Regina Agu has been researching and engaging green spaces in Houston, especially to understand the legacy of communities of color in these spaces. As an artist, in a city where zoning laws or lack thereof, impacts preservation, Agu also has seen the ways artists are on the forefront of innovating around and along with those parameters.
“I think that artists in Houston are actually quite vocal, some of them more vocal constituents who are really thinking through, ‘Okay, what can historic preservation look like given the policies and rules on the books in Houston?’ ”
Agu has been a visiting artist and researcher of Project Row Houses and the University of Houston, where she studied the psychogeography of Emanciaption Park. She has witnessed the aftermath of monument takedowns in New Orleans, and seen firsthand how artists can take the lead in reclaiming and re-naming public spaces.
In 2019, Monument Lab was research residents of New Monuments for New Cities and interviewed artists from each of its 5 partner cities – New York, Chicago, Austin, Houston, and Toronto – about monuments, memory, and public space for our podcast.
Paul Farber: Regina Agu, welcome to the Monument Lab Podcast.
Regina Agu: Thank you so much.
Farber: How did you start thinking about monuments?
Agu: So I've been doing through some of my research for different projects in my practice, I look a lot at the built environment and different frameworks, so thinking about public space, private space, changes in development, and land policy, just kind of like a range of ways of approaching, not just urban but thinking it like in landscapes in a broad sense. And so after being based in Houston for so many years, I really started thinking about some of our local relationships to monuments, historic preservation, parks, and things of that nature. So this is something I've been interested in for a long time in my practice. And so it was really exciting to have the chance to bring some of that forward in the new monuments project.
Farber: What is the dynamic of historic preservation in Houston? Because I think there's a reputation about the lack of zoning laws as something that kind of rings out nationally, but how does it appear to you?
Agu: As you mentioned, Houston is famous, infamous depending on how you look at it for lack of zoning regulations. And so essentially, what that means is that Houston has a really market-driven approach to development, I think compared to other cities. And some people would even go so far to say that it's kind of a neoliberal approach to development. And so what that means is that historic preservation is extremely difficult. And it's reflected when you go around and drive through Houston, there's so much new development and new construction happening all the time. It is a young city, it's a growing city, it's a sprawling city. So that is part of it. But a lot of neighborhoods, for example, where I've been doing a lot of work during my time there, in Third Ward, for example, there's a constant ongoing set of pressures that accelerate the process of gentrification in a very particular way in Houston. But then some of the measures that you might see taking place in other cities where historic preservation can occur to preserve some of the older examples of architecture infrastructure, it's not really possible in Houston for those models to take place. A good example of that is when you're looking at, for example, what's been happening in Fourth Ward, Freedmen's Town, which is an older example of what gentrification can look like in Houston. Fourth Ward was Freedmen's Town. It was where a lot of formerly enslaved people were able to settle in Houston and really did build their own infrastructure, their own communities, schools, hand-paved the streets and things like that. And because of the challenges of historic preservation in Houston, there's always battles about the paved roads being cemented over, a lot of the buildings were not able to be preserved. Sometimes I wonder if it's public awareness that maybe part of that, but historic preservation itself, it's just really hard. And so there's really like, especially in Fourth Ward, there's this ongoing devastation of a really rich history that I think would probably have been preserved in different ways in other cities if those options were available.
Farber: As an artist, is there a space for you at the table, so to speak, in historic preservation conversations, or do you have to find your own lane to intervene?
Agu: I think that artists in Houston are actually quite vocal, some of them more vocal constituents who are really thinking through, "Okay, what can historic preservation look like given the policies and rules on the books in Houston?" And for example, you mentioned when we spoke previously about getting to know the Sankofa Research Institute and Assata [Richards], so if you met Assata and saw the work that she's doing with the Sankofa Research Institute, you may have come across, for example, the EEDC, which is the Emancipation Economic Development Council. There are a lot of really incredible artists, creatives who are part of that in addition to a wide range of constituents. And so there are artists who are working at the forefront growing and developing initiatives that can be used to preserve and halt the really kind of rapid form of gentrification that happens in Houston. Looking at the EEDC as an example, a lot of these measures I think are being implemented for the first time in thinking about how Third Ward can be a model for other parts of the city in historic preservation and how that can protect community assets.
