Essay

Displacemaking: Finding Place Among the Architectures of Exclusion

by Gordon Douglas

 

Image 1. The Village, a settlement of unhoused people in Oakland’s San Antonio district, 2018

Between October of 2017 and January of 2019, an exceptional thing took place on a scrappy, triangular piece of publicly owned land in Oakland. With an ever-changing assortment of tents, vehicles, and hand-built structures, people in need of housing created a place that became known as the Village, perhaps the largest and most prominent community of its kind in the city. Upwards of 100 people may have occupied the 1.3 acre parcel at its height, though a conservative estimate is more in the range of 40 to 60 people at any given time. The number, like the very form of the place, changed from night to night.

The location, along E. 12th Street in Oakland’s San Antonio district, had been identified as a suitable site for settlement by some members of the unhoused community, including organizer Nita Bee, an activist who has struggled with homelessness herself. The space is rather ideally self-contained, wedged in by railroad tracks, a curving roadway overpass, an industrial cul-de-sac, and the wide fast-moving street with its elevated BART line running not-so-high above. City officials agreed to allow a temporary occupation of the site, with the understanding that no permanent structures be constructed and that the land would have to be cleared by the end of 2018 for scheduled work on the overpass.

Image 2. A multi-level shelter, hand-built of reclaimed wood and other found objects, serving as home for two inside the Village.

In the beginning, a thick layer of woodchips was laid on the earth, and as the tents arrived so did port-o-potties, a wash station, and common areas. Cars and RVs parked along the adjacent street or rolled up onto the dirt, and before long people began to build shelters. These ranged from single-room “tiny homes,” constructed by local volunteers, to elaborate multi-room and even multi-story structures wholly improvised by their occupants out of plywood, tarp, and myriad other found materials. Some residents ran electrical cables from a nearby streetlight; others relied on battery-powered flashlights and phone chargers, car batteries, and candles. There were often open fires for cooking or warmth, and a few, of unknown origin, that got out of control, burning tents and structures. (Rumor was that a man died in his tent during a fire, though I was never able to confirm it.)

What’s more, there was community. To be sure, life in the Village was hard, sometimes brutal, and always in flux – while there was some consistency, especially among older residents and those in some of the larger improvised structures, many others came and went. But while some folks kept to themselves – and some were actively feared or disliked – many knew each other well. Some made signs featuring the name of the community (in full: “Two Three Hunnid Tent City” or “23 Ohlone Village”), discouraging the dumping of trash, and reminding passersby that “people live here.” A young man and woman who built a shelter together (an extensive tarp and wood complex with multiple living spaces) created a small quasi-public sitting space out front; other structures had “living rooms,” “porches,” and “front yards” too. Many people planted small trees or succulents and cared for potted herbs and flowers. “I’ve been in this area so long it’s where I want to be,” one young man said. “It’s a good place to be.” 

Image 3. Two residents of the Village relax outside the shelter they built together.

Image 4.  A communal sitting space along E. 12th Street in the Village.​

Place is an everyday sort of word. But it is thick and fraught if you think about it, and still contentiously employed in the social sciences. While explored exhaustively in geographical theory, place is also an essential concept for how we think about and practice urban planning, architecture, real estate development, and community life. In particular, “placemaking” has become an exceedingly popular trend in planning and urban design. Especially prominent are so-called “creative placemaking” efforts, which use public art and a variety of other playful, colorful, interactive design elements (think pink Adirondack chairs) to create more inviting, lively, pedestrian-friendly streets and public spaces. The goal is to revitalize an area in need of revitalization. In an influential 2010 white paper for the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa argued that creative placemaking “animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired.”[1]  

Placemaking typically looks like adding seats, planters, murals, and brightly colored pavement, as well as food trucks, pop-up retail, games, and public events to “activate” them. Some expression of local culture and identity may also be part of the project, whether explicitly through imagery and design intended to reflect a prominent ethnic group or interesting local history, or simply through aesthetic choices that signal to visitors what sort of (trendy, artsy, child-friendly, glamorous, authentic, etc.) place they are in. With or without the “creative” in front, placemaking has the same basic goal: taking spaces that ostensibly lack for a sense of place and then using the tools of urban design to give them some.

