Monday, January 23, 2017

Building the Resistance

On Saturday I had the great privilege of marching with 250,000 people in Chicago in solidarity with the Women's March on Washington. It was a tremendous demonstration of the country's (and indeed the world's! All 7 continents were represented - including Antarctica!) opposition to the new administration and a loud and many-voiced criticism of the United States as it stands now. I saw signs against Trump and his cabinet of cronies, heard (and joined in with) cries of "Black Lives Matter!" and "This is what democracy looks like!" and "No hate, no fear, immigrants are welcome here!", saw signs fighting against threats to women's body autonomy, against transphobia, in defense of sex workers, in defense of public education, in defense of the environment, against the repeal of the ACA, promoting gun control, signs declaring "I can't believe I still have to protest this shit!" and "Nasty Woman" and "This is what a feminist looks like!" I saw tens of thousands of pussy hats, in all different hues of pink and red - some sewn, some knit, some crocheted, but nearly all handmade and distinctive.

The crowd estimates grew and grew in the weeks leading up to the march, so much so that the city changed the start location of the march from the Petrillo bandshell due to concerns of the foot traffic and warm weather causing damage to Grant Park. Then the estimates were too high for the full march route, which was shortened to a straight shot down Jackson to Federal Plaza. Then the crowd estimates were so high the city changed the event from a march to a rally, although this did not stop the swarms of people from marching up Michigan Avenue or around the Loop.

Like in DC and many sister cities, public transportation was jammed with people heading to the march - a friend of mine posted a photo from her train car on the Red Line that was so full it looked like a Cubs game from last fall. We heard from dozens of women at the beginning of the day, the crowd cheering and shouting and singing in the unseasonably warm weather, together in a massive congregation of people full of rage and hope and determination.

Among the many many photographs and exclamations of pride and elation (and criticisms of white women who have been conspicuously absent in protests for Black rights), I noticed in my social media a quote from Michael Kimmelman, the architectural critic of the New York Times:
There is something deliciously transgressive about marching down the middle of the street with a couple hundred thousand people. As the crowds marched along Michigan Avenue and Jackson Boulevard, up LaSalle Street and along Washington Street, I saw views of city landmarks from an angle I'd never experienced before. We marched under the rattling and clanking of the El at State and Jackson, past the heavy masonry walls of the Monadnock, the soaring heights of the Chicago Board of Trade, the split face stone and beautiful carved arches of the Rookery, the imposing heavy limestone facade of City Hall, all from a view normally barred to pedestrians. And as we marched by, I saw clusters of people occupying those sidewalks and planters and bollards and window sills in ways that signage and devices discourage: No Loitering signs and strips of anti-homeless studs on low walls, Do Not Sit on Window Sill signs and public benches designed to make lying down uncomfortable. This occupation, combined with the disruption of the normal routine, is the essence of public protest - the deliberate placement of the human body in public space to break the routine, however temporarily.

What does this protestor's view of the city mean from an architect's perspective? For me, this underscores the dangers of privatization of public space. If public space embodies democracy, as Michael Kimmelman tweets, then surely the privatization of space - this symptom of hyper-capitalism taking over - is an insidious and systematic attack on democracy itself. And furthermore, it is clear to me that architects have a clear responsibility to speak against this. Among other duties, the NCARB Rules of Conduct charge architects with the duty to "protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public." This applies to all licensed architects in the United States. Among other prohibitions, the AIA Code of Ethics prohibits architects from engaging in conduct involving "wanton disregard of the rights of others." This applies to the nearly 88,000 members in the AIA. In essence, no architect in this country is exempt from using her voice for advocacy. The trick is, how best to use this voice.

I recently received an email blast through AIA Chicago from a grass-roots organization called Architects Advocate, a  new coalition of architecture firms. The email was an open letter to then President-elect Trump, calling for action on climate change and outlining core values and benefits of taking such action. Frankly, this letter pissed me off. I was incensed that this group was sending a generic bleating of values to a man who has made it abundantly clear that not only does he have no interest in taking action on climate change, he is doing everything in his power to prevent the government from even acknowledging that climate change exists. This was especially galling after the major gaffe the AIA made shortly after the election, pledging to work with Trump for a campaign promise of $500 billion to rebuild infrastructure, and then later doing a lousy job of apologizing to its membership for making such remarks without any input from said membership. In fact, shortly afterward AIA Chicago sent a letter in response to this snafu, denying support of AIA National's conciliatory statement to Trump and reaffirming the chapter's commitment to the core values and professional standards of the AIA. I wrote back to AIA Chicago and asked why this letter was not addressed to the local and state-level elected officials of the signatory firms and organizations. And I received this response from Tom Jacobs, one of the founders of Architects Advocate:

Architects Advocate is a grass roots coalition of architecture firms that was launched in September last year. We debated the merits of different addressees back and forth, and I agree with you that from a point of view of actual impact, your proposed approach makes more sense. Our letter, however, fits into a larger strategy: while the letter is addressed to Trump, the real audience for it is the architecture community, because we believe it is most important to grow our network in a first phase. The letter is purposefully a bit generic and focuses on valuves in order to build broad support. this strategy is working: in the last 23 hours [note - I received this email on January 20th], since the launch of the AIA Chicago e-blast, we have received 82 new firm signatures just in Chicago alone, and the total firm count is in the 450 range.

We plan to work along the lines of your proposed approach soon, which is well outlined in the Indivisible Guide I'm sure you are familiar with, but we need to have critical mass to do that well also.

I know that this call to advocacy will strike a chord with my colleagues - several of whom joined the march on Saturday. When I get into the office on Monday, I'm planning on talking to the partners of and encouraging them to declare the firm one of the signatories on this letter. I hope, if you aren't on this list yet, that you will join it and the efforts ahead to protect our citizens, our values, and our spaces from this disastrous administration.

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