Africatown design idea contest seeks big visions for ‘cultural mile’

Pat J. Fraley

Up until now, the discussion about the future of Africatown has mostly focused on puzzle pieces. On Juneteenth, that changes with the opening of a worldwide call for ideas about the bigger picture those pieces should create. Each of the pieces represents hopes, dreams and years of effort to create […]

Up until now, the discussion about the future of Africatown has mostly focused on puzzle pieces. On Juneteenth, that changes with the opening of a worldwide call for ideas about the bigger picture those pieces should create.

Each of the pieces represents hopes, dreams and years of effort to create even a practical plan, let alone to secure funding and begin implementation: The establishment of an Africatown Heritage House as the first showcase of artifacts from the slave ship Clotilda, for example, or the design of a long-awaited multimillion-dollar Africatown Welcome Center. Or figuring out just opening discussions about how the Africatown experience should look and feel for tourists.

There’s no shortage of heavy lifting involved in any of those projects. The Africatown International Design Idea Competition envisions something much bigger in scope: The creation of Africatown Cultural Mile that fits all those pieces and many more into a world-class example of cultural preservation and a tourist destination of worldwide interest.

The competition’s creators, Vickii Howell and Renee Kemp-Rotan, went big: The proposed cultural mile that includes four sites, each with four major components, for a total of 16 elements. Teams are welcome to pick one or more sites and offer their proposals over the course of the next year.

“For the price of one competition, we can get hundreds, maybe thousands of ideas of what these things can look like,” said Howell. “Then we can make what Renee calls a catalog of ideas that we can give to the community.”

“They need to see something they can aspire to,” she said.

“This is going to go worldwide, including to African schools of architecture,” said Kemp-Rotan. “And it’s going to be open to professionals and students in architecture, landscape architecture, urban design, planning, artists — we’re talking about multidisciplinary teams. We’re encouraging folks when they register to put together multidisciplinary teams.”

But she and Howell mean for it to be attractive to nonprofessionals as well. This is a pure idea competition. It’s about creating a vision for the puzzle, rather than scattering pieces around the landscape.

“One of the greatest memorials we have in this country is the Vietnam War memorial in D.C.,” said Kemp-Rotan. “That was done by Maya Lin, and that was the result of a competition. But if you look at her drawings, the original drawings for the competition, it was a green background with just a black triangle. She didn’t win because she could draw, even though she was in architecture school. You know why she won? She won because the depth of her design essay stole the hearts of every reviewer. The words of her essay became more important than her ability to draw.”

In the real world, there are obstacles and encumbrances: Land ownership issues, zoning issues, environmental issues. The competition sets all that aside, offering a clean sheet.

“Nobody gave us political permission to think about these things,” said Kemp-Rotan. “That’s why we call it a design idea competition.”

The story of the competition goes back to 2018, when Howell welcomed Kemp-Rotan on a visit from Birmingham and gave her a tour of Africatown.

They’d worked together years before in Birmingham, where Kemp-Rotan had worked as an urban planner and designer under multiple mayors. Kemp-Rotan describes herself as “an architect by training, but an urban designer by practice.” Among other major works, she was director of capital projects as plans for the city’s Railroad Park project were developed.

Howell had worked for her on efforts such as the development of a signage system for the Birmingham Civil Rights Heritage Trail but had later moved back home to Mobile. She became president and CEO of M.O.V.E. Gulf Coast Community Development Corp., a nonprofit that works to support economic growth in underserved communities such as Africatown.

As efforts to revitalize Africatown picked up steam, Howell thought of Kemp-Rotan as somebody who could take a very complicated development scenario “and fold it into something that’s digestible.” Kemp-Rotan admits that when she first visited, she had no concept of Africatown.

“But the first place that Vickii took me to was the historic cemetery and then to Union Church and I saw that plaque that had the names in Yoruba and also in English,” said Kemp-Rotan. “And that just snatched my heart. Because it’s one thing to talk about enslaved Africans, but that’s the first time I’d seen African names even mentioned. So I was hooked.” And then, she said, Howell began introducing herself to the descendants of Africatown’s founders.

This was all very timely. Hopes of uplifting Africatown had been around for decades. But the confirmation that the ruins of the Clotilda had been found was right around the corner.

“We got started before they found the ship,” said Kemp-Rotan. “Vickii brought me down to Africatown in 2018. They didn’t find the ship until 2019, officially. And so the thing that spurred us on wasn’t the finding of the ship. The thing that really spurred us on was, ‘What does one do with this history no one knows about?’”

“But I also anticipated they were going to find the ship,” said Howell. “My spirit was telling me they’re going to find it sooner or later.” The idea was to prepare for that ahead of time, to help put the community on a proactive footing when the moment came.

When confirmation of the find was reported, “I said man, this is the find of the century,” said Howell. “This is the thing, the leverage that the community is going to need to bring all the things they’ve been wishing for and wanting.”

The idea of a design competition emerged early on, though Kemp-Rotan and Howell initially thought it would focus on a single museum.

