THE BLOG
07/16/2013 06:00 pm ET Updated Sep 15, 2013

Zimmerman City

To stroll is to enjoy, it is to assume a mind-set, it is to admire the sublime pictures of unhappiness, of love, of joy, of graceful or grotesque portraits; it is to plunge one's vision to the depths of a thousand existences: young, it is to desire everything...
- Honoré De Balzac

In the wake of the not guilty jury verdict in the George Zimmerman murder trial I am compelled to discern what this means for urban design and architecture. This is a question I first broached last year after the murder of Trayvon Martin, but this failure of a trial makes these questions even more urgent and layered. This is the first part of a 3 part series responding to the Zimmerman verdict.

[Defense attorney] West said:

Armed with a concrete sidewalk

If I've heard it once, I've heard it a thousand times, that Trayvon Martin was unarmed. Trayvon Martin armed himself with a concrete sidewalk and used it to smash George Zimmerman's head. That is a deadly weapon.

As designers of sidewalks, egress and public streets, how do we begin to consider the perversity of this phrase? This one concise and preposterous phrase, reported on nbcnews.com and elsewhere, captures a range of American paranoia about blackness. It speaks to the Chicago laws of the early 1990s that rendered whole neighborhoods guilty by association for sharing a sidewalk with presumed gang members. It echoes an earlier time of urban renewal when the threat of the black woman prostitute -- street-walker -- was hailed as a sufficient justification for the eviction and demolition of whole neighborhoods (such as SouthWest DC, the mixed race neighborhood of modern condominiums that I grew up in, which had replaced a black neighborhood of 19th century row houses demolished in the mid 20th century). The crux of Zimmerman's defense -- that the sidewalk constituted a lethal weapon that Trayvon Martin wielded against George Zimmerman -- sounds like a portrait of American fear of urban -- and now suburban -- blackness.

The word racial is banned

In architecture and urban design we have effectively banned the word racial, as well. The Judge in the Zimmerman murder trial inexplicably acquiesced to the defense's request to ban the phrase "racial profiling." The Prosecutors, again inexplicably, reacted to this with a ban of race entirely from their argument. Their closing argument: "This defendant made the wrong assumptions," started to sound like an apology for poor etiquette rather than an accusation of cold-blooded murder. In one telling moment from the trial, the defense attorney implicitly compares Trayvon Martin to an untrained dog, and the prosecutor doesn't even object until the story is over.

How often do we ban race from our discussion of cities, their planning and their architecture and end up having a discourse just as hapless as this trial? What motivates this banning of the discussion of race? Is it, as the defense claimed, that these conversations are too emotional? When we accept this nonsense and fail to deal professionally and openly with the racially charged parameters of urban design and architecture, we do society a disservice.

Racism is a threat to public health

When we are busy not discussing race, it is impossible to note that racism has been and continues to be a public health threat in America. As architects and urban designers, let us take this public health threat as seriously as we took the call to light and air at the beginning of the last century. How do we begin to work racial integration and equality into the assumptions of our planning? How do we address the police surveillance of lower class black and brown neighborhoods and the threat to free movement that racial profiling generates?

We cannot go on referencing the flaneurs of Paris, cannot continue our re-hashing of the ideas of Guy Debord and Walter Benjamin, without recognizing that for many people this meandering of the flaneur is treated as a criminal activity. A white person can be a flaneur in America. Let us state that clearly. The few times that I have heard anyone in public architectural discourse acknowledge the privilege of the flaneur, it has been falsely in terms of class and leisure. There is a simplistic liberal idea that the working poor do not have time to wander the city and appreciate its meandering openness. This is nonsense. Let us be clear that white privilege does not bestow a more sophisticated appreciation of cosmopolitan wandering. Rather, white privilege protects only some Americans from the criminalization of wandering and other forms of useless time.

Let us use this failure of a trial to ponder the greater failure of place in America -- that it is (still) a privilege of whiteness and age to participate in what Honoré De Balzac referred to in the 19th century as the "science" of strolling, "the gastronomy of the eye."