Friday, July 20, 2012

Yearning for lawlessness

Much of my first week has been spent in meetings…with locals, with police enforcement, with artists, local business owners, politicians, activists, and committees. This project is much more prevalent on the radar than the house in Buffalo. As a result – and in the interest of exploring a method which can proliferate – I’ve been at work trying to find more legitimate ways of accessing waste material apart from the vigilante ways of the past. Mostly, I’m met with great deal of respect and enthusiasm…and then a “but it’s just too much of a liability concern.”

Especially in an economically strained city like Flint, every demolition is a missed opportunity. I was able to speak to Mayor Walling extensively about this yesterday morning. He wholeheartedly agreed and was able to put me in touch with the local Habitat for Humanity group. During my time working with Habitat in Buffalo, I noticed even they discard a lot of still usable material when doing renovations (most of their work is renovation, rather than new-build). Typically the majority of the house is gutted, leaving an excess of true 2x4’s (many of which were slow-grown to much higher qualities than today’s rapidly sprouted pine), insulation, and other materials. From my conversation with Habitat Flint it seems likely I’ll have almost free reign over materials in at least two properties they’ll be renovating in the near future.

I also have some new friends with contacts in the demo business for more pre-emptive scavenging, and have been in touch with several commercial roofing companies who throw away a lot of useful and still healthy rubber material which may be able to be repurposed for the roof at Spencer’s.

Later I met with the Carriage Town Historic Neighborhood Association - who currently holds rights to Spencer’s - to pitch the project and officially pass the 3-year lease with the Flint Public Art Project. Mostly the project was well-received – even deemed “a godsend.” The discussion got slightly heated though, when I was asked what my plans were regarding historic preservation of the building – that is, maintaining an exterior aesthetic consistent to some unspecified date in the distant past. I initially shrugged it off, failing to see why that mattered to a house which currently has a roof that is caving in, boards still over most of the windows, in a neighborhood crawling with fiends and criminal activity (and then an entire block of houses in the same condition following behind it). Apparently, the Historic District Commission is stringent on the cosmetics of buildings in any historic district (Carriage Town being one of them), and would rather let an entire block of houses rot or catch fire than let one put in his choice of window. The CTHNA was disappointingly subdued when I suggested challenging the HDC’s current requirements. With the dire situation that Flint is in, especially Grand Traverse St., one would think the system more flexible. From an architectural standpoint, the resonation of the old with new would be exciting. From a communal standpoint, it would define from the outside a rebirth of the building and a revitalized effort for creative thinking and resourcefulness: hope. I hope to be able to arrange some negotiations with the HDC, or the history they’re trying so hard to protect won’t just be the wrong color; it’ll be gone entirely.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Cleaning out

It’s difficult to gauge where to start. With the other house just a couple blocks away where I can rest, shower, use a toilet, cook, and keep things relatively safe, the obvious survival necessities no longer drive the project. Material availability and spontaneity will still exist, but because the survivalist aspect has diminished, there isn’t any need to rush for solutions. And for the time, the public aspect to this renovation is still up in the air. I’ve been asked to turn the first floor into everything from an artists’ colony, to a Deli (with an old Jewish man running it), to a museum covering Mr. Spencer’s great dedication to the Civil Rights movement (he regularly held meetings there). As I start to understand the context of Flint more, and continue conversations with locals I’ll be able to decide better how to insert this project into the neighborhood.

A (poorly shot) video tour of the house to give a better sense of the space:

For the time being, there are several areas in the house that are far beyond patching up – two collapsing floors and a misshapen roof on the Northeast corner to begin with.

 The existing system is a complex tensile structure.

Though physically easy to pull apart because of their condition, it takes some improvisation to be able to reach and pull them without caving the entire floor onto my head. From above, there is no stable structure to stand on, and the tallest ladder currently available is just 6’. Rakes, ropes, and at one point a thrown sledgehammer do the job.


Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Landing

After over nine hours of driving the truck which is older than I am, I break down just two miles from Spencer's. My local contact helps me get a tow to Spencer's so that I can secure my things inside, but one of the doors is easily pushed in. I have the option of staying at a nicer house a couple blocks away, but fear leaving everything I own at this house unsecured on such a lively corner. Within the 20 minutes of hauling my belongings inside I'm approached by half a dozen people looking for handouts or offering help (for money), as well as a police officer seemingly convinced I'm insane (the tow-man had a similar look on his face upon seeing where we had him take the truck to). I spent the night at Spencer's as the only security system available.

It was a rough night, and daylight only helps reveal more issues in the house. I'm approached by another police officer, who again thoroughly questions me and forwards his concerns of safety. We talk about the neighborhood...what brought the drunkards and fiends here, what their schedules are like, where they've been and where they'll go, the city's endless battle against their gatherings, and the futility of these efforts simply as displacement. At the intersection is a gas station and a party (liquor) store. Across the street a currently being developed park, where the gatherings used to occur. And between Spencer's and the liquor store a broken up and overgrown parking lot where they have been recently.

