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An immersive course about the design of segregation helps bring change to St. Louis neighborhoods

An immersive course about the design of segregation helps bring change to St. Louis neighborhoods

Why is St. Louis segregated? Some say it is by design.

Catalina Freixas, assistant professor of architecture at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis (WashU) agrees. She and her students study segregation’s design, impact and strategies for mitigation in St. Louis neighborhoods in the course, Segregation by Design.

Freixas recently received the CityStudioSTL faculty course grant awarded by Sam Fox School, which, for the first time, included an additional award from the Social Policy Institute at WashU to support an expanded policy component. Freixas, a transplant to St. Louis, says she was alarmed by the stark contrast between North and South St. Louis when she first arrived. Her observation was pretty accurate. In fact, a Brookings Institution study shows that Black-white segregation levels in STL are the 7th highest in the country. As a professor of architecture, Freixas was drawn to further study the causation.

The Segregation by Design course was created five years ago when Freixas received a grant from the Divided City, an urban humanities initiative that investigates how segregation affects cities, neighborhoods, and public spaces. The call for proposals required a partnership between the humanities and design fields. As such, she sought collaboration with an academic outside of WashU. That partner ended up being Mark Abbott, professor of history and director of the Center for Neighborhood Affairs at Harris-Stowe State University (HSSU). Freixas envisioned this grant as the first milestone in creating a multi-university course where students from higher education institutions in the region could work collaboratively on neighborhood plans.

To expand knowledge on the complexity of segregation, Freixas applied to another grant—Bring your own Idea (BYOI), previously offered by the Office of the Provost—to seek new partnerships to holistically address the analysis of social issues and inequality. The BYOI grant enabled Freixas to host a series of conversations between academics and practitioners around issues of segregation, including housing, health and education inequalities as well as policing and safety among others. These gatherings not only informed the design of the class but also allowed her to establish collaborations for the subsequent years the course has been offered and was the base of her book, Segregation by Design: Conversations and Calls for Action in St. Louis.

 During the workshops and field visits, students immerse themselves in a particular St. Louis neighborhood to gain first-hand experience of the ways in which segregation impacts a community. Neighborhoods submit proposals through St. Louis Association of Community Organizations (SLACO) to partner with the students in this class to produce a neighborhood plan for their community.

Segregation by Design partnered with Meachum Park in Kirkwood, City Center in Florissant, East St. Louis, West End, Central West End, and Tower Grove in 2016, Dutchtown and Shaw in 2107, Forest Part Southeast and Covenant Blu/Grand Center in 2018, and Kingsway East and Fairground in 2019. The course is updated every year, in response to the experiences in the classroom and the needs of the St. Louis neighborhood selected. This year, the students will become familiar with the North Central area.

The goal of this class and these interactions is not to try to solve the community’s problems for them. Instead, students and faculty compile their findings and suggest strategies and tactics to mitigate the challenges identified by residents and students together. Throughout the semester, students work directly with community members to explore causation, consequences and mitigation strategies, which leads to neighborhood plans. Once the plan is finalized, it is published as a course book and becomes part of an ongoing traveling exhibition that aims to stimulate a regional conversation addressing racial segregation.

Understanding the cause of segregation involves researching the community’s history to find the underlying reasons and origins of segregation, which often includes structural racism. Looking at consequences, students evaluate the long-lasting effects that these historical events have had on the community.

During the semester, students have direct contact with residents, civic leaders, activists, volunteers and business owners in their partner community to understand causation, consequences and identify possible mitigation strategies. The students engage residents in informal conversations and semi-structure interviews about the history and current landscape of the neighborhood, and take part in community celebrations, including barbecues and neighborhood meetings. This authentic connection and relationship with the community is crucial to designing strategies with community residents. Many students remain in communication with the residents after the class ends and even after graduation, sometimes working or volunteering within the neighborhoods.

The compilation of the course is identifying mitigation strategies and tactics, again, through collaborations between residents and students. For this, students, with the guidance of mentors, use what they’ve learned throughout the course. For instance, in 2019, students came up with two goals to help mitigate segregation in Tower Grove South —to establish community land trust for the Wedge area and to foster the expansion of South Grand Community Improvement District. Click here to view all the books from previous years.

Freixas acknowledges that segregation and racism are always present in America, but that their manifestations and have evolved over time. Although segregation in the past was more visible in that it was often explicitly articulated in writing as the law (de jure), Freixas maintains that it is just as much a part of American life as it has always been. For her, the only difference is that it is now largely invisible as unspoken systemic structures (de facto).  Freixas argues that segregation now is more about biases and policies that perpetuate scars from the past. “Segregation recycles itself: new segregation practices subtly replace old ones,” she says, “Yet, it’s always very conscious and very much designed.”

 Freixas is a 2020 faculty affiliate for the Social Policy Institute. Click here to read an additional interview with Freixas.