H.E.R.O. (Hale Empowerment and Revitalization Organization) headquarters, Main Street, Greensboro, Alabama. Photo by Alissa Walker
Greensboro, Alabama has just over 17,000 residents. It boasts a historical neighborhood teeming with antebellum mansions and examples of Greek Revival architecture; a stately Main Street with 70% of its buildings unoccupied (including a few burnt-out shells); a dramatic block-to-block residential shift between races; two somewhat racially-segregated grocery stores; a legally-integrated high school with no white students (white students go en masse
to a nearby private school that looks just like a public school, but costs each kid $300 per month); the Safe House Museum
, once used to shelter Martin Luther King Jr. from the Ku Klux Klan during a 1960's meeting; El Tenampa Mexican Restaurant, the best restaurant in town; a former Opera House, the focus of a recent $200,000 restoration fundraiser; numerous Auburn University Rural Studio architectural projects; and the headquarters of H.E.R.O. (Hale Empowerment and Revitalization Organization)
Greensboro is a city of contrasts, and a place where new design thinking is revealing itself in a surprising number of ways.
Last month, during a heat wave of unusual intensity, I made the trip from Provincetown to Boston to Atlanta to Birmingham, whereupon I drove two hours through Tuscaloosa and Mountville to Greensboro, Alabama, the heart of Hale County. My excuse for visiting was Project M
, which staged its intensive post-graduate design-for-social-good project last month under the leadership of John Bielenberg. This year's crop of ten recent college graduates developed two projects: ashholes.org
, a political initiative to address the dumping of three million tons of coal ash in Uniontown AL from the recent environmental disaster in Kingston TN; and a mobile design studio in a discarded shipping container converted into a (blank) LAB
. Another recent Project M project in Maine conceived of a pop-up pie shop meant to gather the community together; Pie Lab
opened as a storefront in Greensboro in late May. Last year, a permanent design studio was established in Greensboro to continue building relationships and working on projects that serve the community. In 2007, Project M developed a campaign to raise money for installing water meters
in homes with contaminated drinking water around Hale County. Project M, ashholes.org, 2009Project M, (blank) Lab container and audience, 2009Project M, Pie Lab storefront in Greensboro AL, 2009
The overlap of Project M with teams from H.E.R.O., the local social services agency run by Pam Dorr
, was charming, if chaotic: it was hard to tell the "M'ers" (current year Project M participants, past year drop-ins, random advisers) from the Americorps
participants, the father-and-son from Maine who came to repair Habitat for Humanity houses, the Rural Architecture people, and the documentary film crew hovering throughout. Acting as both host and host-space, H.E.R.O. was the context for gatherings, critiques and dinners, often numbering 25-30 people. Project M will struggle in future years, I suspect, with how to organize thoughtful design thinking in this expansive setting of endless participants and the resulting chaos. Also, as Project M develops its own culture and alumni network, discussions occasionally seemed more concerned with creating a reputation for Project M than on constructing projects to impact Hale County. (We are conducting a Project M at Winterhouse
in partnership with John Bielenberg in late August, so these questions are not random criticisms so much as issues ripe in our own minds as we build a team to work on a design-for-social-good project here in rural Connecticut.)
While most visitors that week in Greensboro were focused on Project M, I was fortunate to have the help of Karen Rogers
, a dean at the College of Architecture at Auburn University, who organized meetings with Rusty Smith
from Rural Studio, Cheryl Morgan
of Urban Studio, and Nisa Miranda
of the University Center for Economic Development at University of Alabama.
And a side note: I had the pleasure of spending three days staying at Muckle House
, an elegant inn on Main Street. A turn-of-the-century manor house lovingly restored by Winnifred Cobbs, it's a wonderful mix of Victorian Neo-Classical and Arts-and-Craft details. To return there every evening, to white linens and plentiful air conditioning, was an oasis from the 98-degree weather and bunk-house setting of Project M. (For the record, my multi-stop journey from New England resulted in Delta Airlines losing my luggage for 4 days, so that I was obliged to outfit myself — in camouflage shorts and college T-shirt, no less — from the Dollar Store
, resulting in photographs that will make me the subject of ridicule, at least where my children are concerned, for many years to come.)The Muckle House Bed & Breakfast, Greensboro, AL
The Rural Studio
projects in Hale and neighboring counties are widely recognized for their architectural and social innovation, and don't need extensive replay here. ("Architecture of Decency" by NPR
is a pretty comprehensive site, and two recent monographs provide good overviews: Rural Studio: Samuel Mockbee and an Architecture of Decency
, and Proceed and Be Bold: Rural Studio After Samuel Mockbee
.) This said, seeing them in person is another story, and one would be hard put to deny the sheer power of architecture when applied in this region — a region framed by poverty and characterized by need both in terms of private housing and public services. During my time in Hale County, I saw more than 30 buildings, including a number of public buildings, brilliantly designed and built by teams of four students: among these are the Boys and Girls Club in Akron, Alabama and the Antioch Baptist Church in nearby Perry County. (Say what you will about religious references, but both struck me as uniquely spiritual structures.) Andrew Frear, director of the Rural Studio since the death of Samuel Mockbee, has extended this program is dynamic and new ways.Akron Boys & Girls Club II, Akron AL. Rural Studio Auburn University: Danny Wicke, Whitney Hall, John Marusich, Adam Pearce, completed 2008
Antioch Baptist Church, northwest Perry County. Rural Studio Auburn University: Gabe Michaud, Jared Fulton, Marion McElroy, Bill Nauck, completed 2003
It is important to understand that Rural Studio is only one part of Auburn University's commitment to socially-engaged architecture: a counterpart program in Birmingham, Urban Studio
, takes a comparable number of students each year and assigns them to urban planning projects (often with a small-town focus) through their Small Town Design Initiative
, many of which are towns located in or around Hale County. (Some of their innovative urban plans have been made into posters, and were recently featured in an article by William Bostwick in Print Magazine
Going forward, the trajectory here is nothing if not expansive: H.E.R.O. Project M. Rural Studio. Urban Studio. Americorps. Teach For America will come in 2010. A local farm has been converted into a healthcare facility
that will recruit recent college graduates to learn about rural caregiving. Add to this designers just working there: a Project M alum has recently moved there from Brooklyn, and several former Rural Studio architects are building in the region.
Hale County is ripe to become a national center for design research into rural poverty. It is uniquely positioned, given the convergence of design disciplines already in place there, the consequence of these initial efforts by architects and designers who have already established deep roots in the local communities. To be fair, conflicts may well arise: so many designers working in one zone will raise questions of identity and turf; local communities may be confused by an unexplained and sudden influx of do-gooders; new work inherently raises political issues about existing racial and political structures; and the current focus on housing and architecture does not expand design input to other potentially critical needs in the realm of healthcare, education or social services.
At the end of the day, more design is not necessarily better design or the right design. Those of us who want to return to Hale County must grapple with this question — and with our inherent status as visitors. But this is a community where design is making a difference, and where it may be possible, with greater attention and resources, for lasting social impacts to be achieved.