Mellon Forum: Marta Gutman "Just Space: Architecture, Education, and Inequality in Postwar Urban America" with discussant Mónica Ponce de León

Monday, Aug 6, 2018

Just Space: Architecture, Education, and Inequality in Postwar Urban America 

With Marta Gutman, PhD, and Mónica Ponce de León, Dean and Professor of Architectural Design, Princeton SOA

Historian and licensed architect ; Professor of Architecture and Coordinator, History & Theory, The Spitzer School of Architecture, City College of New York/CUNY; Professor of Art History, The CUNY Graduate Center; Professor of Earth and Environmental Science, THE CUNY Graduate Center; Distinguished CUNY Research Fellow

This edition of the Mellon Forum sheds new light on the struggle for racial justice in public schools in the United States during the middle of the twentieth century. Marta Gutman argues that the mentality of equalization, an intentionally meager approach to school desegregation invented in the South in response to Brown v. Board of Education, conditioned the thinking of architects across the U.S. and their designs for public schools. She directs attention to the physical tools that the state used to segregate schools, highlighting examples in South Carolina, Louisiana, Michigan, New York, and California, and to the strategies that parents, teachers, students, architects, artists and other activists used to challenge inequality and reconfigure outcomes—to make just space for children.

In this talk, Gutman will focus on the central example in Just Space, I.S. 201, the enduring emblem of inequality in public education that abuts the railroad viaduct in East Harlem, and the women who contested its construction. Lifted one story above grade, set back from Madison Avenue, supported by tapered concrete piers, clad in brick, this school is without one window in its classrooms. When Alice Kornegay, a community activist who lived in the East Harlem Triangle, learned about the school in 1962, the proposal horrified her. Working with Melvin Schoonover, the radical pastor of Chambers Memorial Baptist Church in East Harlem, Preston Wilcox, the radical sociologist who founded the East Harlem Project, and other mothers, among them Helen Testamark, Kornegay organized from the grassroots to make the new school “be more than the ordinary junior high … one that would have a profound effect on the entire Harlem community.” Disregarded by the powers that be, parents boycotted I.S. 201 in September 1966 and launched the movement for community control of public education in Harlem. Working class mothers of color, many single, many on welfare, fought to maintain their leadership role, one that they retained although only in part in the face of sexism, paternalism, and entrenched bias toward women like themselves.

The Mellon Forum is organized by Alison Isenberg (History), Ivan Lopez Munuera (Architecture) and Sheila Lin (Architecture). Additional support is kindly provided by the Princeton University Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies.

Photo Credit: James Hinton, “I.S. 201” Urban Review 1, no. 4 (Nov. 1966): 12-15. Hinton is the photographer.