Guest Blogger: Aaron Rose on Salon Session #9: Platforms

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Ethical Redevelopment Salon Series
Session 9: 04.27.17
By Aaron Rose

principle: platforms
concepts: the thing that makes the thing, hang time

A community needs a platform; a foundation that creates new social possibilities, a structure that incubates new economic or artistic prospects… A just city is required to facilitate platforms that engage those who are not fully tapped into their power and feel cheated out of their right to demonstrate their power. Don’t just create the thing, create the thing that makes the thing. Platform building means developing opportunities for people to gather and commune.

As we approached this rather solemn moment, the last of the 9 Salon Sessions, I heard the following comments a few times. “Is this it?” “What are we going to do when this is over?” Mostly I heard this from a particularly expressive Salon Member, but I think she spoke for many.

This is the Life
On the eve of Salon #9, Black Cinema House’s Moving Images, Making Cities film series presented a screening of Ava DuVernay's film This Is the Life. The 2008 documentary chronicles the alternative hip-hop scene in Los Angeles in the 1990s, which emerged from the platform created by the owner of Good Life Health Food Centre, a neighborhood health food market and café. The open mic on Thursday evenings offered an informal, workshop-like setting for artists, including emcees, poets, and musician to perform one song. Clear guidelines, including no cursing, no smoking, and no drinking/drugs, challenged artists to develop a nuanced vocabulary and take seriously their craft. Audience members responded immediately by calling out “Please pass the mic!” if a performance lacked originality or integrity, if a performer exhibited too much ego, or simply had a mediocre delivery.

Freestyle Fellowship got their start there. A mesmerizing artist named Medusa was one of the few women to perform regularly.

The film includes lively, sometimes riveting footage of original performances, and—perhaps the most interesting part of the film—interviews with performers nearly 20 years later that provide insight into the profound value of artistic expression. The emphasis on personal responsibility and expectation of genuine originality in one’s craft was a refreshing hallmark of the Good Life platform.

Evening Salon
The mood was celebratory, too. Theaster was sporting an orange jacket and orange tie. James “The Emperor” Feagin was accompanied by his wife and infant daughter, and the latter posed for a cameo shot with Theaster. Emcee Steve Edwards opened the evening with a shout-out to Theaster and the Place Lab team for sharing their creativity, passion, and ideas.

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Platform as Principle
Ideas need to materialize, Theaster began, and platforms provide an opportunity to get inside the ideas. The Salon becomes the Platform of the Principles we’ve been talking about. By reexamining development, or redevelopment, development could yield more and inform an ethos. In contrast to having a private practice, we can be learning together in real time; creating a space where knowledges leap from one to 10 or one to 50 or one to 100. Principle remains constant; platform, the space someone makes beyond themselves, is scalable and can be what we want it to be.

As an example of how a building like the Arts Bank leverages platform, Theaster related how, a couple of years ago, his “primary public frustration” was that there were no venues for music. The South Side had lost several music venues, and Theaster was mourning the loss of platforms such as Palm Tavern, Checkerboard Lounge, and Velvet Lounge, a place one could go for open-mic performance. Created by owner Fred Anderson, Velvet Lounge allowed pre-existing space to be available where, for $5, a lot of people had the chance to participate in the ongoing wisdom, expertise, and story. In addition to being a place for 1960s jazz, it was a place that allowed the future of jazz to take root.

The Arts Bank might, likewise, serve as a venue for artists, who will then go on to other platforms. Platforms are best when they beget other platforms.

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Chicago Architecture Biennial
A new platform in Chicago, the Chicago Architecture Biennial (CAB) had its premiere in Fall 2015, and will have its second turn this year. Salon Member Todd Palmer, former Associate Director and Curator for the National Public Housing Museum, was selected to be Executive Director of the Biennial in late 2016.

CAB is a city-wide celebration of architecture intended to reassert the centrality of Chicago in the world of architecture. The artistic directors of the 2017 Biennial, Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee from Los Angeles, are inviting 100 architects and designers from around the world to exhibit in the Chicago Cultural Center, the city’s beautiful Beaux Arts public institution. CAB will also engage with community residents through sites around the city to present exhibitions and performances based on the theme “Make New History.”

In 2015, the newly opened Arts Bank was a CAB community-based site, as was the emerging National Public Housing Museum, on the city’s West Side.

The collaboration created a platform for the National Public Housing Museum, providing exposure to a national and international audience. The marketing, which included an article in Artforum and a story by Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin, changed civic perception of the Museum, eased some local resistance the project had encountered, and dissolved some skepticism among civic leaders about the project’s capacity to garner interest and support.

As Theaster noted, beginning with a belief and commitment, a small, grassroots group of women who are former residents of public housing, succeeded, over 13–15 years, in creating a platform that, ultimately, manifested from a vision to a physical space with funding to become a museum. He noted that the building is in an inconveniently developing area, in Little Italy on Taylor Street, near the University of Illinois at Chicago, where property values are skyrocketing. Where “new people don’t want old people coming back and remembering their playground. That’s not cute.” Having the raw space open during the Biennial allowed former public housing residents who founded the organization to share their stories, creating yet another layer to the platform of an emerging place.

The Chicago Architecture Biennial emerged from the Chicago Cultural Plan; a brainchild of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Michelle Boone, former Commissioner of the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs & Special Events, and former CAB Co-Artistic Director, Sarah Herda, Executive Director of the Graham Foundation.

Two needs emerged from the Chicago Cultural Plan. On a micro, neighborhood scale, how can art be a lever for these communities? From a global perspective, what are Chicago’s assets? A gap was perceived between Chicago’s past prominence as an architecture center, and its status at the start of the 21st century. CAB gives Chicago the opportunity to reestablish that prominence.

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Platforms as Concept in Practice
Joan Vorderbruggen, Hennepin Theatre Trust

As Director of Public Art and Placemaking for Hennepin Theatre Trust, Joan was charged with enlivening the corridor along Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis, home to the city’s three major theatres, which was originally constructed to serve as the center of art and culture in the city. As the section that has maintained more of its human-scale architecture than any other area of Minneapolis, Hennepin Avenue also attracts people who create community by making the street a home many of them do not have, and where many of them wait for the organizations that provide human services and shelter to open in the evening.

Joan was initially charged with building upon the existing platform of the Hennepin Theatre Trust, the largest arts-and-culture institution in the city, to attract suburban audiences, its core constituency, to the Avenue’s public space. Joan was successful in securing a large grant from Southwest Airlines for a project, Five to Ten, to enliven five blocks of Hennepin Avenue. At the behest of the organization’s leadership, she reluctantly staged a series of ill-conceived events for an absent audience, which were “emotionally painful” failures. Aspects of the projects, like partnering with Mad Dads, a group of men returning from incarceration and coming back from using drugs and gang violence, to provide security, and providing chess tables, were clear successes. Subsequent events presented performances by local youth, who Joan engaged in the process of co-creating events. As a platform, Hennepin has been a canvas for creativity, for unlearning and relearning.

Joan shared a video of testimony from one of the Mad Dads. He described how the partnership with Hennepin Trust created a platform for Mad Dads to interact with members of the community they see along Hennepin Avenue every day. To get to know people and offer information and support to individuals in self-destructive and self-defeating patterns, as interventions toward seeking treatment and employment. The Mad Dads nurture value in people who are seen as “the least, the last, and the lost.”

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Meida McNeal, Chicago Park District
Meida is Arts & Culture Manager for the Chicago Park District’s Arts, Culture & Nature Program. Her department is responsible for providing original programming and supporting existing programming, as well as providing general support for CPD staff. The Arts & Culture department maintains an arts partnership program with 30+ arts partners embedded in parks across the city and provides professional development for cultural instructors in the district. The department also conducts a range of youth arts programs, which are being restructured toward cultivating the next generation of cultural stewards.

They started the Re-Center project in 2015 to address uneven levels of arts offerings and expertise at the 15 cultural centers across the city that are designed to be arts and culture hubs, relevant to the communities they serve. There are currently three cultural liaisons who work in three different cultural centers over the course of a year to foster enhanced arts experiences and participation for area residents. During this third year of the project, they are working in parks on Chicago’s West and Southeast sides to create and cultivate new artists and cultural stewards from the surrounding communities.

Because activities in parks are skewed toward sports and recreation, they work with leadership to promote the Re-Center project through a series of events. Listening Parties are the first step in bringing together 40–100 individuals who the liaison identifies, through community outreach, as cultural stakeholders to discuss the past, present, and future of park cultural activities, including mining the nostalgia of older residents.

For three to four months after that, park staff holds Meet-ups with the most active participants. The cultural centers also meet throughout the year to cultivate a network that provides support. The third step in the process is Circulations, a conceptual process for learning about activities at other centers to expand the tool kit. One of their Circulations prompts is a simulation role-playing game developed by Salon Member Angela Tillges when she was on staff at the Chicago Park District. They also distribute field guides to creating arts-and-culture programming among the different cultural centers.

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Tayyib Smith, Little Giant Creative
Little Giant Creative, a project Tayyib co-founded 10 years ago, specializes in cultural competency for brands, institutions, and nonprofits. Work with their main client, Heinekin USA, for whom they develop messaging to speak to multicultural audiences, gives the firm agency and ability to do social justice work. Collaborating with clients in cultural competency, they create websites, host events series, and help clients frame their brands to diverse audiences.

Tayyib used to be in the music business and, through music, learned how to create platforms for speaking with diverse audiences. Ten years ago, it was rare for brands to have any understanding or intellectual framework for how to speak to audiences of people of color, or audiences of women. Since then, the firm has developed programming for City Hall Presents, an underutilized space, which included 36 concerts in public space with contemporary ballet, poetry events, and drumming groups. The firm created the first multicultural tourism campaign for the City of Philadelphia, called Philly 360. For the Sharp Insight Campaign, which won the Knight News Challenge, they organized a series of events in barbershops to talk to African-American men, from a nonpartisan perspective, about civic engagement.

