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Protests and property: Can architects rebuild our broken cities?

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The top editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer resigned Saturday after the headline on a column by the newspaper’s architecture critic led to a walkout by dozens of members of the editorial staff. 

The column, which lamented the destruction of buildings in downtown Philadelphia during protests over the killing of George Floyd, opened a fraught debate about wealth, power, and race in the city. The headline that triggered the backlash: “Buildings Matter, Too.”

The Inquirer, in a subsequent apology, acknowledged that the headline had “offensively riffed on the Black Lives Matter movement and suggested an equivalence between the loss of buildings and the lives of black Americans.”

On the Inquirer website, the headline has been amended, and now reads: “Damaging buildings disproportionately hurts the people protesters are trying to uplift.” Notably, though, the column beneath it, by Pulitzer Prize winner Inga Saffron, remains as written. 

Opinion editors at the Wall Street Journal were quick to decry the purge at the Inquirer as another example of “cancel culture journalism.” They lumped the exit of long-serving Inquirer editor Stan Wischnowski with the ouster of New York Times opinion editor James Bennett following a staff revolt over the publication of an essay by Republican Senator Tom Cotton calling for military troops to restore order in strife-torn American cities. 

“All of this shows the extent to which American journalism is now dominated by the same moral denunciation, ‘safe space’ demands, and identity-politics dogmas that began in universities,” the Journal fumed. “The agents of this politics now dominate nearly all of America’s leading cultural institutions.”

Such fulminations obscure an important difference between the two controversies. Unlike Cotton’s screed, Saffron’s column was nuanced and thoughtful. No one has faulted its accuracy. 

Saffron states right up front in her essay that she thinks protestors’ “anger was fully justified” and that “the grotesque killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor—and many others before them—are attacks on the fundamental promise of our democracy.” 

She acknowledges the argument that “people’s lives are more important than property” and the claim that “those protests would never have gained America’s undivided attention if they had stuck to the usual polite rounds of hey-hey chants.” 

She notes that, on her architecture-centric social media feeds, defenders of the destruction include architects, preservationists, and her own daughter. She recognizes, moreover, that protests aren’t just a reaction to racism in the police force, but a far more complex phenomenon created by deindustrialization, rising inequality, and the larger defects of global capitalism.

But she comes back to those buildings. “‘People over property’ is great as a rhetorical slogan,” she writes. “But as a practical matter, the destruction of downtown buildings in Philadelphia—and in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and a dozen other American cities—is devastating for the future of cities. We know from the civil rights uprisings of the 1960s that the damage will ultimately end up hurting the very people the protests are meant to uplift.”

Is this a legitimate point-of-view about which there is room for debate? Or is it an “unempathetic” defense of mostly white wealth and privilege that deflects genuine examination of how racism corrodes the fundamental institutions of American cities?

An open letter to leaders of the Inquirer from journalists of color who participated in the walkout doesn’t mention Saffron’s column. Clearly, though, its authors are fed up with the preoccupation over structures. “We’re tired of working for months and years to gain the trust of our communities—communities that have long had good reason to not trust our profession—only to see that trust eroded in an instant by careless, unempathetic decisions. It’s no coincidence that communities hurt by systemic racism only see journalists in their neighborhoods when people are shot or buildings burn down.”

It’s a particularly tricky discussion for architecture which, as Karen Lu and Mary-Margaret Zindren of the Minnesota chapter of the American Institute of Architects point out in a recent essay, is a “predominantly white profession.” Zindren and Lu offer sound advice for architects—as well as urban planners, designers, and journalists—who care about race and the future of broken cities:

“Instead of…assuming we know what is right and jumping in to assert our experience, expertise and good intentions, we need to step back, listen, and be ready to learn, unlearn, and adapt. Rebuilding what’s been lost is impossible—and it’s the wrong goal. The buildings, systems, and relationships that existed before came about through design and construction. Before rebuilding, the architecture community must join with others in rethinking, reimagining, and redesigning what’s next.”

More design news below.

Clay Chandler
clay.chandler@fortune.com

Many companies are speaking out against racial injustices right now. But how do they fare in their own workplaces? Black employees in the corporate world, Fortune wants to hear from you: Please submit your anonymous thoughts and anecdotes here.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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