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Learning from Little Haiti


#1

It is at work everywhere, functioning smoothly at times, at others in fits and starts: an urban process in which things designed for one particular function are used for another. A standard stock of materials suddenly confronts a logic of construction that reinterprets it completely in uses and contexts that were never imagined for it. At times, this combinatorial propensity—even promiscuity—lying dormant in various artifacts and materials is fired up to such a degree that the apparent inevitability of established typologies and uses are undermined completely.

Individuals with no or limited connection to each other—in terms of the merchandise they offer, the clientele they cater to, or, in certain cases, in terms of nationality and ethnicity—perform the same gesture: every morning they drag a speaker out their front door and crank up the music. This gesture forms part of a bank of local knowledge that is itself a negotiation between imported habits (putting speakers in front of stores) and what the city allows (speakers that remain seemingly impermanent or extractable elements of the commercial structure). If a photographic map of the commercial axis of Northeast 2nd Avenue in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood were to show all locations where speakers are placed on sidewalks in front of businesses, a number of observations could be made.

A pair of produce bins from the 99-cent store are tied together to make a protective casing for the speakers that a shop owner drags every morning to the sidewalk in front of his business. Elsewhere, the seats of discarded chairs are collected over a couple of months and glued to a set of milk crates to produce a makeshift social space for afternoon domino games under a blooming Poinciana tree in a backyard. These are examples of a process that is activated so often that to continue to approach the phenomenon as a series of isolated instances—as this or that retrofitted object or clever solution—is to miss the point. What we have here is a system, even if a self-organized and improvised one, that spontaneously reshapes urban spaces. The way that certain retrofitted and updated objects—not to speak of graphics and languages—found in immigrant and marginalized neighborhoods in cities throughout the West effectively alter urban morphologies and patterns of behavior cannot help but push us to think of them beyond individual instances. The density of examples adds up to a force of urban reconfiguration. Though these unexpected objects are usually produced by individuals responding to isolated needs one design decision at a time, it is when these endeavors are considered collectively that we start to see this collection of solutions synthesizing into a vital urban force.

The purpose of the speakers is obvious: they are there to attract the attention of passers-by. But they must achieve this aim, which is identical to that of commercial signage, in such a way as to elude both the legal constraints that demand that signage follow certain norms (such as the request for permits and the payment of fees) and the more cumbersome economic one that places signage production in the hands of a specialized group of professional sign manufacturers, who themselves have to fulfill certain legal requirements, such as having state licenses and active insurance policies, and who demand remuneration in line with the standards of their field. This doesn’t mean that these businesses don’t have any signage. There is a kind of homemade graphic painted directly on the exterior walls of most of these shops. But what they lack is a sign-object, a light box or neon sign. Homemade graphics cannot provide what the sign-object can: an expanded visual representation, a way to invade the surrounding public spaces. But the speaker makes up the difference by projecting the business outward. It reverses the hierarchy of the visual over the auditive, and in the process betrays a certain mistrust of the former as compared to the latter: it harks back to the vendor’s cry and other vernacular processes of the marketplace that defy the line-of-sight geometries that the visual requires. As the message of a lit neon sign or a light box can be said to spread out visually, so the music pumping out of the speaker spreads out sonically, only it can turn corners, traverse walls, and climb over obstacles.

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