Today, I spoke to three Gang Task Force (GTF) police officers. I talked to them about my vision for architecture and its unintended association to poverty, vandalism, and lack of opportunity. As an architect major, I’ve studied and read several books on both the sociology and psychology of those who struggle to recognize themselves as members of a functioning community. I briefly told them that I am writing an essay that touched on passed high school experiences and my exposure to knowing members from gangs that have been alive and growing for several years. Although I would not consider Lake Elsinore as a city heavily affected by gangs–especially when compared to Los Angeles or San Diego–there is a crucial component that is associated to the level of crime and ignorance and to the depreciation of our communities. The three officers, wearing their tactical gear on top of their civilian clothing while taking a break at a local Starbucks, were gracious enough to listen to what I had to say about these matters. I wanted to make sure my input and my approach was accurate and I figured asking 3 men who come in contact with this very subject would be an authentic opportunity for me to evaluate my perception. I read to them the following.
A story can be said about a particular set of restrooms belonging to restaurants in small and large cities: both economically healthy and unhealthy. I usually notice one thing that stands out first–vandalism. Restrooms with carved and scratched mirrors, branded with vulgar statements and gang related identities, paired with broken toilet paper dispensers, give us a disconcerting feeling. They remove the word rest from restroom and construct a damaging effect that distorts the perception we hold toward that particular city or town. What was once a restroom is now decreased to a stressroom. These spaces where we hope to find a sense of relief, typically in more than one or two ways, can begin to tell a story about a select group of individuals. There is a unique correlation between the restroom and the walls located outside its neighboring plazas and residences and sometimes churches. This small form of destruction can easily be done by a small group of people, which shouldn’t dictate the overall perception or credibility of its city, which reveals a specific need for these individuals. It shows that they have a distorted view on their self worth and it reveals that nothing within their environment is challenging them to rethink their thinking. They are stuck with this idea that making written claims inside a space where people urinate and defecate is meaningful.
I only read a section of this essay because the rest talks about design and the intervention taking place within cities that are affected by crime and other sociological problems. The GTF officers told me I hit it on the head. A different officer told me I should run for a political position. This was flattering. Another officer said that the challenging part is demonstrating that some of these individuals have a hard time understanding that what they are doing is wrong. He went on to say that gang members and those who vandalize don’t have a true sense of what they do, which makes it difficult to find meaning for their actions; things we consider better or noble. My conversation was short, yet perfect. I told them that the objective of this essay is to inform people that architecture–or the approach to developing future cities–should consider creating parameters for these groups such as parks and community based spaces. That way, when the less fortunate have no place to go, no ambition, and no room for self worth, they can be challenged by the iconic establishments we call architecture; spaces that encourage the members of its society to reconstruct and reevaluate their own lives. I shook their hands, thanked them, and they wished me well.
As I get older, I am realizing that architecture is linked to everything. As much as we are influenced by architecture in a positive manner, sociological problems can influence architecture. These problems can transform spaces into things that harbor destructive behavior; actions from people who can potentially harm our communities.