Kathryn Mariner is seeking an answer to the question: “What kind of place is Rochester?”
Mariner, a cultural anthropologist, is researching placemaking in the city of Rochester, through Fertile Ground, a visual, large-scale, multi-year project.
Backed by funding from the University of Rochester and the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, the project aims to study how marginalized communities cultivate lives in a city with a history of racial segregation. Rochester continues to be categorized as “hyper segregated” by sociologists, Fertile Ground notes.
When Mariner came to Rochester to work as an anthropologist, she was struck by the rich historical and contemporary examples of placemaking in the community, she says. Mariner also observed stark spatial divisions across lines of class and race.
“Rochester is where I work and live, and as an anthropologist (and licensed social worker) who researches social inequality in the urban United States, a local project just seemed to make sense in terms of community engagement, ethical responsibility, sustainability, and the potential for fostering long-term social change,” Mariner says. “In short, working locally is how I feel I can be of greatest use.”
Fertile Ground will explore how people who live with the divisions of class and race work to build physical spaces of community, intimacy and healing, as a way of learning and being together, moving toward a more emancipatory future.
“I don’t think you can understand Rochester as a city without attending to space and the way that space has been inhabited, contested, reclaimed, and transformed,” says Mariner, Wilmot Assistant Professor of anthropology and visual and cultural studies at UR.
In the first phase of her fieldwork, Mariner is exploring how city residents are reshaping outdoor environments. These spaces, like community gardens and play areas, are often changed with limited resources to foster connection. As the project advances, Mariner will widen her focus.
“I don’t think you can understand these smaller grassroots spaces without branching out to the neighborhood and then the city,” she says. “So much of the history is about structural patterns that have impacted the city as a whole: zoning policies, environmental services, parks and recreation, public transportation, housing. All of these things are shaping space down to the micro level.”
UR’s Humanities Center shares Mariner’s focus, adopting community as its annual theme.
“Communities and the forces that disrupt them are central to our sense of connection to others and thus to why we persist in striving to create a better world,” says Joan Shelley Rubin, the Ani and Mark Gabrellian Director of the Humanities Center and the Dexter Perkins Professor in History. “The theme is a great example of the potential of humanistic inquiry to spur social change.”
The center begins its series of public lectures on Sept. 19 with a talk by architect Bryan Lee Jr. A design justice advocate, Lee is the founder and design director of Colloqate Design. The New Orleans nonprofit’s mission is to organize, advocate, and design spaces of racial, social and cultural equity.
Mariner credits Lee for his efforts, calling attention to his focus on social justice. When teaching, Mariner asks students to consider the architecture of the classrooms they inhabit, and whether they encourage or discourage social interaction, for example.
“One of the things I’m trying to do
on my project is uncover the ways that things we think of as merely social are engineered into the spaces we inhabit,” she says. “What does it mean to design a building that fosters community—not just through what people are doing inside it, but through the structure itself?”
Fertile Ground is a visual project spawned from three intellectual traditions: theories of space and place, urban ethnography and history, and feminist and black geographies. The project will use observant participation, interviews, mapping and photography to record and capture the ways people create and sustain their living spaces.
“One thing I feel very strongly is that in certain spaces I have observed, a deep sense of community persists, even in the face of egregious inequity and structural violence,” Mariner says. “I’m hoping my research can shed light on how we can harness more of that resilience and connection to cultivate better outcomes and a better life for everyone.”
Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.