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What does a university have to offer a city? Town-gown relations are a source of perennial strain, as urban private schools skirt property taxes and gobble up land for student residences and infinite expansions. Recently, and not for the first time, architecture students and others have been decrying the high costs of professional education, toxic pedagogies, and the promotion of practices that bring harm on cities and their residents — and experimenting with alternative models. But the University of Orange operates otherwise. At UofO, a free people’s urbanism school and community organization based in Orange, New Jersey, the city is the university, and the “university” is the framework for many different audiences to teach and learn from each other. Academic activities might take the form of urban history textbooks by and for grade school students, courses on music theory, mycology, or memoir writing that are open to all, or organizing for equitable development. In every case, learning in community is the path to restoring cities fractured by a history of violent and racist planning policies. On the occasion of UofO’s 15th anniversary, we asked director Molly Rose Kaufman and former co-director Aubrey Murdock to share some lessons that readers might apply to their own beloved communities. Below, they describe UofO’s work and the set of urbanism principles that guide it, and remind us that in citymaking as in all things, knowledge is power.
What if we think of the city itself as a university? University of Orange, a free people’s urbanism school and community organization, has been asking this question since 2008. At UofO, we say you can see the whole history of US cities in Orange, New Jersey, a small city just outside of Newark. Orange is like many other US cities, but it is unique in its size and density. In a short walk across our 2.2 square miles, you’ll encounter new developments huddled around transit stops, a colonial era graveyard, a park designed by the Olmsted Brothers, an interstate highway that bisects the city, visible legacies of segregation, hat factories reconfigured into market rate and luxury housing, and restaurants featuring food from all around the world. You might hear a number of languages being spoken, from Italian to Spanish or Haitian Creole. The city is an ideal place to learn about urbanism, the way cities are formed and function.
As a free people’s university, we are grounded in a popular education approach and have fun expanding traditional ideas about what makes a university. Our core belief is that everyone has something to teach and everyone has something to learn. We loosely use the idea of departments, research divisions, scholars in residence, and even formulations like “Jan Term.” Vestiges of academic bureaucracy become design constraints to invent something totally new. We offer free courses and urbanism workshops, recording and sharing stories of the city. Our Music City program offers opportunities for local musicians of all ages to study, teach, connect, and perform. Our courses are taught by folks in our community. In the past, this meant locally here in Orange, but since Covid-19 pushed a lot of programming online, we now offer wide-ranging courses, open to all, taught by friends and colleagues from around the world, including harmonica playing, galette baking, and a series with Andy Merrifield on the intersection of Marx and mycology. Memoir writing is our most recent student favorite. The ten-session course is now being offered for the fifth time by popular demand. The group of students writing their stories is diverse in age, profession, background, and geography. Anyone is welcome to join our classes and programming.
Our urbanism “department” works in Orange and around the world. The team includes planners, designers, urbanists, community organizers, artists, and others who want to be a part of our regular discussions. We host annual Placemaking and Jan Term programs focused on pressing issues and new ideas in urbanism, and ask practitioners to serve as “urbanists in residence.” Past themes have explored activating public space, supporting rights for day laborers, the legacy of highway construction, community land trusts, and how to continue organizing during the early onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Here are reflections from many of our urbanists in residence during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic from our series “Urbanists Sheltering in Place.” Since our founding in 2008, we’ve been in close relationships with other people and organizations who are committed to local cultures and fighting displacement in myriad ways. Our Urbanism Department has also been asked to visit and consult with other communities. We have collaborated with grassroots organizers and served on planning teams to develop meaningful community engagement strategies.
All our work is founded on the practice of Restoration Urbanism, built on the premise that US cities have been fractured by racist and classist policies that undermine community health. Restoration Urbanism teaches that we repair our communities by reweaving the social fabric and reconnecting fractures in the physical environment. Restoration Urbanism is grounded in 30 years of research by Mindy Fullilove, MD and the Cities Research Group (CRG). Founded in 1992 at the New York State Psychiatric Institute and Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, the research group studied the links between epidemics including AIDS, crack cocaine addiction, trauma and violence, and the noxious public policies that undermined the functioning of poor and minority communities and the cities in which they were located. CRG worked under the slogan “Facts people need, publications they can use.”
