Listen to Ujijji discuss how she aims to promote change through landscape architecture, urban design, and an awareness of African American history across landscapes.

On this episode I’m speaking with Ujijji Davis, a Brooklyn born landscape architect and urban planner currently living in Detroit. There she focuses on landscape and urban design, master planning, and strategic implementation projects. Her current research regards the importance of arts & culture and race & vernacular landscapes in the urban realm.

Feature Image Credit (Above): EPNAC/ASLA Diversity Summit 2018

Ujijji davis teaching

She recently published a critical essay in the Avery Review with Columbia University, entitled The Bottom: The Emergence and Erasure of Black American Landscapes on black identity in American landscapes in 2018.

She's an advocate for STEM girls education and keynoted the 4th Annual Young Women's Leadership Affiliate Convening, and was a feature for CareerGirls.org STEM leaders.

She is also a 2018 Next City Vanguard Fellow. Ujijji holds a Bachelor of Science in Landscape Architecture from Cornell University and a Masters in Urban Planning from the University of Michigan.

Ujijji davis detroit

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Podcast Transcript

Chris Arnold: Welcome back to the Transforming Cities Podcast. Each episode highlights ideas around rethinking the way cities are evolving. We discuss planning, design, technology, development, and other fields that contribute to the urban experience.

Ujijji Davis: I mean, to me it started just like I didn't have anything else to do. So I'm just going to put tape and glue and whatever, all these odd things that are in the recycling bin and just put it together. But I think in those moments, I realized one, I really liked building. I really liked to make things, and I really like to make things with my hands, and I could create something that was in my own vision.

Chris Arnold: On this episode, I'm speaking with Ujijji Davis, a Brooklyn born landscape architect and urban planner currently living in Detroit. She focuses on landscape and urban design, master planning, and strategic implementation projects. Her current research regards the importance of arts and culture, and race and vernacular landscapes in the urban realm.

Chris Arnold: She recently published a critical essay in the Avery Review with Columbia University focusing on black identity in American landscapes back in 2018. She's an advocate for STEM girls education and keynoted the 4th Annual Young Women's Leadership Affiliate Convening, and was a feature for careergirls.org STEM leaders. She's also a 2018 Next City Vanguard Fellow. Ujijji holds a Bachelor of Science in Landscape Architecture from Cornell University and a Masters in Urban Planning from the University of Michigan.

Chris Arnold: A few quick notes before today's episode, if you enjoy the podcast, please share this track and others on your social accounts to people you think would be interested. Also, please rate it on iTunes or other platforms where you listen. This is how we grow and it's much appreciated. This podcast is driven by Authentic Form & Function. We're a design and technology studio working on tools and platforms to improve the urban space. You can find out more online at authenticff.com. And finally, we want to hear from you. Email your feedback and ideas of who else we should speak with to podcast@authenticff.com. I'm your host, Chris Arnold. Let's jump on it.

Chris Arnold: Ujijji, thanks for joining me today.

Ujijji Davis: Thank you, Chris. It's great to be here.

Chris Arnold: So let's begin by taking a look at your origin story, which I think begins with your parents in some rights. So can you tell us a little bit about them?

Ujijji Davis: Yeah, so I'm originally from Brooklyn. I'm from Bed-Stuy, and I grew up there with my parents. Predominantly I live with my mom. My dad lives in the Lower East Side still, and both my parents are artists. So right now my mom is the executive director of the Greene County Council of the Arts up in the Catskills, but she is a dancer, an actress, a storyteller, a visual artist.

Ujijji Davis: My dad is a classically trained guitarist, fashion designer, carpenter. He has a music group that now called On Ka'a Davis and the famous original Djuke Music Players. So my parents are still really active in their artistic backgrounds now. And they've always been that way since I was a kid.

Ujijji Davis: Yeah, so when I was much younger, my mom had a traveling folklore group called Back A Yard. Back A Yard means in Jamaica, it's like patois for like, you're in the country. People who are native Jamaicans they'll call Jamaica the yard. They call themselves Yardies. So it was really like a traveling group that told stories of Caribbean tales, black American tales, songs, and they went all across the country. It was really through that I got a lot of my kind of cultural heritage through my mother.

Ujijji Davis: My mom's from Jamaica, and she migrated here when she was a teenager. And so being, I guess, one of the young people a part of her group, in some ways, because I was often on stage with her as a child, I was introduced to Jamaican culture, Jamaican history, through dance and song and through my mom. I think that was important for her to share that with me.

Ujijji Davis: When my mom migrated here to the States, she came to meet my grandmother who had come ahead of her. And at that point in time, there was a lot of civil unrest, a lot of gang violence. So it was kind of her way of sharing the beautiful side of Jamaica with me, although some of the reasons why they had moved here was not because of that.

Ujijji Davis: My dad also moved to New York around the same time that my mom did. He's originally from Cleveland, and he came to pursue his music. So like I said, he's classically trained. He studied in Vienna, when he was in college. And then for a long time, when he came to New York, he played in Sunrise Orchestra, which is some of the catalytic music behind what people are now circling back to Afrofuturism and Afrofuturistic type of music, just kind of thinking about kind of the intersection between jazz and African music, but also kind of extraterrestrial celestial sound.

Ujijji Davis: So he was doing that for a really long time. Also, in the '80s, early '90s, he was making fashion eyewear kind of like, when Kanye West would wear those stunner shades where they're not really meant to keep out the sun and they're not really prescription but they're just fun to wear.

Chris Arnold: Yeah.

Ujijji Davis: So, he was one of the pioneers behind fashion eyewear. So much so actually that in a Gap campaign, Gap had this really big campaign across New York where they were tagging buses and bus stops with Gap ads. One of his glasses was featured in the campaign.

