Hood Century Founder Jerald Cooper Is Harnessing Instagram Clout for a New Preservation Movement

Leveraging hip-hop and hype culture, the talent booker–turned–preservationist angles to get more Black people engaged with, and influencing, design.

When Los Angeles–based entrepreneur Jerald Cooper started posting to Instagram as Hood Century, he didn’t have a specific agenda in mind; he just knew that he wanted his community to be more aware of their built environments. He noticed places like King Records in his hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio—where James Brown laid the foundations for funk, and subsequently, the outsize influence of hip-hop culture the world over—were falling into disrepair, doomed to become detritus in the wake of gentrification’s bulldozer. "People can see it," says Cooper of the building, "but they can’t really see it." 

Entrepreneur Jerald Cooper (center) recently spent a week in residence at Richard Neutra’s VDL House in Los Angeles, where he immersed himself in the lessons of good design. There, with company, he continued plotting a future for Hood Century’s preservation efforts. 

Since its inception last December, Hood Century (@hoodmidcenturymodern) has been magnifying the visibility of these cultural cornerstones ("Yes!! There is mid-century modern design in the hood!!" reads the Instagram bio). Cooper calls out neighborhood churches, Googie-style drive-throughs, and midcentury residences that hide in plain sight. Other posts—like one featuring musical artist Tyler, the Creator posing in front of a butterfly roof in Palm Springs—illustrate Cooper’s intersecting interests in music, fashion, and midcentury design.

@hoodmidcenturymodern has racked up more than 19,600 followers since last December.

Today, Hood Century has evolved from digital billboard to full-blown preservation society. Drawing on his experiences as an educator and talent booker—Cooper was planning appearances for Kevin Hart before we knew that name, and gives in-class talks with Jay-Z’s DJ, Young Guru—he’s drafting plans for a suite of materials meant to engage Black people more deeply with their heritage: an online journal, flash cards, a merch line (Neutra tees are dropping soon), talks, and zines are all part and parcel to the movement. 

This is just the beginning, says Cooper. We spoke with him on the heels of a week-long residency at Neutra’s VDL House in L.A. (where he was, unofficially, one of their first overnight guests) to learn more about what’s in store for Hood Century, why he wants to connect with actor Issa Rae, and the reasons he’s taking matters into his own hands to engage Black people with architecture and the built environment.

Cooper and his friends conceptualize architecture and design flashcards that will soon be available as part of a collection of upcoming materials meant to spread awareness about the built environment. 

So the first thing we have to ask: You just spent a week in residence at Richard Neutra’s VDL house in Los Angeles—what was that like? 

It was crazy. I was using it as my studio, just vibing it for the week. I’m actually asking them to digitize his library because it wasn’t digitized. All his reference books are still there. So I’d spend mornings reading, ripping pages out of my own notebooks to make bookmarks. His personal library was my favorite. People don’t normally stay in those homes, so even thinking about the things I could do as a newfound preservationist was just so fun. I was sleeping in his master bedroom, but I couldn’t even sleep. Just waking up in the morning at that crib—it was a once-in-a-lifetime joint.

Your background is in education and entertainment; what got you interested in architecture and design?

I’m a lifestyle kid, and I always wanted to travel when I was younger. So I got into talent management and was booking Kevin Hart for personal appearances before we knew who he was. I was traveling the world, and that was the start. I would be in Aarhus, Denmark, and would get out and walk around. I started seeing design—like a box purse on a girl’s shoulder, or in Rotterdam, sneakers in a sneaker shop. And then I saw a train station designed by Zaha Hadid. You know when you realize everything is designed? You’re like, "Oh, I could geek out on all of this."

Cooper (right) makes himself at home for the week. 

Friends of Cooper’s stop by the Neutra VDL House during his residency. "I don’t think we’d be around if the aesthetic wasn’t what it was," says Cooper. 

You were fascinated by culture, by fashion, by design in general—what made you ultimately drop a career in talent management? 

It’s not just about the architecture or the sneakers. I thought to myself, "I don’t think the homies know about this." Everyone I knew was talking about gentrification, and asking how to stop it. First, people have to know what they’re protecting. They’re disillusioned with the assumption that they know what their neighborhoods are. They don’t know the history, they don’t know why a building was built in the form that it is. So if you tell me that people in San Francisco, Cincinnati, or Brooklyn are trying to stop gentrification, but they don’t know anything about the architecture, I’m going to tell them that that’s not going to work. 

