Black American cultural landscapes are often made invisible and disrespected. During a session at reVISION ASLA 2020, three Black women landscape architects and students explained how these places can instead form the basis of more affirming, inclusive, and resonant place-making today, which in turn can help heal the scars of the past.
“The bottom is the lowest point, the deepest part, a place with marshy soil. It’s also a colloquial term for Black landscapes that are no good, devalued, and vulnerable,” explained Ujijji Davis Williams, ASLA, an urban planner and landscape architect with SmithGroup.
In many cities, “the bottom is where Black people were confined to live.” Escaping the Jim Crow-era racism of the South, Black migrants moved to northern cities and took up residence in these low-lying areas, which often experienced flooding and offered very limited access to the rest of the city. Later, Black Americans were redlined into these areas, which they still invested in and made into livable communities. In Washington, D.C. there is Foggy Bottom. In Detroit, Michigan, Black Bottom, and in Richmond, Virginia, Shockoe Bottom, among others. While in some instances these names have remained, the Black communties that once lived there have not.
Davis Williams wrote an essay — The Bottom: The Emergence and Erasure of Black American Urban Landscapes — in Columbia University’s Avery Review that outlines the history of these forgotten “vernacular landscapes.” In Detroit, Black Bottom was used for industrial purposes, resulting in a “dirty, heavily polluted landscape.” In the 50s and 60s, the community was raised to make way for a highway as part of “urban renewal efforts.” Today, the area is known as Lafayette Park and is seen as an “exclusive, high-value neighborhood.” Now the site of Mies van der Rohe-designed apartment complexes, the original Black Bottom is a coveted neighborhood. The place was “transformed; the narrative had changed.”
“What could have Black Bottom been if it was left alone — or even included in the rest of the city?” To answer the question, Davis Williams said it’s important to undertake a process of “landscape reconciliation,” which is “not about memorializing but transforming residual impacts and undertaking a healing process.”
For Whitney Barr, ASLA, a master’s of landscape architecture candidate at the University of Georgia, Sapelo Island, a state-protected barrier island in McIntosh County, Georgia, is a fascinating Black cultural landscape that offers a way for contemporary Black Americans to heal from the wounds of hundreds of years of enforced labor on the land.
The island, which is 11 miles long by 3 miles wide, has one convenience store, a bar, no doctors, and is only accessible by ferry. Settled by white slave owners and nearly 400 enslaved West Africans, the island’s massive plantations grew sugar cane, cotton, and other crops. From a population high of 600, there are just 45 Gullah-Geechee people left in Hog Hammock, a historically Black community. The Gullah-Geechee are descendants of those enslaved West Africans and decided to stay after Reconstruction.
Barr has been studying the Hog Hammock agricultural landscape, seeking ways to use design to reconnect Black Americans to the soil in a healing way. Referring to Dr. Anneliese Singh’s book, The Racial Healing Handbook: Practical Activities to Help You Challenge Privilege, Confront Systemic Racism, and Engage in Collective Healing, Barr explained how Black Americans can move from conforming to white culture to a sense of “integrative awareness,” which involves steps such as deep immersion in Black culture. By re-educating Black Americans about West African food and unlearning white approaches, they can get to a place where “they no longer think of agriculture as bad.” Regenerative agriculture and cultural regeneration go hand in hand.
In a set of plots on private land (much of Hog Hammock is owned by Georgia Heritage, a state authority), Barr has been working with residents to plant sugarcane, indigo, sugar peas, herbs, and hibiscus, sweet potato, and garlic. Youth participants decide what they want to plant.
During planting and harvesting events, “we give people permission to process — they can work solo or participate in conversations.” Barr and other designers have laid out spaces, created wayfinding systems and “peek and reveal spaces,” along with bioswales for stormwater management. There are educational and play spaces that help participants “re-imagine Black joy.” In addition to re-connecting with their landscape heritage in an affirming way, the goal is for residents to generate revenue and increase self-sufficiency, so as to reduce trips on the ferry for groceries.
Anjelyque Easley, Student ASLA, who is studying for her master’s of landscape architecture degree at the University of Texas at Arlington, has been delving into Black burial sites, which are often disturbed sites or have been built upon. The ones that remain intact are “desolate places” that suffer from “ignorance, lack of respect, and lack of documentation.” Easley’s goal is to investigate these sites, learn the names of the people buried, document the landscapes, and bring them new respect. “There are human beings there, not second class citizens.”
Even in tony Georgetown, Washington, D.C., the black cemetery Mount Zion is in a state of disrepair. The cemetery, which is 3.5 acres, is actually two separate cemeteries — Mount Zion Cemetery and Female Union Band Society Cemetery — and became a predominantly Black burial site starting in the mid-1800s. While the cemetery is adjacent to the predominantly white Oakhill cemetery, which is in pristine condition, Mount Zion is “largely ignored,” with broken tombstones and overgrown vegetation.
In discussing Mount Zion and other cemeteries in Texas, Easley concluded that Black burial sites leave an important legacy for future generations. The way forward is to recognize the error of failing to invest in their restoration and maintenance. “Planners, developers, and designers can reconcile with these places by offering new respect, convening, and memorializing to create places of healing.”
As Davis Williams explained early in the lecture, reconciling with the past can lead to a freer future rooted in equity and equality. “To move forward, we need to create a sustainable future that includes everyone.”