Chris Arnold: No way.

Ujijji Davis: Of course, without his permission, without his credit. So that was a fun case that he went to. My dad actually represented himself.

Chris Arnold: Did he win?

Ujijji Davis: He did win. Yeah, and so it's a case that is referenced in terms of understanding intellectual property and art. How do you can modify it?

Chris Arnold: Okay, wow.

Ujijji Davis: And things like that. So interesting, random stuff.

Chris Arnold: Oh, yeah. No, I can't shake this idea that your parents were like the stereotypically cool parents, like you have these friends in like elementary school or junior high that had just like cool parents. It makes me wonder what you were like as a kid. Did that shape you from a really early age having parents that were so artistically inclined? Did that spark architectural interest in you early on? How did that get started?

Ujijji Davis: Well, I will say when I was a kid, I did not think my parents were cool.

Chris Arnold: That seems like a theme across the board.

Ujijji Davis: I mean, my parents were ... I mean, they were really expressive and artistic. I'm happy that they envelopes me in that world where I could dance, I could act, I could play music as well. But when they would pick me up after school wearing like the most elaborate brightly colored fabrics or head pieces or glasses with feathers on them, like other kids' parents didn't look like that. And so I was just, "Is that your mom?" Oh, it wasn't until I got to maybe junior high school that I really started to appreciate how fun my parents really are.

Chris Arnold: Yeah.

Ujijji Davis: And they're still like that. I mean, it's easy to pick them out in the crowd and the connection to me, when other people meet them, it's like oh, you must be Ujijji's parents.

Chris Arnold: Totally.

Ujijji Davis: But I will say that being connected to the arts gave me a lot of creative freedom. My parents did a really good job of nurturing me in that. Anything that I said that I wanted to do and try, they were really supportive of. I think for a lot of times, whether it was direct or indirect, I used art as an outlet for a lot of the things that I was interested in or couldn't do. I guess in terms of you had mentioned architecture.

Chris Arnold: Yeah.

Ujijji Davis: When I was in the fourth grade, I stole a chocolate bar from the corner store, which of all things was a PayDay. And it's probably like the least delicious chocolate or candy bar out there.

Chris Arnold: Can it even be considered a candy bar? Let's be honest.

Ujijji Davis: I don't know. It's like a really salty granola bar. I don't know. It wasn't worth it.

Chris Arnold: Isn't it basically like a bunch of peanuts smashed together with some chocolate on top? I think it's like a peanut bar, right?

Ujijji Davis: It is a peanut bar. I actually remember the commercial that made me think, oh, I should totally eat this. And it was like an elephant was eating it, and I was gullible. I thought that-

Chris Arnold: Well, if animals are doing it.

Ujijji Davis: If elephants could like it, anyone could. As I look back, it totally wasn't worth it. It wasn't good enough for what was to follow. So, my mom caught me in the store. I'm just not a good thief. I didn't grow up stealing. So I just picked it up and put it in my pocket. And she was of course really furious, of course really embarrassed because this was like a community store that we go to all the time.

Ujijji Davis: When I got home, part of my punishment was to give away all of my toys, and she was like, so you know what it feels like to be robbed of something. In that, I had to give away my dollhouse, which was like a small kind of clunky plastic, Fisher-Price kind of dollhouse, but I really loved it. I used to play with it for hours and that really hurt the most. That's when I knew what stealing how on the other end, what it meant to be robbed of something or for someone to take something that you really, really wanted and really loved.

Ujijji Davis: I'd come home from school and after I do homework and after I do all the other after school programs that I was doing, I didn't have anything to do. So I started to build my own dollhouse. I would use like old cornflake Cheerios cereal boxes, pasta boxes to make the frame of the house. I had a little Gable, I used pencils and like other like Popsicle sticks to make beams, so I could make floors, upper floors. I just took like different pieces of trash or recyclables or things that I knew no one was going to use to make furniture to really make this house.

Ujijji Davis: After I'd built it almost entirely, I didn't have a doll even to inhabit it. So I remember that my mom gifted me with the small Barbie Kelly Doll, which was the only thing that would actually fit inside. I would start to make clothes for her. My mom taught me how to sew. And that's what I did. I started to make this place and I mean, to me it started just like I didn't have anything else to do. So I'm just going to put tape and glue and whatever, all these things that are in the recycling bin and just put it together.

Ujijji Davis: But I think in those moments, I realized one, I really liked building. I really liked to make things, I really like to make things with my hands, and I could create something that was in my own vision. I know it sounds a little God complex, but I could create my own world.

Chris Arnold: Yeah, right. No, it makes sense.

Ujijji Davis: And then when the family would move, I'd break the boxes up and move them to another box and just do it all over again. And that was something that to me was just something to pass the time, but looking back now, that was definitely something that was the building blocks for the career that I chose. And even at that time, I wanted to be a doctor, but I moved into design, which now it all seems to make sense.

Chris Arnold: And so back then you didn't even really consider it as like I'm designing something or I'm building this thing or architecture related. It's just like it was a younger child basically exploring physical design and just kind of tinkering around. But it became something you were sounds like pretty enthralled with.

Ujijji Davis: Yeah, it definitely consumed a lot of my time until I had another interest, which was, I don't know, maybe I was dancing, and I didn't have time or something like that. But yeah, I didn't think it was design. To be honest, I don't even think that I knew that the definition of design could be attributed to what I was doing.

Chris Arnold: Right.

Ujijji Davis: So yeah.

