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University of Virginia UVA Arts & Sciences Default
Spring 2016

Discovering the Juxtaposition

In a pair of interdisciplinary English seminars, UVA students studied the social context and legacies of urban landscape design. On a recent visit to Baltimore, they observed how those policy decisions can shape racial identification within a city.

Mar 21, 2016 |

The paper signs planted in the squares of Mount Vernon Place promoted upcoming African drum and dance performances, a jazz trio and Saturday morning yoga sessions. But as University of Virginia fourth-year student Chiquitta Branch and her 13 classmates continued their walking tour of Baltimore, they left behind the historic district’s well-maintained lawns surrounding the first civic monument dedicated to George Washington and the Roger B. Taney Monument dedicated to the U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice responsible for the Dred Scott Decision.

A ramp for Interstate 83 and a series of concrete barriers and chain-link fences served as a stark and abrupt transition to East Baltimore as University Professor K. Ian Grandison and Professor of English Marlon B. Ross escorted their students.

Professor of English Marlon B. Ross and University Professor K. Ian Grandison
Zach Wheat

“You won’t believe what you are about to see. This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Grandison said enthusiastically.

On the other side of the I-83 ramp, they walked past the intake center for the Baltimore city jail, a string of bail bonds’ offices topped with razor wire and a small cinderblock church. It was precisely the juxtaposition in urban landscapes that Grandison and Ross wanted to present to the students of their undergraduate seminars, “Landscapes of Black Education” and “Race, Space and Culture.”

“It’s amazing, just to have such a dividing line. It’s such a difference,” Grandison said.

Landscapes as laboratories

While Ross is an English professor, Grandison is a landscape architect by training. In their collaborations since they both arrived at UVA in 2001, the two faculty members have sought to stretch the bounds of their particular disciplines.

“I was thinking, because of my involvement in the humanities, ‘How can I think about my discipline in relation to the humanities?’” Grandison said. “And this is what we came up with, this sort of blending of critical race studies in the humanities with landscape architecture, planning, architecture techniques and theories. What we came up with, in some ways, relates to race, spaces, and cultural negotiation.”

The overnight field trip to Baltimore served as a culmination of Ross and Grandison’s students’ work in critical landscape studies, an opportunity to observe firsthand the social context and legacy of how city planning and other policies shape the experience of racial identification within cities. The two professors have been planning and leading similar class trips to Richmond and Washington, D.C. for more than a decade in their interdisciplinary critical landscape courses.

November marked the first trip to Baltimore, and it came months after the city had erupted in protests and violent disturbances prompted by the death of Freddie Gray in police custody last April. The UVA College Council, a student-led organization, provided funds to support this student experience, which included participation in a two-day symposium on the architecture of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) at Morgan State University.

“From the moment that we mentioned we would be going to Baltimore, our students were excited and eager. Baltimore was still very much in the news at the time,” Ross said.

Branch, a fourth-year student from Richmond double-majoring in Government and African American Studies, said the trip to Baltimore made everything they discussed in class “more real.”

“It’s one thing to talk about theory, but then practicing it or experiencing it is completely different,” she said. “And I feel like Professor Grandison and Professor Ross do a really good job with that.

Just like in science classes you’ll learn theory and then you’ll go into a lab and realize, ‘this makes a lot more sense now,’ the Baltimore trip sort of functioned like a lab where you put the theories that you’ve been learning in class to use.”

Historical readings and walking tours of Monticello, the central Grounds of UVA and downtown Charlottesville are incorporated within Ross and Grandison’s interdisciplinary seminars, as well as reviews of demographic maps and the public policies fueling gentrification efforts that contribute to the segregation of black and white populations. Their students studied the structural dividing lines between downtown Charlottesville and what used to be Vinegar Hill, the primary black business district and social center of Charlottesville’s black community before the city’s gentrification efforts in the 1960s led to the relocation of black-owned homes and businesses.

“We had them read histories, first-hand accounts of the people in Vinegar Hill and the people who planned the razing of it, and we want them to see it from the ground-level, to experience what it’s like to walk through a landscape and to begin to see it with the eyes of a planner,” Ross said.

As part of a separate class exercise, fourth-year student Becca Pearson said, Grandison and Ross had them critically evaluate the way physical spaces on Grounds were created. In her class, for example, students learned that Old Cabell Hall once served as a barrier between the University and the free community of color located down the hill south of what is now Jefferson Park Avenue.