Image 5. Placemaking in the current mode - a pedestrian-oriented public space created on Broad Street in Atlanta, Georgia.​

To understand what makes a place, one should really begin with space. In its classical sense, space is somewhat analogous to an empty underlying container for things, defined only by what occupies it. (This perhaps still undergirds the all-too-prevalent “blank canvas” attitude in urban planning and architecture.)  In a more contemporary understanding, space is the elementary geographical building block of our physical world, connected by numerous points, features, and activities and given character and definition in relation to human experience.[2] 

Places, then, are those spaces that are imbued with meaning and value. Such an understanding comes from the late-1970s humanistic geography of Yi-Fu Tuan and Edward Relph. For them, the fundamental point of distinction between space and place is in the relationship to people and to cultural meaning, the distinction between the distant and intimate. If, for Tuan, space is an area or location understood at a distance, without specific value or social relevance, then intimacy gives meaning, makes it a non-abstract – a place. For Relph, to understand a place is to understand the intensity of attachment, involvement, and “insideness” (being of and intimate with it) that people have for it.[3] 

In light of this understanding, the placemaking trend in urban planning becomes riddled with contradictions. For one thing, adopted as it has been as an economic development strategy, the sorts of places created under the mantle of placemaking often wind up being places of consumption and privilege, designed around white, “creative-class” priorities with white, “creative-class” aesthetics – what George Lipsitz has called the White Spatial Imaginary.[4]  What’s more, almost by definition placemaking rests on the assumption that a non-familiar or difficult or unattractive or ostensibly non-meaningful place is actually not a place, and is thus in need of some place being made. This is at best ignorant; at worst, elitist and racist. 

New (and sometimes rather generic) places are made right on top of what is already there, which, it should be no surprise to realize, is usually already a place. In this way, creative placemaking can displace places, becoming what the artist Vicki Meek and others have taken to calling “creative placetaking.”[5]  All together, this risks what Relph described as “the casual eradication of distinctive places and the making of standardized landscapes.”[6]

A recent article in the trade publication Commercial Property Executive, entitled “How to Make your Property a Place,” explained that “Placemakers combine location, culture, and a community structure to create occupant-centered assets.” The author noted that, “While the definition is constantly evolving, placemaking is a design concept that is being adopted throughout the real estate industry.”[7] It is a strange idea, to make anywhere into a place, and all the more so when the practice becomes so widespread in application and aesthetics that the results may hardly qualify as distinctive places at all. It is especially ironic in cities where the places of the least privileged residents are simultaneously being eradicate

Image 6. Creative placemaking strategies work to enliven and give character to public spaces. Here, a chessboard in a pedestrian walkway in Oakland’s trendy Uptown area.

In late 2018, the City of Oakland began making good on its intention – stated from the beginning – to evict all occupants from the Village site. Neighbors and activists from around the region came with gloves and flatbed trucks to help people relocate and salvage what they could of their belongings and structures. Finally, over several rainy days in January 2019, Oakland sanitation workers and their bulldozers, along with more than a few police, cleared the Village and secured it with a tall fence. 


Some evicted residents were offered spaces in new “community cabins” that the City was constructing a few blocks away, where modified garden sheds were being outfitted with windows, insulation, and locking doors to serve as shelters for the unhoused. Most others were scattered, back to sleeping in their cars or looking for new places to plant a tent or assemble some sort of shelter. But many did not go far; many resettled just a few blocks up E. 12th Street at another fast-growing curbside community.

Image 7. The heart of the Village at roughly the height of settlement density in 2018.

As a city, Oakland provides a wealth of ironies in terms of place, placelessness, and displacement. A well-known piece of public art at the Berkeley-Oakland border, ‘HERE – THERE,’ is a play on the Gertrude Stein quote about Oakland that “There is no there there,” which the city has always sort of embraced while trying to prove wrong.  Displacement is deeply rooted in Oakland, which experienced its first real population boom in the form of wealthy refugees from the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, and has experienced another over the past decade due to those fleeing how unaffordable the city across the Bay has become. (Still others are arriving from San Francisco under the specter of the coronavirus pandemic and its ensuing shutdowns, seeking larger homes and better weather as proximity to downtown jobs becomes less necessary for some.)  And Oakland’s poorer occupants are being displaced too, as their own neighborhoods become too costly.
Oaklanders are fiercely protective of the history and identity of “the Town.” And the language of displacement, explicitly, has begun to replace that of gentrification among organizers and everyday residents, as people talk about the importance of the place, and the physical and cultural loss associated with its changes. Displacement itself takes many forms. Many people have spread to the far reaches of an expanded metropolitan area, enduring soul-crushing commutes. For others, displacement means sleeping under a freeway, in a park, alongside railroad tracks, or on the street.  And for some it looks like the tenuous rebuilding of place in an informal settlement.[8] 

Image 8. A flag flies from the 23rd Avenue overpass above the former site of the Village shortly after its occupants were removed by authorities in 2019.