Farber: I mean, this seems to really resonate with your High Line Joint Art Network proposal, Expanding Monuments. Could you describe the poster, the proposal itself?
Agu: Absolutely. So when I was approached to design something for the project, I had been...actually, last year, I spent a lot of time shooting and revisiting various sites in Houston that were familiar to me in Third Ward as an example. And so I have this ongoing project where I've been going back and documenting, for example, historic buildings, vacant areas of land, properties that are under development. In a way, it's almost kind of like a time lapse thing and just seeing how quickly the landscape and the built environment in neighborhoods like Third Ward can turn itself over because of private development interest. And so I was already thinking about that and developing the series of images when I was approached by the High Line and Buffalo Bayou Partnership for the new monuments project. So I really wanted to think about how to represent those changes and development over time. Also, to reflect like how quickly it happens and then to think of ways through imagery to show these changes from, for example, open fields and kind of green space and how quickly that changes into scaffolding tarps and then this kind of refracting that happens within the image. Also, thinking about who's now shut out of that development when it's happening and who is that development happening for? So I really wanted to create an image that speaks to a lot of those different kind of conflicting interests and intentions, which is how I started to approach the design. There was another part of it though when I received the invitation to participate in the project, I was actually working in New Orleans on something separate. And I was really speaking with people in New Orleans about the removal of the Robert E. Lee Monument, which took place during one of my site visits. I was also interested in thinking about that conversation and thinking about the potential impermanence of monuments also. And so that was something that really influenced how I approached the new monuments project.
Farber: I want to get back to your proposal, but first, you mentioned that you were in New Orleans in the aftermath of the removal of the Robert E. Lee Monument. What was that like for you?
Agu: I happened to be in New Orleans during the summer of 2017. And it was right in the aftermath of the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue. And I believe that I was in town just a couple of days after the removal happened. And so I knew that the conversation was taking place. I saw in the news how it was something that happened I guess in the evening. And so I was visiting New Orleans to do some research for another project, and I happened to walk by and see the column where the statue used to be. So even though the statute itself is removed, you still had the column, you had the parks space. I was very aware of how the design and architecture of that site would lead you around the statue in a circular moment. So I was still very aware of like the monumentality of that site, even though the statue of Robert E. Lee was no longer present. And so it got me thinking about not just about statues themselves, but also this sort of what really goes into the design and decision making and building of these sites of reverence in history and historical narrative. Thinking about that it's something that really struck me at the time. And so when I had a chance later on to participate in the New Monuments project, and I happened to be in New Orleans again working on some different work that kind of ghost of the Robert Lee statue was very present for me in thinking about my own work, and it also got me to think again about how monuments can shift and change how public opinion really matters, how we're in a moment where we're really reconsidering how decisions and how historical narratives result in monuments, but then how those things are not impermanent and how they can change. And so that thinking about change and temporality really affected how I approached my own work for the New Monuments project.
Farber: Your proposal brings together, as you said, a number of different sites and even ways of looking at the city's memory landscape. What are the places that are referenced or represented in Expanding Monuments?
Agu: The sites that I shot in expanding monuments were part of my daily walk. I am one of the few people in Houston, and this was actually a rare occurrence. I actually am one of the few people in Houston that had my apartment, my job, and my studio all live in walking distance of each other, which is not something that happens very often. As I'm sure you're aware when you visited Houston, it is very much a car city. Everything is designed to be driven through, walking is just not something that happens that often. It's not how we're really accustomed to navigating the city. Because I was able to walk in my day-to-day life and then I also have kind of walking through built environments, informs a lot of my work and how I think about sites to begin with. I just started shooting the places that were closest to me. So the sites that you see in New Monuments, I focused on one block that I would pass by on an almost daily basis that had... it was in the "Museum District," which is itself kind of a contentious term because the boundaries of old Third Ward, the Almeda corridor and the Museum District, those boundaries are very fluid depending on who you ask, and I guess how close you are to the new development. And so I was just thinking about this site of these really large museum anchor cultural institutions. There are also some old homes and historic buildings in the area, and this ongoing tension about new luxury development that's occurring. So I shot this one site that reflected all of those three, I guess, competing interests. And so in the photos that you see in my Expanding Monuments piece, you'll see green spaces of their tree leaves and things that are reflected in some of the images. You'll see scaffolding, you'll see tarps, which I always joke to people about how tarps are like a landscape feature of Houston in the parts that I live in. They're just everywhere, signifying new development, not just in what's coming, but I guess what's being torn down. You'll see all of that, and then you'll also see new development going up. So I went back to the same area. I shot it over a period of several months. I already had these images, and I was thinking about what I could do with them. And so in expanding monuments, I really wanted to bring in images that showed all of these different ways of thinking about this one site in terms of development: what could be there, how that site could be approached, what memories and histories are being erased, their new development, but then also who has access to the new site. Yeah, that's the imagery that you're looking at in the photographs.