Other projects include the Dare to Imagine capital campaign for the African American Museum in Philadelphia.

Over time, they’ve learned that, without empathy, you can’t have conversations that go anywhere. They encourage clients to have conversations with audiences, not speak directly to them, which is what hierarchical organizations and institutions usually do.

Little Giant Creative worked on an initiative, TruthToPower, as part of a cohort for the DNC campaign last year that included 100 artists who did artwork that spoke to social justice issues. Tayyib related an indicator of TruthToPower’s effectiveness. They got 250-million social media impressions in three days, and were successful in drawing 10,000 people into a 20,000 square-foot space. The DNC got 35-million social media impressions from their campaign.

In 2011 they moved out of a space they had been in for several years, and pitched to a developer friend an idea for a co-working space, which had starting taking off as a concept in 2010. The friend thought the idea wouldn’t work. In 2013, in Chicago, they built out a 100,000 square-foot co-working space. Soon after, they began demolition for what became their Pipeline co-working space in Philadelphia. The Knight Foundation, which had been sharing space with the City of Philadelphia, broke their lease to become Pipeline’s first tenant.

Tayyib noted that, according to a recent study by Pew Charitable Trusts, four out of five businesses in Philadelphia are owned by white people. Paradoxically, at one time, the city was called the New Jerusalem because of the history of free blacks living there, and more businesses in Philadelphia were owned by blacks than anywhere else in the Western hemisphere. Creative Cities Lab, under development, will be a series of events to educate communities that have benefitted from social-engineering policies, such as redlining, and for economically impoverished communities that may not have the skills to articulate what they’re experiencing.

The recent Little Giant Creative platform he’s most proud of is the Institute of Hip Hop Entrepreneurship, for which they won a Knight Cities Challenge grant in 2016. Because of his experience in the music world, Tayyib has many colleagues through Hip Hop, who are not in the Hip Hop business. One, a friend who is the creative director for Spotify, who is also a venture capitalist, discovered Lady Gaga when he was a producer, after he started out as a street teamer distributing leaflets. For many of these colleagues, across a wide range of industries around the world, their first business experience was Hip Hop, which gave them an independent road map to a career. The Institute of Hip Hop Entrepreneurship works with 24 students over nine months—including a young woman who wants to teach fiscal literacy to children and another who wants to create accessible vegan foods—to inspire them to use Hip Hop thinking to create their own business.

Creating the thing that makes the thing.

Afternoon Workshop, Salon #8
During the last three Salon Sessions, Members met in the afternoon with Naomi Miller, Place Lab’s Operations and Administrative Manager and Carson Poole, Project Specialist, to discuss the 9 Ethical Redevelopment Principles.

During Salon #7, we reviewed the first three Principles. During Salon #8, we reviewed the second set of three, and during Salon #9, the last three.

Carson presented us with essentially the same questions about the utility of the 9 Principles and the language used to explain them. He also asked us to consider what additional information or adjustments in approach might be warranted in taking a document about Ethical Redevelopment, its ethos or practice, into a setting beyond the environment of the Salon series.

The workshop group for Salon #8 was small, and a few of the people seated at the table had attended only one or two Sessions.

The discussion focused on ideas for creating a document or documents that expand or interpret the basic Principles in ways that are relevant to people from diverse disciplines and professional fields. One Member said she would be interested in having an evaluation modality that allowed people, primarily program staff in different disciplines, to separate out how different practitioners applied the Principles differently.

Another Member suggested using storytelling as a technique for how to elicit thoughtful ideas from community members about what they would like to see in their neighborhood. The document might be designed along the lines of a welcome packet, for people seeking to learn about a community.

Carson noted that the process of developing, or using, an Ethical Redevelopment handbook might be about presenting best practices; or seeking to find common ground, a shared language in the Principles among individuals or entities with different perspectives or needs. The process of integrating the Principles of Ethical Redevelopment into public policies would be much more complex, requiring translation into more technical and less poetic terms. We talked about providing more foregrounding in the document, to achieve this; recreating the document differently for different audiences.

Afternoon Workshop, Salon #9
During the workshop before Salon #9, Carson asked us to consider some of the same questions about the utility of the Principles and how they might be used going forward, in other contexts. Might a toolkit be useful? Providing case studies?

In addition to considering the language and the utility of the language, what about the ultimate utility, in broad terms, of Ethical Redevelopment? How might the document or approach, or something similar, be shared? Are there other themes, theories, or topics that come to mind?

More Salon Members attended this group that the earlier afternoon workshops, and several of the Members had attended at least three, in some cases all, the Salon Sessions. Additionally, at least three of the Members in the workshop had specific experience developing real estate projects, which lent a layer of expertise to the discussion that earlier afternoon discussions about the Principles lacked. The discussion was robust, with lots of nuanced examples and hypotheticals. Given that, in some way, we had had the chance to get to know one another, and the material related to the Principles, over nine months, there were a lot of opinions freely shared with ample space and flexibility for friendly challenging and intragroup questioning. I remember, at the time and afterwards, feeling how satisfying it was to arrive at this point in the Salon process: we knew, complemented, and valued one another and the distinct expertise and perspective we each brought to the process. In some important ways, it felt like we were just getting started in conversation that grappled directly with specific issues and strategies.

One focus of the conversation was on areas where individuals and entities, including a city council panel, demonstrated a clear need for or interest in the Principles of Ethical Redevelopment. Another Member said that his city seems to be getting a lot of media attention for innovation. But because of economic development, there is also a lot of displacement, and media attention around that. No written standards exist for how investors or developers should be operating, or, more importantly, how they might be encouraged to operate. Recent plans for a development by Whole Foods were cancelled because of conflicting communication and lack of clear expectations from the city.

The conversation also explored how the Principles might be used. One Member suggested that the Principles might be drawn up like a constitution, not a set of laws or regulations, but providing a sense of direction to be deliberated on a case-by-case basis. We discussed the possibility of distinguishing between a larger, more abstract framework, and guidelines for specific, demonstrable steps that a developer might be encouraged or expected to follow. A baseline expectation of what is required of a development, with a clear standard or standards, allows a city to refuse a development project if it does not meet their standards. Another Member said he can only realistically envision options that are either regulations, incentives, or good will.

Carson said that a couple of people have noted that the Ethical Redevelopment Principles might be a starting point for evaluating projects. Quantifiable metrics are needed in order for this to be something a developer might willing to consider. A couple of Members talked about the value of storytelling as a strategy for evaluation, and for communicating the needs, desires, and humanity of community members in situations where they are rarely welcomed at the table. Whether it’s meeting with funders, developers, or government agencies, dialogue with community residents is seen as inconvenient or unnecessary or problematic.

To evoke empathy and a sense of shared humanity, one Member is initiating a project to create a public platform for storytelling by people who are never invited to the table. People who are currently rendered invisible will be seen. She believes people of all backgrounds can begin to see each other differently, to take the time and make the effort to stop and connect. How do you take visuals like this and use them with developers? Someone suggested developing a grid that connects stories of community residents with a particular Principle.

Ideally, someone else noted, community members should be prepared, ready to present their ideas for development directly to a developer. Another Member said that if you don’t have a long-range plan that adjusts to the way market forces operate in low-income communities, you’re going to have to remain vigilant, showing up developers again and again. Market forces are relentless. If you don’t have regulations or public pressure on your side, you can’t let up.

It seemed to me that we were talking about shifting the cultural paradigm when it comes to how we, the collective we, think and act vis a vis development. There are different ways to achieve this, through peer or public pressure, mostly—the way we tell one vendor that if they don’t recycle, we will shop at the business that does. Can we find an ally to convince a developer to do the ethical thing? Or consider Theaster’s strategy when he makes it cool to do the right thing.

After much back and forth about tactics for dealing with developers, someone asked if we, representing communities, were going to continue to be driven by or react to outside forces of development. Is the ultimate goal to continue to have to do these interventions? Or do we want something different to happen? What if we dare to think about stepping outside of the dynamic of anticipating, reacting to, or being conciliatory with developers?

The conversation had come full circle, back to Theaster’s truth-telling during Salon #6, Place Over Time, when he challenged Salon Members to apply what they’ve learned to ensure that communities are not in the vulnerable position of being at the mercy of someone or something else.

“We have the capacity to self-organize,” Theaster said. “All of the solutions to the challenges we face are in this room.”

Karaoke
Big gratitude to Theaster and the Place Lab team for facilitating the amazing journey through the 9 Principles and the Salon series.

Thanks, too, for the kick-ass karaoke after the final Salon Session, when performers sang “Time After Time,” “Groovin’ Together,” “Baby, Baby, Baby,” “What a Fool Believes,” “Tainted Love, “Purple Haze,” “Stop in the Name of Love,” and “Let’s Go Crazy.”

Hang time. Indescribable.

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Guest Blogger: Aaron Rose on Salon Session #8: Constellations

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Ethical Redevelopment Salon Series
Session 8: 03.09.17

By Aaron Rose

principle: constellations
concepts: ecosystem, diverse entities

Projects need visionaries, believers, implementers, collaborators, and evaluators… A project taps into a particular kind of power when it refuses to be singular, when it takes up space and assembles believers from disparate corners.

Ethical Redevelopment Salon #8 was that constellation of many—pardon the phrase—points of light. The day started out with an afternoon workshop to discuss the second set of three of the 9 Principles. But I’ll fold that conversation into the next blog in order to focus on the evening Salon Session, which was dedicated to learning about and collaborating with the Chicago Torture Justice Center.