Chris Arnold: So from my understanding, this tinkering and this artistic flair was developed all throughout your childhood up into your teenage years, and to the point where you went to undergrad at Cornell. So, from what I understand you moved to Ithaca to attend Cornell, which ended up being a pretty big shift culturally and certainly environmentally. Kind of thinking about that pathway as a child and moving up into those college years, what led you to Cornell and how did you ultimately land there?

Ujijji Davis: Well, when I was in high school, so I went to the Young Women's Leadership School of East Harlem, which is New York's first public all girls school. I guess the ethos of the school is to get every young girl who goes into the school and to get them into college.

Chris Arnold: Yeah.

Ujijji Davis: From a very young age, I started the school in the seventh grade, and I was a younger seventh grader. So from a very early age, it was already well embedded, it's like you're going to go to college. So start thinking about what that looks like, and where you might want to go, and how far. We'd already started visiting schools within the first year of the seventh grade, and some were local, some required a bus trip, but it was very much a part of the education there.

Ujijji Davis: To be honest, I don't even know how Cornell came to play specifically. I knew the name. I knew it was a great school. I don't even think I knew what it ranked in terms of what I wanted to study because I don't think I knew what I wanted to study by the time even I was in 12th grade.

Chris Arnold: Sure.

Ujijji Davis: I had applied to a lot of my schools as an English major, just because that seemed to fit my interest at the time. And so Cornell was one of the names on the list of the schools that I thought I would really like, if I got in. And I did. I didn't even get into the English program though. I got into the Urban and Regional Studies Program, and application you could pick like your first and second choice and so I don't even think I knew what Urban and Regional Studies was, but I was like, oh, that sounds interesting. Yeah, let's just put that as number two or whatever the ranking was.

Chris Arnold: Yeah.

Ujijji Davis: And so then I got into that program, which landed me in the architecture school. Well, first I really liked Cornell. It's a really great place for learning. It's a really beautiful campus. There's tons of resources, tons of very, incredibly smart people. And a lot of my, long life friends came out of Cornell. I think what was difficult for me was navigating socially.

Ujijji Davis: This was my first time going to a all-white space, just in general. I grew up in New York, it's really diverse. So there was never really a moment where I was the only person who looks like me in a room, or in a place, especially at school. I went to school with black and brown kids, black and brown girls, and so that was a big shift for me, to be in this all-white space, and then to be in that space with people who had very clear privilege, very demonstrated wealth, solid connections, their parents were the blah, blah, blahs of, the CEOs of this and that, was something that in a lot of ways, which I think a lot of other black or brown students who go to predominantly white institutions for school struggle with, is am I supposed to be here?

Ujijji Davis: Is this a place that I actually belong? Because my parents don't make what they make, or I didn't take all these classes before I went to college. And then I had like a really ... I watched Gilmore Girls, which was kind of like my inside of like, what does going to these types of colleges mean? The girl, the daughter goes to Yale and I thought that they'd be really similar. She made fast friends and she had like three boyfriends throughout this season and stuff like that. So I had this really poor ...

Chris Arnold: What's the whitest college show possible? And it's the Gilmore Girls.

Ujijji Davis: It was my research.

Chris Arnold: Yeah.

Ujijji Davis: That was my research and I had a really poor representation of what I thought me going to Cornell was going to be like or similar, and I thought I was going to thrive immediately. But what ended up happening, which I think is a positive instead of shrinking and questioning my presence, it actually made me exert myself a lot more. I was in spaces I was in classes where people really didn't, especially in the Urban and Regional Studies Program, a lot of people didn't know what it meant to live in the city, or what it meant to live with a diverse group of people.

Chris Arnold: Interesting, and you're coming from the complete opposite viewpoint, really.

Ujijji Davis: Complete opposite viewpoint where I don't know what it's like to just be the only one.

Chris Arnold: Yeah.

Ujijji Davis: So I realized that me feeling self-conscious about who I am or who I was, what I look like, ended up being a strength that I could employ. I knew that my perspective was always going to be strong and rooted in experience. It was not going to be based on a book that I read or a quote that I remembered. It was going to be that I know how things change if I walk from Central Park South to Central Park North. So, in the classroom was a little bit difficult, and I had some people put some hairs on my chest and really say things to really promote or exert myself in that space. So, yeah.

Chris Arnold: And so you originally went to Cornell with the intention of it's kind of Architecture and Planning Program, is that right?

Ujijji Davis: Yes, I was in the Urban Planning Program to start.

Chris Arnold: Earlier you referenced kind of checking the box. Was that more of an extension of those early explorations as a child or am I making too much of a stretch there? Or is that something that was just kind of like, this is what I think I want to do, and I'm going to give it a shot? How did all that start to play out at Cornell?

Ujijji Davis: I think the latter. I think I did not know what urban planning was when I applied to Cornell at all. It just sounded real good, because my first lot was English. I was like, oh, I'm going to be Toni Morrison, part two, but I'm thankful that I got into the Urban Planning Program because it really cracked open the door for all the stuff that I've been doing now and has really laid the foundation for the things that even kind of switched up.

Ujijji Davis: So, I think when I was in the program while I liked it and while I felt really smart, and to share my lived experience and to share the books that I had read, it was a lot of sociology to me. It was almost like people learning how it was to live like people that I already knew were living, which was like, I guess it wasn't that interesting to me in that way.

Chris Arnold: Sort of meta, yeah.

Ujijji Davis: Yeah, like to theorize living conditions. It created a distance in some ways. I know what it's like to live in a city that has really bad air quality and water, where you can distinctly go into a neighborhood that's diverse than where you just walked across the street from, I know what that looks like and what it feels like. So it was really, while I felt learned and well read, man, that was a big confidence boost. There was no like, so what?

