AFRO Exclusive: Black Face Photo Sparks Concern

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By Alexis Taylor
Special to the AFRO

A picture snapped nearly eight years ago in Rotterdam, Netherlands led to a resignation letter from the lead contractor in South Baltimore’s Middle Branch waterfront redevelopment.

The Baltimore City Board of Estimates announced May 11 that West 8 Urban Design and Landscape Architecture, a Dutch firm, would be awarded $325,000 to carry out the first phase of the multi-million dollar project. 

Those plans were interrupted last week when a photo from a 2012 company party began to circulate. The picture depicts an ex-employee dressed as St. Nicholas next to his three children, all dressed as “Black Pete,” the black-faced, curly-haired helper popular in Dutch folklore.

West 8 has come under fire for a 2012 photo that depicts an ex-employee dressed as St. Nicholas next to his three children, all dressed as “Black Pete,” the black-faced, curly-haired helper popular in Dutch folklore.

When you know better you need to do better,” said Lisa Hodges-Hiken, executive director of the Westport Community Economic Development Corporation (Westport CEDC). Hodges-Hiken says the photo was sent to her anonymously. Westport CEDC is one of several partners for the Middle Branch Waterfront Master Plan.

When you are doing business internationally, you need to be internationally sophisticated. Especially when you are designing public space in a majority African-American city…in a country that has a history of slavery, Jim Crow and is still struggling for Black people to have equal footing to Whites and majority culture.” 

In an exclusive interview with the AFRO, West 8 co-founder Adriaan Geuze said not only was he aware of the photo, but that the company immediately banned all iterations of “Black Pete” within their ranks.

Geuze said the photo was appalling both in 2012 and when it resurfaced last week. He says he immediately sent a letter of resignation to the Office of the Mayor. 

“We decided immediately the best thing to do was resign so that we would not slow down the project,” said Geuze. “Sometimes the best thing to do is step out.”

“Black Pete doesn’t work anymore- it’s over. We do not agree with the tradition but that needs to be argued outside of the group- not from within team.” 

West 8 has offices located in New York and Belgium but is headquartered in Rotterdam, Netherlands, where “Black Pete” is currently ripping the nation apart along a deep divide.

Geuze told the AFRO the traditional story of St. Nicholas arriving by boat to the Netherlands from Spain dates back to 1300 A. D. However, beginning around 1850, Geuze says the tradition took a racist turn, and a Black “helper” was added to the story. The helper is usually depicted with a curly Black wig, wide painted lips, gold earrings and a Black face. 

Geuze said in efforts to hold on to the practice, some have said that new versions of “Chimney Pete” are less harmful, as he is in black face from chimney dirt- not because he’s a Moor from Spain.

“There are people who say ‘don’t take our traditions’ but that is where the racism starts. There are small children of color who are called ‘Black Pete’ for fun on school yards- that is not innocent,” said Geuze. “It’s very aggressive and it’s very racist.”

“It undermines our society and our government – for political reasons – has said ‘everyone can take their own position.’ That has fueled the last ten years of protest.”

Geuze said he hopes the “Black Pete” tradition is one that will hopefully come to an end with the wave of change happening through the Black Lives Matter movement, however- his firm will take action now to level the playing field for indigenous people and people of color in architecture.

West 8 had already moved to include Morgan State University’s School of Architecture and Planning on the technical advisory committee in phase one of the project, which is expected to take 15 months to complete. 

Students submitting senior projects for the Spring 2020 semester received review and feedback from the firm that is responsible for 180 works installations in public spaces, bridges, buildings, and park spaces around the globe.

West 8 recently announced that they will be implementing a three-point system to address concerns of Black Lives Matter activists who are looking to diversify the architecture world.

Where in the past West 8 has focused on internships based on lower socio-economic status, Geuze says the company will now prioritize mentorship and internships from communities of color and indigenous people.

Hodges- Hiken said communities need “more than just platitudes about how you are going to hire mentors and have interns.”

“Those things are not high-dollar, high-commitment items. You need to be able to show that you are investing in communities of color and vulnerable communities.”

As part of their Black Lives Matter initiative, West 8 has also committed to “offering local employment within projects.”

The Middle Branch redevelopment will span over 11 miles of waterfront in South Baltimore and is funded by an array of organizations and partnerships. According to information released by the Office of the Mayor, Horseshoe Casino impact grants being used are managed by both Baltimore City and the South Baltimore Gateway Partnership. Capital and operating funds were obtained from the State of Maryland by the Parks & People Foundation. 

The Office of the Mayor did not immediately respond to requests for comment.