule from 1674 continued the practices of the Dutch West India Company, in which the slave trade was the primary economy in New York City.  As Christopher P. Heuer writes, in criticism of Rem Koolhaas’ Delirious New York, "What the Dutch, and more specifically [Simon] Stevin, bequeathed to Manhattan was, it seemed an idea instead of a form: the old idea that empty land could be transformed purely for trade."  While tobacco and gold were important to this early New York City economy, no commerce was more significant than the trade in slaves.  

    By 1703 more than 42% of New York City's households held slaves, making New York City the city with the most slave-holding households in North America, outside of Charleston, South Carolina.  While we think of slavery as a Southern phenomenon in the US, all Black New Yorkers were not free from slavery until 1827.

    It is from this era of New York City under British rule that the illegality of black public socializing emerges.  From 1681 through 1683, the Common Council of the City of New York produced a series of laws outlawing various forms of socializing and leisure amongst slaves. These included leaving the master’s house without the master’s permission, gathering in groups of four or more, and gambling.  Significantly, this time period also produces laws about black leisure that criminalize free blacks and whites for enabling certain social leisure amongst slaves. By 1683, whites and free blacks could not entertain slaves in their homes, sell them liquor, or take goods or money from them.  While the Dutch West India Company had previously facilitated  violent control over subsets of the population through private individual acts and social mores, the British era translated such control and its concern with black leisure into legal codes for movement and activities in the city.  


    • Lightperson

      Sorry, Mimi Zeiger, architects design and build buildings, they don't drive media debates, that would be the media... cause that's what the media is.

      Jan 19, 15 5:38 pm  · 

      Wasn't sure where to put this thought, may fit here. Very recently on the roof of a potential job in Brooklyn I asked the client if their building was landmarked. He noted unlike the buildings across the parkway the gentrification had not started on his side yet. I thought about the narrative very much in terms Mitch describes above, but in this case it's a form of protection after transformation I would suggest. I also wondered if the pattern could be confirmed - gentrification followed by landmark status..........speaking of cabarets, had to Google "rat party" once to understand what the lighting guy was saying when he said see you at the rat party opening night. I wasn't invited.

      Jan 19, 15 7:03 pm  · 

      Interesting. Zoning is insidious - it's an obscure way to shape policy where the public won't pay much attention.

      One notable thing I see living in China is an apparent lack of anti-loitering or vagrancy laws. It's very common that outdoor employees (street cleaners, parking fee collectors, maintenance crews) simply lay down a blanket and nap on the sidewalk after lunch. Or gather together to have a smoke and sit in the road. In the mornings older people do tai-chi and practice martial arts along the sidewalks. And in the evening someone will set up a radio and an informal group will gather to dance in the square in front of the supermarket. None of the sense that public space must be used any differently than a private yard. It's nice.

      Jan 19, 15 9:29 pm  · 

      Architects design spaces, and those spaces get used by humans, and that leads to the media talking about what's going on in that space, then more people want to be in or near that space where something is going on, then architects get asked to build more spaces like that.

      Lightperson, we aren't designing in a void. Every decision we make has the potential to impact how people live.

      Jan 20, 15 8:37 am  · 

      Donna I don't think lightperson read pass the first paragraph..........based on real jobs,I have noticed that where the space really effects people as Donna you are describing the mediator for the legalities of such space and it's effect or affect on tax paying citizens of that municipality are often lawyers and not architects. Completely objecting to all politics as professionals also limits our involvement in the built environment. In my mind, and here is not the place, there is a line though where architects cease to be political in their practice....but land use ordinances says Architect.

      Jan 20, 15 8:43 am  · 

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Posts are sporadic. Topics span architecture, urban design, planning, and tangents from these. I sometimes include excerpts of academic articles.

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