A Recap- Intangible Effects 1.0: soundscapes of Yesler Terrace Housing Project

Tad presenting for the Critical Design group
Tad presenting for the Critical Design group

Our first speaker this quarter was Prof. Tad Hirsch from the UW School of Art. According to his faculty page and as he explained himself, Tad’s  research focuses on interaction design in urban environments with a strong emphasis on advocacy and civic engagement, and often involves collaboration with NGOs and community based organisations. Tad joined the UW a year ago and throughout his career has been actively involved with what he calls hybrid practice between art and design. He’s worked with grassroots groups and community organisations in several cities.

Along with teaching at the UW, he and a group of grad students also run  the Public Practice Studio. This new studio is based on the idea of creating an open collaboratorium- a place where people who are interested in social engagement, public practice, critical thinking from the standpoint of art, design and intervention can come together and work on projects together. At present the studio has two main projects underway–the first deals with Human Trafficking and the second is the project at Yesler Terrace–and Tad chose to talk to us about this project: Intangible Effects-Soundscapes of Yesler Terrace Housing Project. This particular project, according to Tad, is less activist and more art. It is intended to be the first of a a number of creative explorations of urban life and aims to focus on the “ephemeral aspects” of urban life by using the lens of multi-sensory investigation. By focusing on recording the experience of a neighbourhood or area through the lens of a non-visual modality, such as sound, touch, taste, this creative initiative tries to defamiliarize these urban neighbourhoods, so as to bring about a new and hitherto ignored understanding of that area which will be potentially productive. Intangible Effects-Soundscapes of Yesler Terrace Housing Project  is the first foray in this endeavour.

Existing development at Yesler Terrace
Existing development at Yesler Terrace

Yesler Terrace is one of the last standing exclusive public housing developments in Seattle. It borders I-5 on one side and overlooks downtown and is historically very significant as the first race-integrated public housing built in the United States in 1940. As a thriving community of single family apartments with gardens in the back, Yesler Terrace does not match our imagination of public housing communities. Having worked in public housing communities on the East Coast, Tad pointed out that, though not without its own problems, Yesler does not seem to have most of the problems associated with post war public housing (think very high crime rates, social dysfunction, violence, etc.), such as Pruitt-Igoe and many others that have since been demolished. Yesler’s problems have more to do with the age of the units themselves, such as maintenance and upkeep, accessibility and rodent infestation.

Proposed mixed income development
Proposed mixed income development

This need for improvement has been recognised by the necessary authorities and there are contentious plans for redevelopment underway. This redevelopment proposes to raze the existing community and in its place develop a mixed income housing development in which the current 500 public housing units will be replaced by 5000 mixed income housing units, 70-80% of which will be market rate. According to Tad, budgetary constraints have forced the city to look for outside funding in order to improve/replace the existing units. While this might seem like a viable, or indeed the only, solution to the issue, it brings to the fore numerous questions. Such a development will drastically change not only the physical but the social, economic and cultural landscape of the neighbourhood. A mixed income neighbourhood development with also fracture the existing informal networks and economies that exist in such public and affordable housing neighbourhoods. Further, there will be less incentive for businesses that cater to the low income populations to exist in such neighbourhoods, and essentially mixed income neighbourhoods tend to serve the needs of higher income groups more than lower income groups. Tad touched briefly on these issues in his presentation. These are issues of utmost importance, especially for those of us that are interested in socially responsible design. Tad also discussed the effect of replacing public or affordable housing with mixed income housing, on the political power of poorer people. The fracturing of social networks also means diminishing of the substantive political power for these people. Under this project, then, Tad and his team tried to think about how they could capture this moment before this community is dispersed forever in some ways and how to somehow document the everyday life of these people in the ways they experience it. At the Yesler Community Center, along with Rectech, they enlisted nine teenagers, who were trained to use sound equipment. In teams of two, these teenagers then recorded what in their opinion were the sounds of Yesler Terrace. Using sound editing software, the team of teenagers then isolated 16 sounds that were representative of Yesler, were interesting, and at the same time uncovered some issues or things that were of importance. These sounds were then displayed at the Frye Museum as an installation that was also built by the teenagers along with the design team.

Tad then played some of these sound for the group. The ensuing discussion covered a myriad of topics. Some interesting themes were issues of conducting research in disadvantaged communities; issues with convincing museums and funding agencies to invest in such projects in a more substantial way, etc. The discussion seemed to revolve more around the methods and not on the larger issue of the redevelopment project itself.

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