Invocation for the Evening Salon
The evening began with an invocation sung by Yaw Ageyman. Like the practice of lighting candles, or spreading cornmeal and tobacco, the invocation established sacred time and space for our experience, and served to deepen remembrance of why we are being called to do this work. The words of the invocation are missing Yaw’s haunting vocalization, but I ask the reader to imagine as they read the refrain:

You know the story
No need for looking back

And this closing:

Please acknowledge
Please condemn
Please apologize
Please express your regrets
Please remember these events
Please reaffirm your commitment

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

When presenting his opening remarks for the evening, Emcee Steve Edwards referenced a friend who writes about how, in the face of systematic injustice, society often engages in deliberate acts of not knowing, of choosing not to see.

In her introduction, Isis Ferguson, Place Lab’s Associate Director of City + Community Strategy, noted that “whatever industry or setting you work in… collaboration, often lauded, often talked about, is actually really, really difficult to do.” Visionaries, translators among different constituencies, folks with money, and people who have been directly affected by particular kinds of interventions are each capable of a completely different kind of work. Constellations draw upon “complementary skills and practices” to advance work.

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

The format of the Salon was being shifted that evening to “raise up the work of folks who exemplify Constellations,” the survivors and their families, artist and activists, scholars, lawyers and investigative journalists who engaged in decades of struggle, and who successfully advocated with the City of Chicago to pass the Historic Reparations to Survivors ordinance in May 2015. The ordinance awarded financial reparations to survivors and their families and established the Chicago Torture Justice Center.

Torture under Chicago Police Department Commander John Burge
For nearly two decades, on record, Chicago Police Department (CPD) Commander Jon Burge, and police officers under his command, tortured more than 120 African-American men and boys on the city’s South Side. Commander Burge and his subordinates targeted communities of color, where they rounded up individuals, some as young as 16 years old, and used torture tactics Commander Burge learned as a serviceman during the Vietnam War to force confessions to crimes they did not commit. Tactics included violent, racist language, brutal beatings, suffocation, and electric shock. Despite documented evidence proving torture was being used to convict innocent men, City, County, and Federal government officials refused to take action against Commander Burge.

For nearly three decades, family members, attorneys, community organizers, and other members of the public fought to expose the crimes committed by Commander Burge and his subordinates. They testified at the United Nations Committee Against Torture, and recommended that the US Government bring charges against Burge and the other Chicago Police Department officers who perpetrated the torture.

Twenty torture survivors were found innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. Other victims completed their sentences. At least 20 men who were, in part, convicted based on false confessions exacted by torture remain in prison. They continue to be denied hearings to raise evidence that corroborates their allegations of being tortured. Survivors continue to suffer the profound effects of the torture to which they were subjected.

Burge was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in 2010 and served four years in federal prison, but to this day, neither Commander Burge, nor any officers in his command, have been tried or convicted of torture.

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Chicago Torture Justice Center
Darrell Cannon, who is a torture survivor and CTJC’s outreach coordinator, introduced the organization’s founding executive director, Christine Haley, who talked about the history of the Center.

In 2011, a group of artists, activists, and attorneys came together to plan for a memorial project dedicated to torture cases, and the group known as the Chicago Torture Justice Memorial created a coalition of individuals and groups that included Black People Against Police Torture, Amnesty International, Project NIA, We Charge Genocide, BYP 100, Chicago Light Brigade, National Conference of Black Lawyers, and Midwest Coalition of Human Rights.

Family and coalition members designed artwork to support their movement. A fifth, black star added to the horizontal four red stars of the Chicago city flag became the iconic image of the campaign. The group also created 120 vertical black banners, mounted on wood, each representing one of the victims of police torture, some bearing names, some stating “unknown victim.” In 2012, CTJM presented an art exhibition at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with more than 70 installations, called Opening the Black Box: the Charge is Torture. Coalition members hosted a pop-up exhibit outside Mayor Emanuel’s office in City Hall in 2015.

Also in early 2015, members of Chicago Light Brigade and Project NIA staged a “Reparations Now” light show in front of Mayor Emanuel’s house, calling on him to support the reparations ordinance. On May 6, 2015 the Chicago City Council passed the historic Reparations to Survivors Ordinance, the first time a municipality has awarded reparations for acts of police violence.

The Reparations Ordinance included a formal apology from the Mayor and City Council members to survivors and their families, and calls for an educational curriculum currently being developed for 8th- and 10th-grade students that will be taught across the city. Community college education, tuition-free, is available to survivors and their family members, including their partners, children, and grandchildren. Reparations also include direct financial compensation of $5.5 million, funds to establish a public memorial in the community and a living memorial within the center, and a counseling center.

The vision for the Center, evolving for the past two years, combines a focus on individual survivor healing with drawing in and educating the surrounding and broader community. The healing space will house the Survivor Healing and Empowerment Program, with therapeutic services, including counseling, support groups, somatic healing services, and case management services for issues related to housing and employment. The Center will also continue advocating for the approximately 40 torture survivors who are still incarcerated, and continue organizing activities to raise awareness of and address police violence.

Through a survey, community members identified four themes they want the Center to address: community education and engagement, including inter-generational exchange; space for spiritual reflection; storytelling and speakers bureau; advocacy on behalf of the community in dealing with police. Salon Member Monica Chadha, Founder of Civic Projects, has been working with CTJC to develop their vision for the center

For the collaborative exercise, we were assigned to one of four groups and charged with offering ideas for creating a permanent, evolving exhibition that tells stories of Burge torture cases, the decades-long Reparations Campaign, and contemporary police violence. Although a space plan has not yet been developed, each group was provided with a provisional floor plan for the space, based on the four priorities identified by the community. Themes for the groups were: Healing + Reflection; Documenting, Archiving + Education; Engagement + Action; Connecting Burge Torture Reparations to Contemporary Police Violence.

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Documenting, Archiving + Education
The group process was intense and memorable. So much so, that we forgot to do our assignment: to draw our ideas onto a floor plan to share with the larger group. Salon Member Tayyib Smith, Co-Founder of Little Giant Creative, shared with me afterwards that he experienced this group discussion, among many compelling small group discussions, as the most powerful opportunity during the Salons for connecting and growing.

To start the conversation, Tayyib suggested using data collected about the torture crimes to build awareness among broad local and national audiences of the extent of police violence. We talked about the importance of creating an exhibition that is meaningful to community members in Englewood, the neighborhood where many survivors live or lived, and where the Center will be located, and designing an experience that also engages and educates other communities, including affluent, white communities. Someone offered the idea of training survivors and other individuals to serve as docents who can lead people through exhibition spaces and tell stories that reflect their experiences and help exhibition viewers put the information in context.

One of the survivors in our group talked about the structure of Chicago police torture. “It was pure racism,” he said. “Telling the story of any episode of torture requires telling the truth: the truth is that Chicago police detectives were allowed to pick off children, take them down to the police station, and chain them to a wall. They would inflict beatings, connect electrical shock boxes to genitals. So in the city of Chicago, it’s not like the Mayor don’t know, the mayors before… the beloved Harold Washington, they did know, sadly. The bulk of the people are still sitting in prisons. Even as we sit here, we have forces in the city of Chicago working to destroy us. To make sure that this historical opportunity to bring reflection to a wounded community, where most of the men come from West Englewood, we’re looking at the violence.

"Hell, all of their fathers were locked up in prisons. We have to deal with the trauma of all that… Poor people. That’s what we are. We’re poor people and we’re treated, unfortunately, like first-class slaves.” This was the testimony of a man who shared that he was locked in an interrogation room at the age of 16, prevented from communicating with his family, and sentenced to four terms of natural life in prison.

This raised questions about reaching people, mostly white people in affluent communities, who have no reference for police brutality or larger issues of systemic racism and social injustice. We talked about creating context for the Burge torture history, and the larger issue of police violence in communities of color. How do you dismantle narratives that represent the views of the dominant culture? Narratives, for example, that police are friendly, helpful protectors. Assumptions that if someone has been detained or arrested by police they must have done something wrong. We talked about ways to unsettle long-held, culturally framed narratives. One idea was to display videos of contrasting personal testimonies, from individuals of a similar age, background or interests, one black and one white, describing their experiences with and resulting attitudes toward police.

A couple of years ago, my mother, who is in her late 80s, watched the video of Eric Garner. She asked me what he had done. When I told her he’d been selling loose cigarettes, she looked completely baffled. I realized she had no idea that people sold loose cigarettes, and that doing so was a crime. Until a few years ago, I didn’t either. The whole construct of this act being illegal seems totally absurd. It disrupted her worldview to realize that she had watched a man being choked to death by law enforcement officers for such a petty offense.

Toward the end of our time together, the survivor who began the conversation about history, returned to the topic. He said the community he grew up in had been pretty nice when he was young, and asked if any of us had ever seen West Englewood. It was a rhetorical question, because he followed up by saying: you won’t see it because all you’ll see is your tears. You won’t believe anyone lives like that. People in prison live better than that. When I got out of prison, he said, I thought the world would be a better place.

When I entered the room where our group met, I felt the urgency and gravity of collective memories of horror and grief.

I am a Jewish woman who was born less than a decade after the end of the Second World War and the Nazi campaign of genocide against European Jews. I understood from a very early age, taught by my family and in religious school, that horrible, unspeakable things happen in the world—to us and to people who, like us, are different in ways that make us vulnerable. And that people who commit and are capable of committing these horrific acts are ordinary people, people you see everyday.

Like many other Americans, I learned to live with one foot in the universe of the dominant culture, and one foot in an alternative universe that knew about and experienced things other people didn’t understand or acknowledge.