Chris Arnold: Yeah.

Ujijji Davis: It's like, okay, so we know that people live in these conditions, and what are we going to do about it? That's what I wanted to know, how do you make change? How do you do something in a way that matters to the people that you're claiming to make change for?

Chris Arnold: Yeah.

Ujijji Davis: That's when I actually transferred. I left the planning program, because I didn't feel like we were doubling down on the so what? And that to me, it was a waste of conversation.

Chris Arnold: And so you transferred into the Landscape Architecture Department, in an attempt to learn about that how question, how do we change environment? How do we make it mean something? What did you start to learn when you were in that program?

Ujijji Davis: Well, one, I learned what design was, which was like, I guess the full circle moment of being in my bedroom, on my floor, tearing up cardboard together and gluing it back. To learn what design was, and I learned what design could do. In this case, through the Landscape Architecture Program at Cornell, I was taught that design is a problem solving tool. That's what it is.

Ujijji Davis: There are moments where you can do it very elegant, and it manifests in a very physical beautiful way. Or you can solve that problem kind of like clunky and it doesn't look as sexy as you want it to, but it does the job. We learned in addition to design in terms of how do we get someone from point A to point B in a physical goal setting, it was really about how do we use natural systems? How do we manipulate natural systems to do what we want them to do to evoke the change that we think needs to happen?

Ujijji Davis: So how does water run across the site? And how can you redirect it to make sure that it doesn't get polluted? Or how do you use certain plants to clean the air or to clean the water? It was like real tangible stuff, the real tangible solutions. And granted, it's still a design program and you're still working relatively in a vacuum so you have yet to actually see how your ideas manifest.

Ujijji Davis: But to me, it solved the so what, it was like I learned that I could manipulate the landscape as a way to improve natural systems and human relationships with either the environment or with each other. And that to me was everything that I wasn't getting from the program before. I think that's where it all clicked. And I was like, oh, this is the field that I need to be in. And it's really about outside, and how do we get people to be out there, and to love and value the places that they are in and to feel valued, because those places have been invested in these types of ways. I think that's when things made sense, and I haven't looked back.

Chris Arnold: Let's put a pin in that because we're going to come back to that after a little bit, but I want to switch gears and bring up one of the main reasons why I came across you and how I came across your work is because of your research. So you dive deep into African American history, how that intersects the history of land usage, and many more topics beyond land usage, I should add. But I want to know, how did you first find your way into your own research projects? Because these aren't things that you're necessarily getting paid for. They're just personal projects and things that you're interested in. So, talk to us a little bit about that.

Ujijji Davis: So I think first, I come from a family of researchers. With my mom being really invested in her heritage and her Jamaican culture, she has spent a lot of time, especially in her younger years, going back and forth, and interviewing family members, writing down things that she remembers, and just kind of piecing stories together of our family. Sometimes it's as simple as a family tree, who married who? So and so had 12 kids, so where are they now? And so, she did that for a really long time.

Ujijji Davis: On my dad's side, my grandmother, who's passed now, she was a big researcher. My grandfather, who she married was orphaned in the '30s during the Great Depression. As a young black child, and also for the states to have like a really infantile type of foster care system, which kind of really didn't exist, it was really within the church. There's a lot of things that got lost.

Ujijji Davis: My grandfather was separated from his brother several times, but they miraculously found each other again in Ohio. So, in my grandmother's assistance of helping my grandfather find out who his parents were, and what happened to him, she ended up finding a lot of information about her family. So both my grandmother and my mother have documented information of whether its family history or a family folklore.

Chris Arnold: Okay.

Ujijji Davis: So, that's kind of all, maybe that's DNA just kind of this, who am I question that's inside of me, and wanting to know how that fits into the spectrum or into the sphere that I'm living in.

Chris Arnold: Yeah.

Ujijji Davis: And how does my lived experience, how does that connect to the histories that precede me, I guess, that's probably ...

Chris Arnold: Yeah. Exactly. You mentioned to me earlier that it started with your identity, like, what is black culture? What does that mean for me? You kind of raised some questions of yourself of like, what does it mean to be black and an American? And it sounds like those were things that you started with almost like a baseline research project for yourself.

Ujijji Davis: Yeah, I guess my relationship with blackness is very different from my mother's, my father's, my grandparents', and of course, anybody else who also shares that common identity. But that could be generational. I'm a first generation born into this country. So that also has a different layer of identity and what does that mean, or is there a responsibility behind it? And then also understanding like American ism, I guess and what does that actually mean when we add into all these layers of race? Is there space for blackness in American identity?

Ujijji Davis: I think, there are a lot of things that tell us no, that there isn't space. But there's a lot of history that is just also really uncovered that says, yes, actually, it's a part of Americanness. I think when I was at Cornell, I took a class on conservation of the wilderness or like the American wild or something like that. And we read a lot about stewards of the American landscape, Theodore Roosevelt, Thoreau, John Sierra. So we had all these people who would go into the mountains and sit there and think for a minute and say, wait, this is beautiful. We shouldn't destroy it.

Chris Arnold: But they were all white.

Ujijji Davis: They were all white.

Chris Arnold: Yeah.

Ujijji Davis: And totally ignoring one, First Nation peoples who have been there way before, who have always, at least as the way it's been documented have always been stewards of the landscape. But then it also just kind of jumps and skips over their experience and their doctrines into like these core adventurers, these pioneers. And then we have laws that we put in place in 1970, blah, blah, blah, just like what happened before, and what happened in between?

