By Joshua Ware, in response to Tilt West’s roundtable on Rethinking Space: Architecture, Land & Democracy
Pig Hill is a sharp (24% grade), riverside incline on Rialto Street in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania that connects The Strip District with the Troy Hill neighborhood. Now a two-way, paved road with adjacent pedestrian stairs, locals gave the hill its colloquial name due to its husbandry-related past. During the late 1800s, stockyards on Herr Island — located on the Allegheny River just south of the hill — used the Rialto Street incline as passage for herding pigs to slaughterhouses located uphill in Spring Garden.
Gallery Closed — a storefront art space operated by Lenka Clayton and Phillip Andrews Lewis — sits just one block west of Pig Hill’s summit. The Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation designated the small, wood-fronted building which the gallery occupies as a historic site because, as the official signage notes, it was “the upper station of the first incline in Allegheny completed in 1887.” These inclines, or funiculars, offered commuters motorized travel up and down Pittsburgh’s notoriously steep ascents.
In partnership with Denver’s Black Cube Nomadic Art Museum, Clayton and Lewis recently conceptualized and installed a public-facing art project titled Historic Site. Historic Site consists of an over-sized, bronze plaque that materially and formally mimics the official historic plaque beside it. But unlike the official plaque — which memorializes the building’s usage as an incline between 1887 and 1898 — Clayton and Lewis’ plaque honors the location’s entire history. For the plaque to encase the whole narrative, though, Historic Site appears comically large next to its sanctioned predecessor.
Commencing with geologic time, the plaque opens with the statement: “Between 400 and 600 million years ago, this exact location lay deep underwater at the bottom of the sea and rose up towards the sky when the three continents shifted, collided, and eventually attached to one another, forming the super-continent Pangea.” After a lengthy preamble that outlines the area’s geologic development, the plaque’s narrative notes that the “earliest documented humans lived in this area around 16,000 years ago. The Haudenosaunee, Lenape, Shawnee, and the ancestors who came before them were all early stewards of the land.”
Following asides that reference Monarch butterfly migrations and indigenous tree growth, Historic Site maps out the nascent stages of Western colonization, surveying, and cartography that concludes with the creation of the first “hill climber”: the Troy Hill Incline. From this point onward, the plaque narrates how subsequent occupants of the building used the location: silent movie theater, bakery, grocery store, ice cream parlor, dry cleaner, restaurant, bank, and art gallery.
After a moment of aesthetic self-awareness wherein the plaque acknowledges that “In 2021, these words were cast in bronze,” Historic Site recognizes the audience’s contemporaneity: “At this very moment, you are standing here.” It concludes with a speculative projection about the future: “the climate will change, and the ocean will return.” Beyond providing a broader historical context for the building and its location, the expansive scope of this project also clarifies (through thorough research and scale-related humor) our dynamic present, a post-human future, and a temporal fluidity that renders everything ephemeral.
Twenty-four hours after participating in Tilt West’s roundtable discussion titled Re-Thinking Space: Architecture, Land, and Democracy, I traveled to Pittsburgh for an art residency. I visited Historic Site a few days later.
Standing before the two plaques mounted on the façade of Gallery Closed, I considered how we use land, space, and place — or, perhaps better stated, the way uses of land, space, and place alter over time independent of individual desires or human intervention. This is not to say someone’s personal vicissitudes or the civic sway of a powerful group of people cannot affect change (the portion of Historic Site’s narrative documenting Euro-colonial intrusion and development between 1785 and 2021 demonstrates that fact clearly), but it also illustrates the contingent, temporary, and relatively inconsequential nature of such interventions. Indeed, the ocean will return regardless of our actions.
In their introductory statement for Re-Thinking Space, discussion prompters Chris Hassig and Derrick Velasquez address Denver’s “influx of new inhabitants before and during the pandemic” and articulate a need to “contemplate what to do with precious pieces of land that might have the opportunity to enrich the spirit of how we live.” The prompters touch on issues relating to “colonization and the new frontierism” and the relationship of these ideas to gentrification, as well as “speculative development” and “fervent growth in the West.”
