A Fluid Belonging: Juliana Roth Interviews Anna Kate Blair

Read Anna Kate Blair’s essay “Two Tides” from Reckoning 4.

 

Juliana: So much of the drama of your essay is the tension between Brooklyn and the precarity made visible by Hurricane Sandy. I’m curious, are you in Sunset Park right now? If so, what can you report?

 

Anna: I’m not in Sunset Park—I almost typed unfortunately, but then realized that it probably isn’t, right now, unfortunate. My US visa expired shortly after I wrote Two Tides, and I moved to Australia last year. I’ve found, though, that I’ve been thinking of New York near constantly, really missing Sunset Park since the pandemic started. I’m still a member of the neighborhood’s Facebook group and the deaths (including those of people who I remember) reported on that page intermingle with memories of the loveliest flat in which I’ve lived, a flat where I achieved something close to my ideal of domesticity, balancing household tasks alongside a monastic devotion to my work that seems cozy in the midst of global catastrophe. I long for this living situation even as I know that I’m safer where I am, even as I hear that the constant presence of refrigerated trucks haunts my former neighbors, that even going to the grocery store is stressful. I’m trying, at the moment, to work through this improbable longing for New York, oddly acute at the very moment when it seems most unlikely, and I suppose part of the longing is knowledge that Sunset Park won’t, after this, be the same neighborhood that I left behind, that longing for New York is a form of longing for the past. I wish I could report on what things are like there.

 

Juliana: It must be strange to watch those changes from afar. That attention to what’s left behind makes me think of how you described Williamsburg in your essay. You write: “Everybody wants to move to Williamsburg, but as they move to Williamsburg, Williamsburg disappears.” This disappearance is a different one—more about development. You turn the developers into full-blown predators in this essay. They are forces against keeping the past present. One developer even calls historians and preservationists their enemies—yikes.

 

Anna: I think many architects, too, see preservationists as their enemies, because preservation strips architects of opportunities to design. I do think developers, in Williamsburg and elsewhere, are often predatory, but I don’t think that means that preservationists are good simply because they’re resisting development. There is, in architecture, always a tension between retaining what’s valuable from the past and creating new structures that can represent our own times. If you’re trying to create a strong architectural culture, it’s important to have space for both these things, though inevitably they’ll be in conflict with one another sometimes. I think these points of clash, though, can be exciting; it’s when something’s difficult to negotiate that we’re forced to think in new ways, to challenge ourselves.

 

Juliana: Yeah. Not everything from the past should be maintained. The argument behind preservationism has also been weaponized as a tool to keep whiteness as the dominant imagination in many places, which complicates it as a practice.

 

Anna: Yes. I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot, lately, because I’ve moved to Australia, where many heritage-listed buildings reflect and glamorize colonization. I don’t feel very comfortable supporting the push to preserve something that reinforces Australia’s colonial power dynamics, which are very much still alive and only superficially questioned by most of those engaging with these structures. At the same time, though, I don’t like that the choice is often between the colonial nostalgia of preservationists and the capitalism of developers. It’s also worth noting that developers, in New York and internationally, have played a significant role in pushing people of color out of neighborhoods; they’re also invested in whiteness. I think, perhaps, that it’s worth noting the degree to which neither preservationists nor developers question society’s values on a deeper level. They’re primarily concerned with aesthetics and finances, with having power within capitalism rather than critiquing or subverting it, and I think there’s a need for approaches that are more nuanced and more radical than those suggested by both preservationists and developers.

 

Juliana: Do you think environmental protection and preservation is ever used in urban spaces to actually just practice gentrification under a different guise? If so, how do we mitigate that?

 

Anna: Yes, absolutely, and often. I’m not sure I can give an exact answer as to how we can mitigate it, though, because I think successful approaches will be different depending on the place and situation. It’s always important, though, to try to think deeply and with nuance about our and other relationships to the places where we live and to try not to cede decisions to others in order to avoid difficult discussions, to think about the vested interests that different groups have. I think community organization and union membership is important, but community groups, of course, have often worked in support of gentrification, seeking to raise property prices or keep minorities out, so I don’t know that they’re always a positive thing in these situations. I wish I had an easier answer, but I think the main solution I can propose is just thinking and working harder, fighting for structures of living that prioritize genuine care over profit.

