Listen To Article
It was day one of a brand-new job, and a new bus route. My bus driver complimented my afro, and next time he saw me on his route, gave me a book. It was an autobiography, with a woman sporting an afro like mine. When we arrived at Central Station, he was kind enough to ask the other driver to make sure I got to work safely. Every time I walk into work, at Heartside Ministry, people greet me as “Angela Davis”, pointing to my afro.
I remember being a kid and wondering what you had to do to be cool enough to be greeted when you walk into a room. I envied the seemingly fabricated camaraderie between people who barely knew each other. I used to wonder, what do you have to do to feel community?
Now as an adult, walking out of a connection-starved year of lockdown, Covid-precautions, and isolation, I ask,
Who designs & creates community?
Why do I ask?
I’m an artist. I craft things; therefore I spend a lot of time observing the craft of others. My inner designer tries to trace back the creative processes and shifting circumstances that led to the aesthetics of buildings downtown, the interactions between people groups. I’m curious about what other creatives have made.
I also love a good story – filled my childhood with fantasy books. A good story makes a reason “why” stick. And I think we all know that feeling that you’re holding something precious and fragile when someone tells you their story. Regardless of whether a story is told artfully, when someone shares their unique story with you, it reaffirms their humanity. It’s messy and precious and fragile. It’s a gift.
I love people watching in the city. Cities are touched deeply by overlapping & interlocking remnants of fully-lived lives. It’s hard not to be brimming with curiosity.
So I ask, who designed my community? It’s a lifelong question, but I think it’s worth asking. I’m digging into why it’s worthwhile, not just for me, but other creatives, who may be making/contributing to communities of their own.
I remember a class trip to Northern Ireland, exploring the city of Belfast. It seemed as if the city had tensed up during the Troubles and had yet to unwind its muscles. Chicken wire and barbed fence decorated on brick walls. Pointed gates stood guard in front of public buildings. Defiant murals splashed color upon worn bricks. What would this city feel like if it was mine? If I carried the stories, memories, & histories of family and friends who lived an abundantly chaotic, violent life in these streets?
Community can reaffirm or diminish our cultural & personal identities. But how much of that do we do on purpose, and how much of it simply sinks into us?
Did We Design it On Purpose?
I think there’s two ways community forms – intentionally and naturally. These intersect beautifully. Designers, architects, creatives, or businesses will actively create spaces. From there, these spaces naturally take on their own life.
Perhaps a space was intentional once, but now it holds a new presence. Like the children’s playground a block from my house that became the evening hangout for after school basketball rivalries. By extension, it morphed into a dense social hub for drama that would normally be ‘insubordination’ in school hallways.
People naturally form community daily. We tell ourselves stories about our communities and internalize them. We respond to events that shape our landscapes. For example, the Windows GR project. A protest in the summer of 2020 left many downtown Grand Rapids’ businesses smashed in. But an artist collective transformed the storefronts into an affirming place where the artistry and passion of the community came to the forefront.
3 Ways to Move Forward
These designed communities are made more intricate by the events, stories, and people who ebb and flow through community spaces. So after I ask “who designs my community?” what next? What does the story of a place equip me to do? This question encourages me to:
1. Think twice. To question harmful narratives at the beginning. Our stories inform the design of each community. Learning them helps me think twice before I blithely settle into narratives that condone apathy.
2. Listen better. Asking who designed this place before us can help us answer the question How are we going to design this place now? For designers, creatives, artists – anyone embarking on the path to make something new – listening is often step one.
3. Practice better physical & emotional hospitality. In her book, Making Room, Christine D. Pohl writes that a hospitable place “does not violate the stranger’s identity and integrity.” Listening to stories and context equips us to do that well.
So, who does it? Who designs your community? I approach this as a creative person who hopes to do meaningful work, and a curious designer who loves celebrating the work of others. This question calls me to dwell in the intersection of purpose, faith, and creativity.
Streetscene Photo by Chris Dickens on Unsplash
Olivia, I read with delight your entry. I should also share that I am Irish by origin and visited Ireland years ago and its buildings and walls and murals spoke to me. I am not sure if all of this was purposeful design but it spoke to me about the suffering of the Catholic in Ireland. It created a space in my heart of sympathy and love for the Irish people-all the Irish-even the Protestants who are partially responsible for the suffering of the Catholic in the country.
This is a wonderful essay. Lately I’ve been thinking about placemaking and the role that church property plays in that. Thanks for this!
Well, done, Olivia. Thanks for your careful eye and insightful thinking prompting us to steward better the stories around us and the ways that have shaped our communities…even the ways we shape our communities.
I smiled as soon as I saw your name for this post. I remember you from Calvin and from visiting my church.
Blessings to you Olivia!
Blessings to you as well!
I walk around my community in my bright red wooden shoes with a garbage bag and my home made garbage pick to help keep my community looking as an inviting place to be. I also meet my interesting neighbors who make up this community, some help find trash and put it in my bag and many thank me along the way.
As to churches and their involvement in community, I see too many that display hateful and divisive banners.
Thanks, Olivia, for this important essay. I shared with my son, who got his masters at Loyola-Chicago (“Pastoral Studies”—aka Sociology) and who has worked for several community planning groups / contractors in both central California and now in Portland, OR area, and he remarked: “The key to good design is good listening” and he added this:
“Big Table approach — It’s not good enough that “everyone has a seat at the table” (when it comes to community development).
—Did everyone get an invitation to the table? (Who determines who the stakeholders are?)
—Does everyone have adequate time and access to get to the table? (Public hearing timeline requirements, making required neighborhood meetings more accessible)
—Did everyone get a chance to place their order? (“What would you do with this site?” — Too often development projects sail through because they meet bare minimum zoning requirements and the public discussion is focused only on the presented project, not what other options are available for public benefit presented by the public).
—Does everyone get equitable access at the table, e.g. enough elbow room, enough gravy to go around? (What policies are in place that promote locally owned, community led development versus large corporate housing/commercial developers? Both are needed, but how do policies make access to the ‘free’ market equitable?”
I think of his education and his work, and of you, Olivia, and your work, and again this essay—-and I redouble the sentiments of the previous essay “The Adult Child Shall Lead Them” Blessings—
Wow! This is incredible insight – definitely taking notes. Thank you so much for sharing. I went back and read “the Adult Child Shall Lead Them”, and the hope and optimism in it was refreshing to hear. Thank you for your comment.