I35 Borderland

Third Prize: Bisola Falola

This section of concrete columns reinforcing lanes with massive steel braces replicates itself many times over to form a 1,568 mile highway that spans across eight states. Interstate 35 (I-35) was planned in the late 1940s as demand grew for greater connectivity within middle America. As the highway passes through Austin, Texas, it cements a legacy of an inequitable and discriminatory east-west divide. The road that would become I-35 was built as part of a concerted effort to create a separate (and unequal) “negro district” east of town.1 It physically and socially etched a barrier into the landscape.

Once created, spatial patterns condition how we live our lives, interact with one another, and perceive the world. The social and the spatial become mutually constitutive, continuously interacting to structure possibilities and define boundaries based on social relations of power. The eight lanes of I-35—double-decked, and more than two football fields wide—continues to create an east-west divide that casts Austin as a socially constructed border city. African Americans and Latinos are concentrated east of I-35 in predominantly low-income neighborhoods; while west of I-35, wealthier populations live in “an island of affluence”.2 Youth living on the east-side attend low-income, low-performing, racially segregated schools, and are less likely to enroll in four year colleges.3 The same path which promises greater access to opportunity, can enhance the mobility of some while “entrench[ing] the spatial imprisonment of others”.4

The highway and the railroad that bisects it, divides the landscape into a network of binary paths. You have the option to travel north-south, east-west, and toward or away from a given destination. This dialectic imaginary is an ingrained way of perceiving relationships, particularly those concerning mobility. Progress—bodily, material, social—is represented as moving away from a particular place and toward a better, more advantaged position. This dichotomy, however, is problematic. It perpetuates the belief that categories must be ranked in opposition to one another, whereby one side is privileged while its other is devalued.5 In such a context, east Austin remains fixed in place, perpetually on the ‘other side’ of boundaries that demarcate privilege and opportunity.

As I reflect on this image, I am reminded of how I captured the picture by abandoning the confines of designated lanes, and moving within peripheral spaces. I expected to forge my own path, but was surprised to find faint trails in the grassy edges of access roads, near the base of intersection signs, and along the gravel underneath the highway. These footsteps from the margins, reflect de Certeau’s argument that contradictory movements, like walking, can manipulate panoptic attempts of social organization and enunciate new ways of being in the world.5 We can transgress historic paths of exclusion; move off fixed, one-way roads, and seek more inclusive possibilities. Reframing new social and spatial mobilities, however, may require learning how to recognize our embodiment in the urban landscape, particularly in places we see without physically inhabiting.

Commentary on Rachel Tanur's Works

The dirt path curves through the village. It runs alongside clay walls, branching seamlessly through dwellings, around a bend, and toward the trees and distant hilltops. The path is well worn, trampled into existence by routine use. It is a lived space. Fluidly providing people with access into and out of buildings, toward and away from places, here and there without imposing a definitive structure. The grassy edges of the path encroach into and out of surrounding areas, which are themselves trodden such that there is no clear margin. The path is a place of becoming, where journeys, actions, and idle conversations can transpire in familiar or unique ways.

The passageway in this environment does not loom as a barrier. In contrast to my picture of the highway, this route connects—rather than divides—the landscape. It allows for greater flexibility and exponential networks of movement. One could seize the moment and execute a range of multilateral options. The experience of walking this passage—the rhythm, pace, and feel—clashes with that of navigating the borders of an interstate highway. The village path etches a more inviting and inclusive spatial grammar into the landscape.[1] This connectivity, in contrast with the stratified highway, begs a question: Should paths be first viewed as conduits or as obstacles?

The village emerges from the natural environment while conveying a distinctly human presence. The clay walls meld with the dirt path of a similar color, and often texture; the local flora grows alongside and within the dwellings; and the juxtaposition of human and natural environment is unbroken. This human habitat “connect[s] place and its dwellers”.[2] It is both a material and social home. In this setting, Lefebvre’s argument that social relations are abstractions until concretized in space, becomes perceptible.[3] Adding a clay wall that bisects the landscape, blocking the path and reducing visibility of the hillside, would signal a change in social relations. Sealing previously open entrances to dwellings, removing walls, or diverting access to the path would impact social dynamics. The ramifications of these physical changes are salient because the material space of the village reflects a social space—it feels embodied. The ability to, in a sense, personify our built environment helps us better perceive and understand our connections to each other and to our social spaces.

