Final comments in The Unruly City seminar based at the Sumner StudioLab, April 28, 2023.
What has it meant to meet in The Ville? That’s a question that we answer each time we are here. It’s really a question we should always ask of any place where we live, work, study or visit. While the future of Sumner High School has led to this specific engagement, we could stage this course in any area – regardless of race, class and other neighborhood attributes – and find useful research and unresolved community demands.
I have invited and encouraged questioning of the premise of this course and the Sumner StudioLab itself. There is a huge power differential between The Ville and Washington University. There is a huge power differential between Washington University and a majority of the places where people live in St. Louis. However, the fault lines of segregation in urban America mean that too rarely do people meet across these divisions. The perpetuation of these divisions reinforces the logics of racial and class segregation.
So being here is just an attempt – a modest attempt – at seeing if we can challenge the separation and do some good for The Ville and other neighborhoods.
Another aspect of the logic of segregation is that it cloaks the interdependence of parts of a city. If we studied the same themes that we have studied back on campus, we are still doing that in a St. Louis in which the Ville and St. Louis Place exist, and a St. Louis in which separation has become a record of injustice. Many people avoid crossing lines, deliberately and cruelly or inadvertently. The art of making a society that includes everyone is never going to be comfortable, or finished.
One of the keys this semester has been to work with earnestness, responding to needs presented by partners rather than going out and making work in The Ville for our own ends. We have tried to match community service with theoretical and historical investigation. It’s the first time that I have done that in this course, and I apologize for the shortcomings. We are not here to plant a flag, or try to look virtuous. We have been here to study, sometimes with others, and always in place.
I wish that we could have done more to engage the neighborhood around our classroom, and the high school, but people did not ask us to do those things so we worked on what we were asked to do. I invite feedback on how courses like this could be better – please fill out the evaluations, and weave that critique into today’s conversations. I also hope that you bring the same questioning that you have brought to this course to every course you ever take, every job that you hold, every room you enter going ahead. You’ll make the world better for everyone if you question each construct of conventional wisdom you encounter.
I hope that we leave the partners something useful, and I hope that being here has made a difference in your understanding of St. Louis and cities generally. I hope that you will return to The Ville and north city – support businesses, attend events and concerts and treat this half of the city as if it is a part of your St. Louis. This course is really about how space mirrors social structures. I hope that St. Louis someday seems deeply connected, with segregation no longer evident in the built environment. To get there, we must build the society that would look that way.