Anthro-tecture: An Experiment in Ethnographically Informed Design

By Rachel Feldman, with Collaborating Architect Arman Chowdhury


Can ethnographically informed architecture become a working model for urban revitalization projects? What kinds of insights can the anthropologist provide to keep revitalization projects “local” (avoid gentrification)? During my tenure as an AmeriCorps Vista, working with The North 5th Street Revitalization Project during 2009-10, questions surrounding these themes were raised.  Initiated in 2005, the project serves to improve the local economy and physical conditions of 5th Street, an underserved low-income main street in the heart of North Philadelphia. My task was to work as a mediator between the local immigrant community and the City of Philadelphia, with whom The North 5th Street Project maintained a contract to revitalize this commercial corridor. During this time, we had mixed success implementing a number of beautification, crime prevention, and cultural programs.     Continually, we ran up against language barriers that prevented communication and local ethnic divisions that prevented widespread cooperation and communication. By the end of the year, I began working in collaboration with an architect to re-imagine the streetscape design (Figure 1), in a way that would respond to the issues of human interaction that seemed to bar impactful and sustainable changes in the neighborhood. To create a design brief, I went back to my “field notes” from a year on 5th Street, interviewing the residents and merchants there, attending business association meetings, civic associations, school board meetings, cultural and religious events, political events, and planning meetings at City Hall.  By working in the position as an advocator for local immigrant groups living near 5th Street, helping to represent their voices during the revitalization process, I gained valuable insights into the dynamics of this community. In the following discussion I will recap a few of the observations I made on 5th street and how these observations then formed the basis of architectural response (Figure 1). In the conclusion, I will return again to my initial question of ethnographically informed design as a working method for urban revitalization projects.

A Point of Initiation

Since the initiation of the North 5th Street Project, physical improvements have primarily been accomplished through the use of “storefront improvement grants.” These grants are provided by the City of Philadelphia in the form of small reimbursements given to merchants to make improvements to their storefront facades. Planners working in underserved areas have insufficient budgets and try to utilize city grants as a sort of economic incentive that can be provided to business owners.           Community Development Corporations (CDCs), such as The North 5th Street Project, spend excessive amounts of time making store-to-store visits, trying to convince individual merchants to invest in improving their stores in return for small reimbursements. The ultimate goal: if numerous small businesses make façade improvements (according to the city’s aesthetic guidelines), then the overall character of the neighborhood will improve. The city envisions something of a “domino effect” whereby one improved storefront space inspires the next, and subsequently business improves, and eventually ghettos are transformed into newly desirable urban enclaves.

The City believes that this process should be directed by neighborhood CDCs, who will organize store-by-store, convincing merchants to join the cause. But in a low-income, primarily immigrant neighborhood, in the midst of an economic recession, this process has proven to be highly inefficient at initiating large-scale change.  During my time there, one business owner’s face turned to a look of disbelief when I tried to explain to her that she could apply for a “storefront improvement grant” and invest $15,000 dollars in improving the façade of her cell phone store in return for a 5% reimbursement by the City and the wonderful feeling of a giving back to her community. Her expression turned to outrage when I added that this would mean tearing down her giant neon billboard signage (seen as an asset for attracting walk-by customers in the inner city) and replacing it with a dainty, neutrally colored box sign according to city codes.

Figure 1: A new streetscape is envisioned for North 5th Street based on a dialogue between anthropologist and architect. The elements of design respond to the anthropologist’s observations upon completing a year of “field work.”

The entire process is further complicated by the fact that small business owners in low-income neighborhoods of Philadelphia are often renters who would like to improve their buildings, understanding that such improvements will raise property values, but they face resistance from property owners who no longer live in the neighborhood and are not touched by arguments about “improving the community.”

How could The North 5th Street Revitalization Project implement physical improvements that could serve as a nucleus for change in this neighborhood that is plagued by pollution and crime? Rather than relying on the “domino effect” of small structural changes we decided to shift our focus to the public, to the resident-merchant interface of the street. The following design collaboration proposes that future improvements on 5th Street begin with the revitalization of the “street façade,” an alternative theory to the storefront renovations typically implemented by the city. The decision to focus on street life responds to issues of property ownership, communication, and identity that I noted during my year working with the project. My ethnographic observations were thus utilized as a platform for ethnographically informed design.

Translation Into Design

One of the major obstacles to revitalizing 5th Street is the issue of property ownership. As I discovered, property owners are rarely business owners or residents in the community and, therefore, have little incentive to invest in renovating their buildings. Since owners do not have a stake in the revitalization of 5th Street, a design was needed to circumvent the issue of ownership altogether, beginning in the public space of the street. Figure 1 illustrates the installation of a new streetscape framework, consisting of post and pergola canopies that would create an active and imaginative walkway down 5th Street.