Farber: In your writing, you said that this is a monument that is imagined as constructed but not installed. How do you think that this proposal even in theory interacts with other monuments that you've encountered in Houston or elsewhere? And I have to say one thing that comes to my mind, I don't know if it was intentional or not. When I see the tarp, I think of Charlottesville and the Robert E. Lee statue that was under tarp...
Agu: That's right.
Farber: ... for some time as a suspended moment of development or redevelopment or "don't look here."
Agu: Mm-hmm. Absolutely. And I'm so glad that you brought that up because that's an interesting thread that ties into my Emancipation Park research, which is a separate project. As I was creating these photographs and really just observing changes and competing interests over time, I really wanted to conceptually think through, "Okay, if instead of thinking about a monument as something that marks a singular historic figure or a particular historic narrative, what if instead we could think about a monument as something that shifts and changes something that's open to new voices being brought in, something that continues to reflect the shifts in memory and history of the site as time goes on." I didn't want to create, for example, a proposal for a new statue or a new object to be installed. I really wanted to think about conceptually could we think about monuments as something that grows spatially, think about it in terms of relationships rather than objects, and to think about shifts in time and our relationship to changes and changes in narrative in history. And so it's kind of like what I created was a proposal I guess for a conceptual monument. And so it was really fun to work on that. But it was also, for me, very satisfying because it was a way to represent all of these different questions and research interests that have come up through my work over time as I've been able to not just think about changes in Houston, but also changes in other urban areas like New Orleans, for example, that I mentioned earlier.
Farber: In thinking about those relationships, you've been a longtime collaborator with Houston's Project Row Houses.
Agu: That's right.
Farber: And as you mentioned, have devoted research to the nearby Emancipation Park, and of course, they're quite close spatially, but one of the dividing lines is Emancipation Avenue, which used to be Dowling Street named after a Confederate that has been recently renamed. When you're interacting with those spaces or with people in those spaces, how do those relationships between art spaces, public spaces and spaces of memory play out in your work?
Agu: Using the Emancipation Park research as an example, I was selected for a fellowship last year with the Kathrine G. McGovern College of the Arts at University of Houston in Project Row Houses. And I use the fellowship here to produce research and thinking and photographs around Emancipation Park. And I think this is a really good example of that speaks to those relationships that you just talked about because Emancipation Park has a really dynamic history in not just in Third Ward in Houston, but for the country at large really. Emancipation Park is the site of where a group of formerly enslaved people in the 1870s led by Reverend Jack Yates pooled their money together and purchased acreage so that they could safely celebrate Juneteenth, which originates actually just South of Houston in Galveston, Texas. It's where two years after emancipation, enslaved people in Texas belatedly found out that they had been emancipated. And so that date when General Granger in Galveston read that announcement, Juneteenth marks the date. And so Reverend Yates and his peers that were able to pull some money together to purchase this parkland wanted to have a safe site where they could annually celebrate this really important moment of emancipation. And over time, the park was acquired by the City of Houston for various reasons. It was not developed the way that other park spaces in the city were. Community groups and artists got involved through Friends of Emancipation Park. The Emancipation Park Conservancy later came out of that. There was just a major $30 million investment by the City of Houston into the parks. So it's now kind of a jewel of the city. But because of that investment, it's also creating additional pressures on the neighborhood surrounding it. So now, you have more development coming in, you have people that want to live next to Emancipation Park that would not otherwise have come into the Third Ward area. And so I think Emancipation Park on its own is a really just fascinating microcosm of these different relationships between arts institutions, artists, community members, public money, private development interests that are now trying to capitalize on this new public space. Having a chance last year to talk to people, community members, people that were a part of the old Friends of Emancipation Park group, people that were part of the new Conservancy community groups that had various relationships to both sides of that spectrum, and then also just seeing how the park space itself changed over time. I moved back to Houston during a time when the old Emancipation Park buildings were still present. And so I've also seen over time how that land has changed and how it relationship to the neighborhood has changed. It's a really fascinating and dynamic example of how histories and narratives can shift over time and how different interests can play a very active part in how public space changes and adapts. And so I was really happy to spend a year developing research that was able to speak to all of these different things. And so that's one reason why Emancipation Park was where I decided I wanted to spend the year to develop research because I felt like it spoke so clearly to these other things that I had been thinking through conceptually and materially in my previous work.
