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  • Place, Emotion, and Environmental Justice in Harlem:June Jordan and Buckminster Fuller's 1965 "Architextual" Collaboration
  • Cheryl J. Fish (bio)

. . . you assume the buildings andthe small print roadways andthe cornered accidentsof roof and oozing tar and ordinaryconcretezigzag. Well.It is not beautiful.It never was.These are the shavenprivate partsthe city showof what somebody meanswhen he don't even botherjust to say"I don't give a goddam"(and)"I hate you."

—Excerpt from the draft of the poem "Sweetwater Poem Number One"1 [End Page 330]

This essay examines the nexus between environmental and social justice as an intervention into the materiality of urban planning in a collaboration between two leading public intellectuals: June Jordan and R. Buckminster Fuller. Both interdisciplinary thinkers and civic environmentalists, they illustrate the concept that "environmental quality and economic and social health are mutually constitutive."2 I shall situate their project "Skyrise for Harlem," an architectural redesign of Harlem that challenged many of the dominant practices of urban planning in the 1960s, within the paradigm of urban environmental justice, as theorized by Robert Bullard, Dorceta E. Taylor, Lawrence Buell, Joni Adamson, and others. Environment justice activists claim that where we live, work, play, and pray constitutes our environment, and that poor communities and communities of color have been burdened with disproportionate toxic exposures, as well as neglect and discrimination. Environmental justice became "one of the largest and most active social movements in the U.S. . . . addressing the concerns of urbanites and people of color that had been overlooked by main-stream environmental organizations."3 As Dorceta E. Taylor explains, the movement is made up of thousands of grassroots environmental groups nationwide; prior to the emergence of the environmental justice movement, mainstream environmental organizations were mostly white and middle class.4 I shall claim "Skyrise for Harlem" as an interrogation of design and affect as a significant intervention into critical environmental justice studies. I've coined the term architextural to emphasize architecture as text and text as thickly descriptive, multidimensional (a precomputer version of hypertext), serving as a scaffold on which to build a vision of hope and embodied environments. Jordan originally conceptualized this project as a "threshold" or gateway into new possibilities for Harlem—where she felt there had been "no threshold. In Harlem what does entrance mean? On one side of the door there is the street of no human direction. On the other side is a hallway leading to a life closet of inconsequence . . . the inconsequence of being born only to continue dying."5

June Jordan was a poet, essayist, orator, educator, Black English advocate, and social justice activist who died of breast cancer in 2002. She transformed the bounds of self and society with a revolutionary vision and is an unacknowledged poet-philosopher of the urban environmental justice movement. She textually and visually mapped the dimensions of psyche and race, political economy, language and place. Early in her career, Jordan studied architecture and design with Herbert Gans, a leading sociologist of urban planning at the time (at Barnard College in New York City), as a Fellow in Environmental Design at the American Academy in Rome, and as a researcher and writer on housing and economic conditions on the [End Page 331] Lower East Side of Manhattan for Mobilization for Youth.6 She advocated a transformative urban planning that has never been thoroughly acknowledged or explored as part of her legacy as a poet and thinker; she collaborated in 1964–65 with Fuller, an engineer, architect, mathematician, and poet, best known for his geodesic dome designs and for what he called "Comprehensive Anticipatory Design Science": an attempt to solve humanity's major problems through the use of technology, thus supporting more people with fewer resources.7 Their redesign of Harlem featured elevated, conical towers supported by central masts with one hundred levels (see figure 1) built over existing housing units containing new dwelling space, parking ramps, and suspension bridges cutting through the towers and creating a connecting road. The plan also included an expansion of green space, more leisure areas, and new thoroughfares. It aimed to keep residents and community intact and...


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pp. 330-345
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