Writing, like architecture, is a practice of dwelling, drafting, and assembling. To write is to construct over time. In a text, a glossary acts as infrastructure to stabilize our understanding. As a tool, the glossary allows us to navigate a text much like a blueprint.
Art: An ongoing practice of intention and care.
Artist: An inhabitant.
Empathy: The recognition of a place’s complexity much like our own.
Gentrification: Apathy observed in a landscape.
Participation: An architectural practice of building empathy.
Built in 1930 and painted in 1990, the Guilford Avenue Bridge in Baltimore, Maryland was constructed to pass over the Jones Falls waterway, the B&O and Pennsylvania railroad tracks, and now the I-83 highway. The bridge’s colorful steel beams are relentlessly tagged with graffiti and yet the city insists on painting over these marks from week to week. The paint to buffer these tags is never an exact match; rather, it's always an approximation of the color that came before. Though the bridge’s colors change gradually each month, it maintains its identity. As I continue to notice its cycles, I recognize the similar ways the bridge and myself are shaped over time. With this practice, my relationship to the bridge grows as I empathize with its architecture.
If we recognize the innate architecture within ourselves, the internal structure of our value system, and the moral codes that guide us, we can learn to revere similar structures in the buildings, streets, and neighborhoods of the cities we inhabit. Recognizing a value system that’s legible in the built environment is a kind of noticing. This noticing activates our understanding of the architectural body and becomes the foundation for exercising empathy. Empathy is recognizing a place’s complexity much like our own. In an article entitled Empathy for Place, Edrex Fontanilla and Sarah Nelson Wright agree that, “Imbuing a place with meaning is prerequisite to believing its existence matters.” This meaning, absent in the practice of corporate developers, is housed in the details an inhabitant notices. As we notice the details of a place, we expand our knowledge and thus our capacity to care. In Baltimore, a city undergoing rapid redevelopment and displacement within neighborhoods, finding empathy for places that risk being gentrified is an urgent practice.
Let’s consider an inhabitant, of any kind, to be an artist. Whether they are inhabiting an idea, a practice, or a place, the artist ought to act as a steward of these spaces. Inhabitants of a city take on a parasitic role when they reap the benefits of a place, but take no responsibility in considering or maintaining the health of their ecosystem. Artists need to be held responsible for taking care of the concepts, processes, and surroundings that they know intimately. The practice of noticing, participating, and empathizing with the places we find ourselves in is the scaffolding that encourages stewardship. When artists adopt the role of stewards, their surroundings become an essential part of their creative practice. A neighborhood is regarded as a site of collaboration and encourages inhabitants to adopt the personal responsibility to participate.
In The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison responds to a 1983 study titled “The Structure of Empathy” when she writes, “I like the word structure. It suggests empathy is an edifice we build like a home or office—with architecture and design, scaffolding and electricity.” If empathy is a construction we assemble over time, acts of participation allow us to strengthen its framework.
Learning to read the signs and symbols of a city’s infrastructure allows us to better understand the way people have been treated and the way power has held. When artist Cecilia Vicuña writes, “An object is not an object, it is a witness to a relationship,” she highlights the quiet knowledge that objects carry. A similar wisdom is embedded within the structures of a city. The built environment documents the values and strategies of the city planners as well as the reactions and decisions of its occupants. The architecture of a city houses its peoples’ history and intentional time spent with a place renders these histories legible. Through an academic lens, a place is regarded as a subject of history. In contrast, when knowledge grows out of embodied experience, a place becomes the narrator of its own history.
In The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton acknowledges the way we already react to our inanimate surroundings. According to de Botton, “We can be moved by a column that meets a roof with grace, by worn stone steps that hint of wisdom, and by a Georgian doorway that demonstrates playfulness and courtesy in its fanlight window.” We can appreciate a place but recognizing its complexity also requires us to question the authority of its architecture and inquire about its history.