There persists a dominant cultural framework with no concept of these parallel universes, including communities of people who were formerly enslaved, like the West Englewood community Mark talked about, where people still suffer the consequences of this crime against humanity. Powerful people make judgments and pronouncements about these communities; pass laws that have profound implications for them; and, as evidenced in the recent foreclosure crisis, game the system to enrich themselves by plundering their assets. It is a moral and ethical and, in a pluralistic society, inexcusable failing of our educational systems that many, if not most people, in our society do not have a clear understanding that people from other cultures, religions, ethnicities, and countries see and experience the world differently, the consequences of which are splattered all over our besmirched democracy.

I felt, sitting in that room, and I think now, about the almost unimaginably heavy burden this society has laid and continues to lay on black people, especially our black sisters and brothers living in disinvested communities, starting with the blaming and shaming for conditions this society created—pure and simple. The dominant culture tells the narrative that disadvantaged black communities and the people who live in them choose to be impoverished and drain our country’s resources. That people from these communities want advantages without working for them. The narrative is so obviously false it should defy belief. It’s black Americans whose labor, generation after generation, enriched this country—and who got nothing in return.

The historic achievement represented by the Reparations Ordinance to create the Chicago Torture Justice Center is the first of what I trust will be many new steps: in an internal process, deep physical, emotional, and spiritual healing for individuals, families, and the Englewood community; and of a public process that grows ever more visible, creating pathways to other long-overdue reparations that need to be made.

Acknowledge
Condemn
Apologize
Express regrets
Remember these events
Reaffirm commitment

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Guest Blogger: Aaron Rose on Salon Session #7: Stack, Leverage + Access

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Ethical Redevelopment Salon Series
Session 7: 02.16.17
By Aaron Rose

stack, leverage + access
concepts: scaling up, strategy

“One thing I like about the conversations we’ve been having today is they haven’t been really joyful. People are bringing the real problems and troubles that are happening in their communities: segregation, discrimination. Having a place where you can throw stuff on the table, where we can have real discussion and be yourself is important... A lot of people don’t complain to funders because they want to get funded!”
                                                                                                                             —Will Towns

After several Ethical Redevelopment Salon Sessions that addressed Principles with poetic, evocative themes—Pedagogical Moments, The Indeterminate, Place Over Time—here comes a Principle that rings like a clear directive, even a command, straight from the gut exigencies of what drives redevelopment projects and process: relationships and funding, or who you know and how much money you have.

While a phrase like “[p]rojects like these require belief and motivation more than they require funding” may be true, honorable, and inspirational, it can be cold comfort when you need to hire a staff person and pay a salary; elevate a budget so that a funder will even look at you or slash a project budget to get the work done.

So, yes, “[s]omething that you passionately believed in, but had little external backing for, can grow in scale and scope to become a sophisticated version that many stakeholders support and believe in.” But it’s also true that for many people who are struggling to get projects off the ground, especially working in communities with the least resources, “stack” can take on the passive and pejorative “stacked.”

Certainly, as a professional development consultant, I approach this topic with some skepticism. But I don’t think I was alone in feeling a little less enthusiastic for this super-important, totally necessary Ethical Redevelopment topic. Scheduling conflicts and special circumstances, like the birth of a baby aside, this Salon was less well attended than the others. And whether there is a connection or not to the Principle will perhaps forever remain undiscovered, but, among the Salon Members who attended, there were roughly two-dozen women and only two men. I don’t know if there was a correlation between the topic and the gender skew of the participants, but I do think it shifted the tenor of the event. 

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields


Evening Salon
Being the innovators they are, the Place Lab team structured an entirely new format for Salon Session #7. Theaster was not present; neither was regular Emcee Steve Edwards. This was to be a mobile session with a nimble format. Naomi Miller, Operations + Administrative Manager, and Project Specialist Carson Poole organized the cohort into three groups. The groups met for dialogue, in round-robin fashion, with three groups of guest experts.

The individuals and institutions represented at the Salon included Robin Schabes, from Illinois Facilities Fund, Joanna Trotter, The Chicago Community Trust; Kendra Freeman, Metropolitan Planning Council; Richard Sciorinto, Brinshore Development; Rosa Ortiz, Enterprise Community Partners; Jacky Grimshaw, Center for Neighborhood Technology; Will Towns, Benefit Chicago; Calvin Homes, Chicago Community Loan Fund; and Robert Rose, Executive Director of Cook County Land Bank Authority. Rob Rose is a Salon Member, as is another Illinois Facilities Fund staff member, Susana Vasquez.

A group of funders and nonprofit professionals who are part of the national SPARCC  (Strong, Prosperous, And Resilient Communities Challenge) initiative, also attended the Salon Session that evening. SPARCC’s current focus areas are Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Memphis, and the San Francisco Bay Area. The Chicago initiative, “L-Evated,” is using the city’s built transit system to “transform decision-making structures so that low-income residents and people of color strengthen their power and influence, and so that values of equity, health, and climate resilience are embedded in development outcomes.”

Years ago, I attended a fundraising event for a client organization with a friend, who remarked afterwards that the funders seated around our table were such kind, genuine, caring people. I knew them and they were. It was true. But the friendliness and generous spirit of many philanthropic program officers—or any executives and administrators—should not obscure another attribute of staff in the philanthropic/social impact sector.

Make no mistake: philanthropy and nonprofit management are very serious business. Executive and program staff, especially of large institutions, are charged with awesome responsibilities with very high expectations of integrity, expertise, and commitment. The corporate world may demand longer hours—or not, slavish attention to a financial bottom line, and negotiating in a heartless environment, but nonprofit management is an ethically, intellectually, and emotionally demanding enterprise that requires extensive knowledge, as well as understanding, empathy, and responsiveness, and profound, nuanced adherence to an ethos, mission, and ever-evolving community culture. There is no faking it in the business of philanthropy—on either side.

And so I find dialogue like this a double-edged experience. Individuals one connects with are generally how my friend perceived them: genuine in their desire and commitment to being supportive and helpful, and to serving as the connectors between organizations and their aspirations for success. One hopes that in well-run institutions their voices, too, are represented and respected. But it’s not their money, and they don’t make the decisions.

During the round-robin meetings, we had 20–30 minutes for brief introductions, and to respond to a prompt, one question that had been posed for each group. In our meeting with Group #1, there was more presentation and less dialogue. The Cook County Land Bank is a fairly new enterprise and Rob Rose took some time to explain their work.
 

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Group #1
My group met first with guest experts Rob Rose, Executive Director of Cook County Land Bank Authority, Joanna Trotter, Senior Program Officer in charge of Economic & Community Development for The Chicago Community Trust, and Kendra Freeman from Metropolitan Planning Council, Manager in the areas of Equitable Transit-Oriented Development and The Cost of Segregation.

The question we discussed was this:

What are the philosophical underpinnings of your work from the foundation or organizational perspectives and what values drive the work that community practitioners enact?

Joanna started out the conversation. The Chicago Community Trust released, about a year ago, new strategic funding priorities that bring issues of race and equity to the fore. This has always been a priority of The Trust, but race and equity are now the lens through which they see their work. They’ve supported affordable housing for many years, along with other funding areas such as arts and culture and health and human services, but Joanna’s new portfolio is specifically about creating more inclusive economies: how to unlock potential and reduce barriers in communities that have suffered from economic disinvestment for decades, primarily because of institutional racism.  

Kendra from Metropolitan Planning Council focuses on research and policy change, with three main focuses: housing, transportation, and sustainable development, particularly that ensures good stewardship of natural resources. They focus on building a vibrant and inclusive region, especially in the areas of community development and advocacy for affordable housing, and bring businesses, government, and communities to examine policy issues to improve existing structures to promote equitable development.

Through their Corridor Development Initiative, MPC identifies vacant properties in communities and, with the assistance of architects and designers, works with community residents to help them understand the development process, including market conditions in their area, as well as issues of density and transit-oriented development. The MPC team works with residents to articulate a vision by providing tools to conduct “table-top” charrettes. After participating in a three-day charrette session, residents are able to make recommendations about land development, during the critical community input phase of an RFP in ways that expand and strengthen a community’s role and voice in the redevelopment of their neighborhoods. The redevelopment of Graeme Stewart School, a former Chicago Public School in Uptown, is an example of this initiative.

From the other side, as Rob Rose pointed out, strong community input forced the City of Chicago to abandon plans to allow the Lucas Museum to be built on Chicago’s lakefront.

One of several around the country, the Cook County Land Bank is relatively new—established only four years ago. They focus on acquiring distressed real estate and vacant land, and remove barriers to redevelopment, such as back taxes and code violations, the things that preclude developers or potential homeowners from wanting to invest in a property. They return the properties or land to productive use by opening up and democratizing access to property. Initially, land banks were set up as a “sweetheart deal” for developers, giving them the opportunity to aggregate land and put big development project in place. The purpose was to allow aggregation for a select few.

The Land Bank’s philosophy is that it takes a big village to redevelop. To give everyone access, they are intentional about removing barriers to owning. As Rob noted, “government agencies like process.” But the Land Bank’s process is straightforward: they will sell a house or property one time to anyone who has the funds. If the owner fulfills their promise, they can have a second property. With a good track record, they can get a third. There is no need to go through credit checks; they do background checks only for financial, identity, or credit theft. Other criminal records do not preclude people from buying a house. Their process is simple and straightforward, yet radically different from conventional city or state agency processes for acquiring delinquent properties.

They serve primarily the South and West Sides of Chicago, and more than 60% of people they serve are people of color. They are trying to make their impact broad. “We would rather have one hundred people doing one project than one person doing a hundred projects,” Rob said. Typically, in a city, one or two people or entities with access continue to be fed development opportunities. They acquire property and amass wealth, while making decisions that cause disinvestment in certain communities. The Land Bank system allows access to any qualified individual with capital or access to capital, including people who pool resources, to acquire property. The Land Bank primarily sells properties at five, 10, and 20 thousand dollars. Because of state regulations designed to ensure people don’t easily lose their property, it can take time to acquire delinquent or abandoned properties.

