Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Can design make police a part of the community?

On the same summer day when a fight was brewing between a City councilman and the Police Commissioner about remarks in which the councilman commented on out of town police who "beat, abuse, and kill the people who actually live here" a different approach was celebrated in Sandtown with the renovation of the Western District Station which is based on collaboration between citizens, the police, the City of Baltimore and, in a leading role, private entities who want to make a difference.
Symbol of a new beginning? (Photo: Philipsen)

The generalized problem statement of a police force hostile to residents and the celebrated design of a citizen-friendly police precinct station both since faded from public awareness due to the steady maelstrom of violence in Baltimore continuing unabated day after day.

Another look at how design can manifest a new and different relationship between police and community is warranted. Some ideas can be taken from the "mobile police precincts" of the Seven Eleven stores where the cops hang out, and both, the merchant and customers feel safer as a result and carry them on to the precinct station.

The $4.5 million Western Precinct model is privately funded. The renovations include modern interiors and policing upgrades, a new wellness gym for officers, community meeting space and a landscaped front yard with a fountain and sidewalks engraved with inspirational vocabulary. Free internet and mobile device charging stations for community residents, public restrooms, and a welcoming facade round out the conversion of the Western precinct station on Mount Street, no longer a bulwark surrounded by concrete barriers but a place striving to be in and of the community.
In and of the community (JRS rendering)

"It's a public building and everyone should feel welcome," Ana Castro, of JRS Architects was quoted in news reports. She led the design team of the new station house and spent countless hours there studying how to best relate the redevelopment project to the community.  It became her most important project she told me. Inserting community into redevelopment is also JRS Architects approach for the Weinberg funded Baltimore Library Project for which the firm is the architect and which is part of getting Baltimore's public schools into better shape.

Maybe more than the resulting design it is the collaborative process in which the police station design was developed that is most remarkable. Especially if one considers that this station was an infamous symbol of the unrest after the death of Freddie Gray who lived within the western district. The City, Baltimore Police, the community and private companies such as War Horse Cities CDC, a nonprofit development company owned by Scott Plank, his family's JS Plank & DM DiCarlo Family Foundation, the Baltimore Ravens, Comcast and Under Armour came together to make a difference in this symbolic place. As a result of extensive collaboration Inez Robb, president of the Western District Community Relations Council, hopes for new transparency between the neighborhood and police.
Will the community really hang out here?  (Photo: Philipsen)

There will even be a phase II of the project, that is supposed to redevelop vacant and dilapidated rowhouses across the street into new housing in the community, expected to launch later this year.
Given that the 1958 somewhat modernist concrete and brick structure is similar to most of the other police stations of the Baltimore Police Department, Plank suggested that the renovation and amenities could likely spark renovations at other districts, too.

Given how the year has continued after the opening of the station, the words imprinted into the concrete, "love," "empowerment," "respect" and "possibilities" feel more like an aspiration than an expression of a new post unrest reality. Inside, in true Under Armour fashion, they will find additional inspirational slogans.
"It'll bring more people in, but it also shows people pride. Because the building is rehabbed, it's a liveable building now — and it shows people a different view of police." (Arlene Fisher, long-term Harlem Park activist)
Unfortunately, realities in Baltimore are so stark that small steps like a more user friendly police stations easily get lost. In the long run, though, it is precisely this shift from a police that fortifies itself like an occupying army in the community to a force that is a resource for the community, that is needed to build lasting security and safety in Baltimore. The journey there is still long. One can't know how many police commissioners Baltimore it will take before this goal is reached. But for inspiration, police leaders should continue to look at the words in the steps. Following Thurgood Marshall's motto "In recognizing the humanity in our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute." they can't go wrong.
Upgraded front on Mount Street (Photo: Philipsen)

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Baltimore City Paper photo tour
Baltimore SUN report

Inscription on the step risers (Photo: Baltimore SUN)

Slogans in the locker room

The new gym, freedom next to lock-up cells

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