Tuesday, January 11th, 2011

Place Is the Space by Ben Schulman

West Oakland – Photo Credit: nullboy – Creative Commons

In 1974, the jazz musician/philosopher Sun Ra released the film Space is the Place, his avant-garde sci-fi fantasy about the salvation African-Americans were to find in colonizing outer space. Ra’s vision grew out of his personal philosophy regarding music’s ability to act as both a literal and figurative catalyst for transformation. In Space, music becomes a delivery vehicle to the cosmos, a remedy for the ostracized, poverty-stricken African-American communities stuck in urban ghettos. Using early 70’s Oakland as the model, the film is essentially the story of how the inner cities have failed the black populations who live there. And while not expressed overtly, the underlying current running throughout the film is how the lack of opportunity and continued degradation and alienation of the community has led to a complete disengagement with its physical surroundings. Oakland, the inner city, the built environment – all have become, in a tangible sense, exhausted space.

Space is the Place speaks on various levels, and unfortunately remains relevant to many African-American inner city neighborhoods today. In light of the current recessionary hangover though, wherein we are all being forced to spatially reexamine the manner in which we live, the question of how to retain meaning within the surrounding environment is apt for nearly all communities. When examining the ways in which land-use must be reevaluated to infuse it with structural meaning and usefulness, Space speaks to a larger question of how to prevent disengagement with the places that make up our landscapes, and more aptly, reengage exhausted space. While Ra’s salvation came in colonizing actual outer space, the current reality begs us to evaluate how to actually bridge the disconnect between space and place. Or put more simply, how to make space become place. It’s a tangled process that touches upon many aspects of our development, and delicately unravels nearly 60 years of solidified notions about both spatial and economic growth.

Growth being the operative word. Since the end of WWII, physical growth has until recently been treated as gospel. Growth, horizontally, begat growth, economically, and the whole process reached Abrahamic levels of replicating. By encouraging spatial growth as economic growth, government channels helped foster a one size fits all application towards land-use and personal livelihood in all areas of the country. This outward expansion of physical space was based on the possibilities of abundant and inexpensive resources to act as a connective tissue between economic and cultural loci, and at its peak, brought about an age of unprecedented prosperity. This prescription benefited in part by drawing the assets away from a center, resulting in, amongst many other things, depopulated cities, vacant small-town squares, and a move towards the edge of places. Place was found in the spaces between the center, resulting in a disoriented view of place itself.

In a recent speech at the Global Metro Summit in Chicago, Bruce Katz, vice president and founding director of the Brookings Institute’s Metropolitan Policy Program, spoke of the ways in which this decaying dynamic collided with the Great Recession. Katz noted that the hardship and vacancy seen in towns outside of Chicago’s center, such as south-suburban Harvey, serve as “a microcosm of the failed economy and failed economic policy that has deeply touched the lives of tens of millions of Americans during this Great Recession. We had an economy and an economic policy which elevated consumption over production, financial chicanery over real innovation, near term speculation over long term growth. We lost our way and we got the economy and the Great Recession we deserved.”

Using his speech as a convincing jumping board for a new metropolitan-oriented development plan, Katz’s words ring true to those who recognize that cities must embrace what in reality they already are and have truly always been; namely, the drivers of our economy. But it speaks to a broader belief as well that can be applicable to spaces across the country. There’s a slow realization occurring that in the long run, physical growth will not beget any more economic growth. In realizing such, there’s not so much a Great Reset occurring as there is a Right Fix, wherein the elements of place that make our spaces distinct are being heralded and held up as concrete vehicles for investment.

In essence, the nation is asking Ra’s question of itself now: how do places undergo the process of reengaging space. As the outer reaches of the built landscape begin to face these questions, attention will turn to cities that have been dealing with these questions for years. Whether in large-scale redevelopment projects such as Pittsburgh’s South Side Works, San Francisco’s China Basin or small-scale projects in something simple such as the community garden at Hoxie Ave & 106th St. in Chicago’s Far Southeast Side South Deering neighborhood, taking ownership of exhausted space requires a process of reclamation, remediation, and reapplication to produce reengagement.

The first step in the success of such a process is not found in the design of the space necessarily, but in the design of the questions being asked to address the failures of the former space. Essentially, the design of the question will inform the design of the answer. And knowing that these questions of engagement go beyond physical space into managing how we want to live across all types of communities, it demands a non-confrontational and delicate design that recognizes the nuance and specificity of individual location. One need only look at the vitriolic versus mentality that infects the current political discourse at a national level to see to the ineffectiveness of poorly designed questions that inform poorly thought-out responses. The discussion needs to move beyond easy qualifications such as high-speed rail versus highway maintenance, green versus carbon, urban versus rural. Everything moves holistically as part of the same system now, which is chiefly what author Jeb Brugmann means when he states that the entire world has become a city in his recent Welcome to the Urban Revolution: How Cities are Changing the World.

Reengaging exhausted space, to make place, isn’t an easy or seamless process. It requires carefully designing questions that don’t alienate, and paying attention to the inherent attributes and assets of a place that can be reclaimed, remediated and reapplied in a locally apropos right fix to produce the most utility for all. It requires an acknowledgement, and then an inversion, of both America’s past 60 years of development and Sun Ra’s prescription for deliverance. Space, whether it be out among the stars, or out among the sprawl is actually not the place. Rather, it is the creation of meaningful place, effectively and honestly developed and engaged, that becomes the most successful form of space. Done correctly, perhaps the final ending to Ra’s sci-fi fantasy ends not in the Milky Way, but where it begins, in a reenergized and reengaged Oakland.

More by Ben Schulman: Pittsburgh and the Magic of Failure

Ben Schulman is a Chicago-based writer on urban affairs whose work has been noted by outlets such as The Pittsburgh Post Gazette, Burgh Diaspora, The Atlantic Online, and the National Review. One of the proprietors behind independent record label Contraphonic, Inc., Schulman also heads the Contraphonic Chicago Sound Series, an attempt to aurally document the city of Chicago through the medium of sound. In the coming year, the Sound Series is set to expand to Pittsburgh, and other cities across the country. Links to his freelance work can be found at http://bdsdispatch.blogspot.com/, and he can be reached at bds.dispatches@gmail.com.

1 Comment
Topics: Urban Culture

One Response to “Place Is the Space by Ben Schulman”

  1. Bill Hogan says:

    The most common way that exhausted urban spaces become “reengaged,” as you say, is if a community of creative types decides to move there. Low rent + proximity to the city = good candidate for this process. That supposed scourge, “gentrification,” often follows years later if the reclaimed neighborhood establishes itself in some way. This is an organic process in the evolution of a city.

    Nice article.

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