 

Juliana: That makes me think of rustic chic, farmhouse bars popping up over the last decade, the longing for this design without actually being engaged in these practices. This is so fascinating to me. You describe this happening in terms of buildings and architecture. What do you make of this pull towards both temporary structures and evoking this false agedness?

 

Anna: I wrote my PhD on a similar trend, in interwar France, in which the colonies were presented as both leisure sites and as spaces from the past, particularly through restaurants and ephemeral pavilions, and argued that this served to position them as offering something to France whilst stripping them of their power, appealing to a desire to escape that had been prompted by the losses of World War I. I argued, also, that rapid change, even when there’s enthusiasm for it, is often countered by nostalgic aesthetic shifts. I wonder if the same thing is happening, now, or is always happening, in different guises. I’d hypothesize that the rustic farmhouse aesthetic might be linked to the industrialization of food and our desire for a connection to land that’s severed by contemporary supply chains and their economics. I think temporary structures, though, are appealing because they’re cheaper and often faster to construct, and so it’s possible to take more risks, to follow trends. I think, in both cases, it’s a matter of playfulness as distraction, a kind of Disneyfication of the city, in which corporations ensure their own survival through empty visions of what we might prefer.

 

Juliana: When I think of environmentally conscious—or land conscious architecture, I consider Frank Lloyd Wright and then just stop there, but obviously architects are hugely important in coordinating a climate crisis response. Do you often find that is the case when you bring these two disciplines into conversation, that we think of aesthetics rather than utility?

 

Anna: I don’t think that we think of aesthetics rather than utility, but what each of us thinks of first will be a reflection of our own histories and interests. I tend to associate environmentally conscious architecture more with utility than aesthetics; I think of facades that use louvers or skins to mediate temperature and of rainwater collection systems, both of which are common in office buildings. I’m always frustrated by the architecture of capitalism and environmentally conscious corporate architecture isn’t an exception to this; it’s often used as a form of green-washing and the performative sacrifice of aesthetics can be part of this.

I think more successful environmentally conscious architecture, which is often publicly funded, combines both utility and aesthetics. In New York, I think a lot of the recent architectural work along the boardwalk in the Rockaways is solid and Garrison Architects’ elevated modular beach pavilions in Coney Island are great. These were created in the wake of Hurricane Sandy’s destruction of these areas. I’d also point to the Sunset Park Recycling Centre, which has received a lot of praise; it’s quietly brilliant. Frank Lloyd Wright’s work is more widely known, though, because of the time that he was working and because he really mastered publicity. I think of Wright as an architect concerned with the concept of America, replete with car culture, rather than an environmentally conscious architect, and part of this is because he valued landscape almost entirely for its aesthetic properties whereas today’s architects are much more concerned with engineering.

 

Juliana: Brooklyn now prices out those native to those spaces along with the scrappy artists who were once marginal within Manhattan’s imagination. Are there geographic spaces left that actually welcome an artist uninterested in the ways major cities force professionalization?

 

Anna: I hope so, but I’m not sure. I’ve found those sorts of spaces outside the city, temporarily, at artist residencies—though it’s worth clarifying that I certainly haven’t found them at all artist residencies and the ones where I have are residencies that prioritize and work hard to provide accessibility. I think particularly of School of the Alternative in Black Mountain, North Carolina, where I led a class a few years ago, and Common Opulence in Alberta, Canada (which I experienced through Collective Assembly, an offshoot on Toronto Island). I think residencies or experimental schools can be temporary utopias, but we’re all dependent on life elsewhere in order to visit them.

