Of Discrimination, Housing and Board Games

"You are picked up for ‘loitering’ and taken directly to the police station for interrogation. Go back three spaces."

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Flavio Trevisan

The Pop-Up City blog drew our attention last week to a great project from Toronto artist Flavio Trevisan, who has created a board-game-as-artwork enticingly titled The Game of Urban Renewal (OK, this is enticing to us, at least). The project reminded us that there is something of a history to board games dramatizing low-income and discriminatory housing policy. An earlier such game – one that looks like an antecedent to Trevisan’s, although he had not heard of it – makes a brief cameo in the House & Home exhibit currently showing at the National Building Museum.

That 1970 predecessor, called Blacks & Whites, was produced by the magazine Psychology Today, and was created to teach white players about what life was like for blacks in an era when all the housing rules were stacked against them. Not surprisingly, Blacks & Whites never went mass market (it doesn’t even appear to have gotten enough traction to have widely offended racists of the era).

Both projects touch on the competing interests of urban real estate, the random politics of planning decisions and the simple realty that where one lives is dictated by much more than money. In fact, the board game is kind of the perfect medium to explain all of this (did you know that the earliest incarnation of Monopoly was more politically called “The Landlord’s Game”?). Cities are largely about systems and processes. And board games are great for making plain the consequences of every move through such a complex world.

What better way to appreciate the ripple effect of a single decision – to take out a mortgage, to build a new park, to raze an apartment complex – than to watch it play out in super-fast time during family game night? At least, this is our theory. We thought we’d ask Trevisan and National Building Museum curator Sarah Leavitt what they thought as well.

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Leavitt actually has an edition of Blacks & Whites in her office on the fourth floor of the National Building Museum in Washington.

"Here’s one where the black people have to roll the dice and get sent to Vietnam," she says, holding up one of the playing cards that would be the equivalent of a “chance” or “community chest” draw in Monopoly.

She discovered the game last Thanksgiving while visiting her in-laws in New York. Her then-9-year-old son had unearthed it in the family’s basement.

"The funniest part to me was the different memories of everybody about the game,” she says. Her mother-in-law had purchased Blacks & Whites to teach her children about racism at a time when the family was living in a still-segregated city in Mississippi in the ‘70s. Her husband’s sisters remembered it as a pointless game because, of course, if you chose one of the black pawns there was almost no way you could win it. "And my husband remembered it as tragic, that it was so sad, it wasn’t fair, it was so upsetting."

The family never got around to playing Blacks & Whites last Thanksgiving. But Leavitt, who was then finishing plans for the House & Home exhibit, knew the game needed to be included. Blacks & Whites framed racism in that era as a problem of housing and segregation.

"That’s why I loved it," Leavitt says. She was building an intricate timeline for the exhibit telling the story of American history through housing. "All of those stories are enmeshed in where people live and why they live there."

If you visit the exhibit, the game garners only a brief mention (and scanned image). But the most telling details are on the board itself and in the instructions. Blacks & Whites is organized like a Monopoly board, with properties increasing in value as you move around it. The property clusters have fantastically blunt names: the "inner ghetto," the "outer ghetto," "lower integrated" and "upper integrated" neighborhoods, "lesser suburbia," "greater suburbia," "newer estates” and, lastly, "older estates" (namely, Bethesda and Georgetown!). The board mimics the concentric housing rings of many cities as you move out toward the suburbs, from the all-black "inner ghetto" to the all-white "older estates."

According to the instructions, the game tries to emphasize "the absurdities of living in different worlds while playing on the same board." "White" players get a million dollars from the treasury to start the game; blacks get $10,000, and they’re restricted in where they can buy properties. Blacks and whites also draw from separate opportunity card decks.

Here’s a white card: "Stock dividend from a company that makes tear gas. Collect $40,000."

And a black one: "Government begins urban-renewal project. You lose both Harlem and Watts. Collect full price less 10% from Treasury."

The phrase "urban renewal" conjures a specific era in history, one that was obviously underway in cities across America at the time that Blacks & Whites came out. Trevisan’s board game, though, isn’t necessarily about this era. His game comes in a "special Regent Park edition" (although this is, in fact, the only edition). Regent Park in Toronto was the first public housing complex in Canada, and today the city is wrestling with how to replace these aging buildings now that they sit on what’s considered prime land near downtown in a booming community.

"There are cranes everywhere. There are so many buildings being built, it’s not like '20s New York, but in some ways it kind of feels that way," Trevisan says. "It’s exciting that people are moving here, that the city’s growing. But at the same time, we’re kind of falling into this trap again of like ‘well, what we did in the past was all wrong, and now we know better, everything is going to be perfect when we do this.’ The cycle has come full circle.”

This is what Trevisan means by urban renewal: the erasing of past properties and neighborhoods to rebuild from scratch what we think will be something better. Many of the projects that were demolished under “urban renewal” were once thought to be bright, new housing solutions themselves. Today, Trevisan believes, we’re doing something pretty similar.

"That’s the crux of the game," he says. "The idea of the game is that everyone has their own perfect utopian idea of what the answer, what the solution is."

And, as such, the game never ends. Literally, this is in the instructions: "The game never ends. Continue playing until all players have left the game in pursuit of other interests."

In the Game of Urban Renewal, you can be a developer or a community activist, a skyscraper enthusiast or an "academic urban theorist," among others. Players get to build properties and parks. But with the lucky spin of the wheel, they can also demolish as much of the board as they like, resetting the tabula rasa. Trevisan was putting the whole concept together around the time that infamously anti-urban mayor Rob Ford was elected.

"I was really upset with that whole process and who we got," Trevisan says. "A lot of my cynicism started coming through as I was writing these instructions."

To wit:

You and your friends can do all the things that are done in a modern city’s cut-throat planning office. You can demolish a failed urban experiment and start again from the ground up. With no budget problems and no political agendas to cloud your vision, you can build bigger and better than any city’s done before. Renewal is fun in the city of the future!

"As you can imagine," Trevisan says, "it’s not really a fun game to play."

Unlike Blacks & Whites, the Game of Urban Renewal isn’t actually intended for your home entertainment. Trevisan hopes that people can appreciate its lessons by viewing it as a piece of artwork. He first displayed it in a small window gallery in Toronto, and then as part of a solo show (which included, alas, a fake gift shop). So there is only one edition, and no, community activists and academic urban theorists, you can’t have it. It’s currently on display at Ryerson University.           

"As an artist, I can make one thing," Trevisan says. "As soon as I make it multiple times, it’s starts to get really time-consuming, and with very little satisfaction at the end."

Maybe someone else wants to step in here? There may be more of a market for geeky urban housing board games than he originally thought.

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.