Visionary Leadership honoree Majora Carter discusses revitalization of ‘low-status’ communities
“I was this kid who hated where I was from — the bulk of my formative years was figuring out ways to get away from where I was. So it’s weird for me to sit here talking about stuff I’ve done because I didn’t think this was going to be my trajectory,” said Majora Carter, renowned urban revivalist and real estate developer, of her work to revitalize her home community in the South Bronx.
Carter discussed her life and work on Jan. 25 in a Q&A session moderated by George Knight, local architect and architecture critic, to a crowded lecture hall in the basement of the School of Architecture on Wednesday. A recipient of multiple accolades, including a 2005 MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship and the 2017 Visionary Leadership Award from the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, Carter pulled from her perspectives both as a child who grew up in what she called “low-status communities” and an adult whose business and academic work has focused on strengthening and revitalizing these communities.
By moving away for school and work, Carter said, she realized that not all communities develop the way hers did.
“It really was spending time outside of my community that gave me perspective on urban blight,” she said. “I used education to get out, but what I learned was that we were dealt a particular hand, historically, from an economic, environmental, and social standpoint. It was not a level playing field.”
Throughout the conversation, Carter described a grim process by which gentrification forces residents of low-status communities out just as the communities themselves become higher status.
“The way people talk about gentrification is as if it’s so cut-and-dry: poor people pushed out, creative and wealthier people come in,” Carter said. “It’s like, when you see the first sign of a doggy daycare, it’s: ‘Ugh, there goes the neighborhood.’”
But this process, Carter argued, begins well before the appearance of bourgeois businesses. It really starts when savvy real estate investors “wave a little bit of cash under the noses of people who live in these low-status communities” so that they “sell early and sell cheap,” thereby opening up neighborhoods for gentrification.
To combat this in her home in the South Bronx, Carter invested in the human energy that already existed in the residents of low-status communities. Despite the social, environmental, and economic troubles that deprive people of a sense of control in their communities, she said, small efforts by community members over time can lead to drastic changes.
“Celebrate the small victories,” Carter advised when asked how she approached the daunting task of unifying the South Bronx community behind the project of transforming a dead end area into a national award-winning park. The dead end was the result of a folded highway project by Robert Moses, a city planner for New York in the 20th century who transformed the highway and public transit systems, but whom critics blame for dumping the negative effects of city planning on poor neighborhoods populated mainly by African Americans.
“Basically after each and every moment, there was a party,” Carter said of the nine-year construction process.
“We would thank people, give people something to feel like they contributed — it was a dump before, but now it’s less of a dump!”
Of similar importance is preventing the departure of smart, energetic community members in the first place. “Brain drain doesn’t just happen in developing countries. It happens all over the United States in these low-status communities,” Carter said.
“When we tell people, especially the bright, hard-working ones that you know will leave sooner or later, not to value these sites, it leaves this huge gaping reinvestment gap,” Carter said. A better method, she explained, is to put their skills and energy to use transforming the neighborhoods they would otherwise want to leave.
For would-be urban strategists and architects who attended the talk, Carter encouraged getting to know a community first before jumping in with plans and ideas.
“Development is going to happen whether the folks in that place want it or not,” she said. “So you need to understand what’s going on in the community. Always ask what they want and what they need and be very open and transparent in your work.”