Rob explained that the Land Bank is self-funded; they’re not seeking to make a profit, but to break even. When founded, they were 90% reliant on grant funding; last year, only 12% of their revenue came from grant funds, and their budget has increased four-fold. They also invest in people, in partnership with other organizations, cultivating someone’s skills so that a handyperson can evolve into a rehabber. The driving force is democracy, access to participation. Their revenue is from the properties they sell. Because they don’t make a profit, a property’s selling price allows buyers room to spend funds required to do a good job redeveloping their properties. It’s a balancing act. The sale of some commercial properties helps subsidize costs of single-family homes.

Cook County Land Bank was started with a grant from the lawsuit settlement, following the 2008 financial crisis, when 10 banks were sued by all 50 states. Illinois received an allocation from the Attorney General to staff the Land Bank and to purchase initial properties.

Some justice.

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields


Group #2
The question was this:

How does the process of gaining access to support unfold? What are the stated and unstated rules and nuances of access to investment, relationships, and influence?

Our second meeting was with Robin Schabes, Vice President of Community Development Initiatives at Illinois Facilities Fund, a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) that invests in and assists nonprofit organizations throughout the Midwest to provide quality of life services to communities, including affordable housing; Rosa Ortiz, Senior Program Director at Enterprise Community Partners; and Richard Sciorinto, Founding Principal at Brinshore Development, an innovative real estate company specializing in the development of residential communities that foster conservation, collaboration, and affordability.

Robin asked Rosa to start our conversation, and Rosa invited members of the group to share their perspective on this “nuanced” and challenging question about gaining access, asking first about the second part of the question, if it was relevant. “What comes to mind when you think about that? Is there such a thing as access to capital? Is there such a thing as access to relationships? Is there such as thing as access to influence?"

Members jumped in without hesitation, and shared their challenges.

One Member does community-based, placemaking work as part of a large cultural institution, and has difficulty raising funds for her project—serving a small community of people downtown who are suffering in a state of crisis and chaos—because of the prominence and assets of the organization.

One of the salient problems that emerged was the challenge of access: many of the communities identified for services

Another Member talked about her experience transitioning from working for many years in the government sector as a city planner, and now working with a nonprofit, where her work is dependent on nurturing partnerships and developing access to capital. This is now 75% of her job, when “all she really wants to do is get the work done.”

The larger challenge she faces is trying to use influence, access, and relationship to put the people in need in the same room with the people who have the resources. How can they serve these people, she asked, when they don’t talk to them, don’t see them? Being close to the problem you’re trying to solve, she noted, is everything, and asked: are we being efficient if we have 10 meetings about an issue and the people we’re trying to serve aren’t in any of the meetings?

Another Salon Member noted that funders may give grants to organizations that have been successful with raising money, but are not doing the due diligence to determine whether these organizations implement grant-funded programs and services effectively. In the same way, large organizations may be skilled at compiling data about the communities they purport to serve, but not have genuine ties that enable them to truly serve the community. I understand that funders need the assurances of someone in a position of authority who can be responsible, but I wish they could connect directly with the right people.

Rosa interjected to point out that it can be frustrating for both sides, grantees and prospective grantees, and funders, and asked: how do the people who distribute the money, or who do the metrics, quantify what’s really important? Everyone struggles with this problem. What kinds of things can we measure that really tell the story?

In response, Jennifer Mahar, Senior Director of Civic Initiatives at Fairmount Park Conservancy in Philadelphia, an organization whose staff does not represent the demographics of many of the communities they serve. It can be difficult to know what questions to ask, Jennifer noted, to elicit the information you’re looking for; information that will be helpful to communities you’re trying to serve.

As part of a large park improvement project, the Conservancy did a door-to-door survey of neighbors, in a community where 43% of residents are living in poverty, around questions of social cohesion. They asked about connections to their neighbors, the neighborhoods, and the park. When the project is completed, they will do a post-project survey. They plan to do another survey in 10 years, and again in 20 years to test ways to measure impact using social/emotional connections to address broader questions of the relationship of health to cohesive neighborhoods.

One Member shared a story about the founder of a community development corporation (CDC) who tried to explain the problem he had raising funds because people at foundations in leadership positions tend to be white and middle class—and that she, as part of a large institutions, was part of the problem. The Member had protested that she was not part of the power elite and didn’t have that authority. But when a funder pulled her aside and asked if he should give a large grant to the organization, she understood what the CDC founder was talking about. She now partners with the CDC to raise funds that she is able to channel to the CDC organization.

The conversation segued into challenges of data collection and metrics. It can be overwhelming for an organization to develop useful metrics without staff resources to do the work. This begs the question of which metrics are useful. Most funders expect quantifiable outcomes. If the outcomes are not measurable in quantifiable ways, does that make them meaningless?
 

Group #3
Question:

What is the future of urban philanthropy or urban development: How do funders or organizations see it and what are the emerging needs from practitioners seeking funding?

This group included Jacky Grimshaw, Center for Neighborhood Technology; Will Towns, Benefit Chicago; and Calvin Homes, Chicago Community Loan Fund.

The conversation centered around frustrations practitioners face when developing and funding programs.

Joan Vordergrudden, Director of Public Art and Placemaking for Hennepin Theatre Trust in Minneapolis, started off the conversation noting that the Salons are the only convening where she has the opportunity to meet regularly with other place-based practitioners, cultural workers to share stories and challenges, and to find affirmation for her work. She leaves feeling inspired and supported, and has talked with city officials and funders about bringing people together to talk about issues and to come up with ideas. Someone offered to provide $1,000 to hold a convening, Joan noted, but who would be responsible for pulling it together?

It’s not the same, but someone brought up the On the Table event that The Chicago Community Trust now holds annually—a day-long event for people across the region to convene for conversation about a topic of interest to them. In May 2017, more than 100,000 people participated in the event over meals, via social media, and at workshops.

One Salon Member brought up a trend toward urban pop-up events that are “shiny and fun,” but was emphatic about doing projects that are sustainable, that effect change in public policy, and that serve a long-term purpose by making real changes that benefits a community. She would like to be able to ask for funding to create an Ethical Redevelopment toolbox. But her experience is that a practical project like this doesn’t appeal in comparison to flashy events.

Another Salon Member noted that in a community where people are used to attending planning meetings, and who have also become accustomed to things not changing, arts and culture events, including pop-up events, can be a way to draw people in, to make a connection that can lead to longer-term projects and engagement.

Before closing, the group talked about funder guidelines and the funding process lacking flexibility, about the amount of time and energy it takes to negotiate and be awarded grants, which are designated for a specific purpose. And people have to spend so much time fundraising, they don’t have time to look down at the problem.

“One thing I like about the conversations we’ve been having today is they haven’t been really joyful," Will noted. "People are bringing the real problems and troubles that are happening in their communities: segregation, discrimination. Having a place where you can throw stuff on the table, where we can have real discussion and be yourself is important... A lot of people don’t complain to funders because they want to get funded!”

Will used to work at the University of Chicago, in the Office of Civic Engagement, and he used to hold agenda-less meetings. He would just tell the community he was coming, and whatever they wanted to talk about is what they would talk about. And the reason he set that up is because once an institution, particularly the University, sets an agenda, there is an agenda. Sometimes we just need to gather and talk about what’s on our mind. The agenda will come naturally.
 

Afternoon Workshop Session
What are the potential outcomes of Ethical Redevelopment? How have you incorporated these Principles into your work? What can we do as a collective group to further this work outside of the Salon Sessions?

Salon Members met for the first of three afternoons to talk about each of the 9 Principles. During the afternoon session of Salon #7, we talked about the first three Principles: Repurpose and Re-propose, Engaged Participation, and Pedagogical Moments.

We talked about the importance of the 9 Principles as tools and a language for learning about Ethical Redevelopment among different stakeholders: nonprofit staff, developers, community residents. It’s important to adjust the language of the Principles to be relevant to each audience, but also to see the Principles as a tool for teaching new language. It’s also important to bridge the divide between the written content and making the Principles actionable; having the Principles include best practices.

Photo by Naomi Miller

Photo by Naomi Miller

One Salon Member has gone back to her organization and done teach-backs on the 9 Principles of Ethical Redevelopment. Another Member said participating in the Ethical Redevelopment Salon series has given her work more credibility. She wants people she works with to understand how the Ethical Redevelopment approach views challenges as opportunities rather than problems.

I raised a question, from a broader perspective, about the responsibilities and challenges in all relevant industries and fields. How do we bring different sectors—government, nonprofits, developers, and community members—to the table so people begin to understand and appreciate the concerns and constraints other sectors face? So we can work on solutions that draw on everyone’s strengths and contributions, and respect everyone’s point of view and needs?

We talked about evaluation. One Member talked about wanting to measure how the work has affected the quality of life of community residents. She expressed frustration about funders just wanting quantifiable data, such as how many events have been held and how many people attended an event, without regard to whether people felt the event was valuable. Measuring “brush-ups” is also important; the number of times people meet and develop relationships.

Joan from Minneapolis talked about the work Scott Chazdon does with ripple effect mapping (REM), and about Kumu, "a powerful data visualization platform that helps you organize complex information into interactive relationship maps."

Salon Member Lauren Hood, Co-Director of Live6 Detroit, raised the possibility of creating a certification program in Ethical Redevelopment for community residents, who would benefit from some kind of formal recognition of the work they do.
 

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Salon Dinner
The evening concluded with a lovely sit-down dinner on the second floor of the Arts Bank, in the long room lined with cabinets that hold the University of Chicago Glass Lantern Slides collection. Two tables running the length of the room were set with black tablecloths, fresh flowers, and individual place settings.

