Abstract Barrios: The Crises of Latinx Visibility in Cities
Duke University Press, 2020
Reviewed by Alhelí Harvey
Pitched frames, white paint, some bright accent chairs, and Edison bulbs illuminating the patio are staples of Austin’s newest buildings across the East Side. While the historically Black and Latinx neighborhoods of the city are deeply self-aware of their own gentrification, this aesthetic trend appears to gain more currency with every new “In this House We Believe” lawn sign. Johana Londoño’s Abstract Barrios: The Crises of Latinx Visibility in Cities is not about Austin, but rather New York, Southern California, Miami, San Antonio, and Bergenline Avenue, Union City, New Jersey. But it could also be about Austin: each of these cities has a history of what Londoño identifies as a brokered Latinized space.
The preface opens with what traditional urban studies of Latinx life would perhaps consider blasphemous. Here, the author makes it strikingly clear that not all Latinx spaces are ones of resistance to a white ruling class’s aesthetic and city codes. Further, she draws very necessary attention to the milieu of obstacles that tenants must navigate in order to make their spaces their own. She also draws attention to how these obstacles in turn shape how tenants and brokers (designers, developers) make aesthetic judgements, why that matters, and how the aesthetic cannot simply be dismissed. She understands these choices as “aesthetic strategies” that are always at play in the “persistent crisis of Latinx belonging they are meant to appease.” In this way, she includes tenants as spatial brokers, a status that is often denied to them in traditional studies of the built environment, which tends to privilege developers and architects.
By situating her readers in the bustling transnational intersection of migration, housing, aesthetics, and their attendant questions, the text navigates a Latinx urban geography that runs from the Caribbean to California. The five chapters follow these central themes through place-specific case studies. True to any worthwhile study of Latinidad, Londoño has a very intentional multidisciplinary method. Her archive is deeply material in the form of documents, pamphlets, images, and actual buildings. These archives are also deeply affectively resonant: after all, we live in these spaces, make life in them, and our memories and meanings find their way onto the walls. She shows us how pigment, pictures, and places are all intimately bound to each other through people. We see this in multiple case studies, ranging from mid-century programs for tenants (Chapter One) to the bright colors of Latinx beauty salon walls (Chapter Five). Despite the tools and strategies practiced by Latinx urbanites to announce their spatial belonging, Londoño is able to balance the tensions between design and US ideals. Design, we are shown, has historically been a tool of crafting a consumer identity that would not disrupt or blight the urban environment. As a result, we see how Latinx presences are abstracted into bright colors and motifs that become stand-ins for a perceived cultural excess that must be managed by city planners and social services.
The text’s central claim is that Latinx subjects find themselves continually abstracted— neither present or absent— and that this abstraction can be observed (and in some cases is mitigated and crystallized) by the built environment. Invisibility is then something that is always a result of these abstractions. The first two chapters (“Design for the ‘Puerto Rican’ Problem” and “Colors and the ‘Culture of Poverty’”) excellently accompany each other. These chapters establish the opening of her chronological study with a post-war Puerto Rican resident of the Lower East Side. By starting in the post-war era, Londoño situates her study within a period of the 1940-50s, white flight, mid-century policies and projects of public housing, and what she sees as the emergence of Latinx barrio concentrations. This first case study of the “Puerto Rican problem” provides her with a theoretical anchor she expands on throughout the book that demonstrates the continuation of Latinx abstraction in cities.
Chapters Three and Four illustrate how strategies of recognition are often interpreted as movements that advance Latinx visibility in cities that rely upon making Latinx labor and people invisible. The Fiesta Market in Chapter Three is a prism for reading white flight in Santa Ana, California. This example complicates interpretations that would see it as a Latinx space by illustrating how instances of “inclusion” are actually further abstractions about race, ethnicity, and place. In effect, these negotiated spaces further deny Latinx belonging in cities, outside of pastiche and crude stereotyping that seldom helps actual Latinx urbanites. These points are resoundingly clear when Londoño examines how Santa Ana’s Fiesta Marketplace actually refracts colonial ideas about Latinized spaces. This analysis is furthered in the last two chapters which explore the complicated relationship between what the author terms “barrio affinity” and gentrification. Chapter Four looks at three major Latino spatial brokers: Henry Cisneros, former HUD secretary; Henry Muñoz, a San Antonio designer; James Rojas, an urban planner. All of these men have advocated for the barrio either rhetorically or through design, seeing the barrio as a space that is often overlooked by US urbanists, cities, and developers. Londoño contextualizes these men and their positions within a larger intellectual and political formation, but still highlights how their solutions may fall short of changing the material conditions of Latinx people in US cities. The fifth chapter walks down Bergenline Avenue and public spaces that commemorate Latinx historical figures. This final example highlights how low-income Latinx residents and Latinx businesses are purposefully curtailed by city officials, an invisibilization that allows for the mechanisms of gentrification and a peculiar spatial ghostliness in the form of memorials to Latinx historical figures. This phenomenon is one that seems to rub salt in the wounds of displacement, as if to say “We only want you when you’re gone.” In this way, Londoño grapples with how erasure and mortality are connected, both serving to obscure the actual needs, desires, and spaces of living Latinx citizens.
The final log in the text is a Coda entitled “Colorful Abstraction as Critique.” The Coda serves to bring the reader into the current political context and moment. Latinx belonging in cities does not begin on metropolitan blocks, but rather at the very threshold which organizes the nation-state. In this conversation, this threshold is the hypervisible US/Mexico border. Readers are presented with the collaborative project produced by the Guadalajara architecture firm Estudio Pi (3.14) and the University of Connecticut’s Mammertime Project, known as “The Wall.” This project was a pink border container-city designed specifically for the purpose of critique. In her discussion of the project, we again find ourselves with Londoño’s elaboration of a logic of color which quite literally colors, contours, and contains an abstracted Latinx Other in the built environment.