Sunday, February 20, 2011

An Educator Learns the Lessons of Flint

Keith and his squat on Second Avenue in 2006. [Photo, Left, by Mickel Darmawan; Photo, right, by Wes Janz.]

Wes Janz, an architecture professor at Ball State University and founder of onesmallproject, has visited Flint numerous times. He sums up the experience in a great essay in Design Observer that's worth reading.

"Flint is elusive," Janz writes. "It’s like this for me now, after twenty-plus visits: Buildings once there are now gone, replaced by lawns, by weeds, maybe by gardens. Buildings I photographed are now charred rubble or have disappeared. I knew something once, but now it’s changed; or maybe my memories are faulty, maybe I’m at the wrong intersection, expecting to see a building that is a block away. That happens. People I knew have left. They lose jobs, lose interest, lose their way. I lose touch with them. That happens, too. I think I know somebody, and on my next trip to Flint, find out they’ve vanished."
The essay also captures some of the very human lessons Flint has to offer:
Flint is, or was, Keith. I’m not sure where he is now. On one of our early trips with students, we were told that a squatter was being evicted from the front porch of an abandoned house where he had lived for a week. Hung blankets were his walls, the front steps his kitchen. He wasn’t “home,” so we walked on in, stepping around a couch and chair, loaded cardboard boxes, table covered with his belongings, several posters including one that read: “I AM ME ... I AM OKAY.” Later I thought: Who the hell did I think I was? Why was I so comfortable walking around, looking at his personal stuff? Maybe the “personal stuff” of squatters is not so obvious. Then, suddenly, Keith appeared. We talked. He talked with my students. That day he was moving to another squat a couple of blocks away. He said he had several possible places in mind, was always on the lookout for new places. In some ways, Keith’s city was a network of connected camouflages, small unseen places to make his home, if even for a day or a few weeks. Keith had been squatting for three years, said he knew where to get food and water. He knew “how to hunt.” A student said to me, “Perhaps this is like living in the wild.”

As we departed, Keith said to us: “You can get as much as you want out of life. I believe in being positive.” I didn’t anticipate a pep talk from a squatter. A life lesson.

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