MOBILE, Ala. (CN) — One idea takes the flood-prone property that was formerly the Josephine Allen public housing complex and deliberately inundates it, creating a freshwater basin where kids can learn to swim and scuba dive. Another vision calls for an ironically named “yacht club” on the shoreline, offering public access to a fleet of boats, which tourists could use to explore surrounding parks by kayak, or take a group voyage up the Mobile River to a historically significant site.
It is there in 1860 the community of Africatown really started, in the reeds of a swamp where 110 slaves from modern day Benin were forced to disembark from the 86-foot schooner Clotilda to begin a new life in the United States. When slavery was legally abolished five years later, more than two dozen people from the group founded Africatown, which is recognized today as the only 19th century settlement built by Africans in America after the Civil War.
In the decades that followed, Africatown — located three miles north of Mobile, Alabama, — grew to include 10,000 inhabitants in more than 2,000 homes, while the community also housed businesses, schools and churches. In the 1940s and afterward, the waterfront property surrounding Africatown was developed by heavy industry, while economic conditions, exacerbated by Jim Crow-era housing, education, banking and transportation policies, slowly starved the community of its viability. Today, fewer than 2,000 people remain there, amid vacant properties and blighted housing.
But Clotilda’s rediscovery in 2019 awakened broad new interest in the community, which also sparked discussions about revitalization and potential tourism. Among those who were drawn to the story of the Clotilda and Africatown was Renee Kemp-Rotan, a renowned urban planner who has previously led work on the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and Birmingham’s Civil Rights Trail. She was convinced by a friend to visit Africatown for the first time in 2018.
“I couldn’t believe something like this was in Alabama,” Kemp-Rotan said in a recent phone interview. “I immediately knew I had to do something to help them create a new vision for their community, but you can’t just walk into somebody else’s town and start master planning. So I thought it would be a perfect fit for a competition.”
In cooperation with community leaders and a local nonprofit organization, Kemp-Rotan organized a team of 16 jurors and published the rules for “the world's first multi-site design challenge centered on Afrocentric architectural concepts.” Her partner, Africatown native Vickii Howell, helped secure $100,000 in prize money from sponsors.
All of the designs will go in a catalog to be referred to if funding is ever secured to execute such a plan on the site. Kemp-Rotan said she hopes the contest will create a dialogue about the possibilities of designs for the community on the federal, state, and local level.
"It's going to be interesting to see what happens when all of the stakeholders are brought to the table to just talk about the possibilities that are represented on all of the boards," she said. "We're hoping that those conversations will lead to the development of actual design guidelines or performance standards.”
During the time the competition was open, the Africatown International Design Idea Competition website received more than 21,000 views. It drew registrations from 118 teams internationally, with 24 teams submitting a total of 169 design boards and 150 pages of design essays explaining their research.
The winners of the competition were announced during a ceremony at the Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center in Mobile on June 19, to correspond with Juneteenth. The holiday celebrates the end of slavery, commemorating the day news of the Emancipation Proclamation finally reached Black people in Texas and was enforced by union soldiers who arrived in Galveston on June 19, 1865.
“The beauty of the competition and one of its goals was to show that we can begin to think about what Africatown could look like in three dimensions,” Kemp-Rotan explained. “We know there's a lot of excitement about [the Clotilda]. But when people come to see the boat, the next thing we're going to deal with is we really need to be prepared to resurrect Africatown through preservation actions and new ideas and we’ll be producing a catalog with all of these design submissions.”
The competition focused on four main areas of redevelopment: Historic Africatown, the former housing project property, a “blueway” of creeks and rivers and 160-acre park, which is currently a blank canvas. The winning design for the park area was submitted by Taylan Tekeli, a native of Turkey who is currently principal at Fabl Design LLC in Nashville. His concept included a museum, hotel, performing arts center and a pedestrian bridge.
In a brief, virtual acceptance speech, Tekeli said he spent 400 hours on the project and learned about Africatown by watching Netflix documentaries. He was awarded $10,000 in the competition. Submissions were also received from teams in China, South Korea and Jamaica, as well as the United States. An East Coast-West Coast collaboration between WXY Studio in New York and Elizabeth Kennedy Landscape Architects in Los Angeles resulted in three prizes from the jury.
Jack Travis, a renowned architect who has designed homes for Spike Lee, Wesley Snipes and John Saunders, served as the global jury design chair for the competition. During the ceremony, he described the emerging characteristics of Afrocentric design in architecture and suggested Africatown would be the ideal location to employ them.
Among the principles of Afrocentric design are economy, simplicity, spirituality, heritage, and an intense use of texture, color or pattern, Travis said.
“This is one of the most unique projects in the United States to date for the Black community,” he said. “And it’s vital that the local history and culture be engaged in the redevelopment.”
Vickii Howell, an Africatown native and organizer of the event, agreed.
“We believe that, without a unifying vision behind Africatown's community plans — which must be coupled with powerful visual concepts that people can dream about and manifest — the people there will continue to suffer. But seeing is believing. The power of design can inspire strategic actions that people living in this under-served community can take to improve their own condition.”Follow @gabetynes
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