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Sacred Black Spaces: Placemaking Through a Mobile Barbershop
By: Vanessa Morrison - March 1st, 2019
The Black Man’s Sanctuary
While a boy’s first professional haircut is one of the many rites of passage he will experience throughout his lifetime, Black barbershops are much more than just places to get fades and edge-ups. Since the fruition of these spaces pre-antebellum period, Black barbershops have been one of the few safe and sustainable businesses that Blacks could own and gather in for culture and community. Coined “the Black man’s sanctuary” by distinguished public figures such as Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison, barbershops serve as safe havens and stages for Black public life while fostering fellowship, connection, and much more on top of getting fresh.
The Black owned barbershop tells an important part of American history in the context of Black culture, entrepreneurship, and public space; and has long been due for more attention from urban planning academics and professionals. The Black barbershop organically congregates individuals and families in an enriching environment where people can intimately connect and have community. Even President Barack Obama was known for making visits to Black barbershops and beauty salons to strategically attract the Black vote. Other politicians have also utilized this culturally specific strategy knowing that when you’re in the Black barbershop you’re in the heart of the Black community.
While these spaces serve as critical cultural assets in their respective communities, many of them can be difficult for some to access. In my community (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma), these shops oftentimes exist within an urban fabric of disinvestment, blight, and dated infrastructure such as broken sidewalks, awkwardly and dangerously placed public transit stops, and more. The elderly, physically challenged, and public transit dependent are disproportionately faced with these obstacles and barriers when orienting their way to the barbershop. These barriers not only make it challenging to access these professional services, but can isolate people from the cultural connections that take place specifically in these spaces.
The pictures below displays the physical challenges pedestrians must endure for basic services; from left-right, they include: walkways with major tripping hazards and flooding; bus stops with no ADA accommodations, pedestrian sidewalk, or basic amenities; and poor catch basin drainage facilities making it impossible for pedestrians to cross.
My once research project and now business, En Root Mobile Barbershop Company, explores place-making in Black barbershop spaces through the operation of a mobile, ADA accessible, 3-chair barbershop. The mission of En Root is to not only eliminate obstacles and barriers by bringing professional barbering services to neighborhoods, but to also to extend the physical space and culture of the barbershop to communities.
It’s More Than Just A Haircut
After quickly observing in my research that barbershop patrons go to these spaces for much more than just a haircut, using Photovoice and asset mapping research methodologies I critically explored these lived experiences further to further understand what people’s journeys were like when trying to access these spaces. My now-fiancé was building out En Root during my studies and we were able to reference my findings to utilize En Root to its best and highest use in specific community spaces.
My research revealed that because many of the Black barbershops in my community exist within forgotten areas of the city, that many people physically struggled getting to the barbershop. Participants I interviewed did as much as catch three buses and walked a quarter of a mile, rode their bike through stray dog-ridden neighborhoods, and ran across high speed streets with no crosswalk. These barriers collectively leave some patrons with little to no accessibility to these spaces, particularly for those who live in more rural areas. However, although the journey to the shop was cumbersome for most it was worth it to have access to this space and experience on a regular basis; further speaking volumes to the importance of these spaces.
Needs Assessment - Site Analysis
With these findings we developed a weekly parking model to reach different areas of our city that lacked a Black barbershop space. We solidified four different locations with property owners and collaborated with each location to compliment their business/community outreach efforts. One of our parking locations was at a “second chance” school where adults could go to earn their GED, special certifications, learn how to read, and more. Our barbers spoke with their students about the importance of professionalism and grooming, and created a space on their site where staff and students could have a community space outside of the classroom. Another parking location was at an apartment complex where we gave current and prospective residents discounted rates on services to incentivize their interest.
In our first five months we conducted 1,200 appointments with 219 new clients and traveled over 4,500 miles to reach these communities, not including special and charitable events we collaborated on such as a teen conference for foster youth, bringing the shop a foster group home and a homeless day shelter on a recurring basis, and various back to school events.
The Beauty of Black Barbershops
While there isn’t much research or documented history of Black barbershop spaces, the significance and contributions these spaces have and continue to bring to communities is more than evident. Urban planning professionals and academics are missing an opportunity when they are not tapping into these spaces as a means of community engagement, trust-building, and guidance in their efforts to make cities more inclusive for all. Additionally, with many everyday services going mobile, such as: restaurants, boutiques, pet grooming, and more, Black barbershops are faced with a unique opportunity to adapt their services to their clients’ convenience needs while sharing the culture with the rest of the community.
For More Information, please visit En Root Mobile Barbershop’s website: www.enrootokc.com
All photos are courtesy of Vanessa Morrison.