Ujijji Davis: And then what is the relationship with the American landscape if we're thinking about it as this high level kind of thing? Were there ever black people that were stewards of the landscape in the same way that we glorify Henry David Thoreau? Did we ever have a relationship where the land was, not a resource, but even a respite for us in this country? Given the history of how black people, enslaved Africans and enslaved African Americans came to be in this country, what is their relationship? What is it like? Is it filled with a disconnection because it's not actually historically our land? Or is there like a newfound relationship that's kind of happened over time?

Ujijji Davis: So those were questions that my professor at the time couldn't answer. And because she had ... I mean, it was not part of her understanding of who people who were stewards of the American landscape. It was only these few people. And then later on, other presidents and other groups out of the '70s when we were having all of our biggest and best demonstrations, that was when we rekindled our love for the environment again, which just leaves a lot of big holes in just human relationship if it is human American relationship with the landscape.

Ujijji Davis: So for my thesis for that class or final essay, I wrote a paper that tried to very early on try to piece together what the African American experience was with the American landscape by looking up songs, Negro spiritual songs that might have been some during slavery, but then also written biography or autobiography by enslaved peoples, or free peoples who were talking about the land, and whether that was a relationship to the desire to own land, or in a lot of the cases, the American wild, this kind of unknown territory as a means of freedom and freedom of seeking.

Chris Arnold: Yeah.

Ujijji Davis: It kind of kicked open another door, it's like okay, so there is a relationship here, and it is historic and it is really old. So what does that mean? And why do we feel like there isn't a lot of push, like, oh, there's not a lot of black people that go to national parks. Well, what's the real relationship? And how do we start to tell that story so that it's not just kind of like this new diversity initiative, it's actually rooted in something that's already existing.

Ujijji Davis: So, that was that class. While I kind of struggled through it, it was probably one of the best classes that I could have taken, and it was through the planning program, actually. It cracked open the door as I had already kind of jumped the bridge to be into a different department that I thought was helping me understand how to solve problems. But then really recognizing the importance of history and a foundation building, before we start to address problems. If you don't actually know where the root is, you're not actually solving. You're only solving something at the surface, you're not actually solving the true of it is stigma, or whatever.

Chris Arnold: So before we jump into a little bit more about your career path, I do want to plug the reason why I came across a lot of your work in the first place, which was the Avery Review essay. I believe that was 2018.

Ujijji Davis: Yeah.

Chris Arnold: We're going to link to that in the podcast notes. But it's a really great look at black identity and the landscape of that, pun intended, I guess about the relationship with land. Why don't you touch on that just briefly before we move on? Because that's a great piece.

Ujijji Davis: Yeah, so I titled The Avery essay, The Bottom: The Emergence and Erasure of Black American Landscapes. Not to be a spoiler alert, but I start with trying to define or if not, how to define a term called the bottom, which is something that comes up a lot in literature that's detailing black experience in this country. But also it's a historic term that means a couple different things in different parts of the country.

Ujijji Davis: The bottom, for those who are interested in looking it up, is oftentimes a term given to the urban areas that black people live in. It kind of manifests that definition, manifests in different ways. In Detroit, there's a historic neighborhood called Black Bottom. I think there's a little bit of questioning about what the origins of that is. Some people say that it's based on the actual soil type and the actual landscape type of being marshy.

Chris Arnold: Yeah.

Ujijji Davis: Some people also think that it's a racialized term, because it wasn't called that until black people lived there.

Chris Arnold: Interesting, okay.

Ujijji Davis: So, the bottom comes up as a term, especially in the '30s, '40s across the country, even Louisville, Kentucky, Nashville, a lot of different places where there were very small, very dense black enclaves. I guess what's interesting or maybe not so interesting, but maybe frustrating is that a lot of those neighborhoods, those enclaves don't exist anymore.

Ujijji Davis: A lot of them have reached a peak moment of wealth building and having a high concentration of professionals, and honestly thriving within a lawfully segregated country in which black people and other people of color who were living in this country were not allowed to be patrons or to be patronized by their white counterparts who lived in the same city, because they couldn't live together through discriminatory housing and mortgage lending practices. They couldn't dine together. They went to separate theaters or had separate entrances.

Ujijji Davis: So, that the kind of separate but equal kind of rationale that had not really been fully abolished. And so these were enclaves that thrived despite of that, by only patronizing within some community, only being able to lend housing and loaned to people within their community. But interestingly enough, by the mid '50s, to the early '70s, a lot of these neighborhoods were completely obliterated, and they're placed oftentimes as a highway.

Ujijji Davis: So, the essay kind of goes into the history of what a bottom is, and how it came to be. I touch on two precedents, one, maybe about 50 years old, and then one that's even older than that. And just really thinking about what has been the historic facilitation of one, bringing these enclaves up, but then also tearing them down. And what can we learn from that history? It's a cycle. It has continued to happen throughout time. It's never been pinpointed at one point in time.

Ujijji Davis: So, when we start to think about urban development, again, now and thinking about other cities like Buffalo, Cleveland, things that have been long depressed from the loss of industry, and there's a new kind of appetite to be building there, what is it that we can learn from the history that we've employed? And what can we do differently, or if we can at all? It focuses around black experience, and black relationship with land here, and if there's any allowance to have a continuous relationship.

Chris Arnold: The Avery Review essay, we will link to that in the podcast notes, highly recommended. One of the examples that you're alluding to is a very, very prominent example in the American landscape of history and certainly a big cultural piece of the New York City area. So I highly recommend that for all the listeners to take a look at.

Chris Arnold: Let's pivot back into your career path. Today you're in Detroit, you work for SmithGroup, but you started back in New York City where your roots are. And you worked at both Estée Lauder and the Central Park Conservancy. I'm curious how these jobs more or less primed you for the migration to the Midwest where you're living today.