At issue, to the prompters’ minds, is how current building practices in Denver (and the West, in general) foreground a uniform, architectural modernism billed as luxury dwellings that necessarily destroys aesthetic and social diversity. Ultimately, Hassig and Velasquez argue, the manner in which developers are transforming the urban landscape of Denver abjures “human-centered growth” that facilitates “opportunity for diverse development.” Instead, they claim that the “obdurate building” practices of developers afford the city “no opportunity to change over time” while simultaneously “tower[ing] over and affect[ing] our psyche.”
In principle, I agree with many of the sentiments the prompters express in their introductory statement. Anyone who resided in Denver before the city’s population explosion and has remained has an anecdotal understanding of the way in which the city has morphed into an almost entirely new urban space — architecturally, socially, economically, and civically. With new buildings and new residents, the city seems intent on erasing its past by eradicating its previous infrastructural and human histories. In their place? High-rise “luxury” residences for an influx of wealthy, out-of-state transplants.
Standing before Historic Site, though, I re-oriented my understanding of these issues. If I set aside my personal nostalgia for the Denver I arrived at in 2002 and, rather, think of the city within a broader historical context, the perceived permanence of Denver’s current transformation doesn’t appear permanent at all. In fact, the city’s contemporary condition is nothing more than a temporary, fleeting moment. The towers erected for the droves relocating to this region will eventually transform in use and in form. As land shifts and oceans return, these towers will no longer exist. Everything changes. Everything disappears. What is here today will not remain.
But while the Earth’s life is long, human life is not. Issues relating to land use, water rights, and the inequalities generated by them seem minor, if not inconsequential, on a geologic time-table. Yet those who have been marginalized, disenfranchised, displaced, and rendered vulnerable don’t have the luxury to wait for developers’ towering money-grabs to transform into ruins of a past epoch. For those of us who exist in a state of precarity vis-à-vis housing. For those of us who don’t have housing or have been displaced. For those of us who have seen their neighborhoods transformed into something for which they did not ask. The victory of geological time over everything is but little consolation. Yes, the ocean will return, but where do we live while we wait?
Of course, Historic Site also provides us with another, non-geologic narrative. From 1887 through 2022, the building that originally housed the Troy Hill Incline changed purpose and ownership dozens of times over. And radically so. A structure once operating as a pulley-based mechanism to hoist people up and down the side of a steep hill became a movie theater, bakery, laundry mat, bank, and art gallery — among other things. The diversity of uses, frankly, is rather stunning. The narrative of Historic Site highlights the fungibility of use and mutability of purpose for the site’s current structure.
The location of Historic Site, though, is not a multi-family luxury high-rise; it is, rather, a structure that resembles a one-story, single-family dwelling. Is there any architectural aspect of this structure that lends itself to 125 years of regular, operational transformation? Conversely, is there any architectural aspect of Denver’s recent and currently under-construction buildings that prohibit different or re-imagined uses in the future? I’m hard-pressed to believe that a fundamental architectural or ontological aspect of a building either prohibits or encourages an “opportunity to change over time,” particularly a large, multi-family complex that offers space enough for a variety of activities and engagements. The use and purpose of a structure, I would argue, results more from the human imagination, zoning regulations, and perceived financial windfalls than any inherent quality of design or construction.
But just as biding geologic time is impossible, waiting decades for civic and cultural imaginations, zoning regulations, or economic speculation to change is both interminable and inequitable. What reads as a flurry of changes in rapid succession inscribed on a bronze plaque, in all reality, can be a life-time for an individual or community. What Denver and the West might look like in 2042 or 2062 lacks immediacy and relevance for those struggling with issues of space and place in 2022.
“Although it appears stationary,” Historic Site explains, “the ground beneath your feet is still in motion, moving westward at a rate of one inch per year.” The land upon which we stand moves perpetually, effecting shifts and transformations of all that is above it: communities, structures, and individuals. But what do we do while the land shifts and we wait for the ocean? Is there a way to foster change that promotes diversity and ushers in an era of social and civic equity?
