Like many urbanites, I inhabit a series of nested communities: a mammoth megalopolis; a dense neighborhood whose boundaries are defined by walking distance from a specific diner, park, and subway station; a high-rise building that is also a small and rowdy democracy. The smallest unit in this matryoshka of social spheres is the hallway, a tiny linear village in the sky with seven apartments flanking a central pedestrian boulevard. Four feet wide and half a block long, it’s seen a lot of minor drama. Dogs watch over it, young boys use it for galactic combat, adults briefly occupy it for (mostly polite) conversation. We overhear one another’s arguments and music, check on one another’s ailments, meet one another’s relatives, and get on one another’s nerves. One neighbor opens the door to vent the odor of fish from her kitchen and uses the hallway as a fitness track, pacing from one end to the other and back again. A resident with dementia once locked her aide out there and refused to answer the phone; a neighbor knew to call her daughter.
This miniature society never struck me as anomalous until I visited the Center for Architecture’s new exhibition “Reset: Towards a New Commons,” which starts from the premise that we have become a nation of involuntary hermits. The melting-pot cliché no longer applies: It’s been replaced by the great American centrifuge, whirling us into social globules separated by race, age, religion, economic status, and political outlook. The pandemic isolated us even further; the racial-justice movement made the mechanisms of exclusion more difficult to ignore. We might expect community leaders, activists, politicians, or religious figures to help take down those fences, but too often they have an interest in propping them up.
And so some architects, incorrigible tacklers of problems nobody asked them to solve, have come up with a collection of strategies to help people feel less alone. The result is a wishful and earnest show that focuses on the intersection of inventive design and restrictive regulation. If there’s an underlying message, it’s this: We could make such a pleasant and easy world for everyone, if only it weren’t illegal.
The organizers, former MoMA architecture curator (and current Columbia professor) Barry Bergdoll and historian Juliana Barton, set four multidisciplinary teams to work on various aspects of the problem. One section, “Age Against the Machine,” envisions reengineering portions of West Oakland, California, to alleviate the burdens of getting old. The (fictional) residents of three adjacent houses pool their resources to erect a shared ramp and a long porch linking their properties at the second floor. San Pablo Avenue — recently also the site of an Afrocentric development fantasy by Walter Hood — would get a pedestrian- and wheelchair-friendly makeover.
Another design-as-manifesto, titled “Block Party: From Independent Living to Disability Communalism,” shifts the focus just a few miles north along San Francisco Bay to imagine how Berkeley could evolve into a haven for residents with disabilities. In that egalitarian idyll, a public pathway shaves away a sliver of each home’s backyard — “borrowing” private property, in the project’s idiom — to create a network of accessible pathways. In “Decolonizing Suburbia,” designers combat the damage done when I-75 smashed through the semi-suburban Cincinnati neighborhood of Avondale. The area’s threadbare fabric of single-family houses, apartment buildings, and vacant lots could be restitched with communally owned public spaces, corner stores, long rows of townhouses, and various other virtuous interventions.
There’s only one problem: All that “would necessitate changes to existing zoning laws,” an anodyne phrase for an existential conflict. Zoning is a legalistic terrain where the nation’s philosophical battles are fought. The arguments are over lot lines, heights, and accessory dwelling units; the stakes are grand abstractions like freedom, equality, family, and private property.
The show filled me with a volatile mixture of optimism and despair. On the one hand, the various projects made clear how many simple, available, low-tech tools neighborhoods can use to become more welcoming and livable. There’s a row of happy examples, like Black Women Build, a nonprofit development firm in Baltimore that sells houses to the workers who construct them, and Phoenix’s Las Abuelitas Kinship Housing, designed to serve children and the grandparents who care for them. Much of the tinkering on display here is far from radical and would make a city neighborhood look slightly more like a college campus. It’s both urgent and eminently possible to shape cities so that residents with disabilities can navigate them smoothly, without feeling like they are the object of grudging accommodations. Packing the elderly into specialized facilities, rather than cultivating intergenerational neighborhoods, is an idiotic approach to longevity. These problems are obvious and soluble; why can’t we just do it?
The answer lies in the tiny verbal grenades scattered around the exhibition: “land trusts,” say, or “collective ownership.” These are the equivalent of “public transit,” “magazine ban,” and “public option,” explosive two-word phrases that to one segment of the population seem self-evidently good and to another signify socialism and oppression. The point of this exhibition is partly to defuse those terms — to point out that taking down a fence or two is not really such a big deal — but if Americans could be convinced by some drawings and a tabletop model, we wouldn’t need the strategies that “Reset” proposes. American cities and suburbs are perversely ill-suited for a growing number of people. Kids can rarely walk or bike to school, people with reduced mobility can’t go out, populations can’t mix, nondrivers are stuck. Yet America evidently likes it that way. These patterns persist — not from ignorance or inertia but because we keep intentionally re-creating them.
In the most effective segment of the show, “Re:Play,” young residents of three NYCHA projects unleashed their imaginations on their complexes’ public spaces, which often amount to derelict pathways, parking lots, or unused playgrounds. Working with a team overseen by Deborah Gans, an architect with a long career in public service, participants suggested adding hopscotch courts, stages for poetry readings, colorful benches, and vegetable gardens. These ideas, of course, don’t address NYCHA’s main deficits: a staggering burden of busted elevators, broken furnaces, moldy walls, and leaky roofs. But they leverage modest amounts of money and labor into a lot of goodwill. Because, while trying to rezone a resistant suburb may not alleviate Americans’ maniacal drive to sort themselves by narrower and narrower categories, people who already live together don’t need much encouragement to bond. We commune over a chipped concrete chessboard, on a bench in a Broadway median, in a suburban driveway, or in the hallway of an apartment building. Yet these connections can’t survive total neglect of the physical environment. Decrepitude leads to abandonment, abandonment to isolation; fix it and they will come.
“Reset: Towards a New Commons” is at the Center for Architecture through September 3.