So I thought this big problem could start small. Like, get actual flashcards on their coffee tables about modern architecture, so they can actually connect to the thing. That was my premise. You know how everything starts with a big cause these days? That’s not how I started this. I just wanted my homies to understand it.

"You know how everything starts with a big cause these days? That’s not how I started this. I just wanted my homies to understand it."

—Jerald Cooper, Hood Century

This feels like a natural progression for you.

It is. I’m in entertainment and education. Before, I was straddling a line in social enterprises. I started wondering, "Why does for-community have to mean nonprofit?" People talk about nonprofit like it’s synonymous with social wellness. But nobody wants to be poor nonprofit people. Why can’t social good be profitable? 

That genesis of thought started ten years ago when I started a B Corporation with Young Guru, Jay-Z’s audio engineer and DJ. We would do talks at schools. Now, I’m doing the same thing with architecture that I was doing there with audio engineering. There was a point when they were trying to get Black people, brown people, minorities, and women into tech, and they were saying, "How do we get the Black men category involved in STEM?" And I was like, "They’re already there. They’ve been making beats!"

They just weren’t looking in the right places to connect to the Black demographic?

Yeah, for like 30 years. We need to come to them, and develop thoughts and ideas and a curriculum in order to properly engage them where they already are. For example, the audio producers and engineers in our neighborhoods are always the smartest people. We need to get into the lifestyle of these people in order to help them. So don’t make a STEM summer camp that they would go to for no reason, make a STEM summer camp and tell them Travis Scott’s going to be there. And that’s a lot of my work: How do I connect it back to the things that people connect to? 

A double-exposure in Los Angeles is an apt metaphor for Cooper’s overlapping causes.  

In one of your Instagram posts, you imagine a world where people share architecture as quickly and eagerly as memes. What would that do, or how would that work? 

This is my biggest joke, and everyone laughs nervously about it: Let’s say you’re walking with one of your Black homies, and the last thing you think they’re gonna say is, "Yo, man, look at that Italianate duplex. It’s like, from the 1800s." That’s funny to me. I thought it was ironic that a lot of us Black creators are fighting against being stereotyped—and we are pretty rigid with our disciplines—but we weren’t able to educate ourselves or be educated. Now, it’s like, let’s do it. Let’s just step in and learn this so we can, even if it’s just to stun on people. Like, "You wouldn’t think I know about this, but I do," kind of energy.

Why do you think it’s so common for people to be disengaged with their neighborhoods or their own built environments?

I’m a Black person who sees the dearth in our community. I don’t think we value, as we’re trying to fix the world, where people are at and why. A lot of Black designers couldn’t go to school, they don’t have a legacy built on being curious in your hood. Being curious in your hood could get you killed! We also know that being curious is at the epicenter of the greatest inventors’ and creators’ careers. Nobody’s talking about how these kids aren’t able to be curious right now, or how much that sucks, or how we can help that. 

A friend of Cooper’s relaxes in a Risom-esque lounge original to the home. 

The home, situated in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, has been closed to tours since the start of the pandemic. The College of Environmental Design and Department of Architecture at Cal Poly Pomona, stewards of the historic site, took the opportunity to invite Cooper for his week-long residency. 

During his stay, Cooper was most fascinated by Richard Neutra’s personal library. As a newfound preservationist, he’s taken the lead to digitize the book collection in a first. 

What have reactions been like since you started the Hood Century Instagram account? 

It’s been crazy—leaving management, not having a terribly put-together plan. It was scary to start, but it’s been nothing but positive. I wake up with so many messages affirming what I’m doing that I could never be mad. Neutra’s VDL house was my studio, like, "I’m here, this is my crib." I was just working on the flashcards and packaging and the brand and the new media, and asking "How do I put Black people in these spaces and do photoshoots?" [@hoodmidcenturymodern] is the only account on IG that looks at Black identity in architecture, period. There’s no other account that’s like, "In Boys in the Hood that was a Craftsman house." You know what I mean? 

I couldn’t have called it, and I couldn’t have dreamt it. And I don’t necessarily know what I’m doing. I’m just researching, and taking pictures. One of the big things about the aesthetic that’s really powerful is that the mission is cute. But I don’t think we’d be around if the aesthetic wasn’t what it was. 

How has Hood Century evolved since you began back in December? What do you want it to achieve? 

