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Hip-Hop and a Sense of Urban Place

Michael Ford, who was recently appointed the lead architect for the Universal Hip Hop Museum, says that hip-hop artists have used their music to offer glimpses into urban spaces across the United States.  Hip hop, like all pop culture, draws upon factors like shared social norms, cultural nuances, and the built environment to shape listener perceptions. Often, urban spaces are “repositories and contexts within which interpersonal, community, and cultural relationships occur, and it is to those social relationships, not just the place, to which people are attached,” according to critical scholars Low and Altman (1992, p. 7). As reported by Kemp-Habib in Fader, Ford is “shedding light on how the historical failures of urban planners and policy-makers working in black and Latino communities actually led to the creation of hip-hop.”

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Dedicated to stimulating cross disciplinary discourse on the new vernacular of Hip Hop Architecture, Ford attempts to expose what he calls “conscious efforts … to absolve the most powerful shapers of society, architects, urban planners and social scientists from their responsibilities.” He goes on to describe how there are “cultural and colloquial implications of architecture in the built environment,” and these implications are particularly evident through the lenses of Hip Hop and Design Justice. Consider, as example, these 1982 Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five lyrics:

Broken glass everywhere/ People pissin’ on the stairs, you know they just don’t care/ I can’t take the smell, can’t take the noise/ Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice/ Rats in the front room, roaches in the back/ Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat/ I tried to get away but I couldn’t get far/ Cause a man with a tow truck repossessed my car.

The despondent social impact of high-density living is evident in these lyrics. Without “money to move out” and an inability “to get away,” these urban citizens lack private spaces due to affiliations as disenfranchised communities. Moreover, “a sense of place is something that we ourselves create in the course of time” and is “the result of habit or custom … reinforced by … a sense of recurring events,” states landscape scholar Jackson (1994, p. 5). Urban low-income residents found themselves, according to Ford, in “a high concentration of people whose cultures cross-pollinated.” That cultural melange and shared built community translated into hip hop, as identification of crowded spaces helped urban people to organize the world into mental structures and allowed them to function effectively. As a result, hip-hop provided a source of “emotional security, pleasure, and understanding,” relates urban scholar Yan Xu (1995, p. 1).

A billion-dollar industry born out of poor urban planning

Popular culture’s sense of place, “dual in nature, involving both an interpretive perspective on the environment and an emotional reaction to the environment” (Hummon, 1992, p. 259), creates contradictions of place and identity. Ford argues that hip hop, a multi-billion-dollar industry, was born out of the “poor urban planning” of Robert Moses, who acted without concern for “social, political, and economic resources for residents.” The New York Sun reports that Robert Moses “built 13 bridges, 416 miles of parkways, 658 playgrounds, and 150,000 housing units, spending $150 billion in today’s dollars” across the City of New York. Moses’ legacy includes pervasive criticism of his displacement of the poor, where tenements for low-income residents were razed and replaced with middle-income apartments.

In his profile of Robert Moses in The Power Broker, Robert Caro includes, “To build his highways, Moses threw out of their homes 250,000 persons.” Ford says that the resulting projects became “concrete jungles: an isolated architectural system, a lack of private space, and a high concentration of people.” These were cities without markets, fresh goods, or recreational activities. Such urban spaces, which lacked infrastructures to foster healthy citizens, were further isolated by what Ford terms “a pre-existing racial bias in America — literally and figuratively represented structural racism.”

Moses ushered in a new urbanism and, as reported by Cooke in Arch Daily, “deepened the rifts within class and culture already present in post-war New York, elevated the rich to midtown penthouses and weekend escapes to the Hamptons or the Hudson Valley, and relegated the poor to crowded subways and public housing towers—a perfect incubator for a fledgling counterculture.” Cities as socially constructed places — both inherited and then recreated by those who live there — must be interpreted as complex spaces where different people may ascribe different meanings to the same place. The complexity of meaning surrounding urban places and our understandings of such contested meanings created a powerful context for hip hop to emerge. Hip hop named that complexity as part of a collective learning inquiry.

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More than just a rat race

To ground his theory, Ford looks to John B. Calhoun, who studied the behavior of lab mice under conditions of overcrowding, controlled resources, and resulting participant aggression. Ford’s interpretation of Calhoun’s results — that violence is inevitable when social crowding exists without opportunities for release — leads him to condemn city designs that didn’t take social crowding into consideration. And he’s not alone. Indeed, “We’re All in The Same Gang,” produced by Dr. Dre in 1990, offers a nod to John B. Calhoun’s research.

I’m in a rage/ Oh yea? Why is that G? Because other races, they say we act like rats in a cage. I tried to argue, but check it, every night in the news/ we prove them suckers right and I got the blues.

Architecture as art “becomes flexible, textured, and subject to poetic play and refiguring,” states literary historian Mentz (2011, 84). Hip hop, with its stylistic balance of content, flow, and delivery, offers us a gray area among speech, prose, poetry, and singing. Together, attention to architecture and hip hop as mutually reinforcing variables claims a new perspective about social influences and the built environment as depicted in popular culture. Cooke in Arch Daily reminds us, “Cultural influence and social agency is far easier to acquire via a set of turntables, a microphone, a pair of Adidas or a can of spray-paint.”

Works Cited

Hummon, David. 1992. “Community Attachment: Local Sentiment and Sense of Place.” pp. 253-278 in Place Attachment, edited by Irwin Altman and Setha Low. New York: Plenum.

Jackson, J. B. 1994. A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Low, S. M. & Altman, I. (1992). Place attachment: A conceptual inquiry. In Altman, I., and Low, S. M. (Eds.), Place Attachment. New York: Plenum Press, pp. 1–12.

Mentz, S. (2011). Shakespeare’s Beach House, or The Green and the Blue in Macbeth. Shakespeare Studies, 3984-93.

Yan Xu. (1995). Sense of Place and Identity. Action Research Illinois. Retrieved 04 May 2015.

Photos by seier+seier (some rights reserved) and Diego Torres Silvestre (some rights reserved)