 

In 2018, almost exactly a year after the Village was founded and just a couple of months before it was destroyed, a small group of people led again by Nita Bee decided to build another intentional community on a small corner plot. Dubbed “Housing and Dignity Village,” it was intended explicitly to provide a safe, clean, and sober space for women and families with children as well as a “service hub for curbside communities in the area.” Nestled in a poor and mainly residential area of Deep East Oakland, surrounded by a metal fence they could lock with a padlock, the site seemed a relatively safe and secure place for new arrivals to settle down. 

The inhabitants of Housing and Dignity Village quickly cleaned garbage from the site and surrounding lots and brought in a medical tent, outdoor kitchen, and gardening supplies, along with their array of shelters ranging from tents and shacks to Nita’s RV. Working with local nonprofits and community groups, regular food distributions were soon occurring on site, along with occasional medical services and even free wireless internet. Signage and literature made available to visitors also included a list of policy demands, information about homelessness, and recognition that the site (like all of Oakland) is on the traditional lands of the Ohlone people.

Image 9. People live in tents, vehicles, and on the sidewalks along many streets in Oakland’s industrial areas.

Threats from city officials to evict the residents of Housing and Dignity Village and clear the site began almost immediately. Although advocates appealed the notices in court and did win a temporary restraining order against eviction, a full injunction was denied two weeks later. On December 6th 2018, police and sanitation workers cleared the site and its 13 occupants. Ironically, many of the residents were not actually there to fight for their belongings when the city tore it down – they were at work or school. Gone with it was the only safe and sober housing option in Oakland explicitly for unhoused women with children.

Image 10. Housing and Dignity Village, an intentional community established illegally by occupants as a clean and sober encampment site for women and families in East Oakland, 2018.

Like many cities, Oakland has embraced placemaking – in the form of parklets, street closures, painted pavement, and ambitious neighborhood-scale efforts ranging from the commercial redevelopment of Jack London Square in the 1990s to evolving plans for a Black Arts Movement District today. Some of its leaders have also worked to encourage and acquire more (if not enough) affordable housing and housing for those living on the streets. This includes temporary solutions like the community cabins which, unfortunately, are often designed to be non-places, concrete yards of drab functional sheds hidden behind tall fences with on-site security. 

At the same time, a tactic to discourage the presence of unhoused people is unquestionably also the unmaking of places. Not just encampments, but public spaces as well. One woman described a park that she and other unhoused people hang out in while waiting for a nearby shelter to open: “They took the BBQ pits out, they closed the bathroom, even for the kids.” Oakland makes places for some, while actively unmaking them for others.

Image 11. Structures at Housing and Dignity Village are pulled down by Oakland sanitation workers under police supervision.

Shifting social conditions and policy changes, however, have also led to some large encampments being allowed to remain. The city even sometimes cleans them without evictions. In just the right geographical and legal niche – right time, right place – they gain a sense of almost permanence.  The irony then, in some of these settlements, is that the most marginalized of Oakland’s displaced can become the actual creators of new places where there was often nothing before.

Image 12. One of the City of Oakland’s official “cabin communities” near Lake Merritt.

Image 13. Volunteers work to build shelters for unhoused community member along E. 12th Street in Oakland, 2020.