Soon the Carriage Town Historic Neighborhood Association will be assisting with the removal of this parking lot, to be turned into a green space that will synergize with the new public program of Spencer's (sculpture park? vegetable garden?). But initially it's still only an act of displacing people to the other corner of the intersection. If that's rehabilitated too, they'll move down the street, or to another neighborhood.

After spending some time here, I feel the majority of people (drunks and addicts included) are harmless. Hired muscle might be useful in the future, and incorporating the community in the rebuilding of the neighborhood is essential in creating revitalization rather than displacement.

The building, originally a house, was transformed into a commercial building in the 60's - Spencer's Funeral Home. Some locals, all of whom seem to have known the late Mr. Spencer very well, speculate it's been vacant since his death about 15 years ago. Rumor has it he kept a body refrigerated there for an extended period of time for lack of payment, leading some locals to fearing the place as haunted.

Roof damage has quickly led to the decay of one of the back corners of the house. The collapsed second floor is dangling, possibly just by the few electrical wires that run through the joists. Above this the attic floor is collapsing too - not as bad but still far beyond saving.

Stephen's earlier visit - and what I discover from the party store owner, a short-lived effort to rehab this house last summer - leave a few rooms fairly clean. A lot of windows are broken, especially large ones, but largely the front of the house is in great shape.

Sixty "Z-Blocks," sculptural seating contrinbuted by designer Srdjan Jovanovic-Weiss of Normal Architecture Office, fill one of the front rooms. These will be used for various events and gathering under the guise of the Flint Public Art Project.

And by me to have something to sit on while on my diet of water and pretzels, both by the gallon.

To the basement

The Hole

I've located myself and my things on the second floor in one of the cleaner and more put-together rooms. Though there is another, more secure house with working amenities nearby, I'm living still situating myself between the two. Establishing an early presence at Spencer's I think will go a long way in keeping vandals and thieves away from the property.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Flint Public Art Project

Stephen Zacks, journalist in NYC, is now also the producer and curator for the Flint Public Art Project, and recently offered to commission Matt and I for this house in Flint, MI.

FPAP just received a $250,000 grant from ArtPlace to re-envision the urbanism of Flint via a series of art and design projects focusing on social engagement. Collaboration between artists, designers, architects, urbanists, local businesses, and the community will seek to "contribute new sources of inspiration to the local culture, attract revenue to small businesses, draw activity to disused sites, support community organizations, and reinforce connections to the metropolitan, regional, and global economy" (Zacks).

One of these projects is 520 University Ave, formerly known as Spencer's Funeral Home, which faces (among other things) catastrophic roof damage. I'll be heading to Flint next week to begin a 5-6 month live-work renovation (and Matt shortly thereafter, on a part-time basis). The aim is to convert this long-abandoned structure into something of an artists' collaborative, eventually obtaining a Certificate of Occupancy.

Aiming for a building that satisfies the bureaucracies, not to mention tackling a house several times larger than the previous one, is a daunting task. It seems hired muscle will be an easy thing to come by, as I've already been given contacts to locals - some ready to work for as little as $4 per hour, others for beer, more for food, and a few just in the interest of helping out. This will let some of the larger jobs go more quickly, and hopefully will make my own assimilation into the neighborhood more smooth. Befriending and working with the locals should not only help progress building, but maintain security, trust, self-pride, and ownership. Here, participatory design is the key to rebuilding our communities.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

GarbageHouse 2.0

Dwelling on Waste: Flint is an extension of the thesis work that I and Matthieu Bain completed for the University at Buffalo graduate architecture program. This series of projects is an investigation into consumerism and the indifference to waste which has become so prevalent in modern culture. By focusing on abandoned materials and structures, we are able to not only reduce consumption of new materials and energy, but can help resuscitate spaces which haven't seen life in years and revitalize neighborhoods through a series of interventions which are physically, financially, and intellectually accessible. This type of design-build is an encouragement of self-sufficiency, an argument against static space, and most importantly a re-evaluation of 'trash.'

The precedent to this, Dwelling on Waste: Buffalo had heavier traces as a Survivalist architecture. Moving into the $800 home without heat, running water, or electricity we began to become involved in issues of social structure, morality vs. legality in city building policies, environmental sustainability and economics. The work here and this blog will still largely reflect our inhabitation of the space as well as the structural and material urgencies of the house, but with established utilities and an expected fate for the house beyond our own lives there, its expected that any notions of humanitarian architecture will shift from the somewhat introverted view of the last project to one which is more communal and urbanistic.

The house at Flint, most recently known as Spencer's Funeral Home, is currently under lease from the City of Flint for three years, after which its state of being will be reevaluated. As one of many projects under the Flint Public Art Project the goal of our interventions is to bring the building from urban blight to an artists' co-op that will foster community activity and a revitalized effort to rebuild local economy and culture, using locally sourced waste material as the prime medium of working.

                                                                 Photo by Sinan Imre