Thursday, August 20, 2020 / by The Villages Home Search
When Jerald Cooper, a creative director and talent manager, was growing up in Cincinnati’s College Hill in the 1990s, he was into the things most kids were into: sports, rap, and anime cards from Columbia House. He didn’t give architecture much thought.
“I clearly remember the interiors of buildings, but have no real memory of exteriors at all as a kid,” Cooper says.
But the neighborhood, which is known for its abolitionist community and network of Underground Railroad safe houses, has its moments — if you know where to look.
After a job in the music industry brought him to Los Angeles — with its mid-century-modern Case Study homes stretching from the hills to the coast, and Googie architecture everywhere in between — he began to nerd out on architecture. With a trained eye, he returned to Cincinnati this past autumn to visit family. On a walk around College Hill, he spotted three mid-century houses with low-slung, A-line roofs. Cooper didn’t think twice about these single-story brick abodes when he was a kid, but after spending so much time in L.A., he did a double take. He posted the homes to Instagram, and Hood Century got its start in the world.
“I just wanted to show mid-century modern in a dope-ass way, sort of like it could have a new language,” Cooper says of starting the account.
Cooper isn’t a design expert in the traditional sense — and doesn’t claim to be — but the Instagram is his way of learning more about the subject and bringing people along for the journey. His recent obsession is finding references in hip-hop visuals.
“There’s this Ol’ Dirty Bastard video. It’s one of the best. This video is so beautiful,” Cooper says of the visuals accompanying the 1999 song “Got Your Money,” which contain clips from the 1975 blaxploitation film Dolemite. “There’s this guy in front of a Googie car wash in Los Angeles just doing some silly shit. I was marveling at the fact that I could post this video, which is like 20 years old, and make it new.”
Another recent post details the backstory behind the ubiquitous concrete basketball hoops found in parks across the country (and in a recent NxWorries video, which Cooper shares in one of the slides). Reading Cooper’s commentary makes you feel like you’re in on a secret: He tracked down the designer of the equipment, sculptor Jim Miller-Melberg: “An artist who rebelled against conventional playground design, creating climbable, abstract sculptures and created ‘The Mid Century Modern Basketball Hoop’ .... and like a million other little playground [thingies] that ifff [you’re lucky] enough (and old enough) you remember,” Cooper writes. “The mothafuckin built space.”
Hood Century has become an archive of sorts for the intersections between Black culture and mid-century architecture: Tyler, the Creator photographed at a Desert Modern house in Palm Springs; the 1960s Inglewood apartment building in HBO’s Insecure; a portrait of Jay-Z with the Twin Towers behind him, plus background info on the skyscrapers’ architect, Minoru Yamasaki; the Compton Cowboys posing in front of the Harold Williams–designed city hall; the Lorraine Motel, the site at which Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated (“The most important image in midcentury modern history,” Cooper writes in the caption). By grouping moments in pop culture alongside civil-rights history, Cooper is making architecture more accessible.
“When I started to introduce things like this to my friends, who were, like me, people with slightly higher than casual interests in design, and they had not seen this before, they were like, ‘Bro. I cannot unsee this. I am now looking at the hood differently,’” Cooper says. “For people who don’t give a fuck about architecture, what do they want to see? Pop culture is a very real and very influential thing. There’s millions of people who will connect.”
These connections are Cooper’s larger purpose. The Instagram account is only one piece in a much bigger puzzle that’s steadily coming together. With Hood Century, Cooper is building a new type of preservation society, editorial platform, and archive as a way to make design more exciting to more people. But the real mission goes beyond fandom: It’s about strengthening communities by rewriting a history in which Black people have often been erased or overlooked.
“I just think there’s nothing more important for Black folks right now than archival history, because our history was taken away from us,” Cooper says. “If people start to learn about these buildings, that knowledge starts to preserve. We’re a preservation society. I want people to say, ‘Oh, snap. That’s like a dope way that a preservation society can be.’ It doesn’t have to be an older, Eurocentric kind of thing. We’re going to make it not douchey, not crazy academic, and hopefully down that path we’ll help connect architecture and design to Black and brown folks.”
Cooper, who is in his mid-30s, is a creative impresario who is interested in building things. He made a name for himself managing Young Guru, the engineer and producer who earned a Grammy for his work on Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s Everything Is Love, and Ama Lou, a young R&B artist from London. His impact-focused design studio, Things We’ve Made, is currently working with Black Archives to produce a book.
Cooper has mostly lived between Los Angeles, New York, and London over the past ten years — cities that all have well-preserved and well-appreciated design landscapes. They also have difficult histories with displacement and gentrification. But it was a visit to a mid-century house in L.A. a few years ago (he forgets which one because he was “high off that Cali,” he says) that hooked him on architecture.
“I thought, That’s like the ideal home,” Cooper says. “You walk in, and you can see right through the house to the pool and the city below. That night, I became obsessed with mid-century modernism.”
His personal hobby became a more serious public endeavor late last year. After a breakup with his longtime girlfriend, Cooper took a step back from the music industry and was looking for a creative reset. He left Los Angeles and returned to his hometown. That walk around College Hill was an awakening.
