(top photo) April de Simone, co-founder of Designing the We, giving a tour of “The Big Rethink”
In November 2017, The Laundromat Project launched our Community Artist Residency. Out of our Kelly Street Collaborative space, Bronx-based artists and collectives can engage with Hunts Point/Longwood residents through 3-month, interactive projects. Our inaugural artist-in-residence was Designing the We, a for-benefit design studio with members based in the Bronx. They installed an exhibition “The Big Rethink” in our Kelly Street Collaborative space, designed to challenge local residents and visitors to imagine novel approaches to reclaiming their neighborhoods and public space, especially in the context of City Council’s recent approval of the Bronx’s Jerome Avenue, and ongoing issues with New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA).
“The Big Rethink” was personally significant for Designing the We’s co-founder, April de Simone. While growing in the Tremont section of the Bronx, April experienced a built environment negatively shaped by urban planning policies intended to perpetuate inequality and disparity—especially in communities of color. April and the Designing the We team believe that learning, understanding, and sharing this history of how communities reach “a point of gross inequity and disparity” is important in light of the development, gentrification, and displacement currently happening throughout the Bronx.
To inform the exhibition’s content and make it as accessible and relevant as possible, The Designing the We team did extensive archival research and met with different residents and stakeholders around the Kelly Street community ahead of the installation. April emphasized that the point of this project was about “how we use and talk about design in the built environment” and “getting residents to start thinking and perceiving what is their built environment.”
“Design informs everything: it’s design of policy, how our laws work, economics. It’s all design thinking that produces outputs that either reinforce or disrupt dominant perception.”
– April de Simone
Designing the We presented what can be a complicated subject creatively through visualizations in digestible, interactive pieces. The collective wanted to awaken visitors’ personal connections and show neighbors and everyday people that they have value to add to the urban design and policy conversation, and process. Local groups such as Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice and the Black Student Association at Pace University participated in programming for “The Big Rethink.” often paired with a screening and discussion of a related documentary, including “Citizen Jane” and “70 Acres in Chicago.” April observed that the youth were empowered to use this knowledge for change in their communities, with a young resident asking her, “How do we share with elected officials what we want to see in our communities?”
The Big Rethink’s “A View from Kelly Street” section, which comprises of archival photos, maps, and research.
For April, “it was great to hear the youth share their different perspectives, and more importantly how they have the power to control narrative through documentation and archiving, which is what the section ‘A View from Kelly Street’ [was] about.” This part of the exhibition was designed as a living archive of the neighborhood for local residents. As participants discovered connections between the history of policy and zoning and subsequent development or demolition in the area around Kelly Street, they contributed documents, photos, and notes from their own research and stories to the archive.
DESIGNING THE WE CONNECTED HISTORIC AND CONTEMPORARY EXAMPLES OF HOW HARMFUL RACIAL AND CLASS PERCEPTION RESULT IN LIVED REALITIES SUCH AS OTA BENGA AT THE BRONX ZOO, LUNG BLOCKS, THE WATER CRISIS IN FLINT MICHIGAN, AND THE U.S’S HISTORY OF FORCED STERILIZATION AND EUGENICS:
Though Designing the We’s 3-month exhibition and project at the Kelly Street Collaborative ended in January 2018, the team plans to expand “The Big Rethink” and its archive section to new sites in the Bronx. Each satellite site of this exhibition will also feed into Designing the We’s NYC “WeLAB” permanent exhibition space at Andrew Freeman Home home, which is where April and her team will continue to learn, map, design and connect with neighbors, institutions, professionals, and beyond.
Notes left by residents and other visitors in response to questions posed throughout the exhibition: