An Introduction to American Roundtable

Nicholas Anderson


“America—her clouds, her rivers, her woods—all her origin, purpose, ideals; let it be reflected in the majesty of each individual. Nature exhales; let man exhale—let our America exhale—to do this is her work.”1Walt Whitman, Walt Whitman Speaks: His Final Thoughts on Life, Writing, Spirituality, and the Promise of America, as Told to Horace Trabel, ed. Brenda Wineapple, pg. 109, Library of America, 2019

—Walt Whitman


“The geographies of North America, the myriad small landscapes that make up the national fabric, are threatened— by ignorance of what makes them unique, by utilitarian attitudes, by failure to include them in the moral universe, and by brutal disregard. A testament of minor voices can clear away an ignorance of any place, can inform us of its special qualities; but no voice, by merely telling a story, can cause the poisonous wastes that saturate some parts of the land to decompose, to evaporate. This responsibility falls ultimately to the national community, a vague and fragile entity to be sure, but one that, in America, can be ferocious in exerting its will.”2Barry Lopez, “The American Geographies,” About this Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory, pg. 142, Vintage, 1999

—Barry Lopez


 

Place

What are the places we know? In an age of quick judgements and omnipresent media, we all have our sense, formed through lazy stereotypes and priggish prejudices, wistful imaginings and romantic visions, of landscapes and communities across America. Yet our lived experience teaches us that the image of a place and its reality rarely align so perfectly; that every place is complicated and diverse, at once weighed down by many histories and ascendant with the dreams and work of many individuals. The story of a place is indeed one of devilish complexity and interconnection. It weaves the natural and human, and all the forces found within both. Befitting The Architectural League, American Roundtable hopes to focus this complex story on the ways we have organized our environments spatially and materially.

This project grew from the collective shock of the 2016 election and developed over the following four years as it became increasingly clear that the country looks very different depending on where one stands, with some places thriving and others struggling, either supported or battered by divergent economic, social, and cultural forces. Gaps in life expectancies between different groups and locales; the growth of “deaths of despair”; declines in communal trust; broken politics; the geographic imbalance of the country’s gross domestic product; rising wealth inequality—these are just a few of the many maladies that have become all too familiar.3Anne Case and Angus Deaton, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, Princeton, 2020  The environments in which we live—our relationship to the earth and the built forms and systems we inhabit and produce—reflect and express these collective strengths or failures. They also help shape them. We know this deep down, when we find vibrant community on a town common or city square, or isolation when Main Street is boarded up and the sidewalks empty. We remember the ways a grandparent’s yard formed a neighborly space for play, or when traffic forced us indoors for safety. We relish a morning run in the park, keeping us healthy, or worry if our water is safe to drink. We feel pride and purpose when we finish a project that improves our home, and anger and despair when we see people sleeping on sidewalks in front of million-dollar pieds-a-terre. Yet too often we fail to examine the choices that are made, individually and collectively, as we modify our landscapes and build our settlements. These choices feel particularly overlooked in places less populated, in places beyond the typical explorations of urbanism. What is seen in these “other” places is often from afar, oversimplified, or caricatured, tidied up to serve simple narratives of left and right, winners and losers, the virtuous and benighted.

American Roundtable, modestly, seeks to correct this. In his essay “The American Geographies,” Barry Lopez, the great nature writer, discusses the ways in which a national geography becomes generalized and romanticized in the service of politics and commerce and warns of the dangers inherent in this “superficial exposure” and disconnect from the land.

Yet Americans are daily presented with, and have become accustomed to talking about, a homogenized national geography. One that seems to operate independently of the land, a collection of objects rather than a continuous bolt of fabric. It appears in advertisements, as a background in movies, and in patriotic calendars. The suggestion is that there can be national geography because the constituent parts are interchangeable and can be treated as commodities. In day-to-day affairs, in other words, one place serves as well as another to convey one’s point. On reflection, this is an appalling condescension and a terrible imprecision, the very antithesis of knowledge.

Lopez calls for something more particular, intimate, experiential, where a real understanding of place might exist, as a way not only to truly understand, but to build new constituencies capable of honoring our earth and grounding our society.4Barry Lopez, “The American Geographies,” About this Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory, pg. 142, Vintage, 1999 We are not naïve about the scope and scale of this challenge, but it is toward this particular and locally informed understanding—both within and of, but also beyond the natural environment—that we step.

The Project

The core of The Architectural League’s American Roundtable is a set of reports on specific communities or regions across the United States. The reports are not meant to be examinations of the land, its geologies and ecologies; environmental writing or history; or encomiums to or laments of the natural world—although, in parts, they are all these things. The initiative neither seeks to historicize nor theorize “landscape,” though many of the writers have undoubtedly been informed by and write in dialogue with this literature. The reports are not formal histories of towns, sociological studies of groups, or analyses of local economies, though, again, they provide this material in parts. As a whole, they do not mean to be a “State of Rural America” white paper. What they do attempt to do is understand communities through their land and people and the ways in which the two have interacted to make place.

Reports are not meant to be comprehensive; those wishing to see an expanded Wikipedia article or travel guide will be disappointed. They are introductions, refracted through the personal interests and knowledge of their editors and many contributors. While we hope a “sense” of place emerges from the writings, interviews, video, mapping, art, and other media included, the reports are meant as provocations, advancing particular understandings to form a kaleidoscopic, if never clear, view of the whole. Recognizing the diversity and multiplicity of place, the reports embrace this fracturing, in some ways suggesting that this might be truer than any collection attempting a more definitive compendium.

The communities and regions of these reports were selected through a national call for proposals organized by the League in the winter of 2019/20. Nearly 125 submissions, representing 40 states and territories, were received. A selection committee5The selection committee was made up of Nicholas Anderson (Philadelphia, PA), David Dowell (Kansas City, MO), Anne Marie Duvall Decker (Jackson, MS), Rosalie Genevro (New York, NY), Mario Gooden (New York, NY), Paul Lewis (New York, NY), Jonathan Massey (Ann Arbor, MI), Sue Mobley (New Orleans, LA), Erin Moore (Eugene, OR), Lyn Rice (New York, NY), and Jason Schupbach (Tempe, AZ). of practitioners and academics from across the United States reviewed the proposals and selected nine:

  • Africatown, a neighborhood outside of Mobile, Alabama (report led by Renee Kemp-Rotan)
  • Appalachian communities in West Virginia (led by Nina Chase of Merritt Chase)
  • Brownsville, Texas (led by Lizzie MacWillie, Kelsey Menzel, Jesse Miller, and Josué Ramirez)
  • the Lakota Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota (led by Annie Coombs and Zoë Malliaros)
  • New Mexico’s Lower Rio Grande valley region (led by Ane González Lara)
  • Communities along North Carolina’s Lumbee River (led by Morgan Augillard, Noran Sanford, and Joey Swerdlin)
  • Rumford and the surrounding towns of Maine’s River Valley (led by Aaron Cayer and Kerri Arsenault)
  • South Beach, Washington (led by Robert Hutchison and Dan Abramson), and
  • Youngstown-Warren-Lordstown, Ohio (led by Quilian Riano and Terry Schwarz with Kristen Zeiber and Katie Slusher of the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative, Kent State University).

Each report has been conceived by an editor or editorial team with deep knowledge of and connection to their community. These editors engaged contributors and residents to explore different aspects of these places in features that range from essays and mapping, to photo and drawing portfolios, interviews, and oral histories.

American Roundtable gave editors wide latitude to structure their reports as they wished. However, we asked them to engage five themes—Public Space, Health, Work and Economy, Infrastructure, and Environment—in order to facilitate comparison and synthesis across the reports. As the project’s website is populated, a robust organizational structure identifying these thematic headers, along with more granular related subjects, will allow readers to compare and contrast how different issues play out in different locations.

Reports will be released biweekly through the coming months. Thematic essays, along with a schedule of project presentations and issue-based discussions, will complement the reports.

Voices

Central to each report are the voices of individuals. This starts with the editors. Each was born, now resides, or has worked over extended periods in the communities that he or she explores. All have thought closely about their subjectivity. In their report’s introduction, Annie Coombs and Zoë Malliaros recall a dialogue they had with Tatewin Means, an indigenous Lakota woman: “We first described this project as “looking at” on-the-ground conditions on the reservations. She pointed out that our use of the phrase “look at” was the language of a colonized mindset. She said, “We’ve been looked at enough. We’ve been studied enough.”” The American Roundtable project acknowledges and respects this critique; we have striven to support and encourage reports that are of the places depicted, as well as about them.

Editors have sought to privilege individual voices, particularly of those who may have been silenced or ignored in the past. Many of the reports ask who controls certain stories, who gets to define and interpret a place. Perhaps this is made most vivid in Renee Kemp-Rotan’s report on Africatown, a community that hopes to reclaim and harness the unique story of its post-emancipation founding by formerly enslaved Africans in order to build a better future. Others use their reports to tell new stories, as Nina Chase does with West Virginia, arguing for an optimistic future focused on the land, rather than the usual facile generalizations of white poverty and backwardness.

Throughout the reports, tensions between the voices of those who stay, leave, and return are explored. As Aaron Cayer and Kerri Arsenault reflect:

This report [River Valley] is framed by lived experiences, and it weaves together both “inside” views of the community, such as those of our families and neighbors, as well as “outside” views and interpretations, such as those constructed by contributors who studied the region for the first time, in order to simultaneously examine the River Valley’s public face and its most intimate lived realities.

This tension is often specifically explored around professional design work, confronted most directly by Morgan Augillard and Joey Swerdlin with their colleagues in Group Project, who consider their work as outsiders to North Carolina but done in collaboration with their co-editor, local resident and not-for-profit leader Noran Sanford.

These many voices, from their multiple perspectives, articulate and challenge the manifold ways place forms individual and community identity. In some cases, this grows from the land itself or its stewardship. In others, identity is shaped by the community formed by humans, of kinship and family, and the specific cultures and economies that emerge from these interactions. In all the reports, we see how strongly this sense of identity and self is tied to place, and how durable this connection is. When mobility is offered as a panacea for social ills, we must remember this.

Agency

It could be said that this project seeks to shine a light on the margins or periphery. While we reject this implied dichotomy and believe all landscapes and settlements deserve serious investigation, the ways in which these places orbit—or in some cases center—other communities are demonstrated throughout. In fact, these reports make vivid how interconnected and co-dependent American communities are. They tell tales of resources extracted and sent elsewhere, of goods manufactured for use by others. They tell stories of the people whose labor produced this wealth, and of groups pushed to the edge by others more powerful. These are places of externalities, where resources are exploited, waste ends up, and unpaid costs are tallied. “Out on the margins, where local scars cover for global perpetrators, we live in a distorted mirror image of the center, which perceives our “nature” as primarily resource,”6Lucy Lippard, Undermining: A Wild Ride Through Land Use, Politics, and Art in the Changing West, pg 10, New Press, 2014 writes the art critic and curator Lucy Lippard in Undermining, her book on land use, art, and the West. At their most upsetting, these reports reveal these scars.

In the report Along the Lumbee River, Jorden Revels, a young environmental activist and member of the Lumbee nation, writes:

Chicken and hog trucks. I thought that was just so common growing up, seeing them probably a few times a week. You would have to drive past one of the plants and of course it smelled terrible. I just thought it was just a very common thing. I realized that’s not normal. That is not normal. Other people don’t have to deal with that crap.

In his anger and indignation, his refusal to no longer accept the status quo, he hints at what is at stake.

What is sown when communities lack the power or agency to define their own futures emerges as these reports’ central theme. The reports chronicle legacies of racial, class, economic, and colonial injustice, delineating the many ways this injustice flows through generations, reproducing trauma, illness, and poverty. They chart the outside entities that own much of the land and identify the exclusionary forces that prevent many from claiming it as their own. They make visible humanity’s rapacious appetite at the cost of nature’s despoilation. They reveal failures of infrastructure and the ad hoc solutions deployed where systems for collective life were never built. They describe what happens to a place when its original “use” is no longer needed, when industry and capital withdraw or a resource reaches exhaustion. They show the cycles of hope and resignation of places with always “just enough” wealth.