During the Re-Thinking Space roundtable, there were generic suggestions for “policy change” in order to create progressive environments that wrest control from developers and offer more agency to the community at large. If the last few years have taught us anything, though, it’s that we can’t depend upon the government to help us. Whether it’s a slow reaction to a global pandemic, gutting our social systems, stripping women of reproductive rights, affirming racist police and immigration policies, denying protections for members of the LGBTQ community, or validating systems and legislation that increase economic disparities, governmental agencies (whether federal, state, or city) show little interest in upholding a “for the people, by the people” ethic.
In Denver’s last mayoral run-off election, for instance, both candidates vying for the position were backed primarily by developers. The choice was not between unchecked urban development and thoughtful use of city space; instead, ballots essentially asked residents to select which developer would receive the most lucrative contracts. Likewise, when apparently progressive policy change does occur, unintended ramifications often result in marginalized communities suffering new indignities. For instance, when the City of Denver and the State of Colorado championed the legalization of marijuana as a progressive step toward drug reform, little did the general populace know how the legislation would affect property value. As commercial property and leases increased in cost to meet the demand of grow operations, previous tenants could no longer afford rental rates or property taxes. In 2016, the Peoria Emergency Overflow Shelter, which serviced over 200 unhoused men per night and acted as “one of the most significant services for the homeless funded by the City of Denver,” closed due to “rising property values and the prohibitive costs of buying large shelter spaces close to the heart of the city.”
Certainly, I would not advocate for a wholesale dismissal or disengagement from local politics. If only nominally, active disruption and resistance to the political machine is necessary for communities to articulate dissent. But with regard to practical and immediate results, policy and political engagement often function as impotent tools which foster the naïve belief that we live in a functional democracy seeking to protect and uplift its populace. The United States runs on capitalism, not democracy.
What, then, can we do? Personally, I can’t say that I’m an optimist when it comes to politicians championing equitable, community-centered approaches to reshaping urban spaces. In America, money and power win. If a qualification for the title of artist or poet is pursuit of a utopian ideal or future, I fail miserably. As a life-long renter and an artist/writer who struggles with financial security, it’s difficult to imagine a future wherein security around place — let alone an ability to foster wide-spread, positive change — exists.
While I don’t hold hope for a better tomorrow, neither do I believe that we should devolve into nihilistic fatalism. On the level of personal action, though, asking the following questions might be more pragmatic and functional: How are we using the space we are afforded? Is it thoughtful? Is it intentional? Do we use our spaces and land for means that assist or amplify our communities?
I look to DIY galleries, such as Velasquez’s Yes, Ma’am and Sommer Browning’s GEORGIA, as practical examples of how members of the art community leverage their own spaces into resources for others. Obviously, there are many other ways in which to re-think space; transforming one’s home into a temporary art gallery isn’t the only way in which to help others.
As a long-term renter of a small house in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, I’ve transformed the property’s front yard into an urban garden by building eight, above-ground plant beds to go along with a slew of potted plants. Last year, I grew over forty pounds of tomatoes (and other vegetables) that I gifted to friends and neighbors. Given Lincoln Park’s dearth of trees and its relationship to economic disparity, such greening, gardening, and cultivation efforts feel necessary. And I am not alone in this effort; Dateline in RiNo has also created an urban garden along the south-facing sidewalk of their building. Although such examples might not alter the overall infrastructural and civic trajectory of our city, the resulting effects of these projects provide real opportunities and resources for people in the communities associated with them.
And, of course, there are also “words…cast in bronze” on the façade of a house — a certain type of socially conscious art that, as Toni Morrison writes, “invites us to take the journey beyond price, beyond costs into bearing witness to the world as it is.” Trusting in art as social praxis, to Morrison’s mind, though, shouldn’t be “irrational or naïve” with expectations that it will usher in a utopic state; rather, it allows us to “know beauty and solicit it from even the most tragic of circumstances…remind[ing] us that we belong here.” Yes, we belong here, as well as anyone, as we wait for the ocean to envelop everything.
 Walker, Chris. “Huge Denver Homeless Shelter Near Aurora Will Close,” Westword, 9 Feb 2016. Accessed 7 Jul 2022.
 Morrison, Toni. “The Price of Wealth, the Cost of Care,” The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group: New York. 2020.