Ujijji Davis: Yeah, so I started with Estée Lauder working in their design office, for retail design and construction. That connection came about from, going to my high school we often had other successful women come and talk about their jobs and really just kind of introduce new or different career paths that were different from doctor, teacher, lawyer, kind of palette. So through that, I met some women that worked at Estée Lauder. And they were great mentors. They are great mentors.

Ujijji Davis: When I graduated from Cornell, I was able to apply into their internship program, which landed me in the retail design and construction office for about half a year. That was a really cool experience. It was still design, but of course, I was now inside.

Chris Arnold: Yeah. It's in the design realm, right?

Ujijji Davis: It's in the desire realm. Yeah. And then also, retail design is very different from traditional architecture. It's very much about visibility and selling something. There's this aspect of physical marketing that's associated with it. So, that was an interesting experience to learn. And then I transitioned into working at the Central Park Conservancy where I worked primarily in construction administration.

Ujijji Davis: At the time that I started working there, the park was doing a playground redesign or renovation campaign, probably about almost 30 playgrounds in the park. Most of them at this point are historic. So it's historic to the park. And so it was really about upgrading facilities, making sure everything was safe, and also redesigning things that were just at this point, if they weren't historically relevant, and just looked outdated, were outdated and could pose any potential hazards to kids.

Ujijji Davis: So I was one of the lead point people outside managing crews, and I received my stack of drawings and I would do my best to make sure that we were designing and building to the letter. So, that was a really good experience in understanding the connection between design and building, and so back to me on the floor ripping up cards boards.

Chris Arnold: Yeah.

Ujijji Davis: So while I myself was not putting in granite block curbs and stuff like that, I could see how things were made, and even the order in which things happened that, I think, was very eye opening for me to understand what does landscape construction look like? And what are the tools, if it is drawings, or otherwise, what are the tools that help you communicate that to other people? And then how do you check and make sure that you know what it is that you're doing, and what the reason is for building things the way that you're designing them to. So that was a really tremendous experience, and I was there for about three years doing that.

Chris Arnold: Let's talk about a really important transition time for you. Sometime in the middle of 2015 you made the decision to move to Detroit from New York. Obviously, that's a pretty big shift professionally, culturally. There's a lot that comes with that. There's lots to unpack there. But you're also pursuing a bit of education as well at the University of Michigan. I want to know, why then, why Detroit? What was the impetus to that?

Ujijji Davis: So, my journey to Detroit, I try to be really honest about this, especially when Detroiters ask me because Detroiters being here in Detroit, it's a hard club to be welcomed into. They are good at sniffing out BS. So I try to be honest about my answer at all times. My interest in Detroit came with a dose of naiveté. I say that because when I was at my desk at the Central Park Conservancy, and I'd have my break or lunch or whatever, I would be reading articles in Landscape Architecture magazine about things that were happening in Detroit.

Ujijji Davis: I mean, they were well written to start. And then also just really interesting, and it seemed to me that this was also probably a more obvious way of problem solving through landscape architecture. The work that I was doing at Central Park was largely improvement and improving upon an asset that people already had.

Ujijji Davis: When I started to read about land strategy, and public space and vacant land remediation and assembly, and neighborhood building and occupying vacant homes, there are a lot of really different narratives of things that were happening in the city, and how that was connected to grassroots leaders and residents who'd been here through the ups and downs and people who were equipping themselves to learn how to design and how to plan for the future of their own neighborhood.

Ujijji Davis: Of course, to me, I think that sounded really romantic as it related to what landscape architecture could be. It's like, oh, this is a place where people are empowered. And they're doubling down on a 50-year strategic plan. That was what I was receiving. I knew there are some lows with that and prioritizing neighborhoods over others, or people being more resourced than others. But I felt that this was probably speaking to me in the way that I was searching when I was in undergrad, and trying to find the so what.

Ujijji Davis: While I was at Central Park, I felt like maybe I wasn't really answering that question as much as I wanted to. I thought, well, this is a great place to be an agent for a lot of these local organizations that are really trying to bootstrap their way back to the Detroit that they knew. And so what I started to do, unbeknownst to most people at the office, I started to highlight names in these articles, rip the article out, I would circle the organizations, and I just started cold calling a bunch of these people. It was really weird because everyone that I called had time to talk to me. It was weird.

Chris Arnold: Unlike the East coasters.

Ujijji Davis: Unlike East coasters, because we're all kind of belief and stuff. But it was so bizarre because I had a really ... When someone says, "Hi, I'm from New York. I want to know what you do." That's a weird way to continue a conversation.

Chris Arnold: Yeah.

Ujijji Davis: We don't even give telemarketers that amount of time to kind of get through their first line. So it was very open to me, and that was something that I was really looking for. I was looking for people who could be open about what their experience was just so I could have a better understanding of what it was that I was going to be looking forward to.

Ujijji Davis: But that was how I built my base network was through calling people asking if they had five, 10 minutes to talk and those talks turning into an hour. Sometimes I'd even go into the bathroom and tell people like I'm around for a while. I got to go and sit in the bathroom for a while and I would be on the phone talking to people and taking notes, so then it prompted me to visit the city, because Google was obviously no help.

Ujijji Davis: You type in Detroit and you see nothing but dilapidation, a lot of ruin porn, as they like to say, of just empty big grand houses, and people walking long miles. When I got here, it was a different beat. It was really different. Even in the places where there was vacancy, there was still activity, there was still a notion that people were loving this place.

Ujijji Davis: I met with all the people that I talked to on the phone. I had these kind of inadvertent interviews where people were just kind of asking me about my interest. I had resumes on me, but I don't think that I was actively job searching. I just thought that I was getting more information. And then before I moved, and I had come back to New York, just all of a sudden I just started seeing everything that there was to see about Detroit that was outside of the magazine.

