Price doctoral students Matthew Miller and Jonathan Crisman assist students with equipment to create oral histories of the 1992 LA civil unrest for RAP’s first class this spring. (Photo by Annette Kim)
By Cristy Lytal
Art may not be a traditional tool for urban planners and policymakers. But it’s one of the most important ways for Los Angeles’ communities of color to define urban spaces, according to Annette Kim, associate professor and director of the Spatial Analysis Lab (SLAB) at the USC Price School of Public Policy.
This belief motivated Kim to seek out colleagues from across the university to create “RAP: Race, Arts, & Placemaking” — an interdisciplinary initiative involving gatherings, courses and symposia, supported by a USC Provost Research Collaboration Fund grant.
Kim is leading the initiative along with a dynamic team of co-principal investigators: Holly Willis from the USC School of Cinematic Arts; Francois Bar and Taj Frazier from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism; and Victor Jones from the USC School of Architecture.
“USC Price was very much open and encouraging to be at this boundary and make collaborations,” Kim said. “I’m still really grateful. I don’t think I could do this at just any school, any university.”
The collaboration also brings together USC Price faculty members Tridib Banerjee, Raphael Bostic, Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, Lisa Schweitzer and David Sloane. In addition, USC Price alumna Maria Rosario Jackson will be involved through her role as a senior advisor at The Kresge Foundation and adjunct instructor at the USC Thornton School of Music. Other faculty participants hail from USC’s Gould Schools of Law, Roski School of Art and Design, and Dornsife Letters, Arts and Sciences.
This collaborative is launching at a historic moment: 2017 marks the 25th anniversary of the 1992 Los Angeles civil unrest, and the current political climate has turned the national conversation more squarely and urgently to issues of race.
In approaching these issues, RAP is moving the conversation beyond conventional urban planning, social services or similar interventions. In particular, Kim said she is interested in “the role of art as having this power and this magic for putting community members in a different position in which they’re creators themselves.”
Fittingly, the story of RAP began with an artist. Houston-based artist and community organizer Rick Lowe visited USC in 2015 during the event series “Urban Visions: Art as Social Practice,” supported by a USC Visions and Voices grant.
“It was the beginning point in that that’s my first collaboration with Holly Willis and Francois Bar, and I’d just arrived at USC,” Kim explained. “I wanted collaborate with them some more, and then that grew into RAP.”
Under the auspices of RAP, many more artists will be coming to campus. During RAP’s first official event this January, Roberto Bedoya, poet and cultural affairs manager for the City of Oakland, presented the talk “Creative Placemaking, Creative Placekeeping and the Poetic Will of the City.”
In April, RAP will host its second event: “FORWARD LA: Race, Arts, and Inclusive Placemaking after the 1992 Civil Unrest.” Co-organized by SLAB, the USC Sol Price Center for Social Innovation and the USC Dornsife Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE), the symposium will bring together academics, activists, community members, and artists to address topics around injustice and opportunity.
“Why we think it’s really important, really timely, is that there’s been so much debate and disagreement about our cities and immigration and so many things,” Kim said. “California went through a really hard time since ’92. We still have many of the same challenges, but there has been some progress made nevertheless. And so the idea is to focus on lessons or things that have been more promising and to build a shared agenda and vision going forward.”
This spring, Kim is also introducing 17 students to these concepts in RAP’s first official course: PPD 499 Race, Arts, and Placemaking. The course has attracted a diverse group of students from all majors at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.
“The students have told me how grateful they are to have this space to discuss these issues in this way, so there’s a commonality in their passion,” Kim noted.
During the course, students will film oral histories related to the role of the arts in rebuilding Los Angeles and empowering communities since the civil unrest of 1992.
“We’re teaching them how to shoot video and audio and make a story, so they’re going to interview subjects around LA,” Kim said. “What’s really neat is I’ve been talking with USC Libraries. They’ve just opened the independent commission archives that were sealed for a long time. And so a librarian has actually asked us to store these student videos, interviews and oral histories in their archive for future researchers.”
The students are also venturing across Los Angeles to visit arts organizations such as the Underground Museum and the Art + Practice Foundation and Kaos Network in Leimert Park.
PPD 499 teaching assistant Matt Miller is playing a key role in the broader RAP initiative as both the program manager and web master.
Miller produces art as a documentary filmmaker and writer, and researches the intersection of race and place as a Ph.D. student at USC Price. His dissertation addresses the role of black-owned businesses in shaping commercial corridors in Los Angeles.
“It’s a really cool moment for the broader field of urban planning, where we take more seriously the humanities and perception and these soft, fuzzy ideas that aren’t easily put into a regression model, but are nonetheless palpable and impactful,” he said.
At SLAB, Kim is advancing one such impactful idea: re-mapping Los Angeles according to ethnicity, rather than the four standard racial groups. The research project, called ethniCITY, predated RAP, but now nicely complements its themes.
Similar interests attracted Tridib Banerjee, who studies and teaches comparative urbanism, planning theory, and urban design at USC Price, to get involved in RAP.
“I am drawn to the RAP initiative because I have a long-standing interest in Los Angeles as a multicultural metropolis,” Banerjee said. “I have been studying its emerging ethnoscapes and their spatial narratives of race and ethnicity. Inspired by the writings of sociologist Elijah Anderson, I am interested in the possibilities of public spaces to serve as places of conviviality and as a ‘cosmopolitan canopy.’”
Like Banerjee, Miller and Kim, all of the RAP researchers are engaged in individual and shared projects touching on the key themes of art, race and place.
In bringing these researchers together from across USC, Kim admits that her motivation is as personal as any work of art.
“I see really deep challenges and possibilities in our society, and I want expend my life energies helping us reach our highest potential,” she said. “And meanwhile, being an artist myself, I’ve found over the years that the way we approach things from the social science perspective – while it’s powerful – is missing some important aspects of our understanding of humanity and people in society.”
“So, as I research the city, I’m also passionate about reconciling those two parts of myself,” Kim added, “me as an artist, and me as a social science researcher.”