Everyone came together for a meal, drinks, and conversation. It was fitting, coming at the end of an evening of conversations that hadn’t been “really joyful.” It was fitting that so many of the Salon Members who are women were served and honored.

The Principle of Engaged Participation states that “[t]he value of the relationship is in the intimacy, not in the duration.” Gatherings like this can also be an opportunity to amplify the scope and impact of our work by creating moments of connection across distance and time; bridges that can lead to new ways of knowing and understanding ourselves and our work, and, because we share them with others, amplify possibilities for new opportunities. We don’t know at the time where they will lead, but entering in good faith into dialogue and mutually supportive relationships, as Members have been doing at the Salons, ensures that a portal is open—for access to many things, beginning with ideas and inspiration to address new challenges.

The Principle of Stack, Leverage + Access reminds us that “[m]aking change requires conviction and commitment utilizing belief, brainpower, energy, time, and dogged perseverance.” The meal was an opportunity to celebrate these efforts.

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

 

 

Guest Blogger: Aaron Rose on Salon Session #6: Place Over Time

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Ethical Redevelopment Salon Series
Session 6: 01.19.17
By Aaron Rose

place over time
concepts: flexibility, nimbleness

 A sense of place cannot be developed overnight… To be an anchoring space in a city, people have to be willing to spend time there. Hot, hip spots come and go. Trendy locations fall short of connecting “need” with “space.” Need changes over time and, as a result, space has to change over time.

We gathered in the 3rd-floor gallery space in the Arts Bank for the evening Salon Session and the room was packed. It was an especially big group. James Feagin from Detroit, “The Emperor,” as I came to think of him, secured funds from the Knight Foundation to start a similar Salon series in Detroit, and the new group of twenty place-making practitioners joined us for our exploration of Place Over Time.

As I’ve written in earlier blogs, the Salon series coincided with the arc of the election drama. The Session on January 19 coincided with a day many of us had been dreading, and there was an elevated sense of urgency in our discussions. Emcee Steve Edwards was starting us off, when Theaster came running, breathless, into the room to launch the discussion, before he had to leave again. We were told it was a day of meetings with funders—a reminder of what it takes to sustain this work.

Theaster started by laying out what felt like a deepening groundwork for our discussion that evening, and for the work that lay ahead. And beyond his actual words, what I heard was that it’s time to get to the core of what we are doing in our Ethical Redevelopment convocations; to talk about what we really need to do to ensure that the redevelopment of communities we live in and care about is ethical.

He talked about his own history of moving into the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood just ten years ago, to what he called “6918,” the one-story building he’d purchased on South Dorchester Avenue, despite concerns of family members for his safety. It’s difficult now for people to understand, he shared, when they see Stony Island Arts Bank, Arts + Public Life, the Arts Block, and now Place Lab, that this is how he started out.

Looking forward five years, the Obama Center will be open, and there will be intense interest in surrounding land, including land adjacent to the Arts Bank, which big architecture firms have started looking at. In another decade, this place will look very different. The lesson of the first chapter of his tale is that an individual can make change, profound change, in a neighborhood. Things can be rough—and you just need to work harder.

The second chapter of this story is about cities changing. One of two things will happen: you either participate in the change, or the change will happen to you. At the moment, we seem to have only one word for this change—gentrification. But there are other, more nuanced dynamics that are possible in pursuit of and in the midst of change. People have moved into or closer to Greater Grand Crossing because of Theaster’s projects, but has he caused or does this signal gentrification? Theaster cautioned that there are many ways people can make neighborhoods better. We need to know—to discover from and with our friends and networks—how we can support each other, even if the changes in our neighborhoods are looming 20 years in the future.

Lastly, how do we understand and address structural racism? What happens when people in a place wait on and are affected by structures? What does it mean when a government entity allocates resources in some places, and not in others? And what does it mean to create other structures, independently, to affect the course of change over time? For Theaster, the Arts Bank was an early example of what would happen if the black community had a super cultural institution. What would the building look like? And the visitors and activities—what would they look like? Sometimes, he noted, you have to “make the one thing in advance of the 100 things, with the belief that something can happen.”

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

There are people, Theaster continued, with power, authority, and connections. They see opportunity, and acquire objects and wealth through investments. On the other side, there are people who have been in a place, and who have the networks. What does this side, the side with the history, networks, and commitment need in order to be ready for the other side? To be ready so that there is equity when it comes time for conversation? In planning meetings, it’s a battle between the two sides. This side, the community side, needs to develop the same relationships, and collect the same kinds of information the other side has, that we haven’t had, so when it’s time to negotiate there won’t be a takeover. Theaster used the force of his hands coming together to illustrate what can happen when the force with power and authority is met with an equal force of power and commitment. One side doesn’t have to look like the other side, but it has to have “strong timbers.” It has to be a network of deep structure, including real estate lawyers and finance people, business people. That’s when the equity comes. It’s in the grappling and negotiations that the new jobs, new ownership, and new structures come. That’s when charitable organizations that complement for-profit entities get involved and provide advocacy that allows for a more complicated, integrated, malleable, messy mix—like a neighborhood—that works to the advantage of the community.

Theaster ended his story by responding to a question from Richard Steele, one of the Guest Experts that evening, about persevering through a long cycle of place over time. We need to tell our children and grandchildren that they have to be good at math, to study hard, he said, because they’re going to be the ones to build on that piece of vacant land.

He talked about the vision, commitment, and relationships required to build places that do not yet exist, places of the future for our children. What do we owe and want to pass on to our children? Commitment to our communities requires a particular kind of belief—in addition to and beyond the cash of speculators. When the Obama Center is awake, there’s going to be a fight for our buildings. We, the community, will need to work through intimate relationships we develop between community members and individuals with power. We need to secure investment in individuals through CDFIs (community development finance institutions), and not wait for corporate investment. We need to create those connections and commitment between people who have money, power, and influence and folks who need to get stuff done.

A member of the Detroit contingent posed a question. Detroit, he said, has been developed for the past 50 years to shut out the city’s 83% black majority, who, in the decades since the auto industry in Detroit and people’s identities have been displaced and dislocated, have been seen as resourceless and valueless. Given the racialist media narrative to influence public opinion in order to affect public policy, can we construct new narratives so we see ourselves differently from the way we’ve been socialized to see ourselves? A group crafted a community benefits agreement (CBA), and the response was that the people who formulated the agreement lacked information—and even intelligence and creativity—required to propose something like this. “Listen to the experts,” they were told. Narrative affects who is given resources and allowed access.

Narrative can also fight stigma, Theaster responded. The hits don’t have to be huge. Black people can fight back with little hits. The Shinola narrative, for example, is very strong, even though I don’t know how many jobs they actually create: a few or a few hundred.

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

So what are our priorities?

It’s really on us. If you, as a black person, invest your money in conventional ways, you are helping gentrify a neighborhood in this country; you’re helping a corporation buy your grandmama’s house. We have to think more about these kinds of structural things: knowledge dissemination. Money aggregating by and for black communities. “And those things feel spiritual to me.” Your grandchildren should benefit from investments you made 30 years ago. There is something very palpable about place. I have a broad belief in black space, Theaster said, a transferable belief about black space. It doesn’t matter if it’s the West Side or the South Side. Whatever we call what we’re doing, it’s an attempt to demonstrate that we have the capacity to self organize. All of the solutions to the challenges we face are in this room.

Theaster left us with this question. Just like in school, when we’re asked to put that word we’ve learned to spell into a sentence, “what is the practice, the practical?”

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

 
Poetic Interlude

Following an introduction by Isis Ferguson, Place Lab’s Associate Director of City and Community Strategy, Nate Marshall presented a poetic interlude in keeping with “meditating deeply on cities.” Nate, Director of National Programs at Louder Than a Bomb, the world’s largest youth poetry slam, read two poems—elegant, naked and fierce in their beauty—from his award winning collection, Wild Hundreds, about a neighborhood on Chicago’s far South Side between 100th and 130th streets.

Salon
The Session featured conversation with two highly regarded Chicago journalists, both known for their integrity and informed perspective on race and place. Introduced by Steve as a “creator of communities,” Richard Steele is an elder statesman-like figure in Chicago. Richard joined WBEZ-FM in 1987, where he worked for 27 years and hosted numerous shows, including "Talk of the City," "The Richard Steele Show," and more recently, “The Barber Shop” show, broadcast on location at Carter’s Barbershop in the North Lawndale neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side. Richard was also a frequent contributor to other WBEZ-FM programs over the years, including "Morning Shift," "Afternoon Shift," "Worldview," "Morning Edition," "All Things Considered," and "Eight Forty-Eight." Richard has lived in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood, located just south and east of Stony Island Arts Bank, for more than 40 years.

Ethan Michaeli’s recently published The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America is a beautifully written, 500-page tome—well worth the read—about the legendary weekly, The Chicago Defender. Ethan was a copy editor and journalist for the paper from 1991 to 1996. Ethan also organized and for 19 years led The Residents’ Journal, a publication by and for residents of Chicago Housing Authority public housing, which covers their communities, as well as Chicago politics and culture.  

Ethan gave a fascinating account of the inception of The Chicago Defender, founded in 1905 by Robert S. Abbott. Through the Haitian Pavilion at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Frederick Douglass, former US ambassador to Haiti, cultivated relationships among a generation of rising-star African-American intellectuals and community leaders. In addition to Abbott, they included writers Paul Laurence Dunbar and James Weldon Johnson (“Young man—Young man—Your arm's too short to box with God”); journalist and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells; journalist, lawyer and Wells’s future husband, Ferdinand Barnett; and Oscar de Priest, the first African-American congressman from the North. The Chicago Defender was founded in the spirit of that gathering as part of an early-20th-century civil rights movement to “defend” against increasing oppression in the South, which wanted to roll back civil rights African Americans had won during the Civil War.