On January 18th, 2020, around a hundred people gathered along a muddy, uneven median running between traffic on E. 12th Street, less than a mile northwest of the location of the original Village. Their intention, according to a text message call for volunteers, was to build “homes, shower, garden, laundry & more.” The site, long and narrow and sloping considerably, was already home to dozens of people living in a variety of structures, many of whom had previously lived down the street at the Village. Indeed, although this area – often referred to by locals as “behind the Burger King” – has been occupied on and off for many years, it quickly became one of the largest curbside settlements in Oakland after the Village was cleared. It also contains some of the more innovative handmade structures in Oakland’s in settlements, including several with windows, multiple rooms, and locking doors. At least one features a homemade shower fixture and wash basin, complete with a chain-pull water release connected to a suspended container that can be filled with warm water. One resident, in the process of skillfully assembling his shelter out of plywood and two-by-fours built into a bedraggled tree, described the positioning of an elevated shelf for sleeping at just the right height to capture a view of San Francisco’s skyline across the Bay.

Image 14. A mural on a "tiny home" built by volunteers in Oakland.

This place, now dubbed by activists the Right to Remain Curbside Community, has so far remained. Somewhere between 50 and 75 people now live in here, occupying about 40 structures, several tents, and at least a dozen cars, vans, and RVs parked nearby. There is no ongoing formal management or organization of the settlement; residents maintain their own shelters and the communal areas (though garbage dumping remains a major problem), and new neighbors continue to arrive, finding places to pitch a tent and build a shelter, as they have for years. Recent endeavors by city agencies to remove garbage and abandoned cars have made no effort to remove any people or occupied shelters. With time, the row of semi-detached structures lining E. 12th Street has nearly begun to resemble a terrace of townhouses. More importantly, it is a home to dozens of people, people who go to work, hang out and chat, collaborate or fight, and make improvements to their space. The architectures are carefully considered, so too are the sites, so too the community that results. The site may be home to the displaced, but is anything but placeless.

Image 15. A two-story shelter constructed by its occuppants in a large informal settlement in Oakland.

The recognition of place, and with it a careful consideration of the concept of placemaking, has never been more essential in our changing cities. One of the most intractable of planning’s “wicked problems” is the puzzle of improvement without displacement, and the many contradictions of placemaking cut to the heart of it. And in the context of extreme inequality, marginality, and exclusion, we also have an opportunity to reclaim placemaking – this word that has become so bandied about and cynically employed – for the displaced most of all.

We might consider the stories of thousands of people who, despite devastating circumstances, may find some of the “insideness” that Relph talked about, even in what seem the most outside and distant of places to the rest of us. Perhaps it could help protect and embolden them in seeking solutions to their unjust displacement and insecurity. Because, while others may not recognize them as anywhere at all, theirs are places too.

Gordon Douglas is an assistant professor of urban and regional planning at San José State University, where he is director of the Institute for Metropolitan Studies. His writing and photography have appeared in City and CommunityArchitectUrban Studies, the Journal of Urban Design and a variety of magazines, newspapers, and websites.

gordon.douglas@sjsu.edu


Notes

[1] Markusen, Ann and Anne Gadwa. 2010. Creative Placemaking. White paper for the Mayors’ Institute on City Design. Washington: The National Endowment for the Arts, 3.

[2] I owe the clarity of these distinctions especially to E. Mazur & J. Urbanek’s “Space in Geography.” GeoJournal, 7:2 (1983): 139-143.

[3] See Edward C. Relph, Place and Placelessness (London: Pion, 1976) and Yi-Fu Tuan Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977).

[4] Lipsitz, George. 2007. “The Racialization of Space and the Spatialization of Race: Theorizing the Hidden Architecture of Landscape.” Landscape Journal, vol. 26, no. 1, pp. 10–23.

[5] Meek, Vicki. 2018. “Creative Placetaking: It’s a Thing!” Alternate Roots website. 25 April 2018. https://alternateroots.org/creative-placetaking-its-a-thing/

[6] Relph, Place and Placelessness, preface.

[7] Rosario, IvyLee. 2018. “How to Make Your Property a Place,” Commercial Property Executive website. https://www.cpexecutive.com/post/how-to-make-your-property-a-place/

[8] I use the term informal settlement quite carefully here. Large, persistent encampments of unhoused people like the Village and others described here differ in important ways from common images of homelessness in North America (from “sleeping rough” to squatting and other forms of irregular housing) and perhaps more in common with the informal settlements that we typically associate more with cities in the Global South.  Of course, informality itself is a complex and rather fraught term in urban studies, one deserving more discussion than is possible here (for a seminal discussion, see Ananya Roy's Urban Informality: Toward an Epistemology of Planning, Journal of the American Planning,” 71:2 (2005): 147-58).