Farber: In your residency research, focused on Emancipation Park, in talking to people, specifically those who were familiar with the space before this massive investment and the change to being a Conservancy, what did you learn from speaking to people who had seen the different generations of the park and how did that correspond with what you observed yourself?
Agu: So some of the conversations that I had with community members who, for example, may have been younger or may have even been children and had played in the old Emancipation Park space decades ago before it fell into disrepair and then continued on its way to becoming the park that it is today, there was a real awareness of the importance of that space, not just in Third Ward, but, for example, in the State of Texas, Emancipation Park is... I guess it depends on how you date the actual acquisition by the city, but it's one of the oldest, if not the oldest public part in the State of Texas. And the fact that it was founded by formerly enslaved people, it's really incredible to think about. But it's also a history that not necessarily everyone is aware of unless you have this kind of really close relationship to the space. And so I talked to people who were not just historically invested, but also personally invested because they had a very real personal relationship to the park as children, as young adults. And now seeing the changes, there's this sense of, on one hand, it's really incredible to have the city show all of this interest and to bring the park up to... well, for Houston, modern park standards and to really see this history being invested in in a particular way, creating these really fantastic buildings and having new landscaping and all of these upgrades to infrastructure and things like that. But I think something that I was made very aware of in these conversations or that... and I want to say this carefully, but the people that now visit the park, the sorts of neighbors and visitors and programs that are taking place, in some cases, are dramatically different from what used to be there. I observed, but I was also made aware through these really interesting intimate conversations on one hand, this really incredible investment and how this history is being cemented in a particular way, but then also these other more like personal memories and narratives that are now maybe not as present as they were when the old buildings and the old site was available to the public. So it's an interesting balance. I think over the year, I talked to people, community members, nonprofits, community organizations that their responses to the development they're varied. And I think that Friends of Emancipation Park, which predated the Conservancy, was really a community-driven effort. The Conservancy is also very much in touch with the community, but I think in a different way as conservancies are. It's a different type of funding structure, it's a different relationship to the City of Houston, and so all of that comes into play when you're thinking about how people relate to the new parks space.
Farber: What is the relationship between this conversation you're picking up on in the park and the adjacent street now named Emancipation Avenue, but changed from its former name honoring a Confederate commander?
Agu: The renaming of Emancipation Park was an initiative led by community members, activists, people that were very interested in thinking about shifting that conversation away in a way, very clearly, ties in to some of the conversations happening around Confederate monuments, what we were speaking about earlier. But thinking about how can we shift away from these monuments and naming, which is an act of, I think, monumentalizing certain narratives, certain historical figures, but how can that shift to something that reflects more of the interest of the community itself, the histories that we want to protect and invest in? And when I say we, I lived in Third Ward for a number of years. And so I definitely feel, not just in terms of my work, but also being a renter and a community member and somebody that really found a creative home in the neighborhood. And so how can community members think about reshaping those narratives around naming and place and placemaking and site? But again, even though a lot of community members were involved in the renaming, again, it wasn't just a straightforward decision. I remember being on Facebook and seeing some older community members who were actually challenging the name change because even though it was a name, Dowling Street was dedicated to a Confederate-era figure, but in terms of personal timeline and personal memory, people were born and raised and had their children on Dowling Street. And so the name change, any sort of renaming, reframing of monuments and space it's always complicated, there's always multiple voices that need to be considered. And so the name change was one of those. I think having the street renamed as in changing it from Dowling to Emancipation is an incredible achievement. I think it speaks a lot to the power of community organizing and the awareness of the importance of the histories present in that neighborhood. It's interesting seeing how personal memory and history don't always line up. And so I think that name change it was just a really interesting moment to observe and to participate in.