Rather than treating the street as a conduit for pedestrian traffic, we acknowledged its potential experiential factor, to be a space that would improve the local economy as well as nature of human interaction. The pergola canopy (which can alternatively be replaced by tension wire and vines) provides shade, encouraging residents to spend more time browsing shops and products displayed in the alcoves along the pathway. Decorative benches, greenery, and mural artwork create a thoughtful space where people might be less likely to pass through mindlessly and litter. Additionally, business owners can choose whether or not they want a canopy unit installed in front of their store. Shop owners who don’t want the system can go without it, allowing for natural variations of canopies and direct sunlight along the main street. This option to participate creates a buffer for those who don’t want to invest, allowing for the implementation of a design strategy that does not depend on a nearly impossible situation of unanimous agreement.

Our decision to focus on the street was also informed by the complex of communication issues I observed on 5th Street. Business transactions are hurried and hostile, characterized by mistrust between shopper and employees that is magnified by language barriers and almost weekly episodes of violent crime on the street. In our streetscape, the boundary lines between business and shopper are blurred to create a more porous environment of interaction and communication. Products spill out into the street and shoulder height dividers between the street and pedestrian pathway allow for advertising surfaces (a trade off to store owners for losing large billboard signage). The time duration of resident-business interaction is also extended beyond daytime hours by a light infrastructure that is included as part of post and pergola system. Nighttime illumination creates a sense of security, dispelling the fear of crime that keeps pedestrians from mingling on the streets at night. Dispelling perceived fear and keeping residents on the citystreet longer, contributes the overall health of the local economy by allowing business owners to extend hours of operation beyond nightfall.

Installing a streetscape framework gives order without monotony, allowing for the replication of a system without being repetitive. This design strategy responds to issues of neighborhood identity, creating a street that is identifiable but not authoritative, one that respects cultural differences among the diverse immigrant population that lives and works here.     Business owners can design their canopied units according to individual preferences. This was an issue that came up frequently when I was interviewing individual business owners. Business owners resisted the idea of implementing uniform storefront designs proposed by the city because they neglected the store’s “culture.” While uniform main streets may please business owners in the suburbs, inner city business owners may rely on certain ethnic aesthetics to attract customers, to let patrons know they can find products from “home” in their store.  Furthermore, allowing for variation within this system creates an identifiable, landmark street without “branding” the neighborhood in favor of one immigrant community over another. For example, Korean business owners continue to push City Hall to brand the neighborhood “Korea Town,” which they believe would help advertise and draw customers from more affluent neighborhoods to shop on 5th Street. This effort has been ongoing since 1986, when a group of merchants installed street signs in Korean, leading to nearly violent responses from other community members. Koreans residents only make up about 20-30% of this neighborhood, with numbers dwindling since the 90s, and attempts at a Korean branding scheme are still met with hostility by the large Vietnamese, Cambodian, African, Middle Eastern, African American, and Hispanic populations that also rely on 5th Street for their livelihoods.

Closing Thoughts

I present this collaboration to open a discussion about the way urban revitalization strategies can be informed by a working method of on the ground research and interaction with a local community. All too often, revitalization projects begin with the plans drafted by design consultants, dispatched by city governments, who may only spend a few hours in the community. Sending anthropologists into our urban neighborhoods informs design strategy so that change does not rely on the imaginary “domino effect” that I described earlier.         Understanding the dynamics of a neighborhood, issues such as ownership, communication, and identity allow us to revitalize in a way that is truly local and participatory. Instead of preparing urban neighborhoods for gentrification by improving building stock, we need to give residents a chance to participate. Active designs can consider the revitalization of public spaces as a point of initiation for large-scale improvements. In the case of 5th Street, improvements made to the public streetscape give all stakeholders an equal platform from which they can choose to improve their storefronts. In this scenario, revitalization is triggered organically through participatory action, rather than selectively dispersing reimbursement grants to individual storeowners. Furthermore, an improved streetscape engages residents in the revitalization of their neighborhood by acknowledging the importance of a stimulating and safe walkway for shopping and communicating with neighbors in the face of language barriers and ethnic hostilities.

Beginning with public space allows the urban architect to take seriously the anthropologist’s observations concerning the nature of human interaction in a given neighborhood, which, I argue, is the key to avoiding gentrification in revitalization strategy. If we think of community development in terms of private investments in small structural improvements then we are inevitably preparing neighborhoods for gentrification by slowly increasing property values and displacing local groups. Revitalization strategies imagined strictly through the physical plane, neglect the importance of revitalization as it occurs through domains of local culture, economy, and politics. An architectural response could be informed by all of these domains through the use of immersive ethnographic research.          A revitalization methodology could be developed that positions the anthropologist as a mediator between local communities targeted for targeted for improvements and city governments. Ethnographic analysis provided by the anthropologist can form the basis of an architectural proposal that incorporates specific local needs. This process would support the “bottom up” conception of revitalization, which is driven by the community for the community; as opposed to the “top down” City guided variation that promotes gentrification. If such a working model is adopted, the collaboration between anthropologist and architect may be an effective site for activism in our underserved urban centers, leading to revitalization plans that are culturally competent and ethically responsible. g