Ujijji Davis: Across the street from the office, the Central Park Conservancy's office is like around Central Park South and there's a Strand Book Store outdoor stand there and I would always passed by at least once a week to buy a book. And just suddenly, when I had come back from my first trip to Detroit, every book that they were promoting as like, oh, the book, that's on sale today had to do with Detroit, whether it was set in Detroit, it was about Detroit, or had Detroit in the title. Detroit was a character. I don't know. So I thought that-

Chris Arnold: Maybe a little confirmation bias there.

Ujijji Davis: Yeah, I felt like this must be a sign.

Chris Arnold: It's a sign. Yeah.

Ujijji Davis: And it was and I applied. I also applied to graduate school and I said, "If I get into Michigan, University of Michigan that I know I'm supposed to be in this part of the world right now." And then I did, I got into the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. And within that week, I also got a job offer. So I was like, oh, okay, so this is double confirmation.

Chris Arnold: Yeah.

Ujijji Davis: And yeah, so then I told my parents, they were like, whoa. They had never been to Detroit. They never really had a relationship with Detroit. But each of them had all moved from places that were very different from where they had grown up. So they completely understood, and they were really excited. So yeah.

Chris Arnold: And so in parallel, you were going back to school and you were working a professional job. What were those days like? I have to imagine that was kind arduous.

Ujijji Davis: I don't recommend it.

Chris Arnold: Those were probably pretty long days.

Ujijji Davis: I don't recommend it to anybody. I guess I did it because I wanted to. There's always that, but also, it's hard to pay for school if you don't have a job. So I wanted to make sure that I could remain in good academic standing and pay for the things that I needed to get done. And then also pay to live and feel like I could easily move around the city.

Ujijji Davis: You do need a car out here, so that was probably like the biggest new expense to anticipate. I didn't have a car before. So I bought a car. I don't know how many people know this, but Detroit has some of the highest car insurance rates in the country, and that's something that's actually like a social economic issue, because there's no real standing for why the car insurance is so high. So I had a number of really new expenses. That was also an incentive.

Ujijji Davis: But I wanted both experiences. I mean, I wanted to work at the job that I have, and I wanted to go to school. So it was a lot of early mornings and late nights. But it was worth it because I learned a ton. There were moments where I could actually apply something directly that I was learning to my work at my job, and I had a lot of support. I didn't do it alone.

Ujijji Davis: My job knew that I was working and so they assisted me in the ways that they could whether it was by project scheduling or making concessions based on my own schedule. So, I was really thankful for that. And then I even had mentors from my job, even kind of make comments on my thesis. So everyone was very supportive of what I was doing. So I will say I was tired for two years straight. I was absolutely tired. But I don't think for me, it couldn't have happened any other way.

Chris Arnold: Well, I have to imagine you're still tired, because let's talk about the things that you are doing. That's a great segue, both with your own projects and the teaching that you're doing today. You still keep quite busy. Personally, research, University of Michigan teaching. What are you working on outside of "work"? And what are you up to today? Why are you doing those things? What's that connection for you?

Ujijji Davis: Oh, that's a good question. Why am I doing these things? Well, I guess I like it. I like it. I don't like the tired part. But I recognize the sacrifice to do the things that you really love to do. So, research, which you mentioned first, is something that's always kind of in the back of my mind. I do want to build on the essay that I wrote for the Avery. I think there's moments to dive deeper, and I'm eager to kind of see where that could go. Teaching, I'm getting into teaching. I really like it, but I am not sure if I'm actually a good teacher yet.

Chris Arnold: Teaching's very hard.

Ujijji Davis: It is really hard, I think. So I taught a class last summer at University of Michigan for their semester in Detroit program. It's really cool. They get students some who are from the city, but mostly students who are not, and they live together, they work for different kind of local grassroots organizations and they take classes together. My class was one of their electives around arts and culture as an economic vehicle for cities and thinking about Detroit as a case study.

Ujijji Davis: We had some really great discussions, really great readings. I got some good pointers of constructive criticism from them in terms of how to make the class stronger. But ultimately, we also toured a lot of neighborhoods, a lot of places that even some of the native Detroiter students hadn't been to before or hadn't really spent a lot of time, Eastern Market, Mexicantown.

Ujijji Davis: I even took them to the underground techno Museum, which is apparently really hard to get into. You have to know someone who knows somebody. I mean, honestly, throughout it all I thought I was doing a terrible job, but I was really surprised at the end, when they ... There's some people who explained that this was their favorite class of the summer.

Chris Arnold: Wow.

Ujijji Davis: So that made me feel really good. I'm actually also going to be teaching at the University of Detroit Mercy in January, I'll be teaching my first design class, just a foundational landscape architectural class for the master of architecture students who are at that school. So really excited. I do have some more work to do to kind of get that syllabus together. So I really like teaching, and I really want to be better. So I'm unfortunate for the opportunities to try again, that people are entrusting me with their students' education to a certain extent.

Ujijji Davis: And then I guess back to the research side, I've been tapped by some other researchers that have been working in codifying a genre or adoption within architecture called hip hop architecture, which is really, I guess, the base consideration is of all the cultural movements that we've had Classical, Baroque, Brutalist, as this manifests into physical and musical manifestations, I guess not to be redundant, but where does hip hop land as a cultural revolution in the realm of architecture?