The way I’m working through it is, I’m creating a new canon, if you will. Like, I’ve never seen this shit that I’m posting. You’ll see Solange at the Guggenheim, and you’re like, okay, that’s different. When I was posting it, I was going through a conceptual practice. Because, again, I had never seen it. So if I’m calling it out, I had to be able to answer, "What is it?" So for the past nine months, I hadn’t taken on any paid opportunities; I had just been focusing on this as a concept. When June and July came around, people started to tell me this action is preservation. And I was like, "Alright, cool. We’re a preservation society."

Cooper and crew make themselves at home in Neutra’s 1932 midcentury classic.

So your form of preservation is about generating awareness? 

A hundred percent. While I was at Neutra’s house, it wasn’t about me, and it’s not about him necessarily—it’s about his intentions. So let’s get into these spaces and analyze them. I’m using hip-hop as a vehicle. If hip-hop is the most influential culture in the world, how do we have so many holes in preservation? How do we educate? Since Western colleges and white people aren’t preserving it, it’s like, is it worth it? So we’re all trying to find a connection, but I’m done trying. Showing funk’s influence on pop culture and the world, through hip-hop, throughout history—why it is so foreign? We all love it, you know?

How is Hood Century going to bring attention to these these kinds of spaces? 

I have flashcards that are going to be released soon, and those will be available on the website, and hopefully in really cool gift shops around the nation. When Hood Century gets really buttoned up, maybe in the first or second quarter of next year, I’m gonna be bringing out a journal. The journal is gonna be a lot of cool shit that you see on the Instagram account, and then a lot of shit that you don’t see that people need to know as homeowners or future homeowners. 

Basically with the journal, we’re going to highlight current preservation efforts. How do we highlight some of the issues and raise awareness? How do we do documentaries that are more aligned with our folks? I love the Hypebeast model of selling clothes and new T-shirts—you would probably wear a "Team Neutra" shirt, or a hoodie from some dope house, or a Marcy Projects [Jay-Z’s childhood home] hoodie.

So the biggest form of preservation is putting these things into pop culture items, like puzzles, or a cute Airbnb that’s connected to the National Trust. My form of preservation is [combining] fashion, culture, television…like Issa Rae’s show Insecure: She makes South Los Angeles look so beautiful, but it’s in danger because of the 2028 Olympics. She’s shooting it, she’s picking her beautiful buildings—buildings that she and her friends probably grew up in. How do I get to her production company, and say, "Let’s make a zine out of these." Those buildings aren’t even going to be here in eight years. So architecture in Insecure could be a zine you pick up in a bookstore. So it’s about the knowledge, the preservation, and the architecture and the structures that have developed these great people. 

"You know when you realize everything is designed? You’re like, ‘Oh, I could geek out on all of this,’" says Cooper.

Light-filled interiors and grainy wood paneling in the Neutra VDL House lend to great portraiture. 

Built-ins and books, all original to the home, were Cooper’s backdrop for the week. 

One of your posts is a video of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater with Lauryn Hill’s "Mystery of Iniquity" superimposed— can you talk about that a little bit? 

I was like 19 or 20 when that album came out, and it was my bible. She was questioning everything I had ever known. I woke up in the morning after George Floyd died and saw someone post that GIF [of Fallingwater], and I started to think the system is falling down right now. I was in despair. Why do these people want us dead so much? And I know about the chemical warfare, and you already enslaved us, and you want us dead seven different ways. Lauryn Hill said anything that’s built on unstable ground is bound to fall down. So I wanted to send a message to my brothers and sisters that it’s all falling down, but don’t die today. Don’t kill yourself today. Don’t despair just because it’s all gonna fall down. I want to post more like this because new media is my god right now. 

What kind of effect do you hope Hood Century will have on people?

I want them to be able to connect to their neighborhoods, their built spaces, and their heritage. We’ve been connecting with y’all’s heritage this whole time. Which we can do. My name is Jerald Cooper. That’s German AF. Can we just please know where we come from without everyone thinking it’s crazy? Let’s take ownership. Let’s find out what’s there that we hadn’t been aware of. There is a revolution of Black identity, and it’s not confined to Black people. Black people in the next five to 10 years are going to say, "Who are we in this context?" These things that are happening are going to be so powerful. I’m excited about that. I can’t wait to dig deeper to see who we are from a design standpoint. Hopefully we can do museum shows about it. Hopefully it inspires a kid in design school to say, "Why are we not studying this?"

Jerald Cooper snaps a pic.

Follow Jerald Cooper’s preservation movement at Hood Century’s website, or at his Instagram account, @hoodmidcenturymodern. 

Related Reading:  This Designer Is Changing Architecture Education With a Solar-Powered Mobile Classroom


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