The weekly became the leading mouthpiece for African Americans, and shaped the course of history by encouraging black Americans to leave the South, prompting the Great Migration to urban centers like Chicago and Detroit. Initially, Chicago political leaders welcomed black Americans to this highly politicized city, but whites resisted and, in 1919 there were vicious race riots against the integration of African Americans. The Chicago Defender worked to break down the wall of custom and law that kept Chicago a segregated city. As the respected journalist Vernon Jarrett noted, in a circumstance where African Americans were ignored, their accomplishments and quotidian events of their lives were ignored, The Chicago Defender created the intellectual space for African Americans to celebrate each other. The weekly also reflected the sense of place in South Side Chicago that was an animating force in American life. 

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Richard talked about his experience growing up in Chicago. His family followed a typical aspirational trajectory, starting out at 32nd and Calumet in the Grand Boulevard neighborhood, in a basement apartment without a private bathroom. His parents, both of whom worked, put in an application for an apartment in the new Lake Meadows building, but their application was denied. It became clear the building was constructed, not to enhance living conditions for people in the surrounding community, but to attract more affluent people from other communities. His parents saved to buy a house at 73rd and Indiana. More than 60 years later, his brother still lives in the neighborhood, despite its decline over decades of black flight. Richard talked about communities of stable homeowners who formed strong bonds and block clubs, which change when original owners die. Their children either sell the house, or don’t want to live in it and instead rent it out to people who haven’t formed those bonds. This is how communities lose continuity of culture and purpose.

Richard and his wife have lived in South Shore for 40 years. South Shore is a great location, situated by the lakefront along South Shore Drive. But like other historically black neighborhoods in Chicago, South Shore has suffered loss of population and investment in recent decades that have lead to deteriorating conditions and an increase in crime, a familiar dynamic that the group took time to explore.

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

A young woman from Detroit shared that when she was growing up, she was told to go to school, go to college, and get out of the neighborhood. She felt attached to the place where she grew up and to the people who lived there, but she wasn’t told to bring her knowledge back and make the neighborhood a better place; she was told it was a place to evacuate. Someone else said it’s easy to take for granted that these old neighborhoods, the neighborhoods of our grandparents, will always be there. Sometimes these communities will maintain some of their original character, but become like a museum and lose their essence.

There was discussion about harnessing the power of personal relationships and networks that Theaster described earlier that evening. Richard sited the example of annual barbecues and picnics where former neighbors come together though they’ve been away from their original neighborhoods for years, sometimes decades. Ethan talked about the strong bonds of community among former residents of CHA projects like Cabrini Green and Robert Taylor Homes—how they maintain contact through Facebook and the kinds of events Richard described. Ethan also talked about people and forces in Chicago who wanted the CHA projects torn down, and who were consciously, actively working to destroy what some people considered “toxic,” “enemy” communities, and the power that exists in these communities.

The conversation came full circle to recognizing the power in black communities, across place and time. Building new systems and structures of black community will aggregate the knowledge and capacity required to take on historical structures designed to overtake them.
 

Monica Chadha, Civic Projects LLC
Livernois Avenue in Detroit, a street once lined with small, exclusive boutique shops between the elegant Outer Drive and upscale Palmer Woods enclave, had earned the moniker “The Avenue of Fashion.” Over time, the area declined and the businesses that had given the Avenue its reputation and its name were gone. To revitalize the Avenue, Urban Land Institute provided a long-range plan for the area, but the surrounding community sought to move forward to activate current resources and opportunities. Monica was invited by Dan Pitera, Executive Director of University of Detroit Mercy’s Detroit Collaborative Design Center, to create what became Impact Detroit, bringing together a collective, including economic developers and people with real estate experience, to develop a growth network. Using “a light touch” to take initial small steps, Impact Detroit worked in partnership with University of Detroit Mercy and small, local organizations who addressed immediate needs, such as coordinating a neighborhood clean-up, and conducting neighbor surveys. The group worked with Challenge Detroit fellows to develop a community storefront on Livernois Avenue, a pop-up that attracted hundreds of people to the area. Immediately following the success of the pop-up, the Detroit Economic Growth Council offered entrepreneurs, artists, and designers an opportunity to animate space rent-free for three months. After piloting their storefronts, four of the storefronts became permanent businesses on the block; an additional six businesses are expected to open in the near future.

Monica, as she describes it, went to Detroit “to incubate,” then started a parallel project in the Englewood community on the South Side of Chicago. There are shrinking cities; Chicago has shrinking neighborhoods. Monica began working with a CDC (community development corporation) in Englewood to animate big ideas for The Annex, an area adjacent to the Art Deco-style US Bank building near 63rd and Halsted. Historically, the area was the second-highest grossing commercial district in the city, after downtown Chicago’s State Street. Looming on the horizon was Whole Foods, which was planning to open a store in Englewood.

Again, starting with small steps, Monica and the team worked within a space they were offered in the US Bank building to bring in small-scale entrepreneurs who hadn’t had opportunities for growth; who needed a place to learn from each other, sharing knowledge and opportunities, as well as a place to work. Collaborating with some of Monica’s students from Illinois Institute of Technology and with Shed Studio, they developed the Englewood Accelerator space, which included classroom and training areas. The Accelerator has approximately 100 members who use the space, and has had thousands of visitors. Their intention wasn’t to create a plan for the neighborhood, but to look at a framework. They looked at game boards, and their impact, as a model, a thinking tool. They also researched vacant lots, including an abandoned rail line, which might become future nodes.

One of the Accelerator trainees, whose speciality is baked goods, has been picked up by Whole Foods and Starbucks. The Accelerator is now working with the former trainee on a production and café space in the neighborhood. Approximately 30 vendors from Englewood, including people from The Accelerator, have products now carried by Whole Foods.
 

Las Marthas
The evening before the Salon Session, Rebuild Foundation hosted a Moving Images, Making Cities screening of Crisina Ibarra’s 2014 film, Las Marthas. The film explores one of the world’s largest celebrations of George Washington’s birthday. The 116-year-old tradition in Laredo, Texas has evolved into a month-long series of historic reenactments and bicultural celebrations, many involving Laredo’s Mexican sister city, Nuevo Laredo. The most celebrated event is the invitation-only Colonial Ball hosted by the elite Society of Martha Washington, and the film focuses on the experiences of two young debutantes who make their debut at the Ball. One is the daughter of an established Laredo family, the 13th young woman in her family to debut at the Ball. The other is the daughter of a Mexican family whose newly acquired wealth buys her access to the tradition. Each wears an individually designed, 18th-century-style gown, which can cost as much as $15–30,000.

The film is a fascinating depiction of the legacy of US appropriation of Mexican land, and the strategies employed by Mexican families over time to maintain their land and their status as landowners and prominent citizens, while maintaining ties to their home culture. The film also reveals the poignant response of the two very different young women to expectations that they serve as carriers of culture.

Salon attendees were invited to the film, and I was delighted to see the contingent from Detroit, my hometown, arrive, straight from Union Station. Following the film, we had the kind of open, friendly, bad-ass kind of conversation I know and love and expect from people from the D. 

Sabrina Craig, Cinema Program Manager at Rebuild Foundation, led off the conversation talking about why they chose the film and thought it relevant to Place Over Time. The fascinating and ridiculous rituals depicted in the film illustrate ways a community, whose citizenship was constantly shifting, but whose vulnerability was a constant, created an origin story, as well as a sense of self and place over time, so insistent on its status as American.

One woman brought up the Jack and Jill tradition in the African-American community, which starts at the age of six, and separates out people, starting at a very young age, by class.

A man said he wondered what the rest of the town, who did not participate in the elite ritual, thought about the pageantry. Considering that this film is being shown to us, people who are actively developing community, he had a couple of questions. First: how did the rest of the community in Laredo feel about this active celebration of assimilationist identity? Regardless of how small the elite community may have been, they are representing and broadcasting this assimilationist identity. This happens in Detroit where they may be only a small percentage of the 600,000 black individuals who represent assimilation, but their identity takes up the majority of the market share, because that’s the one the dominant culture wants to promote. No matter that there are 600,000 black people in Detroit who view things a certain way. If there are 20,000 who hew to the dominant narrative, the dominant culture attaches to that.

The second question: the young women in the film talk very little about white people, or about George or Martha Washington—yet they were dressing up like white people, and emulating the colonizers. How many of us are thinking and talking about things that are culturally specific, yet are dressing like the colonizer, and behaving, in our work, in ways that are counter-intuitive or counter-productive to diasporic African identities?

Someone else noted the ritual as a strategy for survival when people realized they had to look the part of colonizers to keep their land. Now, as they pass and wave to the 600,000, it really is their heritage. A visual artist talked about how interested he was in the fabric and the tactile aspects of the ritual. “There’s a lot of heritage in those threads.”

A man talked about being from a neighborhood on Detroit’s East Side and being invited to an event at the exclusive Detroit Athletic Club—where he wondered things like, do you have fresh flowers on the table for every meal? What does it mean to provide this kind of exposure to people who can’t live it, someone who has to go back to the East Side of Detroit?

Someone who attended the Eliel Saarinen-designed Cranbrook School in an exclusive suburb of Northwest Detroit, a private school I also attended, described the people who are part of these elite societies. He learned, as I also did, coming from a relatively modest suburban community, how wealthy, powerful families have markers—their names, the way they dress and behave—that have history and meaning, that they manifest in order to identify and maintain their power.

A man wondered why all that attention is considered necessary for girls. What happens afterwards in their lives? Someone suggested this is about maintaining or getting girls into those upper-class circles, by having certain things on their resume and getting into certain schools.

