Visioning the BAMBD: Marvin X talks with architect Fred Smith

Poet/planner Marvin X and architect Fred Smith, both were student activists at Oakland's Merritt College, the West Coast hot-bed of Black Nationalist consciousness
photo Standing Rock

After weeks of delays  for one reason or another--you know North America Africans are the most busy people in the world! But alas, most are busy doing absolutely nothing, to paraphrase ancestor James Brown, talking loud but doing nothing.

Anyway, today, February 27, 2017, we finally met with architect Fred Smith to render our vision for him to consider design plans for Oakland's Black Arts Movement Business District along the 14th Street corridor, from the lower bottom to Lake Merritt.

He requested a meeting with members of the BAMBD community planning team before designing his idea for the BAMBD. When I initially asked him to give us his concepts, he stated that it should not be my idea but a communal effort.

Today he reiterated his initial point, stating we need a meeting of community minds because the BAMBD is a massive project that includes one hundred blocks and we must consider an almost block by block design plan. He informed me that although I am one of the chief visionaries, it will and must take a communal vision. We must allow community input for those hundred blocks. What do the people see, what do they want? The BAMBD is bigger than any one mind can conceive. And, he noted, as it is part of the City of Oakland's Downtown Plan for the next twenty-five to fifty years, we need ideas from the generation who will be here when we are gone, i.e., the young people.

Adam Turner, designer of the BAM/BAMBD newspaper, The Movement, was elated to be privy to the conversation as his interests are in design, especially as a child of the computer design era. The architect informed him that some ideas of his era are not always sound and will not pass the test of planning and  construction. Fred noted the first priority of design is safety. Will the building withstand the plethora of earthquakes the Bay Area is known to experience? He said bricks will not suffice in this area. Although I said nothing on this point, my mind raced to the 1989 earthquake that caught me at 2nd and Mission, escaping bricks that rained down from buildings across the street from where I took shelter.

But the priority item of our discussion was the architectural design for the Black Arts Movement  Business District. From the architectural design viewpoint, how would it look? Firstly, Fred noted, we must understand the architectural design history of America. Who designed  it, who built it? Of course, North American Africans! Thus, he said we need not  reinvent the wheel since many of our Afro-centric designs are already in place coast to coast in building construction from the White House to the Oakland Container Port, created by Thomas Berkely. Since he attended the funeral last week of Queen Mother Makinya, I reminded him of  the comment someone made, maybe Tarika Lewis, a relative, who said look around this chapel (Evergreen Cemetery), Queen Mother is here doing her thing. Look at the Egyptian architecture. 

Fred noted so-called Spanish architecture is Moorish, i.e. African, Arab. Greek and Roman architecture is Kemetic or Egyptian, i.e., African. I asked him what would be considered Afro-centric architecture in the modern era. Well, be clear that we need not reinvent the wheel since so much African design is already here, we just need to build on it. I tourned Adam, "Adam, you know my screen door has the Sankofa symbols in  the wrought iron, which Fred noted was traditional African metal work. Further, I told Adam, if recall the picture of my daughter Muhammida and poet Samantha, standing by a fence in Accra, the Sankofa symbol is in the wrough iron fence. 

 Fred said it  would be nice if BAMBD had the money to send me to Africa to study modern African building design. Then my friend, former Merritt College study body president and gun toting Black Panther Party member, hit me with a knock out punch. "Marvin, in all my years as an architect, I have never had the discussion we are having now about Afro-centric design! For sure it's not taught in the schools. But no one has ever asked me to design an Afro-centric structure. I designed a house for one brother but he wanted Tudor architecture so I went to England to check out their designs. Had a great time, but never has anyone come to me as you have today. 

I told when I was exiled in Mexico City as a draft resister to the imperialist war in Vietnam, I checked out the building designs and noted they reflected Mexican culture in colors and structure. So what would be the African tradition in design? He said it would be colors, arches, columns, pyramid motifs. He said, "Marvin, I've seen your plays and they reflect an African architectural design." He lost me here but the artist often has no idea what critical minds see in their work. But I do know my concept of ritual theatre is African and aboriginal in structure. For example, there is no separation between actors and audience, alas, they are one!

Again, Fred noted designing a district is a massive undertaking that must be communal with a vision of the future. Afro-futurists, step to the front of the line and represent. We pass the baton to you! 
In closing, Fred noted that young North American African architects should be given internships with developers so they can enter the field because they are most often excluded and once the developers make deals with white supremacy unions and get pass the planning commission, they sail home to continue white supremacy development, aka, gentrification or ethnic cleansing in design, construction and occupation when the project is completed. 

We must note that Carmel has a North American African heading their construction of a 600 unit apartment complex in the BAMBD at 14th and Franklin. But only ten per cent or 60 of the 600 units are below market rate. BAMBD is working on a benefits package with Carmel but it is for below market retail space. In a meeting with Carmel to have them consider BAMBD, my daughter, Attorney Amira Jackmon, a bonds attorney who deals with billion dollar bonds on a daily basis, noted the Carmel that they should up the percentage of below market rate units to 20%. The BAMBD benefits team has incorporated Attorney Jackmon's investment partnership proposal in its benefits package, so we shall see. 

Architect Fred Smith noted that we should not have an adversarial relationship with developers because they are going to build what they want, especially once they get pass the planning commission. Of course, I say we need to have our own people on the planning commissions of all cities where we reside, otherwise, the planning commission will acquiesce to developers, lobbyists and slimy, slothful politicians. I wish somebody would give me an Amen. I wish somebody would say Ache!
--Marvin X, poet/planner

Marvin X. Jackmon

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