Right now, there is a group of 12 graduate students at Harvard University studying north St. Louis. From 1,200 miles away, they are reading books, writing papers, meeting for weekly discussions and creating projects all centered around north St. Louis and its neighborhoods.
When Daniel D’Oca, Associate Professor at Harvard in the Practice of Urban Planning, was approached about creating a class that focuses on art and design combined with the history of segregation, his first thought was St. Louis.
“A few reasons led me to create this class,” D’Oca said. “I’ve studied the history of segregation in Baltimore and the demographics of that city are similar to St. Louis, which eventually led me there. I met a lot of amazing people in St. Louis. St. Louis is a good example of the dangers of racial segregation and at the same time [north St. Louis] is inspiring and energizing.”
This semester D’Oca is leading the class titled “The New Selma” which chronicles and discusses activism in north St. Louis post-Ferguson. The Harvard class is made up of architecture and urban planning students who are studying the organizations and people who are creating change in north St. Louis.
As part of the class, D’Oca felt it was crucial to bring his students to north St. Louis in order for them to see firsthand what is happening in the community.
“You can look at pictures of empty streets and vacant buildings all you want,” he said. “But I wanted my students to meet with the folks who live and work there…I wanted my students to meet with people, like Antonio [French], to really get in-person what motivates them.”
Last month, French hosted the group at the North Campus Partnership offices.
Melissa Green, a student in D’Oca’s class, said that the class studied before their trip, but their views and opinions of north St. Louis were ultimately shaped by their visit.
“Physically seeing the city and meeting the people that live there was a much more powerful and informative experience than distant research,” Green said. “Visually, the difference in the city fabric north of the Delmar divide was much more dramatic than we had anticipated… but we were delighted by the passion and energy of local residents and organizers to bring back life to their community and streets.”
The Harvard group made many stops on their tour including meeting with activists Percy Green and Jamala Rogers, the North Newstead Association, The North Campus Partnership, LinkSTL, Grace Hill Settlement, Forward through Ferguson, 14th Street Artist Community, New Roots Urban Farm, the North Corridor Collaborative, former site of the Mill Creek Valley, NorthSide Community Housing, and the Peace Park in College Hill.
After meeting with leaders from these organizations, the students’ final project for the course is to collaborate on a project that meets the needs of the neighborhood. Some of the class projects include an art and community center in Hyde park, a redesign of Peace Park in College Hill, and updates to the social spaces and safety of Fairground Park.
Aleiya Evison, a student working on a project for D’Oca’s class, spoke about her goals: “I am working on creating an Arts Activism curriculum. I am researching the role of art in social justice, and hoping to also facilitate an arts exchange between students here in Boston and students in St. Louis. There was such a distinct spirit of creativity everywhere we went in St. Louis.”
D’Oca said: “My students come from different backgrounds and have different skills. We went on this trip so that they could hear what people’s concerns and needs are, and then figure out a way they can add value. There is a number of future projects that I think students can move the needle on.”