What began as a University service learning course in 2012 is now connecting community members across socioeconomic and racial boundaries in the form of nonprofit organization Mid City Studio.
The studio stemmed from Executive Director and School of Architecture professional in-residence William Doran’s architecture and design class. Students partnered with a local nonprofit each semester to develop architecture projects the area needed. Once Doran began interacting with business professionals across the city, he created Mid City Studio as an umbrella coalition to enact all of his initiatives under.
For one of their first projects, the students collaborated with Mid City Redevelopment Alliance to transform the Laurel Street Fire House into a fireman’s museum. When the project was finished, they held a gathering celebrating the opening, and local residents and firemen brought pictures that were projected onto the back of the converted building. The event allowed for students to get to know the neighborhood and the people behind the project, Doran said.
After teaching the University course for three years, Doran recognized the need for education-based, community-focused outreach in the Mid City area and was inspired to make the studio more than a collection of student projects, he said.
To Doran, design isn’t just the way a city is laid out on paper — it’s a culmination of residents’ histories and experiences. This perspective is embodied in the studio’s #IAMMIDCITY social media campaign.
Doran’s class developed the hashtag in 2014 to create a space for community art. They took various photos tagged with the hashtag on Instagram and worked with Letterman’s Blueprints to display aluminum panels of the images outside the store. All of the photos encouraged a strong sense of identity and pride in Mid City, Doran said.
“An important element with building community is identifying with the place that you live,” he said.
This project eventually grew into the Spain Street Park installation and #IAMMIDCITY Educational Program in 2016. Doran and Mid City Studio Creative Director Lynley Farris created a third grade-level program used in Dufrocq and Bernard Terrace elementary schools in Mid City.
The curriculum educated children on the history of the neighborhood. The children made maps and timelines, citing their schools, favorite stores, and homes around the area, and decorated their own wooden hashtag. They were also given disposable cameras to take pictures of their world, Doran said.
From there, the photos were printed and put on display in the Spain Street Park. As they were setting up, Doran said, a young girl walked up and recognized her friends’ photos on the panels. It worked, he said — they were succeeding at connecting community members.
One of the most powerful aspects of the park installment lies in a graffiti tribute. Doran said the group noticed a “RIP,” in remembrance of a fallen member of the community. The organization brought in a local graffiti artist to create a large, beautiful work in their memory.
“This project embodies our mission,” Doran said “[We] are helping to educate people about where they live, activating different spaces, and connecting different people.”
Another community engagement event Mid City Studio puts on is Park(ing) Day, which originated in San Francisco. The event encourages people to re-examine the way space is used in cities, specifically parking space. In this social experiment, people use metered parking spaces for creative expression or education to “activate vacancy,” Doran said. His class developed three sectors for the event: a free library, a pop-up art exhibit, and planters that taught people the importance of healthy foods.
Since then, the studio acquired its nonprofit status in 2016 and continues to promote various projects by building on the versatile, rich history Mid City already possesses, the executive director said.
“Our goal is to look at design as a community process, igniting existing resources and connecting what’s already there to create something new,” Doran said.