William Drenttel | Essays

Report from Hale County, Alabama

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, 2009

Project M, (blank) Lab container and audience, 2009

Project 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.

Posted in: Architecture, Social Good

Comments [12]

Thank you Bill for your perspective on both Greensboro and Project M. Having admired and followed John's important and unique site specific design interventions/collaborations since its inception, it was enlightening to have another perspective on, not only the challenges of its mission, but also on the town of Greensboro, an America that is more foreign, more similar than we dare admit. Perhaps it is this ubiquitous and universal cultural/civic juxtaposition that makes the Project M narrative so humbly important.

Jennifer Morla
Jennifer Morla


I really liked this article and enjoyed .....
Rick Braun

An occasional report from Winterhouse Institute on its Design for Social Impact & Innovation Project, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation?

c'mon dudes, you got some much moolah, did you have to cover what people for the most part know already and appreciate?
mike sekowsky

Thank you for this post, Mr. Drenttel. You've highlighted a number of important points. One I'd like to focus on surrounds the issues of community, visitors and sustainability.

An inherent focus of Project M is its involvement with the community. A few of M's most recent projects, PieLab and blankLab, share similar goals: to unite communities and designers. One of the most successful ways of uniting an outside group with a community is for the outsiders to become a part of the community. The Rural Studio is an excellent example of this. Their students live, work, and sweat with the community. The dedication to their projects and to the community fuel a sustainable practice: one that continues year-round. I believe this focus was one of the driving factors for John to set up a permanent home for Project M in Greensboro. The Rural Studio has produced a lot of momentum for socially conscious design and architecture in Hale County, but designers seeking to do good don't need to travel to rural Alabama to create positive social impact. They can begin by working within a community that they are already invested in: their own.

Change begins at home.

There's a nice article in the latest CA about socially conscious design written by Worldstudio's Mark Randall. Give it a read.
Tim Belonax

Thank you for this stimulating and positive article.
Jane Brenner

Thanks, very interesting and inspiring.
Rob Henning

Bill, I'm elated and heartened by the vigorous design efforts going on in Greensboro. Thanks for posting. John Altobello
John Altobello

I think we were the "documentary film crew";
enjoyed meeting you all , and of course,
the Muckle House breakfast ...


Please stay tuned for our film SNAKEBIT, on the founder of the Rural Studio, SAMBO MOCKBEE. Project M, Architecture for Humanity, Structures for Inclusion, Public Architecture, Design Build programs at almost every university ... and even the current "mega-projects" of the Rural Studio , it all goes back to Sambo and those first students that built the Hay Bale House, and the Yancey Tire Chapel,
Jack Sanders

thx for this post

This is a unique perspective from the writer. I have never been to Greensboro, Alabama and it is indeed surprising that there is Project M that is cultivating the creative minds of the community. I am working in a boston residential services project and I feel that such project is vital to the community.


Not being American, I swallow with difficulty when I still read about segregation and clearly hatred for fellow man and women kind. To think the the USA is supposedly the leader in equality and all things we believe to good ,is a really sad indictment of our world society. Developing countries do not appear to be so obvious in their dislike for difference, yet USA is a smart country and its citizens cannot hide its contempt for each other.! Is it not! Mr. Drenttel is clearly a balanced gentleman with loads of talent. It is unfortunate that he is driven to use his skills in building and bonding a community together when we all know his qualities could be of far better use taking the world forward as opposed to "round and round" in vicious circles. I enjoyed the stirring article nonetheless.

UPVC Windows
Matt Odoors

Nice article about my hometown but I am wondering where you came up with some of your facts. Population of 17, 000? Since 1968, Greensboro has never had a population of more than 3,500. 2009 census lists population at basically 2,500. Racially segregated grocery stores? Not from my personal observations. Legally intergrated school with no white students? In accordance with a Federally mandated ruling in the 1970's white and black students attend classes at the 2 public schools. White children attending the private school en masse? Hardly, many parents can't afford the $300 a month and send their children to the public school. Best restaurant in town? Mustang Oil cafe, the favorite with locals(articles written about it in the New York Times as well as Southern Living magazine and numerous others). As for the H.E.R.O. photo above they basically raped a beautiful old storefront and created this glass front monstrocity that is completely out of character with the rest of the architecture of this beautiful town. Sorry for the rant but I love my little town and it's history and felt some things need to be set straight.


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