Beautifying the rust belt: could urban art help left behind communities?

The Heidelberg Project. Image: Kenn Taylor.

In the wake of Brexit and the US election, there has been renewed attention given to post-industrial areas and the issues faced by such communities. For some parts of the US and the UK, problems caused by industrial decline have been around for 40 or 50 years, long before the rise of China, the EU or the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). And, as anyone who spends time seriously with the subject will tell you, there are no easy answers or single solutions to such challenges.

So to art. Despite the breathless proclamations of some, art is not a panacea for the post-industrial town, but neither is it a total irrelevance. The creative industries remain a growing sector and a sensible solution to reuse many former industrial spaces that will never see mass production again.

Meanwhile, in some of the residential areas that once drew their lifeblood from such industrial zones, artists, or local communities working with artists, have been using creativity to demonstrate, even make, a future potentially different from top down regeneration or abandonment to decline. The now well-known Granby Four Streets project in Liverpool is one example of this in the UK.

Between Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory I had the opportunity to spend some time at some similar projects in the US. In 1986, in the Black Bottom area of Detroit – a city which perhaps more than any other felt the crushing pressure of industrial decline early on – art student Tyree Guyton decided to paint large bright dots all over the house his family had lived in for decades on Heidelberg Street.

The area had declined rapidly during his lifetime and he wanted to create “something beautiful” in the street. Soon Guyton began to decorate some of the abandoned houses in the street, using reclaimed materials from the neighbourhood. Thirty years later, despite being demolished by the authorities, twice, and suffering arson more than once, the Heidelberg Project is a world-renowned “total work of art”, and the home of an organisation that runs community and education programmes, exhibitions and residencies for other artists.

Part of the Heidelberg Project.

It’s not so much a celebration of beauty in decay like the infamous “ruin porn” from Detroit, but a sign that there is life and people still here, creativity, culture, even growth.
Chicago coped better than Detroit with the transition to a service economy. At least, some of it.

In Grand Crossing in South Chicago, more than half the residents live below the poverty line. Here, around 10 years ago, artist Theaster Gates began restoring the house he had moved into on Dorchester Avenue. After the 2008 property crash he also bought the neighbouring house. Restoring it using reclaimed materials and cultural artefacts like books and records from the area, he then began to put on arts events in the houses. Gates had seen the West Side Chicago neighbourhood he grew up in demolished and wanted to stop such destruction from happening again in Grand Crossing.

By 2010, Gates had established a non-profit organisation called the Rebuild Foundation, and had worked with the Chicago Housing Authority to rehabilitate a housing block in the area into 32 mixed-tenure homes and community facilities, called Dorchester Projects. A few years later Gates persuaded the city to sell him a striking but decaying former local bank for just one dollar, providing he got the money to restore it.

Dorchester Industries. 

Amongst other things, the bank, now houses the archive of the important African-American publishing company Johnson, and the Black Cinema House. More recently the organisation has set up Dorchester Industries, which provides training opportunities for local residents with craftsmen and artists. The Rebuild Foundation places art firmly in the hierarchy of needs of a deprived community. To quote Gates: “Beauty is a basic service.”

There’s a long tradition in art of highlighting urban social problems. Projects such as these differ in using the urban fabric as a medium in itself and working on the regeneration not just of buildings, but of social, cultural and economic life in these areas. Crucial is how these projects have been led by people based in these communities, albeit interacting with international art networks. Such initiatives may have only impacted on relatively small areas – but it is possible they have done more to change life in and perceptions of them than many bigger and more expensive top-down urban redevelopment programmes.

The Stony Island Arts Bank, a hybrid gallery, media archive, library and community center.

Part of the power of art is its capacity to highlight where we’re going wrong, to tell us things have value that we didn’t realise and point out different ways of looking at the world. Even if projects such as these can’t be reproduced like-for-like elsewhere, they’re not just a reminder to avoid writing off such communities, but more so of their potential – if energy, attention and money are given to them – to create their own future.

Kenn Taylor is an arts project manager and writer with a particular interest in culture, community and the urban environment. His research in the USA was supported by The Art Fund.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

Images: Kenn Taylor.

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

****

Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

****
Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.