“It struck me that I didn’t think the people inside the homes know the significance of the homes,” Cooper says. “And I thought that could be a problem.”
The history of design and architecture — as it’s traditionally been told, what it celebrates, the figures it valorizes, what it ignores — is through the lens of whiteness. Black architects and designers have often been overlooked. And historic preservation, as it’s been typically practiced, has failed to save important African-American cultural sites. Meanwhile, modern architecture from the mid-century — which often came as a result of urban renewal — has a complicated history of destabilizing and displacing Black and brown communities while also being a landscape of cultural memory. However problematic these post-urban-renewal neighborhoods were, they ended up being where Black and brown people put down their roots, built their networks and new communities, and have become touchstones.
“I am actually very concerned about Marcy Houses,” the public-housing project dating from the late 1940s in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Cooper says. “To me, Jay-Z is like a God of human beings and Black males. He’s up there with MLK. For his home not to be preserved, for my kids not to be able to go there and see how you could be anything after coming from public housing ... we need to preserve that. Who’s going to do that?”
To Cooper, knowledge about buildings and neighborhoods runs deeper than recalling facts and trivia; it’s about ownership.
“Cities sometimes feel like they’re not yours, they don’t belong to you, and now these people are being able to identify these buildings? That’s the connection,” Cooper says. “There’s all these urban refugees renting a house that’s not theirs, that’s owned by somebody else, not really ever having a chance to connect in a more meaningful way. And it’s giving me the chills.”
Cooper knows that cities and neighborhoods are going to change. His question is: Who’s going to own the change? Will it be people who already have a connection to a neighborhood and are already personally invested in seeing it thrive, or will it be an outsider? Showing folks the value of this type of design is also a play toward historic preservation by making sure the people who made the neighborhoods can actually stay there. Part of the solution, according to Cooper, is for communities to recognize the value of their neighborhoods and invest in them — or else others will.
“A lot of Black folks go and invest safely and then a lot of white folks would go [to a soon-to-gentrify neighborhood] and be like, ‘Look, this is about to be all of this, that, and there. I’m just going to wait it out,’” Cooper says. “And so I say to my people: Take a little bit more risk. We can make neighborhoods now with our social influence.”
One of these missed opportunities was Inglewood, the Los Angeles neighborhood undergoing rapid gentrification. The area has faced development pressure from a tech boom, and the construction of a new NFL stadium — which will host the 2028 Olympic Games — heightened the problem. Working with filmmaker Dwayne LeBlanc, Hood Century produced a video about the history of Inglewood, its architecture, and the forthcoming Olympics to help residents prepare for change and perhaps seize an opportunity to become active participants in it.
The film features found footage and archival family photos of folks in their homes alongside shots of South L.A.’s low-slung ranch houses, boxy 1960s apartment buildings, Art Deco post offices and storefronts, and other everyday or more extraordinary structures that define the area. “A house ain’t nothing but a house,” says a neighborhood elder who was interviewed for the movie. “You have to make it what you want.” He also went on to talk about seeing white flight in the 1960s and how most of the neighbors he knew either died or moved away.
“I’m like, This is worse than gentrification; this is about to be the Olympic Village,” Cooper says. “Regular degular people only learn about something when it breaks ground. I just wanted to give people a heads-up ... I want to get people the information, so they can start preparing earlier instead of being reactive.”
In the coming months, Hood Century plans to release more films, publish a zine, and create merchandise like T-shirts and flash cards around the theme of historic preservation in Inglewood and the Olympic Village.
Back in Cincinnati, Cooper is following his own lead. Six months ago, he and his brother purchased a building in the city’s West End neighborhood, one of the most important Black neighborhoods in the city, home of some of the first integrated public-housing buildings in the country and where his father is from. It’s also about to receive a new Major League Soccer stadium. Without more neighborhood awareness about the coming changes, he believes the West End will become like Over-the-Rhine, which experienced rapid gentrification under the guise of revitalization.
Revelation Baptist Church, where multiple generations of Cooper’s family worshipped and where Martin Luther King Jr. once studied, is also part of the new West End Stadium District and is slated to be demolished after efforts to designate it as a historic landmark failed. (The older building had been expanded and renovated with a slant-roofed modernist addition in 1976, which local officials decided had made it no longer sufficiently historic.)
While Cooper laments not being able to preserve the building, he was able to find a silver lining: the church’s mid-century furniture. He was in town recently because of COVID-19 and thought he’d stop by the building to pay his last respects when he saw the church elders about to discard thousands of dollars’ worth of sofas and chairs. He saw the value the elders didn’t and asked if he could have them instead. Cooper plans to sell the furniture and donate the money to the congregation, which it needs as it tries to find a new place to worship. It’s an example of the impact Cooper wants to have with Hood Century: spreading appreciation of mid-century design as a way to preserve local history and culture and keep that value in communities.
“I couldn’t believe we couldn’t preserve that church,” Cooper says. “But I’m looking to be a part of that change because it’s not difficult. If it’s not happening, it’s because there’s no social concept around historic preservation. We just have to see ourselves in it.”
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