Farber: When you're describing this dynamic between the ways that people find belonging or making meaning in a park, I'm thinking about another project of yours that I've read about and been really interested to hear more from you on, which is the Friends of Angela Davis Park. Could you share a little bit about that project and how you... again, this is another example of where you're intervening into public space with your critical work.
Agu: Absolutely. Friends of Angela Davis Park was a collaborative project between myself and collaborator, Gabriel Martinez, who is a Houston-based artist. And so the way the project originated was Gabriel had in his own work a practice of producing park signs for radical thinkers and thinking about what would... kind of putting these signs out in the public as these interventions and gestures, reshifting how we think about how parks spaces are named. And so Angela Davis Park was a sign that he created during his time at the CORE program. And so the sign had been put up in public. And for various reasons, his park signs in other areas had been removed and Angela Davis Park remained. Gabriel and I started working together on multiple projects at the time. And when I was thinking through the Angela Davis Park sign in particular, because I have in my own practice thinking about all the things that you've talked about with like the built environment, relationships to land and various things, we had a conversation, and I was thinking, "Okay, what if Angela Davis Park was an actual park space? What if we treated it like that?" And so that's how Friends of Angela Davis Park came to exist. It was a collaboration between myself and Gabriel, where we used park programming committee as a model for developing all of this programming that took place in this vacant lot that had the Angela Davis Park sign. And so we invited various artists, community members, poets, just people that were interested in what we were doing to join us in a series of public programs that took place in that vacant lot. And so it was an ongoing project. And we produce literature thinking about public space in Houston. As your listeners may be aware, Angela Davis has dedicated a lot of her work to prison abolition. And so through previous projects, I was very aware of Houston's relationship to private prisons. Houston was where the previous organization, was the CCA, which is formerly the Corrections Corporation of America. It was one of the first private prison corporations, which then went on to, I think, work with the INS to develop immigrant detention facilities in the Houston area, which is another conversation that's ongoing. But we're thinking about Houston's relationship to the private prison industry in particular. And so we developed literature thinking about the range of public and private space, prisons being on one side of that, park space as being on another side of that, and really thinking through all of these various relationships. It was a really incredible project. It came to an end. During our time with Friends of Angela Davis Park, it actually was included on Google Maps as a park space. Someone we're not sure who, but people were maintaining the grounds like we would come out and trash would be picked up, the grass would be mowed. Ii was a really interesting moment, but then eventually, the land that the park sign was on was taken over by restaurant parking. The sign was pulled up and then the project came to an end. So it was a really interesting moment to intervene in this space and have people think about these relationships between park, public space, private space, and the spectrum of those relationships.
Farber: You've done really remarkable work in researching the dynamics of actual public spaces and speculating to create new ones critically and creatively. Do you feel more of an inclination to work with established city and parks groups, or instead to create spaces of your own?
Agu: I think both modes of working are really important to my practice. On one hand, by creating these interventions and these public collaborative art projects that take place in the public sphere, I'm able to ask and engage in a particular set of questions that are different than when I'm working directly and doing research with existing community groups and these public spaces that have relationships to the city in a different way. And so I think both modes of working are really important for my work because I can ask different sets of questions. So when I think about how my practice is evolving, I think both are going to continue to be ways that I think through the built environment, relationships to land and public space and private space, in addition to continuing to work on more studio-based work, photography, object making, and writing because those are all different aspects of my practice that deal with various questions, including the ones that we've talked about today with monuments and parks spaces.
Farber: Regina Agu, thank you so much for joining us.
Agu: Oh, thank you so much for having me. This has been a really great conversation and I appreciate it.