It blossomed into something much bigger as they worked on another big project: A comprehensive primer on the history, the potential, the challenges and the racial and cultural complexity of Africatown. Anyone looking to get up to speed on the topic could do much worse than to start with this 200-page document, which can be found online as an “American Roundtable” at the Architectural League of New York website. It’s titled “If we can save the ship, we can save the town.”

It’s not just a recap of the Clotilda story intertwined with an overview of what makes Africatown, a community founded by the last Africans to be carried into slavery in the United States, so important. Individual chapters delve into topics such as neighborhood redevelopment, “the racialization of space and the spatialization of race,” cultural economics, health and justice and environmental issues.

Kemp-Rotan and Howell presented this case study, likely a foundational document for many future Africatown conversations, to the community and other interested parties in an online American Roundtable event held in early May. In addition to a survey of the case study, the event featured a who’s who of community activists and experts: Kemp-Rotan and Howell describe the slate of participating scholars, descendants, historians and activists, quite plausibly, as the first time the general public has heard so many candid viewpoints on the possibilities and challenges facing Africatown. The full two-hour session recently was posted online by the Architectural League.

The event also gave participants their first good look at the pending design competition and the concept of the Africatown Cultural Mile.

The Africatown Cultural Mile consists of four major sites, each with multiple components including artistic gateways.

1. Historic Africatown, encompassing the planned Africatown Welcome Center, a Rosenwald school site and 30 units of new housing to fill in neighborhood gaps.

2. The site formerly occupied by the Josephine Allen housing project, with features including a museum, a boathouse holding the Clotilda or a replica and maritime-themed residential housing.

3. The Africatown Blueways, a network of amenities facilitating exploration of the area’s waterways.

4. Africatown USA Park, including additional museum space, a performance center, and a spa hotel and convention center.

The competition opens June 19, 2021 and is expected to run for a year.

The Africatown International Design Idea Competition seeks big-picture ideas for an Africatown “Cultural Mile” encompassing a wide range of historical sites and amenities.Africatowndesign.com

Competition materials pose some “what-ifs” to encourage ambitious thinking. What if the welcome center creates “new public spaces for teaching slavery and engaging descendant memory?” What if the flood plain is intentionally flooded at the Josephine Allen site, creating a water feature around a Clotilda replica and related memorials? What if the park found ways to illuminate the African cultural history that was the heritage of the Clotilda’s passengers?

That last one touches on a recurring theme in the case study: Africatown’s founders hadn’t been born into slavery. Once freed they naturally would have adopted local materials and methods when it came to construction, medicine and agriculture — but they would have remembered and used other methods as well, just as they kept their African names and folkways.

“There’s still a lot we don’t know about what Black people after slavery were capable of producing,” said Kemp-Rotan. “We were not just cotton pickers.”

Africatown could be the perfect place to begin replacing that “we don’t know” with understanding, Kemp-Rotan said. “In a way, it’s a real-world counterpoint to the Wakandan Utopia offered by the “Black Panther” movie.

“Africatown has got to be a model to coagulate all of these parallel conversations about Black space,” said Kemp-Rotan. “What do we do with it, how do we preserve it, how do we regenerate it, how do we repair it, as in reparations, how do we prepare it? We are now on the apex of havig global conversations about how do you create quality communities based on extraordinary history. We shouldn’t even be here.”

The competition is expected to run for a year. The cost of entry is $100 per site per team, with the promise of up to $100,000 in prizes for ideas that can guide future puzzle pieces into place. Kemp-Rotan said it’s all an effort to harness “the power of design to get everybody to buy into a big idea so that the big idea can drive together a coherence of all these disparate community organizations.”

That said, Howell stressed that the level of unity within Africatown is higher than it may sometimes appear, given the number of organizations, individuals and agencies with a stake.

“I really want to disabuse people of the notion that there are a bunch of fighting factions in Africatown,” Howell said. “The only thing they may fight about is the methodology, but they all want the same thing. They want Africatown to redevelop, they want the school to be strong, they want to see more people come back, they want to see more businesses. That is universal. I really think it’s a disservice to the community to talk about these fighting factions. I don’t think that’s true at all.”

“The history is bigger than just the historic district,” said Kemp-Rotan. “This Africatown Cultural Mile is a very big design idea. The outcome of connecting these things to the power of design, tied to history, tied to economic development, means that we will have literally created a world-class heritage destination that’s bigger than just a single site. And we can keep tourist dollars up, down and around the Africatown Cultural Mile.”

“We know that people will travel around the world and back to see some spectacular architecture that’s tied to a people’s history and also tied to cultural identity,” she said.

According to promotional materials, organizers and sponsors of the Africatown International Design Idea Competition include M.O.V.E. Gulf Coast Community Development Corp.; StudioRotan; the National Organization of Minority Architects; the American Institute of Architects; the city of Prichard; Visit Mobile; and the Michael C. and Patsy B. Dow Charitable Fund.

The competition opens June 19. Full information about entry requirements, registration and eligibility can be found at https://africatowndesign.com/.

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