I wonder how they might be made more sustainable; I feel sure that they can be, though it requires a lot of confidence and commitment to leave society’s established systems, including the typical art world benchmarks of success, however arbitrary those might be. I’ve been teaching my students, this week, about Drop City, an intentional community created in 1965, which was initially, while in the construction phases, very successful, but was ultimately victim to this success, collapsing as it became a stop on road trips across America, overwhelmed by its place in the counterculture. Marfa, Texas, home to many artists, has gone in the opposite direction, it seems, gentrifying as those artists found professional success elsewhere. I wonder, now, though, with so many things moving online, how all of this might change; the most creatively fertile site I’ve found recently is Ariana Reines’s reading group, initially called RILKING but changing names regularly, which takes place entirely on Zoom. In this sort of world, we can relate to geography differently, though I’m still figuring out the ramifications of this.

 

Juliana: That shifting sense of place makes me think of another line of yours: “These are non-places, bearing no trace or memory of what was before. They have no history. They have no connection to the earth. They have names like ‘THE EDGE’…But you could go weeks, living here, without setting foot on a Brooklyn street.” I know you’re from New Zealand originally, and I’m just curious how this idea of home, place, and belonging has evolved for you since moving away? What did a Brooklyn street mean to you before your arrival?

 

Anna: I’ve always had trouble with the idea of home, so this is a difficult question for me to answer. I moved overseas for the first time when I was three or four, and have moved quite regularly throughout my life. I expect this is partially why I’ve ended up writing about the ways in which people relate to places. I’ve formed in opposition to the idea of belonging, I think, and I’ve never taken any of the places I’ve lived for granted, never seen them as fixed or as ‘home,’ always relentlessly explored and researched them. It’s nice to call myself a New Zealander, but in New Zealand everybody asks if my accent is British or American. I always wanted to move to and work in New York after graduate school, though, so I think that the city represented personal and professional success to me.

Brooklyn, though, was a little more mysterious. I’d visited a few times, but it’s a huge borough and I’d only seen seven or eight neighborhoods (one of which was Williamsburg). As a foreigner with no credit score and no guarantor, the only landlord I found willing to take a chance on me was looking for a tenant for a flat on the first floor of a Sunset Park brownstone. I think that the couple that I was renting from trusted me because I was an architectural historian and they wanted somebody who would appreciate the history of the building rather than complaining about the odd layout or clunky doors. It was a gorgeous flat, and while I still questioned the idea of it, I felt more at home in New York than perhaps anywhere else I’ve lived as an adult and this flat really contributed to that sense of belonging, perhaps because it came unfurnished and the process of furnishing it meant that I set up roots there in a way that I haven’t anywhere else, or perhaps because I had more freedom in that flat (where I lived with my then-boyfriend) than I have in share houses.

 

Juliana: What would a more fluid belonging look like? How could we reflect that in architecture?

 

Anna: I feel belonging is personal and subjective, despite the ways in which nation states legislate and weaponize it and the ways in which this control structures our individual senses of belonging. When you ask about “fluid belonging,” I think initially of water and other elements which undermine the idea of borders because they can’t easily be fixed. There are architects doing research exploring this. I think particularly of Studio Folder’s project, ‘Italian Limes,’ which plots a border in the European Alps that shifts as a glacier melts and freezes. I think, also, of Rael San Fratello’s Teeter-Totter Wall on the border between the United States and Mexico, which uses play as a means of undermining the separation of the two countries. If I think further back, I think of Archigram’s Walking City, which was discussed as a means of eroding geography’s hierarchies; if a city moves around, it changes our relationship to place. It’s a big question, but these projects might point in interesting directions for exploring it.

 

 

Read Juliana Roth’s story “Sky Suck” from Reckoning 4.

A multi-genre writer and educator raised in Nyack, NY, Juliana Roth is the creator of the narrative web series, The University, which follows the bureaucratic failures of a university in the aftermath of a sexual assault on campus. Juliana worked in programming and communications for the Ecology Center, the Center for the Education of Women, and the World Animal Awareness Society. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Entropy, VIDA Review, Irish Pages, The Atticus Review, The Establishment, Yemassee, among other publications. Currently, she is a Publishing Fellow with the Los Angeles Review of Books at the University of Southern California. You can find her here: www.julianaroth.com

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Anna Kate Blair

Anna Kate Blair is a writer and architectural historian from New Zealand. She has had work in publications including Litro, The Appendix, King’s Review, Antithesis Journal and 10 Stories: Writing About Architecture.

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