WHAT’S NEXT, WITH MORDECAI CARGILL
Interview by Amanda D. King
For the fourth installment of “What’s Next,” Amanda D. King spoke with Mordecai Cargill, co-founder and creative director of ThirdSpace Action Lab. In the conversation, Cargill discusses place-making, critical fabulation and sonic character in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood.
King: How has growing up in Cleveland shaped your understanding of culture?
Cargill: I am interested in the ways Black culture emerges in distinct geographies like Cleveland because of my experience growing on the Black East Side and attending Glenville High School. Cleveland has a distinctive rhythm, sonic character, and way of expressing culture that continues to shape me. Culture, specifically, and Black storytelling help us make meaning of what is happening globally and express it more beautifully and intentionally. As an African-American studies major at Yale, I intentionally engaged in interdisciplinary coursework (sociology, political science, history, and literary studies) to tell a story about what it’s like to be Black in Cleveland, as well as to interpret the significance of Black people shaping the cultures of these geographies against all odds.
I use my creative practice to advance ideas of Black liberation that are articulated across time and against the sometimes subtle, and sometimes very overt reminders that there’s still a racial hierarchy that dictates our lived experiences and how we fit into society.
King: What artists inspire your interest in storytelling?
Cargill: My work looks to Spike Lee and John Coltrane because they give voice to Black experiences happening within distinct geographies. Spike Lee’s depiction of Brooklyn in Do the Right Thing makes me think about the catalyzing events in a neighborhood that cause it to erupt because of underlying racial tension that is always present. This happened in Glenville, during the Glenville Uprising, and more recently in the summer of 2020, in response to George Floyd.
I also look to Coltrane as a symbol of the Black Arts Movement in the sixties, during its transition from a focus on Civil Rights to a focus on Black Power. There’s this tension between how John Coltrane expressed his allegiance and solidarity with the Black Power ethic in his music, but he wasn’t the most vocal proponent of it in other areas. Still, if you listen to Alabama or A Love Supreme, it’s like a prayer. It’s him in conversation with the higher being. There is something about how he was using his instrument to give sonic character to the spirit of the people who were in the streets resisting white supremacy. Coltrane’s work converged political organizing with cultural production and was shaped by and was a catalyst for the continued movement in the sixties and seventies.
Both men inspire me to better understand how one’s racialized experience shapes the style of cultural production that emerges in these places. As creative director of ThirdSpace Action Lab, I aim to reignite a sense of place-based ownership and consciousness needed for Glenville to become what was once known as the Gold Coast, but with an understanding that the Gold Coast should mean something different now than it did in the past.
King: Tell me about your vision of Glenville.
Cargill: I leverage arts, culture, and activism to create the most radical and aspirational vision for what Glenville can become.
ThirdSpace Action Lab is one of the first movers of our generation to lay roots on 105th Street in Glenville. We’re inhabiting The Madison, a building created by the first Black architect in Ohio, Robert P. Madison. He was commissioned to build the space by Black doctors in the neighborhood because they were excluded from practicing at big institutions that continue to be the economic development engines of Northeast Ohio.
To refuse this exclusion and pay homage to our elders, ThirdSpace continues to embrace place-making. We are motivated and inspired by the actions of not just Mr. Madison but the nine doctors who were committed to making Glenville a healthy community.
Our building will continue to be a vessel that serves the community and a vessel for us to imagine what the future looks like—a place that feeds people’s souls through the arts by holding exhibitions, sharing our book collection, and making Brittany’s Record Shop accessible to the community. We want to envision a new Gold Coast and make it real by practicing liberation within our four walls.
King: What does your approach to achieve liberation look like at the moment?
Cargill: I am currently listening to oral histories about Glenville. In an interview, a resident was reflecting on Glenville as the Gold Coast; he explained that at one point in time, “You could find anything you needed between Superior and St. Clair. And at night, it was lit up like Broadway.” This was him reflecting on Glenville as the Gold Coast.
But that Gold Coast does not exist to me. I’ve never known Glenville on 105th Street to be a place where everything was available to me. Still, at ThirdSpace, we’re trying to critically interrogate narrative and embrace Saidiya Hartman’s critical fabulation practice to make sense of gaps, silences, and omissions of Black people in historical records. Certain archives reduce the Black experience to mere data points. We seek to take those data points and create a story representing the person’s life beyond this unfinished document. This data is an entry point to re-envision what Glenville looked like when it was a Gold Coast and it helps us imagine what the new Gold Coast could be.
King: Is that the sonic character of Glenville now?
Cargill: When I think about Glenville’s sonic character, my mind goes to Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. Their music was distinctive from anything else that existed at that time and has yet to be recreated. I argue that their sound could have only been created in Cleveland and Glenville. They were on the block in the middle of the night, doing whatever they had to do to survive during the height of the urban crisis when Glenville was bottoming out, and residents were left to struggle and make way for themselves. They were hardened by this experience, so they made Gangsta rap, but it sounds melodic and beautiful because they had shared experiences and understandings but a different way of expressing it. In a nutshell, this blend of hardness with harmony is what I think of as Cleveland’s contributions to culture. Anyone who grows on this soil takes this with us wherever we go.
King: What’s Next?
Cargill: Chocolate City Cleveland is what’s next. It’s a project that re-imagines how we can demarcate the built environment in ways that will inspire people to see Glenville as a place where magic happens.