Visiting Baltimore in the wake of last year’s tumult provided Ross and Grandison’s students an opportunity to understand how race shapes the built environment of a city.

“Traveling to Baltimore gave us a chance to see on a much larger scale how the construction of these structural landscapes creates both physical and social divides,” Pearson said.

Walking across dividing lines

The first day of the Baltimore trip began with a visit to the Fell’s Point neighborhood, where the abolitionist and social reformer Frederick Douglass grew up as a slave, and where many former slaves migrated after the Civil War.  From there, the students went to East Baltimore to visit the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum, where students took a tour highlighting the museum’s history in relation to Baltimore’s role in slavery, the Jim Crow regime and lynching debates, as well as the Civil Rights movement of the post-World War II period. 

The students’ attendance at the Morgan State symposium coincided with Grandison’s delivery of a keynote lecture entitled “The HBCU as Archive,” and the students stayed overnight in the homes of Morgan State faculty and graduate students.

The following day, Grandison and Ross led the students on a bus/walking tour of Baltimore that stretched into the evening. It started with a visit to the Mount Vernon Place statue of Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney, a staunch supporter of slavery and the author of the 1857 Dred Scott decision ruling that no black, free or slave could claim U.S. citizenship and thus were ineligible to petition for their freedom. The students discussed the prominent Taney monument in light of a mayoral commission convened to determine what to do about the city’s Confederate monuments, comparing it to the oversized bust of Frederick Douglass installed at ground level in a Fells Point maritime park.

After crossing the city’s dividing line of Interstate 83 into one of East Baltimore’s predominantly black neighborhoods, Ross and Grandison’s classes visited St. Frances Academy. Founded in the 1828 by the world’s first African-American order of nuns, the school provided education to free people of color and most likely, to enslaved children legally prohibited at the time from going to school. From there, the students’ chartered bus took them to Druid Hill Park, where Ross and Grandison pointed out the once-segregated facilities. Stopping at Orchard Street Church, founded in 1825 by a former slave, Branch, Pearson and their classmates descended a narrow staircase to the basement to take cellphone pictures of a tunnel entrance to the Underground Railroad used by escaped slaves in the 19th century.

They passed blocks of boarded-up buildings before stopping again on the Old West Baltimore corridor, known as “the Avenue,” during the Jim Crow era when it served as the celebrated Main Street of Baltimore’s black community. Celebrated in the early 20th century as the “Harlem of the South,” Pennsylvania Avenue’s jazz clubs, social clubs and theaters once drew Pearl Bailey, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong and other legendary entertainers, followed in later decades by the Temptations, James Brown and Stevie Wonder before the neighborhood’s decline. During a stop at The Avenue Bakery, Ross and Grandison’s students learned about grassroots efforts to revive the neighborhood.

The courtyard adjacent to The Avenue Bakery on Pennsylvania Avenue in West Baltimore, an area once known as the "Harlem of the South."
Zach Wheat

Just a block or two from the bakery, the charter bus pulled over one final time that November evening to let the students step out near the site where Freddie Gray was arrested on April 12, 2015 after police found a small knife in his possession. The 25-year-old Baltimore man had attempted to flee after encountering a police officer on the street. According to charging documents filed against six Baltimore police officers, Gray – who had asked for his inhaler and who said he could not breathe while being detained – was loaded into the back of a police van for booking but was not belted properly in a seat. By the time the van arrived at the Western District police station, Gray, who was handcuffed and placed in leg shackles during the journey, was found not breathing and in cardiac arrest, according to the charging documents. He was hospitalized and died seven days later.

Fourth-year UVA student Jackson Realo and his classmates stood quietly at dusk as they observed a mural reading:

The Power of the People
Rest in Peace
Freddie “Pepper” Gray

Ross and Grandison wanted their classes to visit Gray's neighborhood and the memorial to help their students understand the impact of racial barriers such as I-83 not only on the physical landscapes, but also on the everyday lives of those who reside on the "other" side of those divides.

Realo grew up in Baltimore, but he said he went to a private all-boys school before college and was largely unaware of the history of the city’s black community before taking Grandison’s class.

“I learned so much those two days about the history of Baltimore,” he said. “At first I was kind of hesitant to delve into it, but Prof. Grandison is so enthusiastic and passionate that he really engages you. I didn’t know what to expect, but to learn so much about all these places that I used to drive past all the time, I found the whole experience so enlightening. I thought I knew those places before, but I didn’t have any context.”

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