Mike Ford, the “Hip-Hop Architect”, is “shedding light on how the historical failures of urban planners and policy-makers working in black and Latino communities actually led to the creation of hip-hop”, according to FADER.
The Bronx is infamous for “burning” in 1970s; the term derives from the arson epidemic that swept through the borough, an epidemic attributed to the build up of years of economic and political policies that marginalized the residents living within the Bronx’s neighborhoods. The fires were blamed on the pathologies of residents, rather than years of de-industrialization, racist development policies, and the common practices of grading neighborhoods to be considered for home and renovation loans, which began in 1937.
“In decades to come, redlining worked hand in hand with Urban Renewal and suburbanization to separate people by race and class,” explains researcher Gretchen Hildebran. “While masses of middle class people followed incentives to Long Island and New Jersey, at least a hundred thousand low-income people of color were relocated from targeted areas in Manhattan into the South Bronx. The modern ghetto was born, and the fires came soon after.”
Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message”, Wutang Clan’s “S.O.S”, and Nas’s “Project Window” demonstrate the importance of understanding the role that these conditions created in influencing hip-hop. “Hip-hop lyrics are [filled] with first-hand accounts of living conditions in the projects,” Ford states. “The hip-hop MC used lyrics to create a dialogue, to give commentary and counterpoints to the modernist vision [that birthed towers like 1520 Sedgwick Ave]. The MCs served as a voice for disenfranchised communities and often un-consulted end users of public housing.”
Ford, who was born in Detroit, wants to educate the public as to how these sociopolitical conditions paved the way for the creation of hip-hop. “When I was transitioning into grad school, we had to work the summer before school started and crack our thesis. That entire summer, I worked on a thesis called “Livable Sky Scrapers.” But on the first day, when all the graduates announced their titles, I stood up and said, “My thesis is on hip-hop and architecture,” he recalls. “It was something I knew I needed to do. Through this and subsequent research, I’ve looked a lot at the relationship, or lack of, between urban planners, architects, and the communities they’re supposedly building for.”
He maintains that the creation of the suburbs was what led to disastrous conditions that disenfranchised the Bronx borough, leading young residents who were left behind in urban planning to create new avenues for self-expression and survival. “Historically, African-American communities have been pretty much destroyed by architects and urban planners,” he continues. “Expressways have torn through the fabrics of established inner city developments all over the U.S. The Cross Bronx Expressway, which was conceived by Robert Moses [a powerful city planner who sculpted the landscape of New York City between the 1930s and 1960s], displaced a large number of residents and created the projects we see today.”
As a lead architect for the Universal Hip Hop Museum, Ford aims to tie architecture and the history of urban planning to the genre, and urges more marginalized people to become actively interested in development plans in the future:
“As long as people from the outside are telling the story, that narrative will continue. We need to continue to get people of color involved in architecture, as urban planners, as professors, as authors. It’s important for minorities to enter architecture because, throughout the United States, our communities have been designed, uprooted, and pretty much destroyed by architects and urban planners who do not look like us and unfortunately have little to desire to communicate with us during the planning of those events.”
Ford also hints at development by way of understanding the role that rezoning plays in the current gentrification of the South Bronx and erasing Black and Brown people from their boroughs. “Architecture can destroy and inhibit people from becoming their best, but it also has the power to uplift and empower them. If we’re going to achieve the latter, it’s got to be a collaborative effort.”