Conversation
with Damon Rich

Conversation
with Damon Rich

Barbara Epstein
View all stories

We still have the glow we’ve had since Damon Rich, a 2007 Loeb Fellow, received a MacArthur Fellowship this fall. Damon has followed an unusual pathway for an urban designer and planner. He was chief of staff for Capital Projects at the NYC Parks Department and founded the Center for Urban Pedagogy. After his Loeb year, he was recruited by Newark, New Jersey, (Toni Griffin–LF ‘98–was director of Community Development) to be planning director and chief urban designer. In these roles and with his design firm Hector, Damon has led a host of award-winning planning and urban design projects. While he was at the Harvard Graduate School of Design to join the review for Dan D’Oca’s Refugees in the Rust Belt studio last term, curator John Peterson sat down with him to learn what it was like to get the award and what the view is from the top.

JP: We have been proud to have you as a Loeb even before you got the MacArthur, and of course we’re especially prideful of your accomplishment. We want to know more–tell us what it was like getting the call from MacArthur.

DR: It was–and I know this is the way they want it to be–truly unexpected, and my first feelings were “Why me?” And I’m thankful that if this was ever going to happen, it was in my very mature 40s where, 1–you’re definitely convinced there isn’t such thing as a genius. And 2–you’re acutely aware that you are almost without any substance without the people that you’ve had the good fortune to come across and work with.

A close friend, Sister Carol, said, “You know really quickly after you meet someone whether you’d ever want to work with them or not.” I thought about all the people who pulled my jacket–Sister Carol definitely, and a long list of others. It’s the productive side of feeling a little inadequate: thinking of the people I feel grateful for who are doing this work.

There is the phone call part of the story, too: there’s a weird caller ID and the call starts just like all the others you don’t want to answer: “Congratulations! You have been selected!” I had bad phone reception, and when they said, “Are you familiar with us?” I thought they were saying, “Did you sign up for this?” and I said no. And they said, “You should go on our website and read about it.” Eventually the director read me a little paragraph that showed they did some research about me.

My parents weren’t familiar with the award and were very skeptical. A reporter from the Jewish Light of St. Louis plied them for all kinds of embarrassing stories–some were true, some fabricated. My dad told them I helped sick children. And paid extra taxes.

JP: A while ago you told me, “It seems like I ping pong between private sector–public sector–private sector–public sector.” Is there a North Star for you, like “I’ve gotta keep digging deeper here”?

DR: Yes there are some threads, although I don’t necessarily think of it as digging deeper; it’s more like eating a cookie from lots of different sides. At the center of it has always just been a great joy in designing things, and I don’t think it is so unique. Any young person that drapes a sheet over a table and goes underneath knows what that’s all about.

Newark Riverfront Park includes an orange boardwalk made of recycled PVC, a set of orange sticks, and various narrative installations on the park’s making, designed by Hector in collaboration with Weintraub Diaz Landscape Architecture and MTWTF for the City Of Newark, Essex County, and The Trust For Public Land. Photo: Hector Urban Design, Planning & Civic Arts.

As a teen I was critical of the mid-20th century suburbs I grew up in; later I came to understand more of politics and the limitations of changing conditions, that it’s a pretty complicated process.

In high school I was lucky to have met Bruce Carl, who led a program called Youth Leadership–like Loeb for high school students. He set up interviews with adults around the St. Louis metro area. One day we went from interviewing the mayor of East St. Louis, which is a depressed city in Illinois across the river from the arch, to interviewing the chairman of Civic Progress, which included CEOs of top corporations and played a big role in the urban planning of St. Louis. Hearing those two adults and their conflicting takes on how the world works and who makes decisions was mind blowing, more interesting than anything I learned in school. That kind of exposure was really what brought me here.

JP: What about your work now? What is Hector?

DR: My partner Jae Shin and I have collaborated for about ten years while we both had other jobs. She worked in architecture and was a Rose fellow at the New York City Housing Authority, and I was working for Newark City Hall. Eventually it made sense to formalize the partnership. One early initiative was with the Newark city government and the local architecture school when we were redrafting the city’s zoning laws. We were able to get support from the National Endowment for the Arts to create educational materials about what zoning is and why you might be interested in it and later to make the first physical model of the entire city of Newark.

Hector’s work on the Newark Zoning and Land Use Regulations (known affectionately as NZLUR, or “NUZZ-LER”) included new regulations, popular education workshops, and the first scale model of the entire city. Photo: Hector Urban Design, Planning & Civic Arts.

There had been models of downtown, but it was really important for us to show the entire city. It was amazing to see people’s reactions. Those who knew the city really well came to help us check it as we were finishing, but others would come in and say, “I thought Newark was shaped like a box, not like this bizarre octopus.”

Photo: Hector Urban Design, Planning & Civic Arts.

Since I stopped working for city government in 2015, we’re a full time urban design planning and civic arts studio. The projects we’re best at have a central design mission, whether around public space like a park or community facilities like daycare or school facilities, but there’s also a larger organizing challenge.

Working in local government was amazing even if it does cause modest brain damage in long exposure. You’re in the middle every single day of so many people’s arguments: about how big a building should be or what it should look like or how a street should be laid out or what kind of sports should be in the park. That gives you a view of the forces trying to shape the environment and make design work for them. And there’s the possibility of creating coalitions that allow something to happen that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible. Our work on Mifflin Park in Philadelphia is a great example of that.

