After a stay in Los Angeles for the GOOD Global Exchange Fellowship, I am back in Christchurch amongst the dusty, grey, empty sites where buildings once stood, amongst building sites full of cranes and diggers, and amongst a maddening number of road works (interesting fact: there are as many at 80,000 orange traffic cones out on the streets here at present as horizontal infrastructure and roads are repaired). I cycle from place to place most days across potholes and uneven surfaces. Sometimes I get disorientated and don’t know where I am as all identifying landmarks are no more. Demolitions of almost entire city blocks make for new, compressed views. The whole place is a mess and small things like the opening of one new restaurant mean a lot.
My time in LA was a holiday of sorts; balmy holiday weather, new cultures, delicious food, new people and new places. I was in a fully-functioning, vibrant city; an experience I have only from time-to-time these days. The downtown of LA alone dwarfs Christchurch, a relatively big city for New Zealand. In downtown LA, the streets are teeming with life—homeless guys push their shopping trolleys full of their possessions, Latinos, people on their way to work, joggers, lesbians arm in arm walking their dogs… It was a novelty to be in such a big city for a week.
The downtown location of the GOOD pop-up fellowship was fantastic and I felt particularly at home in the vacant building temporarily taken over for the week. The rawness of the space and our ‘occupation’ suited me; I’m used to occupying spaces temporarily. (Although where I live, buildings for temporary occupation are few and far between.) Downtown, there are a number of vacant buildings: disused once-grand theatres, offices, banks but amidst the vacant spaces; a sense of possibility. I understand that ten years ago, the area was extremely dangerous. It certainly didn’t feel like that to me! It felt exciting, like it was coming back to life.
Each day us five fellows were taken to visit local LA projects in their natural habitat and this was really the stand out aspect of the Fellowship. The projects selected for our visits had been carefully curated. By visiting the people running these projects in their space and their neighbourhood we were able to get on the same page much faster. This was extremely valuable, energising and interesting. Connections between us fellows and those we met happened far more rapidly than they could have otherwise. Questions flowed and conversations were easy. It was excellent to see so much of the city and so many different projects.
I loved visiting Joel and the crew at 826LA, chatting to the folks at Materials and Applications and empathising over the difficulty they had constructing Project S’more; asking questions of Trinidad and Will at Watts House Project; and connecting with Matt, the founder of Walk [Your City] on the participatory, bottom-up urban planning his project enables. I felt nourished, challenged, stimulated and affirmed by much of what I was experiencing. And what I took from each day would have been different from what, say, fellow Regina Agyare from Ghana took away.
We fellows had many interesting conversations each day—over meals or on the bus as we went from place to place. At the start of the fellowship, we connected with each other quickly, feeling a kind of kinship. There was much for us to critique, reflect on and discuss. Each project we visited was not necessarily directly relevant to each of us, but I felt it was still worthwhile being there to hear about things I might not otherwise and to see how the other fellows were responding. The cross-fertilisation of ideas excited me.
Bruce wants to do a Gap Filler-style project in Cape Town.
Kurt is keen to adopt some of Name Your Hood’s approaches and see if they’ll work in the favelas of Recife.
Maria is fascinated by 826LA’s playful approach to the education of underprivileged kids.
I am keen to instigate a Walk [Your City] project for Christchurch.
I learned a great deal about what these sorts of community-minded projects share. We learned we five have a great deal in common. We’re part of the same family. We’re all passionate, hard-working, determined, somewhat intense people when you get us going. We all come from rather different cultural contexts, but that doesn’t make us all that different. We all have to deal with the comparable challenges: taking an idea or passionate and turning it into an organisation; sustaining that organisation; dealing with growing pains; struggling to make real, lasting change; getting in over our heads; struggling to get taken seriously; feeling undervalued or even exploited by government/tourism operators/cities and more; navigating the challenges of our roles as community leaders.
I was the only person present from a post-disaster context and I felt I had the easier task. That may read strangely, so I will explain. In my view, it’s easier to make changes after a natural disaster than in a "normal" environment. After a disaster, people are more open-minded, there is a greater sense of community togetherness, and the traditional power structures fall away or are put on hold. How do you get people to make time for change in their daily lives full of work, family, sport, social related demands? Gap Filler, the project I run, has exploited the earthquakes here for the greatest public good. It feels a bit uncomfortable to say that perhaps, but I feel it’s an accurate description of what we’re doing. We’re taking people’s open-mindedness and willingness to embrace new ideas and going for it. I have a great deal of admiration for many of the projects I was introduced to through the week from those who did not have the perverse benefit of a natural disaster to help them go forward. Someone did say that there is no such thing as a natural disaster, that they’re all man-made… this may be true.
Upon reflection, I can say that I felt and experienced the genuine desire that many people have to get involved changing their urban environments. And this stems from our dissatisfaction with the way we are living in the 21st Century. Our consumer lifestyle leaves us feeling empty, unfulfilled, unhappy, or just ill-at-ease. I think many of us have so much, yet don’t feel especially fulfilled or happy. Many people want to be part of projects, organisations and businesses that give a damn about doing good. This desire isn’t anything new, but I sense a growing movement of people who want to use their skills, time and energy for things that give their life meaning.
My field, that of DIY urbanism and temporary use of vacant spaces, is a growing interest area for communities, planners, artists, and cities around the world facing the effects of economic downturn and changes in the way we relate to cities in an internet age. And I believe it is also a backlash against the often dreary, safe homogeneity that stems from globalisation and mass-production. Many of us crave one-offs, unique objects and things that are homemade. In our time-poor society, things that are made by hand have a very different value than what they did 100 years ago. I would argue they have even more value.
In LA, both in the downtown area and at many of the projects we visited, I felt this energy and these motivations. Many of us are trying to re-learn, resurrect, and return a sense of community to our neighbourhoods. Modern life with all its technological advancements has left us hollow. We need to find ways to reimagine and reconnect with one another, to use technology to help us. Social media and the internet have made communication rapid, easy, and accessible. The possibility for us to connect, share ideas and mobilise is like never before. The Fellowship gave me a very strong sense of this—technology is a tool for us to use for good, for changing our world for the better and reconnecting with each other. And it plays such a big role in many of the projects I connected with as part of the GOOD Fellowship.
Right after returning, I struggled with going from the big picture dreaming and planning I was doing in LA to day-to-day stuff back at home. I felt frustrated. I was energised to implement things, but then just had to get back into the to-do list and the various fires that needed fighting. Now, after several weeks, things are settling into a bit of a rhythm, It’s time for me to get out the GOOD notebook full of observations and thoughts I wrote down in that busy, intense week and reconnect with those ideas and dreams and start planning for what I can do, next month, next year and beyond.
Thank you to all who were involved at GOOD for a GREAT experience. I was and still am humbled to have been chosen. And thanks to the other fellows and all the other projects we met for opening up and sharing your passion with us.