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Reflection: Washington University's 'Divided City' Project Hopes To Unravel Urban Dysfunction

Jean Allman
Provided by Washington University

“If you didn’t know better you’d think we were prescient.”

Washington University history professor Jean Allman was talking about a new cross-disciplinary project she’s leading at Washington U: “Divided City.” Because it is to be launched presently, you might suppose it was established in response to the killing of Michael Brown on Aug. 9 in Ferguson. In reality, the project has been in the works for some time and even has an antecedent that is seven years old.

“Divided City” began to be pulled together in the spring. The four-year, $1.6-million project is supported in part by a grant from the Mellon Foundation, which will provide $650,000 to Washington University for the work. The grant’s principal investigators are Allman, an Africanist, historian and director of the Center for the Humanities in the College of Arts and Sciences, and Bruce Lindsey, dean of the college of architecture and the graduate school of architecture and urban design in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts.

The foundation, Allman said, contacted Washington University, asking if they were interested in pursuing an urban humanities project. The answer was “Yes.” The foundation approved the “Divided City” proposal, and the transformational examination of the impact and realities of racial segregation moved forward.

Although the notion and organization of “Divided City” preceded Michael Brown’s death, “we were working from the knowledge of the divisions of St. Louis – and all over,” Allman said.

Indeed, the seeds of what’s come to be called “Ferguson” have been sown for generations – not only in Ferguson and St. Louis, not just in the South, not only in America, but also, when you think about it, all over the world.

Now, here in our region, in discussions and in demonstrations on gritty suburban streets and in the venerable confines of Powell Symphony Hall, the bristling, angry harvest is rolling in and will continue to do so abundantly, for us to reckon with and to wrestle with for a long, long time.

If things go as planned – and because the financial, academic, intellectual and conscientious resources are in place, they should go as planned -- one can expect from “Divided City” an American urban case-study that reveals systematically the effects of segregation on American society.

Architecture, Law, Poetry

“Divided City” draws under its capacious tent the departments and disciplines of architecture, anthropology, business, economics, landscape architecture, the law, public health, social work and urban design, as well as contributions from other departments.

The university’s vast library system is to be involved. The Gephardt Institute at the university is sponsoring Project DIVE, and DIVE’s autumn 2014 group will seek to define “Why Ferguson Matters.” The program is to include the knotty context of race relations in St. Louis, along with Ferguson itself and the future implications of what has transpired there in the past two months.

New courses will be offered at Washington U., related to “Divided City,” and public outreach programs and opportunities for public involvement are very much part of the overall plan.

Bruce Lindsey
Credit Provided by Washington University
Bruce Lindsey

Lindsey, of the Sam Fox School, said the fundamental dynamic here is joining the humanities with urban studies – a co-mingling of architects, landscape architects and urban designers with poets, for example.

Lindsey said “Divided City” actually grew from deep roots in the architecture school, from a very much alive program called the City Seminar Series. This series is described by the university as a “interdisciplinary forum for scholars from across the St. Louis region to share ideas, research models, theories and topics on cities, urbanization, and urban studies issues in the United States and abroad.” Lindsey said it was initiated seven years ago by Washington U. historians Eric Mumford and Margaret Garb. The seminar series will continue as “Divided City" goes forward.

Lindsey explained his role as providing an understanding of how urban designers and artists are attuned to and conscious of the functions and, importantly, the dysfunctions of social relations in cities. He also plans to bring accepted methods and systems of urban studies to the program, disciplines that might be regarded as abstract but in translation and application help to illuminate the vexing, seemingly intractable street-level problems of fragmentation and segregation epidemic in the contemporary world.

Allman was reared in south St. Louis so she knows the turf. Her career trajectory took her away from St. Louis, but she returned seven years ago, and said she was delighted to come home. She loves to work, she said, and loves pulling people together. So this all fits. The ambitious “Divided City” project means to bring people together. It is one voluminous part of a sprawling effort to unite not only a demonstrably and dangerously divided city but also a way of confronting a dangerously divided world.

Important to the effort is the fact that the capacious tent’s door is open for public participation as well for academic action. On Wednesday, Oct. 15, “Divided City” is to be launched at 5 p.m. at the Missouri Historical Society’s Jefferson Memorial, Lindell Boulevard at DeBaliviere Avenue.

Admission is free, but reservations are required by Thursday, Oct. 9. To reserve places, go to https://cenhum.artsci.wustl.edu/online-rsvp-divided-city-launch-event

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.