Model and drawings from Hector’s landscape design and neighborhood plan for Philadelphia’s Mifflin Square Park. Collaborators included the Mifflin Coalition: SEAMAAC, Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia, Bhutanese American Organization— Philadelphia, United Communities, Friends of Mifflin Square Park, and Mural Arts Philadephia Restored Spaces (2016–present). Photo: Hector Urban Design, Planning & Civic Arts.

JP: I’m wondering what you see as the need for innovation within planning and urban design if we’re going to solve our pressing problems.

DR: Working in the Newark planning office I came to see innovation as part of a very, very long arc. Our core tools were a planning board and zoning board and zoning law that were 100 years old, meant to mediate all the scuffles that people have once they’re close enough together that what one builds really affects the next person. The official proceedings are based upon this pretty hopeful democratic notion–that there are decisions we have to make together–but you mostly see people who are paid to be at the table: architects or engineers or real estate lawyers or developers. But these fundamental legal structures actually connect us to the social life force of our society. So a lot of our work in Newark wasn’t about coming up with the newest thing; it was just trying to do our best to purposefully nurture and rehab these things we inherited that have been disengaged from their original goals.

Design is not an off-on, black-white, Republican-Democrat choice; it’s all kinds of people coming together around a thing that might or might not eventually be. It’s a new notion that democracy should be part of how we design the places we use every day. It was only in the ‘50s that we had a national law that said that if you’re doing something, local government, you need to have a public hearing and let people come and scream at you. That was a concession to the pushback against all this bad urban renewal stuff that had already happened.

At Hector right now, we’re really excited about bringing people into that joy of making things.

JP: How was Loeb useful to you?

DR: Professionally, the Loeb Fellowship was a lifesaver. To this day the best resources I’ve had are some of the elders and international folks that we met here. The day to day included a lot of hanging out–in classrooms, in kitchens sometimes–where some of the most helpful professional development happened.

Setting up the Center for Urban Pedagogy was fun and I worked with amazing people, but everyone was inexperienced and young and trying to figure out what that organization could do. It wasn’t very clear where my professional life might go if I ever left that strange island. Being accepted into the Loeb Fellowship made leadership succession possible at CUP. Also, it was a validation. I had Loeb colleagues that were more experienced than me, but by the 10th or 100th time telling my story, I had a higher level of respect for myself: “all right, these people don’t know anything more than I do.” Plus it was through Loeb that I found my position in Newark, so it’s a pretty indispensable link to the great people I’m still connected with and what I was able to do.

JP: One of the most powerful things that this experience can bring is a really simple thing–you can be a member of this tribe–that goes a long way.

DR: One other thing that has always been really notable for me, more so after Newark, is the origin story of the Loeb Fellowship. You have these rebellions across the country in the late 1960s in cities with black ghettos, like Newark where I live now. You have the National Guard occupy the city for weeks and kill two dozen people, and the world is falling apart.

And then Bill Doebele says to John Loeb, ‘Things are really going to pot, but these professions of urban planning and architecture and design can respond to this.’

So something was born, and I think about how an elite institution, by no means isolated from the situation that created the crisis, can come up with new tools and new ways of working, which is not an easy turnaround.

JP: What would you like to see in the Fellowship of the future?

DR: So much has changed in the 10 years since I was here. I’ve always been most excited to be part of recruitment and selection. I’m happy to see you focus on age balance and all the kinds of differences that you could pack into 10 people. For me that’s the number one thing, because if the main thing you’re doing is hanging out and talking, your ingredients are important.

One category I feel really enriches the Loeb: people who practice place-based politics. They’re coming from nonprofit or advocacy or service organizations focussed on truancy, heating aid, legal services, then all of a sudden someone needs to do some community planning because either gentrification is coming or foreclosed abandoned buildings are causing problems. And some organizations make that transition to organize constituents and bring them to leadership and decision-making. These things that an organized community can do are the heart of Loeb.

Currently on view at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Hector’s Space Brainz—Yerba Buena 3000 invites visitors to enter where clashing interests maneuver to shape the world. Photo: Hector Urban Design, Planning & Civic Arts.

At Hector we aren’t able to do good work unless the client is in the position to bring power to bear. So I’m excited about people who work locally in environmental justice organizations, housing advocacy organizations, and see the need for the kinds of tools that are discussed in the Loeb and at the GSD, but who are learning on their own. Karen Abrams (LF ’17) is an example: somebody who had a set of commitments and a knowledge base and started doing new things within her bureaucracy.

Another group that I’m a big advocate of–and we have some representatives already–local government. I also think about youth education people who have roots in urban planning and design. But basically I look at the cohorts in the 10 years since I’ve been there, and all the things that I like somehow mysteriously are increasing.

JP: How’s your teaching?

DR: I taught a class this semester at the graduate Urban Design program at Columbia. The students have to figure out what’s going on at a contested site in New York City, which involves things that wouldn’t necessarily seem connected to architecture or design. You follow one lead, and all of a sudden it’s about the Hasidic Jews versus the Puerto Ricans, or it’s about environmental scientists disputing something poisonous at the bottom of the canal, and how you should clean it up, and how soon you can build luxury housing next to it. The students have to break it down–not a prescription, just make it understandable for someone like my grandmother. It’s an exercise in investigation, translation, and critical reflection on the possibilities and constraints at the threshold between politics and finance.

 

Mifflin Park project, Philadelphia

JP: I have to ask: where did the name Hector came from?

DR: Oh well, we have a couple different stories for that! One is related to what we were talking about: we firmly believe that urban design and architecture and planning are hectoring businesses. They have to do with power and sending signals about how things should be and what’s important. And our name shows that we think those issues need to be front and center in the design process.

 

All images courtesy of Hector Urban Design, Planning & Civic Arts.