If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution – Emma Goldman 1931
Last night, from a ruined crack of the urban landscape, culture erupted with fiery explosions of color, light, and movement. Crowds gathered inside and outside the space to watch this mysterious event. Playing amongst these ruins, using rubble as the raw material for innovation, the Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre Northwest’s took over Taylor Electric, using it as a stage for Ragnarok, a Norse mythological tale of destruction and rebirth. The dance performance featured artists from Portland State University, Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
This event is the first and perhaps the last opportunity for the public to officially experience this space, before it is lost forever. Demolition plans have been set.
Since the ruins of Taylor Electric were left to stand outside the political economy of urban development for years, it has functioned as richly occupied public space. While it was not legally public, it also was not subjected to the exclusionary controls of commercialization that increasingly afflict our cities. Taylor Electric offered a ‘shelter from the storm’ for a diverse community of outcasts, illustrating why debates over urban economic and cultural gentrification often evolve into debates over social well-being, social order, and social justice.
Many officials and developers envision streets purged of marginalized populations, cleared of human trash. These uncomfortable reminders of decay and neglect counter a narrative of a city made safe for endless effortless consumption and full of programmed urban activities. Officials often present redevelopment as economic salvation, or as social and cultural stimulation – restoring their version of a ‘quality of life.’
However, for many people in the city, spaces like this are essential for quality of life. We choose to live in the city for the unexpected and the grit. In this way, we view the demolition of Taylor Electric as the destruction of our public and cultural sphere. In many modern sanitized cities, space for unanticipated interaction and chaotic urban pleasures are rapidly diminishing.
Over the past few weeks, as the fences have been slowly removed, the amount and variety of urban explorers descending upon the space has dramatically increased. People of all types come to take photos, reminisce, and talk with each other about what the place is and its future. Experiencing the dance performance shed light on how easy it would have been to use a space like this for community events. Imagine if grass were planted in the factory floor, turning the space into a unique pocket park surrounded by the burnt-out skeleton walls. Live bands could play music, people could have picnics, street artists could paint murals, and mobile food carts could provide food and beverages. As many from the street art community have argued for years, if permitted, this would have provided a perfect free wall space, something the city does not have and desperately needs. Portland has a ‘zero-tolerance’ graffiti policy requiring that all un-permitted public expression be promptly removed or the property owner will be fined. Countless northwest cities (Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia, San Francisco, etc.) have free walls that are open to public expression. Free walls are a community asset because they provide a designated safe place for people to practice and refine their artistic skills and a place where urban flâneurs and tourists can go to see this style of art.
Our vision of the City of Portland is a place where gutter punks, graffiti writers, and the houseless community will no longer be driven from public space. They’ll be embraced as members of the community. In such a city, residents would no longer be taught to fear marginal spaces like Taylor Electric, they would be embraced for creativity and cultural innovation, where the inherent uncertainty of the unpredictable provides raw material and conditions that incubate new ways of being and thinking. The allure of this vision is undoubtedly fleeting. We must not forget this spark lives within us, not necessarily in the spaces we create and occupy. We use these urban voids as conduits and staging grounds for creative energy. From the ruins of the past, time and time again, we rebuild.Special thanks to Hart Noecker and Anton Legoo for contributing to this article. Some material adapted from Jeff Ferrell’s 2001 book, “Tearing down the Streets: Adventures in Urban Anarchy” All images © 2014 Anton Legoo