ANN ARBOR - Jessica A.S. Letaw is passionate about buildings.
An architect and communications specialist by training, the Ann Arbor DDA board member decided to marry her two passions and launch Building Matters Ann Arbor with the aim of creating more conversation about and appreciation for Ann Arbor's built environment.
Letaw came to Ann Arbor to study architecture at the University of Michigan. After graduation, she worked for home remodeling contractor Meadowlark Design+Build in its communications department. Two years later she left her job to start her own company, Communications for Architects and Builders.
"That’s when things started getting interesting," said Letaw.
"I quote Toni Morrison all the time, and one of the things that she said was, 'You should write the book that you want to read.' For me, I crave and I thrive on great conversation and so I took this directive as: You should make the conversation you want to have. And I wanted to talk about buildings and cities. That’s just been my desire for a long time."
She began working with local nonprofits like Community Action Network and the Hands-On Museum; she's also given a series of workshops and talks at the Ann Arbor District Library.
She decided to launch Building Matters Ann Arbor to continue her work within the community, a mission she felt deeply connected to after working with out-of-state clients for two years.
"Building Matters Ann Arbor was born," she said. "We're just coming up on the end of our first year and we’ve launched two programs. We’re doing a badge with the AADL Summer Game. And we’re also partnering with the Ann Arbor 2030 District, which is a sustainability district focusing, in our case, on energy emissions. It's a nationwide set of urban areas or city districts focusing on energy emissions, cutting down on water waste and cutting down on transportation emissions.
"Ann Arbor is starting to focus on energy and this summer U-M students and local high school students are going out into the community and doing some benchmarking of buildings that are in the district. Building Matters Ann Arbor is the partner for that program."
Building Matters Ann Arbor's main focus will be its upcoming architecture tours. Starting with just one tour in the fall, Letaw said she plans to expand the tours in the spring.
"We’re launching with just one tour and then next spring launch with a fuller complement of tours of neighborhoods around the city," said Letaw.
“We are interested in cultivating a community, a city, that is literate about buildings and the built environment. Development too often feels like something that happens to us instead of with us. We’d like to be the organization that helps mediate between the things that happen to us and the things that happen with us by giving people the vocabulary through the tours, to be able to understand history and context and how values play out in the things that we do and don’t build." - Jessica A.S. Letaw on Building Matters Ann Arbor's mission
Until now, Letaw has been the only full-time employee at the organization. Tour guide Theresa Leslie-Robinson just joined the team and is currently building the tours, including a tour dedicated to African American history of the area.
"One thing that I’m really proud of is that first thing next year, we’re going to be launching at least one Another Ann Arbor tour," said Letaw. "And for folks who aren’t familiar, Another Ann Arbor is a book on local African American history, mostly Ann Arbor but also Washtenaw County written by one of our board members Carol Gibson and her mother.
"One of the things that I want to make sure we’re very deliberate about is that we’re telling the story of the whole community. You can’t tell everything all the time, but you can be mindful of who you’re including and the history you’re telling."
The following tours are listed on its website:
- The Essential Downtown
- Town + Gown
- Another Ann Arbor
- The Essential Neighborhoods
- Green Ann Arbor
- Radical Ann Arbor
Letaw said Building Matters Ann Arbor was established so quickly thanks to a "legion of volunteers" who dedicated their time to website creation, photography and database development. Building Matters plans to release an annual report early next year.
For more information, visit buildingmattersannarbor.org.
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