Ujijji Davis: And so we have all, Renaissance period, Classical period, if we have all these other periods that have come into fruition through dance, music, visual arts, painting, and also architecture, where does hip hop land within that as well? So I'm fortunate to have the chance to work with them. Sekou Cooke from Syracuse University is currently publishing a book around it. He also held an exhibition last year at the Center for Architecture in New York, in which he enlisted a ton of other architects and designers who kind of helped to fill in these gaps of kind of what we are understanding to be hip hop architecture.

Ujijji Davis: One of my mentors who was also my professor at Michigan, we call him the OG of hip hop architecture, Craig L. Wilkins, and he was probably one of the ... He was the first person to coin the term and create some of the first language and research behind it. And so I'm lucky when I get to have a drink with him and we can pick each other's brains.

Ujijji Davis: So that's something that is also emerging, which I think is a really exciting type of space to be in and really thinking about the cultural if anything at a baseline level, cultural influences, and what it is that we can learn from them as a means to identify the problem within the problem solving tools of design, be it architecture, landscape architecture or planning. So, yeah, so I don't have a date for that. So I can't really shout them out, but it's coming soon.

Chris Arnold: I was rapid fire taking notes here. I'm going to make sure that we link to Sekou Cooke and Craig Wilkins in the podcast notes as well, so we can have a few follow ups there, and also make sure to reference hip hop architecture as well, because I know there's a few things percolating there.

Ujijji Davis: Yeah.

Chris Arnold: As we look ahead here and start to wrap up, I want to get a sense for what you're excited about. You have a lot on your plate, it seems like, you're doing a lot of really interesting things. You're spending your time in a few different buckets, putting yourself in a few different buckets. What energizes you though? What are you most excited about looking ahead here?

Ujijji Davis: I guess part of the work that I do is the preparation work, is the work, it's the foundational stuff that helps you make the informed decision of what it is that you're actually going to do. So I'm ready to build, and I'm really excited to do that. I think that a lot of my time in Detroit has been very intentionally about learning about the city and learning about the people. I think that that has been really important to me.

Ujijji Davis: I think it's really difficult to just enter a space with your own scruples and not really have a conversation with anybody else about what theirs are. I think that laying my own foundation, and just really trying to understand the city and the history of the city and the history of its people, I think that that will make me a better designer, not necessarily by an award standpoint, but really by an intentionality and an impact standpoint.

Ujijji Davis: So I have been here for almost five years. I think that I am excited for the opportunity to really start putting furnishing to the ground. There are a couple of rising opportunities. Some I can't really talk a lot about them, but they are manifestations of both my independent research and the learning that's been had at the firm that I work at now, which is SmithGroup. I work in the Urban Design Studio under Dan Kinkead.

Ujijji Davis: We do a lot of strategic planning and master planning, which is grounded in research and understanding the historic shifts of the city. He's from Detroit. He's been working here for many, many years. Research is also really foundational to his practice, and so there's a really great mesh there in how we as researchers around design use that as a foundation to implement or suggest solutions to issues. I think I've hit the five year mark now of kind of observing and waiting, and I'm really eager to start to build.

Chris Arnold: I love it.

Ujijji Davis: And also learning how to be a better teacher, I think.

Chris Arnold: A lifelong pursuit, I'm sure.

Ujijji Davis: Right.

Chris Arnold: Well, one of my favorite questions to ask and arguably my favorite is what I call the final question, and it is, given all of your experience and your background and your thoughtfulness regarding your professionalism and your giving back nature, your giving back tendencies. I want to know from you tell us who we should be paying attention to that's doing groundbreaking or inspiring work out there.

Ujijji Davis: Yes, I thought about this for a second, and I would say Amanda Williams from Chicago. Amanda is an artist or an advocacy artists I guess that's also a good way to kind of coin what she does. She's trained as an architect, she's from Cornell, so not to put the Cornell mafia out there, but she's really, really brilliant. The work that she does is really around disrupting space and bringing light to some of the spatial relationships around like real critical human issues.

Ujijji Davis: A lot of her work is in Chicago. So Chicago shares a lot of the similar stains of urban renewal as Detroit does, when it comes to neighborhood vacancy, inequality, loss of losing a ton of population over time. And so what she does as an artist, and what I appreciate as a landscape architect is she uses color against the landscape to kind of expose, whether it's a color issue that we have in the U.S., and how that manifests into these kind of larger institutional systems that create the significant disparity between people and what they look like and where they're from and how much money they have.

Ujijji Davis: So, honestly, I couldn't go down the list of her resume of how many awards she's won, the fellowship she's earned. But I do think that the work that she does is really prolific. It's simple, but it packs a really powerful punch. I think that she is somebody that although she is not a landscape architect, I think she is somebody that other landscape architects should look toward as someone who does these types of interventions in the landscape to really kind of provoke a reaction around disparity. So, that's my plug.

Chris Arnold: Amanda Williams, we will be linking to her work as well in the podcast notes, but more importantly, Ujijji, you've done it. We've made it to the end. What I want to do, one more thing here is roll out the red carpet for you. I want you to tell us what you're up to and where the rest of the world can find you online.

Ujijji Davis: So, I'm still in Detroit, so find me downtown or on the East side. Probably the best place to find me is on Twitter @B-U-T-T-A-P-H-R-O, buttaphro and that's where you can kind of be up on all my antics and all my updates. That's the best place I can tell anyone.

Chris Arnold: Ujijji, thank you so much, again, for your time today.

Ujijji Davis: Thank you.

Chris Arnold: Transforming Cities is brought to you by Authentic Form & Function, the digital design and development team that just might be a perfect fit for your next urban project. If you're a new listener, you can follow along at authenticff.com/transformingcities, or you can simply subscribe through your favorite apps including iTunes, Spotify or Stitcher. Thanks for joining us.

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