UofO continues this work, producing facts people need and tools they can use. Beyond our Urbanism Department, we practice Restoration Urbanism in everything that we do as a free people’s school. Core to our work are the questions: How do we organize in fractured cities? How do we bring people together across silos and create opportunities for finding the common ground necessary for political power? We are continually developing a pedagogy that is based in place, is experiential, and follows a set of urbanism principles. These core principles, developed over time, help us to continue to evolve our understanding of the social, political and public health potential of a Restoration Urbanism practice.
Dr. Mindy Fullilove and epidemiologist and CRG team member Dr. Rodrick Wallace described Serial Forced Displacement as a systemic and persistent product of the series of planning policies in the United States that have accelerated racial inequality and sorted people by race and class. These policies include Jim Crow, segregation, redlining, urban renewal, planned shrinkage and deindustrialization. Before we begin any planning process or organizing effort, we acknowledge the way these forces have shaped our cities and neighborhoods and ripped communities apart, physically and socially. We created the short film The Domino Effect with our collaborator Havanna Fisher, an artist and choreographer. We often use this video as a way to support place based organizing, recognizing inequality as a foundational condition that can’t be ignored.
Policies of Serial Forced Displacement leave traces all over the landscape. Once you are able to situate these policies and their impacts, you can “read” the legacies that they have had on a place. During the 1930s, when the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) was ranking which neighborhoods across the United States were most deserving of investment, a process now known as redlining, many working-class and poor neighborhoods, as well as communities of color, were given the lowest rating. In most cases this rating, or redline, relegated these places to decades of further disinvestment. The ways in which redlining still affects life in these neighborhoods today is well documented.
A large majority of the city of Orange was given a C or D (the lowest) grade. Looking at the 1939 HOLC map next to a current satellite map, it is clear to see the ways in which tree cover has directly followed these designations. Tree cover and green spaces play an important mitigating role in relation to flooding, heat island effects, and air pollution. On any given summer day, Orange is often hotter than the surrounding areas. High temperatures, which will continue to rise, have major impacts on quality and length of life. We can see and acutely feel a direct throughline from early disinvestment in Orange as a working-class town, to lower rating by the HOLC, to chronic and overlapping environmental issues that are affecting the public health of Orange today. This is all the more startling when you see that neighboring towns, sometimes just a block away, have better health outcomes.
Every US city has been shaped by policies of Serial Forced Displacement, but the way that these policies are embedded in the landscape, and how they continue to affect those that live there, are unique to each place. When we are working in Orange or in other places, taking time to introduce people to the framework of Serial Forced Displacement, and explore how it lives in the place, helps us all to begin from a shared understanding.
A pernicious story tends to accompany the implementation of policies of displacement: “There’s nothing there.” From urban neighborhoods to wetlands, sites of extraction and rural places, the myth that there is “nothing there” becomes a convenient justification that certain places are less valuable than others, by nature. What “there’s nothing there” really means is: “There is nothing of value in that place.” This is the core operating narrative of processes of dispossession. At University of Orange we believe in the innate learning possibility in all places, and the power of experiential learning to cultivate place attachment. Place attachment, in turn, becomes the foundation for action that is focused on repairing the legacies of Serial Forced Displacement.
In 2013 and 2014, we worked with a class of sixth to eighth grade students in Orange to write a textbook about the city for third graders. In order to create this book, the students took walking tours around many different parts of the city. They were able to experience the city’s history in the places where it happened. Before the project began, most students expressed a deep apathy or disdain for the city of Orange. Walking the city and sharing the history seemed to have a transformative effect on the students’ connection to the city. What was most amazing to us was that it wasn’t just positive examples of the city’s history that fostered greater place attachment. The walking tours visited a fence that ran around one half of the Olmsted Brothers-designed Monte Irvin Orange Park. This fence had been used to segregate the park, stopping the flow of movement from the city’s then predominantly Black neighborhood. While it was disturbing to all that the fence still stood in the park, one student noted that it was amazing to touch history, and see how segregation had happened in Orange, a place they’d always assumed had no history. The title of the students’ textbook said it all: Our Orange: The Discovery of Our Past. The city had become theirs, once they were able to see that it wasn’t empty, but full. We continue to share experiential learning practices in Orange and nationally that help people to relearn the places they live.
Being a part of Orange, most people would leave any chance they get. They figure there’s not much of anything positive here, and that there really is no future or potential here. When we started this book, the more tours we took and the more we actually dug into the rich history, we realized that what we thought to be nothing, was actually a big deal. We realized that we are actually part of something that was a lot bigger, and that it was something that we could be glad to call home. In this book we share our insights into the Orange community and what it’s really about.
