Doing the Conference Circuit

Tamika Camille Gauvin's picture

The semester has kicked into high gear and I am drowning in a sea of reading, written assignments,map-making, and special projects. Once in a while, I manage to emerge and dock (I know, enough of the nautical metaphors) at a lecture – or as in the last couple of weeks – at aconference.  It is great to stepout of academia once in a while and hear what is going on in the realworld.  I had the opportunity to attend two conferences over the past month.  One of them – The City from Below Conference – I attended this weekend when I returned home to Baltimore for spring break.

The activists and organizers that created the conference eschewed what one affiliated person called the "academic conference" for one based in "radical urban studies."  As a conference from the perspective of organizers and activists, some topics on the extensive agenda included "Anarchitecture,""Community Control and Autonomy Over Community Projects – Self Sufficiency and Determination," "Organizing Models for Social Justice in the City," and more.  Unfortunately, I could only attend four out of about forty sessions that were planned over three days.  I liked the conference because it seemed to represent what I call the grit of a city.  The audience largely comprised young activists and organizers (and I think some artists were in there too) and so I knew that the perspective would be different if not anything else.  I must admit that I walked into the conference thinking,"this is gonna be some radical stuff" (and this is before I knew that the conference was meant to be exactly that). I attended sessions titled "What They're Promising When They Talk About Affordable Housing," "Stopping Foreclosures in Baltimore City," "Design from Below," and "Systems and Cities:  A Baltimore Case Study."

"What They're Promising When They Talk About Affordable Housing," raised very important issues on affordable housing and who can actually afford it? The Center for Urban Pedagogy – based in Brooklyn, New York – conducted a visual exercise that depicted the connection between median family incomes, rent prices, and affordable housing qualification criteria.  It was very interesting to find out that some cities might base qualifying incomes on a regional median family income.  For a city like Baltimore,where the city median family income is more than half of the regional family income, a huge disconnect results between what is considered affordable housing and who can actually qualify for it if the qualifications is based on theregion median family incomes.  Asgood as this session was, I did get a glimpse of what I called theradical.  The discussion was goingdown the path of ‘governments need to build housing and governments don't do this is because it takes a lot of money' and someone said something to the effect that the concept of mix-income housing is a joke because we all live inmixed income neighborhoods.  Do we,really?

Another session – Systems and Cities:  A Baltimore Case Study– was an insightful look at open spaces along Baltimore's waterfront and the issues surrounding the future development of these sites.  This topic is very significant in the Baltimore development context.  Asmany cities that are on waterfronts, Baltimore will leverage the amenity in this natural asset in the form of development projects at the water's edge.  We must ask ourselves,however, what types of development are possible?  The large site that was the subject of the session hosts the shells of closed Wal-Mart and Sam's Club stores, the Baltimore Sun print operations (still operating) and other smaller buildings. It historically supported commercial and industrial businesses mainly through its use as a rail yard and transfer point from rail to ship transport.  Parts of the site are currently informally used for fishing and as a venue for events.  Consequently, future development proposals for this site could alter the way Baltimoreans are informally enjoying the space now if proposals do not include programming for such use. 

These were my big take-aways from the conference.  I also walked away wondering (and remember I only attended four out of forty sessions so my musings may not be in order) where were the Black conference attendees – especially in a city like Baltimore that has a sizable Black population ofwhich many may be among the very poor in the city.  Conference attendees were activists, organizers, planners,etc., and they came from all over so this was a conference about cities, and not just Baltimore.  Furthermore, the activists and organizers there could very well be those who are working in the trenches on behalf of this segment of the population in Baltimore and abroad.  However, I could not help but to wonder.  Also, I would have liked to hear more about how local governments, and activists and organizers overlap or about opportunities for these groups to negotiate, compromise, and design a new paradigm for addressing issues of the city below.

Tamika Camille Gauvin is a candidate for the Master of City Planning from the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at M.I.T.

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