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New Memorial Shines Light on Marginalized Histories

Boston is known for its history—but whose story does it tell? The city’s streets are lined with plaques, its sidewalks embedded with a trail that guides visitors through the most noteworthy landmarks of America’s beginnings. But these landmarks often commemorate a side of history that is disproportionately white. Communities of color, with histories just as rich and significant, have far fewer opportunities to see themselves in the built environment and feel a sense of ownership over the city’s past, present, and future.

Representing an exciting new chapter in creating space for diverse narratives, a team of Sasaki designers, alongside a broader team of local community members, artists, and city representatives, are challenging this inequity by celebrating blackness and reclaiming space in the Boston neighborhood of Roxbury. The Sasaki team has been selected by the Frederick Douglass Sculpture Committee (FDSC) and the City of Boston to design the site of a statue commemorating famed social justice reformer Fredrick Douglass.

The team, composed of project manager and landscape architect Diana Fernandez, ASLA, PLA; landscape designer Breeze Outlaw; interdisciplinary designer Melissa Isidor; engineer Steve Engler, LEED® AP; and principal-in-charge Zachary Chrisco, PE, hopes for a space where the predominantly-black Roxbury community can honor Douglass’ legacy and celebrate their own history. While the intersection at which the project sits—Frederick Douglass Square—was dedicated in 1917, it still lacks a physical memorial of its namesake. Building a memorial like this marks a significant accomplishment in the centuries-long fight by black Americans to claim space in the nation’s symbolic landscape and historical consciousness.

Douglass, who has close ties to Massachusetts, is well-deserving of his own landmark. After escaping from slavery in Maryland in 1838, Douglass settled in New Bedford and began his work as an abolitionist, giving speeches across the state and making a name for himself as a powerful orator. He conducted some of his work from the African Meeting House in Boston, where he helped to recruit black soldiers to fight in the Civil War. The meeting house is now part of the Museum of African American History and currently exhibits a series of photographs of Douglass, the most photographed American of the 19th century.

Residents in Roxbury have been advocating for the memorial for over a decade. After a long process to identify its location, the FDSC and the Boston Art Commission decided on a site just down the street from the Frederick Douglass Peace Garden on Tremont Street. The statue—designed in a collaboration between Los Angeles-based sculptor Mario Chiodo and local Roxbury artist Paul Goodnight—depicts Douglass standing atop a stack of books, surrounded at the base by women, children, and soldiers. The statue pays homage to his lifelong fight for women’s rights, children’s education, and the freedom of slaves.

The site of the memorial is unassuming, yet it holds great potential. The team is designing every square inch with care: Fernandez, Outlaw, and Isidor, all womxn of color, are passionate about creating a space within which the community can gather, celebrate, and see a cultural expression of themselves in the built environment. The space will be a place in which Roxbury residents can feel a sense of ownership and where their community’s history and culture can thrive.

Reflecting Roxbury

Through the site’s design, the team honors both the past and present of black culture. “This is a great opportunity for Sasaki to design an authentic expression of African American culture in physical space,” project manager Fernandez says.

The site will feature an array of textures, patterns, and colors that come together to weave a “cultural carpet” around the statue and create a space that celebrates African American achievement in every way. To ensure the space fulfills the community’s needs, the designers reflected on how African Americans traditionally use space: “We use our public and private space for celebration and gathering,” explains Outlaw, the project’s landscape designer. They hope to embed a joyful spirit in the space, inspired by the celebrations of Juneteenth—a day of music, dancing, and parades that commemorates the freedom of the last slaves in the U.S.

Instead of a fence, the area will be surrounded by diverse plantings and mirrored surfaces, opening up the edges of the site and extending an invitation to passersby. Once inside, visitors might be reminded of traditional African American gardens: eclectic spaces filled with a diverse range of plants, each with a story to tell. The gardens are rough and overgrown, yet intentional; plants are allowed the room to grow as they naturally would, and spiritually symbolic elements, like blue glass to ward off spirits, hang from branches. All of these choices foster a warm and welcoming space and pay homage to the connection to nature in traditional African American culture. “Brown and black historical narratives are often unseen and unheard. We want to intentionally create a public space designed for brown and black cultural expression,” Fernandez says. “We want a space where brown and black bodies can thrive, be celebrated and seen.”

The designers also turned to similar projects in Roxbury for inspiration. The Roxbury Sunflower Project, initiated by artist Ekua Holmes, aimed to plant 20,000 sunflowers in gardens and lots around Roxbury in the summer of 2018. The Frederick Douglass Peace Garden has also incorporated elements of African American gardens that the team hopes to implement at the memorial.

As a physical manifestation of the African American diaspora, the space will be full of metaphor. Elements old, new, and reused are all incorporated into the design, with colors and patterns that draw people in and reflect their culture and history back at themselves. “Everything from plant materials to paving to use of interesting elements like mirrors that give a sense of larger space are all intentionally thought through,” the designers say. “They connect not just to the community but to Douglass’ legacy.”

“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.”

Douglass shared these words during a famous speech in Rochester, New York in 1852. His advice serves as a guiding principle for the design team—rather than dwell on the past, they celebrate Douglass’ legacy and weave it into a better future.

The team finds a similar mission in Afrofuturism, a movement celebrating the impact and imagining the future of African American culture. The movement is a response to the deeply-rooted oppression of black people, recognizing the appropriation of black-born movements like art deco and modernism. In celebrating ownership and success, Afrofuturism paints a vision of a future where black people are thriving, moving forward, and building the world around them from their own perspective. “It’s a compilation of ancestral roots and today’s black excellence, weaving different threads of art and culture,” Outlaw explains.

In embracing these values, the space around the memorial challenges the norms of standard Western design and embraces aesthetics informed by an African American perspective. For the team, this project is a way to take the spirit of Afrofuturism and manifest it in physical space, allowing the design to speak through a language of its own and resonate on a deeper level with community members. Finally, the community will have a space where they can feel a sense of ownership and celebrate how the past will shape a prosperous future.

Diversity in Design

From the overall concept to the detailed design elements, this project is (as of yet) one-of-a-kind at Sasaki. A design team of all womxn of color is a rarity in the industry, and the team knows that this is their opportunity to showcase what diversity in design looks like and to celebrate a future where this team is not an exception. “We don’t have spaces that were designed by us,” they say. “We have something to say and we have an opportunity to share that, so we’re not going to fall back on models that don’t serve us.”

As principal-in-charge, Chrisco echoes Sasaki’s ideals in his adamance about letting diverse voices rise to the forefront of design (Chrisco himself is one of two non-people of color on the project):  “For design to truly value diversity, it must be inclusive not just in its final form, but in every step of the process. This is how we broaden the reach of design.” The opportunity to design a project entirely from the designers’ perspectives as womxn of color goes hand-in-hand with finding ways to represent the Roxbury community in the project. “It makes a big difference, particularly when there’s a strong degree of cultural sensitivity and understanding,” Isidor says. “It’s necessary to get down to the scale of who we are as people.” Working on such a personal level allows the designers to forge a deep connection with the client and the community.

Douglass’ long-awaited return to the city of Boston deserves to live in a space that honors the world he helped create—a more just and inclusive place for everyone. “Our narrative is just as valuable as any big firm designing massive spaces,” the designers say. “We need diversity in the environment that reflects the diversity of our world.”

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