On the I-95 highway, a smokestack greets motorists on their way into Baltimore City. The tall white tower confidently states the city’s name as you enter its boundaries. As a child in the backseat of a minivan, the tower was a welcoming structure as my family returned home. Noticing it routinely cemented my relationship with the smokestack, but, as I grew, so did my understanding of its architecture. The smokestack is a municipal waste incinerator for The Baltimore Refuse Energy Systems Company and releases nitrogen oxide from burning the city’s trash. The incinerator is the largest industrial polluter in Baltimore, a city’s whose majority Black population is disproportionately affected by asthma. As my knowledge of the tower has grown, its initial comforting presence has turned into a disturbing symbol of environmental racism. The complexity I recognize in the smokestack and my relationship to it has informed my participation. This participation isn’t a practice of preserving the tower’s history; rather, it is a practice of imagining a future in which Baltimore residents are not harmed by the city’s structures. Participation is listening to the stories of residents downstream from the incinerator, petitioning for emission regulation, and demanding change to the architecture that upholds systemic oppression in Baltimore.
On the corner of St.Paul street and North Avenue, a grassy field blankets a vacant city lot. Up close, a path eroded by the foot-traffic, is visible. The residual trail of pedestrian movement is referred to as a Desire Path. The path acknowledges the sidewalk that outlines the lot but in response, suggests a convenient alternative. The path connects the lot’s northwest corner to its southeast one and illustrates the intentional choreography of the neighborhood’s inhabitants. As a document, the trail presents us with an example of how collective action can shape a landscape. It’s not hard to empathize with the modest structure of a Desire Path. We witness collaboration as the agreed upon route is marked over time by the gentle impression of footsteps through the grass. Empathy is contingent upon the observation of a place’s cycles, how it’s grown and how it’s eroded over time. In their article, Fontanilla and Wright later explain, “If we can spend time there, we experience what a place sees and hears. We sense from its unique energetic presence and the physical scars left behind what it may have seen or heard in the past.” These observations ferment into an embodied knowledge. Corporate developers lack this kind of knowledge, thus when redevelopment, and the construction that precedes it, fracture a city’s neighborhoods, inhabitants are left with the residual wound. It becomes the responsibility of the inhabitants to empathize with their surroundings, participate in their community, and protest against the displacement of residents.
Participation begins with intention. We can define spending time in a city as a passive experience with a landscape versus spending time with a city, in which one notices, engages, and appreciates. This practice yields an intentional relationship with a place. Jamison explains, “Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us—a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain—it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves.” Participation is an architectural practice; an act of building empathy. Let’s consider the structures that encourage empathy towards the places around us as the architecture of participation. This participation is a potluck, a flower bed, a local news station, a public school, a public library, a public park, a crosswalk, a stoop, a front porch, a municipal reservoir, a recreation center, a community association, a basketball court, a bus stop, a bike lane, a playground, a book club, a corner store, a game of hopscotch, a block party. If we are willing to pay more attention to the structures that have the potential to support our growth rather than control our behavior; we can begin to appreciate the interdependence of our ecosystems. In The Sphinx and the City, Elizabeth Wilson captures the warmth that this interdependence kindles when she writes, “We who live here wear this corner of the city like a comfortable old coat, an extension of our personalities, threadbare yet retaining a beauty of its own. This is the intimacy of cities, made more precious and more secret by our knowledge that it is one of many cells or corners in a great city that is not so much a labyrinth as a web or a shawl. We wrap ourselves in the city as we journey through it.”
Empathizing with the architecture we’re intertwined in reminds us to tend to our surroundings and those around us as we would ourselves. When outside developers see a neighborhood as a commodity rather than a community, they illustrate that gentrification is apathy observed in a landscape. When places we empathize with are in danger of being demolished, replaced, or forgotten, our responsibility as stewards is galvanized. Empathy becomes a political stance against the erasure of history. Gentrification is not inevitable. It is not a natural or sustainable phenomenon; it is a deliberate and profit-driven detriment to communities. Building empathy is an act of resistance.
When resistance is not enough, we are encouraged to scale acts of care to tend to the buildings and neighborhoods of a city. Empathy demands that we inhabit places more intentionally, that we notice their nuances, and actively participate. Understanding participation as an architectural practice is necessary to ensuring the construction of community land trusts, participatory budgets, and community-led development. Feeling empathy for places we inhabit is not a precarious practice. Empathy is built to last.