The framing of this African village breaks the “illusion of transparency” which assumes that “within the spatial realm the known and the transparent are one and the same thing”.[4] Rachel Tanur’s critical lens presents an image that compels the viewer to enter the frame and dig deeply for meaning. We interrogate the image, wondering what lies behind the walls, around the bend, and inside the dwellings; yearning to know where the people are and what they are doing. The viewer engages in a dialogue with the image, seeking to make sense of the relationship between the material landscape and its social context. The dialog creates a discursive space where we can layer the village path with that of the highway and be more reflexive about how mobilities and boundaries are influenced by our perception of the ‘physical’ and the ‘social’. In this hybrid space, we can frame and reframe everyday places until we develop a ‘critical sight’—an incisive perspective that allows us to make sense of the built environment before it eludes our capacity to comprehend its impact.[5]

[full footnotes available]

Commentary on Rachel Tanur's Works: Black and White

Carnival is celebrated throughout the western world; it is particularly famous in New Orleans. What immediately comes to mind is the stark contrast between the white-faced images of the Venice festival captured here, and the pictures of those stranded in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, most of who were African American. Indeed, when I think of New Orleans’ most famous event, I think of whiteness; of white faces partially hidden by masks and masks painted white. Who would ever imagine in examining Mardi Gras, in its organization, in its media representation, in its exclusivity, in its old-line krewes, that New Orleans is 70% African American? Understanding the dynamics driving the way that Mardi Gras is constructed may very well provide a map for interpreting the post hurricane images that continue to haunt us.

Commentary on Rachel Tanur's Works

The dirt path curves through the village. It runs alongside clay walls, branching seamlessly through dwellings, around a bend, and toward the trees and distant hilltops. The path is well worn, trampled into existence by routine use. It is a lived space. Fluidly providing people with access into and out of buildings, toward and away from places, here and there without imposing a definitive structure. The grassy edges of the path encroach into and out of surrounding areas, which are themselves trodden such that there is no clear margin. The path is a place of becoming, where journeys, actions, and idle conversations can transpire in familiar or unique ways.

The passageway in this environment does not loom as a barrier. In contrast to my picture of the highway, this route connects—rather than divides—the landscape. It allows for greater flexibility and exponential networks of movement. One could seize the moment and execute a range of multilateral options. The experience of walking this passage—the rhythm, pace, and feel—clashes with that of navigating the borders of an interstate highway. The village path etches a more inviting and inclusive spatial grammar into the landscape.[1] This connectivity, in contrast with the stratified highway, begs a question: Should paths be first viewed as conduits or as obstacles?

The village emerges from the natural environment while conveying a distinctly human presence. The clay walls meld with the dirt path of a similar color, and often texture; the local flora grows alongside and within the dwellings; and the juxtaposition of human and natural environment is unbroken. This human habitat “connect[s] place and its dwellers”.[2] It is both a material and social home. In this setting, Lefebvre’s argument that social relations are abstractions until concretized in space, becomes perceptible.[3] Adding a clay wall that bisects the landscape, blocking the path and reducing visibility of the hillside, would signal a change in social relations. Sealing previously open entrances to dwellings, removing walls, or diverting access to the path would impact social dynamics. The ramifications of these physical changes are salient because the material space of the village reflects a social space—it feels embodied. The ability to, in a sense, personify our built environment helps us better perceive and understand our connections to each other and to our social spaces.

The framing of this African village breaks the “illusion of transparency” which assumes that “within the spatial realm the known and the transparent are one and the same thing”.[4] Rachel Tanur’s critical lens presents an image that compels the viewer to enter the frame and dig deeply for meaning. We interrogate the image, wondering what lies behind the walls, around the bend, and inside the dwellings; yearning to know where the people are and what they are doing. The viewer engages in a dialogue with the image, seeking to make sense of the relationship between the material landscape and its social context. The dialog creates a discursive space where we can layer the village path with that of the highway and be more reflexive about how mobilities and boundaries are influenced by our perception of the ‘physical’ and the ‘social’. In this hybrid space, we can frame and reframe everyday places until we develop a ‘critical sight’—an incisive perspective that allows us to make sense of the built environment before it eludes our capacity to comprehend its impact.[5]

[full footnotes available]