Everybody vs. Injustice

Using hip-hop to build a just city

Mike Ford and Bryan Lee Jr. onstage with session moderator Zach O'Malley-Greenburg
Mike Ford and Bryan Lee Jr. onstage with session moderator Zach O'Malley-Greenburg (Photo by Annamarya Scaccia)

Austin’s growth has led to a pressing affordability problem that’s pushed out natives and longtime residents. Communities that once were rich in heritage and culture have turned into playgrounds for well-to-do hipsters who make artisan mayo.

That’s under the guise of “improvement.” This housing development, this upscale restaurant, this pricey clothing shop – that’s all to turn around this underserved neighborhood.

But that neighborhood is never turned around. Instead, it's bulldozed. The people who needed the services, jobs, and resources get pushed to the town’s outskirts. They can’t afford to live in the place that other people wanted to make better.

Urban planners and designers have the power to change this tide, if they’re only willing to check their privilege and challenge the status quo. That’s at least according to architects Mike “The Hip-hop Architect” Ford and Bryan Lee Jr. who spoke to a packed Convention Center auditorium on the last day of SXSW Eco. Cultural change like that happening in East Austin occurs because of speculative design, Lee said. Developers build for the people they envision settling in, not for the people already living within the community. If cities want to stymie gentrification, Lee suggested, urban planners need to engage existing residents beyond surveys and make efforts to “understand the DNA” of the existing community. Otherwise, “you’re condemning us to more years of oppression.”

“Gentrification is the death throes of a neighborhood,” Lee said later during the session. “Everything before that is where you should focus.”

This is where hip-hop comes in. Lee and Ford believe that integrating the hip-hop ethos with architecture can help urban planners build better, more equitable cities (see “SXSW Eco: A Better City Built to a Hip-hop Beat,” Oct. 7). Designing a just city – the title of their keynote Wednesday, Oct. 12, means facing down and rectifying the barriers that have been created by disastrous legislation like Jim Crow laws or problematic city planners like Robert Moses.

Moses, a city planner in post-World War II New York, took Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier’s ideas to improve living conditions for residents of overcrowded cities and “fucked it up,” Ford told the audience. His Cross Bronx Expressway project, for example, “destroyed” the Bronx by bisecting the upper class from the working class, Ford said. “What Robert Moses did is what I call the worst sampling in the history of sampling.”

Out of Moses’ civic destruction came hip-hop. The artform was the reactionary response to the cultural and physical oppression experienced by black and Latinos in 1970s South Bronx. Hip-hop united a community, demanded justice, and gave a voice to people who were disenfranchised by their leaders. Hip-hop architecture, Lee and Ford said, harnesses this passion and uses it to “listen to the community and hear their frustrations” when developing a community and reinventing spaces. Said Ford: “Hip-hop architecture … is a way for us to experience and explore what true liberation is.” (Ford is the lead designer of the Universal Hip-hop Museum in the South Bronx, set to open by 2019.)

Ford and Lee say architects, developers, designers, and planners can build equitable cities by solving problems for the people already in the community, not for the ones who may move in. This call-to-action could be summarized by the phrase printed on their T-shirts: Everybody vs. Injustice.

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Urban planning, Mike Ford, Bryan Lee Jr., Jim Crow, Robert Moses, Cross Bronx Expressway, Le Corbuser, SXSW Eco

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