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For many years, I have taught writing to graduate students at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), an art and design school in Baltimore city where I live. As professors are wont to do, I repeated a lesson plan on urban design each semester. I began by posing the same question: Why is it so hard to find a cup of coffee near campus? Until recently, there were no cafés adjacent to our school. The question inevitably stumped my students. They had noticed the lack of retail, but they hadn’t thought to question why. The answer I supplied surprised them. It was because of the 1968 riots.
After Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April of ’68 and Baltimore rioted, communities near MICA petitioned the city to rezone the neighborhood as residential only. No more corner stores. No more restaurants. If people could not gather, the thinking went, then they could not riot. Four decades later, I would tell my students, and witness the ripple effect.
And the ripple effects are many. The architecture of cities changed after the 1960s. Here in Baltimore, we bricked over ground-level windows and turned our back on the street. Cultural institutions and universities hunkered inward. Public-facing front doors closed in favor of private, secure, bunker-like entrances. Baltimore wasn’t alone. In cities across the country you saw an increase in concrete walls, barbed wire, berms, “bum-proof” benches, and soulless buildings that buffeted people from the street. As Mike Davis wrote in his essay “Fortress Los Angeles,” we constructed cities where “the defense of luxury has given birth to an arsenal of security systems and an obsession with the policing of social boundaries through architecture.” Today, we embed metal spikes in concrete to impale those daring to sit on the sidewalk. Fear and bigotry have found an outlet in zoning codes, in housing policy, in architecture. […]