This post details an outdoor, local mapping project for middle school students, designed and executed by architect/urban planner Claudia Paraschiv.
I have been fascinated by paths for many years. A good friend of mine introduced me to Sam Walter Foss’ poem Calf Path which warns of following blindly in others’ footsteps:
But paths are not just the physical remainder of outmoded traditions. There are also paths of progress — high-speed rail and highway infrastructure — hailed by many as great connectors of enterprise and culture. Others bemoan these straight and fast connectors; John Ruskin was a fervent critic:
Highways are ambivalent signs of material progress:
While others would not even call a highway a path at all:
While paths can divide and connect and be followed blindly, above all, for me, they unite the process with the destination.
Local communities are built along paths and streets, but not highways. Boston has recaptured space formerly given up to the highway through the Big Dig, and the city also has one of the most famous and simple paths to follow: The Freedom Trail., a red line painted on Boston’s streets and sidewalks, proclaiming that things of great importance once happened along this trail.
The idea that a physical path can be a tool to facilitate engagement with forgotten history and future potential of a neighborhood captivated me.
There are other areas in Boston without official paths, great buildings and parks proclaiming the place’s significance and conveying pride of place to residents. Roxbury is one such neighborhood, despite its robust history.
Last fall, I developed an afterschool course for middle school students at Orchard Gardens in the neighborhood of Roxbury, through Citizen Schools City Building After School Program. The course had a simple agenda: design, architecture and urbanism are not just about the final design product such as a swimming pool on the school’s roof, an energy park or a café floating down the Charles. Design is surely about designed products, but design is also about process. Our class’s path of process would be the product – the destination.
The class was called Tracking Roxbury: Tales & Trails. Throughout the semester we took many paths around the school and within the classroom. Some of these paths are detailed below:
Path 1: Show Me Your Path! In class we traced how we each come to school at Orchard Gardens. On an aerial map of Boston we used different colors to show how we get to school by walking, by riding on the school bus, or on the public bus or by car.
Path 2: Roxbury Timeline. In the classroom, we discovered that Roxbury used to be known as Rocksberry for the stone material it provided to many of Boston’s buildings in the 1700s; and, in the 1830s, it even boasted a port that bypassed the busy Boston port, which today has been paved over to create the Melnea Cass thoroughfare. The old town was also famous for the Roxbury Russet apple, and the students now know that the many fruit orchards certainly inspired the name of their school, Orchard Gardens.
Path 3: Roxbury Kit of Parts. On our first walk outside the classroom, our simple path around the school found objects of wonder in the familiar environment. We saw the old brick school left abandoned, Howard’s Storage that students see as a landmark, patches of green and fenced edges they can’t cross.
Path 4: Finding sites. On our second walk in the neighborhood, we discovered and photographed many empty lots that could be used for community projects.
Path 5 – The Toxic Tour. Alternatives for Community and Environment (ACE), an environmental justice non-profit organization just blocks from Orchard Gardens, led a valuable tour of the Toxic Sites in the area providing all too tangible reasons regarding the value of knowing your city and striving for environmental justice. Among many sites, we learned that an empty lot on Dudley Street still needs to be cleaned up from harmful asbestos toxins in the ground.
Path 6: Tracing the Roxbury Trail. Like Boston’s Freedom Trail, in Tracking Roxbury: Tales and Trails, we traced a trail around Orchard Gardens Public School. With colored chalk, three student teams representing Roxbury’s Past, Present and Future set out to draw three discrete paths from the school’s front doors along their particular Roxbury Trail. Each trail culminated in posters showing the process of investigation these students engaged in during the past semester. Collages, sketches and descriptive words showed the work and the process. These paths people could follow and learn about their area.
The three paths of past, present and future. Click on image to see it at full size.
After the paths, we are left with the experience. I think it is important to demystify space; this is especially true for an area perceived as a ‘ghetto’. The ghetto is not inherently bad, as many students did say. The neighborhood is the way it is because of planning policies, economic investments and many big and small decisions that shape a place over time. More importantly, the many paths the students walked throughout that semester showed that the place is constantly changing, and the students can be a part of that change.
The students presented their many trails and findings at the Citizen School WOW Final Presentation in December 2010. The other after-school programs within the City Building theme displayed their projects – green buildings, parks and a futuristic café. Our project was our process and the path we drew around the school. In a world where so much is material, creating a final product that is an intangible process, a chalked path washed away by the rain is a fragile offering.
Perhaps the ephemeral project, difficult to communicate to an audience, is most important for those who performed it. They are the ones that can enact change on the environment. And while the process is not a product, it does remain an open platform to be revived on any walk down any path.
(In implementing the lesson plans I collaborated with Ben Peterson of the Rhode Island School of Design and Shreiya Madhusoodanan of Boston Architectural College.)
Post and photos by Claudia Paraschiv, who also chronicled El Carrito, the mobile participation cart.