But in the spirit of Jorden Revels, the reports can also be read as reassertions of sovereignty. American Roundtable means to look forward, to reaffirm with optimism that something better can be possible. We see individuals and groups, from the grassroots to community leadership, finding new ways to articulate and imagine the needs and futures of these places, and to claim equal citizenship for their neighbors. The reports present bold what-ifs as well as concrete, incremental efforts. We learn of master plans, community gardens, expanded water supplies, experimental housing projects, agriculture collectives, tsunami warning systems, reimagined public art, rail trails, and riverside parks. We learn of new models of land ownership and strategies to live with the land rather than off or against it, of inclusive cultural projects and equitable economic development. The reports interrogate structures and systems that have been felt to be, and too often have been, rigged against those who live in a place, and critique the short-termism and myopia endemic in our culture. We see the bonds and resilience of community and the intense pride found in place.

In short, these reports ask who gets to decide what a place looks like and answer, “We do.”

Design

At its best, design can help a community understand its relationship to the land or define its spatial needs. Design can provide form to match our highest individual and collective aspirations. While the reports frequently showcase expected interventions—new housing, physical infrastructure, parks—they also suggest modes of practice for architects, landscape architects, planners, and others beyond what might be understood to be traditional work.

Collaboration, engagement, and empowerment are seen throughout; designers are as likely to facilitate a community meeting as they are to make form. Partnerships across disciplines and with laypeople prove to be key. We see this in Ane González Lara’s report on southern New Mexico, in a feature by Ted Jojola and Saray Argumedo. Their work translates traditional planning methodologies into Indigenous ways of thinking and speaking, empowering these communities to analyze, plan, and make place in newly autonomous and purposeful ways. We also see this dynamic at work in Brownsville, Texas, where report editors Lizzie MacWillie, Kelsey Menzel, Jesse Miller, and Josué Ramirez discuss organizations like cdcb | come dream. come build., a not-for-profit housing developer that not only builds affordable and well-designed housing, but provides financial literacy training, along with financial and banking services, to promote sound and lasting homeownership.

How might design operate in places whose futures require built forms wholly different from what exists? How can designers help communities rethink their relationships to the land and its ecologies, as we realize their fragility? In Youngstown, Ohio, Terry Schwarz discusses challenges, opportunities, and potential strategies for decommissioning excess infrastructure as the region confronts declining populations, and Quilian Riano investigates the ways in which Youngstown, Warren, and other towns of the Mahoning River Valley are attempting to reconnect to the river, long a site of industry and environmental degradation. In River Valley, Maine, the project team asks an even more existential question. In a place made for and defined by a paper mill whose toxic and extractive presence makes it difficult to picture a healthier and more vibrant future, what would its absence allow us to imagine? In South Beach, Washington, editors Rob Hutchison and Dan Abramson and their contributors look closely at the local environment and learn from a community that has adapted and with humility engaged design solutions and modes of living to accommodate the dynamism and dangers of nature.

These reports do not attempt to theorize a new form of design practice, nor seek to suggest that traditional modes of practice are obsolete or improper. Each example is rooted in a particular. Most fundamentally, the reports call for the same care embodied in good design—too often seen as a luxury service—to be made available to all. But in the challenges they present and the fresh ways designers have sought to engage them, the reports contribute to contemporary discussions found throughout the design disciplines and professions, questioning and expanding expertise, the boundaries of legitimate work, and the metrics and goals of “good” design.

American Roundtable

American Roundtable, as its name suggests, is a place for discussion, of sharing ideas openly, messily, debating in good faith forward. This inquiry assumes that we do not know and moves onward in curiosity. Each report rests on the idea of our neighbor’s dignity and the empathy this demands as we work to live together; on the idea of the necessary humility of humanity in its relationship with the natural world; on the idea that in our modesty, the boldest solutions might be found.

We hope that this project forms a democratic, liberal public space in this time of polarization, and in this time when such values, long foolishly taken for granted, are ever more precious. At its core, this is what The Architectural League has always sought to foster—a forum for respectful debate and mutual learning—and what it hopes this initiative will achieve. “Democracy, in its essence and genius, is imaginative love for and identification with a community with which, much of the time and in many ways, one may be in profound disagreement,” writes novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson.7Marilynne Robinson, “Imagination and Community,” When I Was a Child I Read Books, pg 27–28, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012 We hope American Roundtable forms such a democratic community—from within and beyond the design world —gathered together to better understand our American places and the lands and peoples that form them. After a long decade, let America exhale.

—Nicholas S. Anderson
Project Director, American Roundtable
January 1, 2021

Thumbnail image credit: Dawnee LeBeau. Courtesy of Cheyenne River Reservation report editorial team.