– Chennel Mahabir-Smith, Our Orange: The Discovery of Our Past
In Urban Alchemy: Restoring Joy to America’s Sorted Out Cities, Dr. Mindy Fullilove writes about the concept of ‘city in mind,’ borrowed from the French urbanist Michel Cantal Dupart. “The same way a doctor knows that to treat a boil you have to treat the whole body,” he said, “an urbanist knows that if there is a problem in a neighborhood there is a problem in the city.” We cannot solve the problems of a neighborhood solely from within the neighborhood. We need to understand the flow of resources and how systems operate throughout the city. If there’s a problem in Harlem, we also need to look to what is happening on Wall Street.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, our annual Music City Festival was held at the HUUB, our local community center located in an historic Unitarian Church, and where we have our offices. We loved how the festival filled all of the indoor and outdoor spaces with music by performers of all ages, starting at noon and going until 10 pm. But the festival organizers needed a new plan to have a festival and support Covid safety. Music City’s Co-Director, Douglas Farrand, had been speaking with small businesses throughout the city to learn what kind of support they needed in the pandemic, and connected with local musicians and organizers Sharee Harrison, Sharon Forde, Janis Blumgart, Phil Passantino, and Music City staff César Presa and Ray Sykes to consider how Music City could help.
In October of 2020, this team organized a one-day festival to bring people together and support local restaurants: “Enciende El Amor.” The festival was held at six venues throughout the city, all of them outdoor spaces close to local restaurants with outdoor seating. In the spring of 2021, Music City decided to hold a second festival: “Dancing in the Streets.” After studying Mindy’s Main Street book, Janis pointed out Orange’s connective “tangle” of commercial centers, so the team decided to visit the different Main Streets of Orange as they thought about the festival. These walks around the city led them to conversations with many small business owners and with each other about memories of Orange, its challenges and assets, and their love for the city. By walking, the team experienced the ways in which paths of connection between neighborhoods were intact or fragmented. They designed the festival to name, uplift, and articulate the connections between Orange’s various social, commercial and civic centers, inviting participants to move throughout the city. The festival expanded into three days at nine venues with over 80 performers. The restaurant owners and the festival organizers all felt it was successful and have subsequently held two more festivals using the same model. At a time when many small businesses were struggling to stay afloat, the team identified the importance of growing mutually supportive networks. The Music City team is now supporting the development of a small business association and restaurant owners have invited back festival musicians to perform at their venues.
Click on any image for a slideshow of Music City performances.
The narrative that some places are less valuable than others leads people to believe that these places need to be approached as a problem. This perpetuates the misconception that there is nothing of value existing in the place. The antidote to this mindset is uplifting, celebrating, and connecting what is there.
In the early days of UofO, a talented musician and composer moved to town. Her partner was drawn to Orange because of the musical community. After many open mic nights, he told her that people needed a music theory teacher. Many musicians were self-taught and now wanted to know more. Held in a youth center and at the HUUB, Dr. Margaux Simmons’ music theory class became UofO’s longest running free community course. Over the years, the class adapted and included a bilingual English/Spanish version of the class. Students came from many backgrounds and included many people who were part of local music scenes but never had formal music training. Some students even formed their own band, which performs at the Music City Festival every year. Dr. Simmons now co-directs our Music City program, which produces annual concerts and festivals offering paid gigs for local musicians, offers free courses and is developing an instrument library to offer low/no cost musical instrument rentals. Upcoming events include a tribute to Slide Hampton, a renowned trombonist who lived in Orange, a three-day music festival which will be held throughout the city.
Orange is currently facing a wave of development projects that have already started to displace current residents and businesses and threaten to alter the character of the city. We are committed to advocating and organizing in Orange for more equitable development, while sharing Restoration Urbanism practices with partner communities facing similar issues. While current interlocking challenges to equitable development seem impassable, we know that we have a piece of what we need to meet them head-on: ongoing, lifelong learning in community.
Dr. Simmons reminds us that the word university comes from the word universe. Our learning can happen wherever it needs to happen. Our teachers can be our neighbors and the places we love. Functioning as a “free people’s university” allows us a playful yet rigorous framework to learn how we heal cities from the legacies of Serial Forced Displacement.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.