The ritual around George and Martha Washington started as a strategy designed to ensure people would be able to hold onto their land, and be safe. In Detroit, people also made strategic decisions to ensure they would be able to hang onto some kind of resources and assets, some place to grow from. How many of our 100-year-old strategies have gone awry?, someone asked. Our ancestors had strategies to assimilate that made sense 100 years ago, yet people continue these behaviors without examining if they still serve. How deeply can we investigate that collectively?

Someone noted that, at some point, they stopped telling the story, and it just became about the dresses. One man talked about the women in his family all making cornbread a certain way, in small batches. Family members started questioning the process, and went back to the elder matriarch, who responded that they made the cornbread that way because they only owned one small pan.

A tradition can be born of trauma, someone said. People may be reluctant to tell the stories, because they’re traumatic. One man said he wants to hear stories about the 1950s and '60s, but it’s difficult to persuade his grandmother to talk about that time. By keeping the traditions without knowing the stories, it’s possible to create new traumas.

The conversation turned back to the “A” word, and efforts to assimilate. How many of us were the first to go to college, or have a corporate gig? There are similarities between the tactics the community in Laredo had to use, and what our ancestors did who integrated in order to acquire land. We’ve had to balance being strategic with being uncomfortable.

Before we broke for the evening, Sabrina pointed out the other ritual presented in the film: of the religious figure giving welcome to a symbolic group of refugees and immigrants. How can this more meaningful ritual be made relevant and useful in community placemaking?

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

 
National Public Housing Museum

The afternoon session was devoted to a presentation and discussion with staff of the National Public Housing Museum, an organizing that has emerged over the past decade through the efforts of former residents of public housing to establish a site for honoring the history and legacy of public housing in Chicago, for social reflection and public dialogue. We met at NPHM’s temporary offices at Archeworks, with Executive Director Dr. Lisa Yun Lee, Robert Smith, Associate Director, and Daniel Ronan, Manager of Public Engagement. Lisa and a team that included Place Lab’s Isis Ferguson were responsible for the transformation of the Jane Addams Hull House Museum that Salon Members visited during Salon #2.

The Museum will be housed in the one remaining building of the historic Jane Addams Homes on the Near West Side, named for the Nobel Prize-winning founder of the Hull House settlement in the late-19th century. The first federal government housing project in Chicago, Jane Addams Homes housed hundreds of families over six decades, from 1938 until they were closed in 2002. The Museum is, in part, representing a golden moment in public housing.

The conversation focused on a range of issues related to public housing, starting with the role of government in providing subsidies for housing. We don’t acknowledge, in this country, all the forms of public housing subsidies. For example, the cost of the Mortgage Interest Tax Deduction (MID) for homeowners is about 80 times the cost of investment in public housing. US government subsidies for suburban housing after World War II was the largest public investment in housing in the country’s history.

Public housing in Europe is part of a larger commitment to public education and universal health care. In the US, in the early-20th century, there were similar questions, in the context of a capitalist society, about the commitment of a democracy to the public good, and government’s responsibility for public welfare. As Lisa pointed out, in one short generation, we went from a definition of welfare as something that connoted well-being and good health to something that “lazy poor people need when they’re not trying hard enough in a capitalist society.” How did this happen?

The conversation turned to the insistent power of white supremacy. We talked about historical events that created backlash and caused the US to revoke a stated commitment to democratic ideals. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed to desegregate life in the South; to integrate public places like swimming pools, and ban separate public facilities, like drinking fountains and restrooms. But the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968 called for desegregation in the North. Banning segregation in housing also meant banning segregation in schools, which had entirely different implications. White Northerners were less sanguine about desegregating their communities and schools than about desegregating swimming pools and drinking fountains in the South.

In the course of our conversations, Lisa recommended a few relevant articles—investigative journalism about housing policies and public housing in the US. One is Nikole Hannah-Jones’s piece for Propublica, "Living Apart: How the Government Betrayed a Landmark Civil Rights Law."Jones’s piece is an astonishing recounting of the fate of the Fair Housing Act, which, to be honest, brought me to tears.

I am old enough to remember the Civil Rights Movement, the Johnson administration, and the 1967 uprising in Detroit. The article reveals efforts by George Romney, former Governor of Michigan and father of Mitt Romney, who was well regarded by Democrats like my parents, as well as Republicans, to desegregate public housing when he became Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Nixon administration. His commitment to interrupting segregated housing patterns in the US, “which he described as a ‘high-income white noose’ around the black inner city,” caused him to be expelled from Nixon’s cabinet. When have we last heard this kind of discourse from an official in the federal government? What opportunities were lost, almost 50 years ago, when Romney was sidelined?

Investigative reporter Jamie Kelvan, who broke the Laquan McDonald case in Chicago, and who has been writing about public housing for 25 years, initiated a longitudinal study about former Cabrini Green residents. The study, which tracks every family who lived in Cabrini Green to find out where they went after leaving the housing project, is being conducted by the nonprofit organization he founded to do this work, Invisible Institute.

Lisa talked about exposing myths about public housing, and recommended the book Public Housing Myths: Perception, Reality, and Social Policy.

NPHM will use storytelling to distinguish between myth, perception, and reality. Their challenge is to demonstrate the effects of power and place. Through the power of objects and oral histories, NPHM will explore housing as a human right, and examine assumptions about public housing and public housing residents. The Museum’s main artifact is the building itself, which visitors will experience directly through a series of architectural encounters. They will experience the “poetic ruins” of the space, after 15 years of abandonment when it was left in 2002. NPHM will employ Hip Hop scholarship, meaning style as a form of resistance, to demonstrate how people who lived in Jane Addams Homes transformed the apartments, using paint, wallpaper, and other materials to make the spaces their own.

Exhibition space in two separate apartment spaces will interpret ideas and experiences of home through the stories of four generations of different families who lived in the building. Public housing residents will serve as museum educators.

NPHM storytelling will be informed by South Africa’s landmark Truth and Reconciliation Process. The process defined four different kinds of storytelling truth: Factual or Forensic truth; Personal or Narrative truth; Social or Dialogic truth, which brings together and makes sense of disparate narratives; and Healing or Restorative truth. The website Proving the Holocaust offers the best definitions I was able to locate online of the Four Truths.

Healing and Restorative truth, which integrates all the truths and seeks acknowledgement and healing through an ongoing process of restorative justice, is the most important truth, and is the real work of National Public Housing Museum.

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

 

 

 

Ethical Redevelopment Salon Members Win 2017 Knight Cities Challenge Awards

Place Lab congratulates five Ethical Redevelopment Salon Members and one of our city partners on being winners of the 2017 Knight Cities Challenge. The Knight Cities Challenge seeks new and innovative ideas for projects located in 26 communities where the Knight Foundation invests. Learn more here about the Knight Foundation and their efforts to support ideas that make communities more vibrant places to live and work.

The 33 winners of the 2017 Knight Cities Challenge were selected from more than 4,500 applicants.


Hunter Franks • Akron, OH

Hunter Franks • Akron, OH

Recipient: Hunter Franks
Award: $224,453
Goal: To increase public life in Akron by transforming a decommissioned freeway into a temporary forest and public space.


Tayyib Smith • Philadelphia, PA

Tayyib Smith • Philadelphia, PA

Recipient: Little Giant Creative / Tayyib Smith
Award: $300,000
Goal: Building more equitable communities by launching a series of convenings across several cities where decision-makers, social entrepreneurs, activists and innovators discuss equitable community development.


Kris Nonn • Lexington, KY

Kris Nonn • Lexington, KY

Recipient: North Limestone Community Development Corp. / Kris Nonn
Award: $125,000
Goal: Building an adventure playscape and community garden in Castlewood Park, a 30-acre neighborhood park on the north end of Lexington.


Chase Cantrell • Detroit, MI

Chase Cantrell • Detroit, MI

Recipient: Building Community Value / Chase Cantrell
Award: $157,500
Goal: Expanding economic opportunity by empowering Detroiters to become neighborhood real estate developers through a community-based education program adapted from a University of Michigan course.


Alysia Osborne • Charlotte, NC

Alysia Osborne • Charlotte, NC

Recipient: Charlotte Center City Partners / Alysia Osborne
Award: $151,600
Goal: To increase vibrancy and connectivity in Charlotte by turning the Charlotte Rail Trail’s last remaining vacant space into a lively place to connect with nature and neighbors.
 


ArtHouse • Gary, IN

ArtHouse • Gary, IN

Recipient: City of Gary Redevelopment Commission (A partner in the development of ArtHouse: A Social Kitchen in Gary, IN)
Award: $163,333
Goal: To support economic development and downtown vibrancy by investing in the redevelopment of the historic United City Methodist Church which will serve as a cultural anchor in the community.

Salon Member Reflection: Ashley C. Smith

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Ashley C. Smith is a Salon Member from Lexington, Kentucky and is the first Development Coordinator at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center. She attended three Salons and offered her thoughts on her experience and the impact on her work. Along with other Salon Members, Ashley will attend the Salon Finale later this month to assess what was discussed, learned, and formed over the past year of conversations and how to continue into the future. We will share materials from the Salon Finale via our website, social media, and weekly newsletter, the Place Lab digest. 

 

When the application link to the 2016 Ethical Redevelopment Salon series arrived in my inbox, I was instantly intrigued. I was curious as to how a black man under 50 in a large urban area got anyone to listen to him in relationship to making meaningful impacts on severely marginalized and underrepresented populations. 

I found myself at a crisis point, a crossroads with my organization, a well meaning yet extremely tone deaf African American cultural arts center. Too often, we found ourselves airing on the side of irrelevance, not considered, and looked down on. My work in development had been paved with obstacles, hurdles, and dismay. Searching for a clear path with a sustainable future was my ultimate goal. If memory serves right, I think I watched the Ethical Redevelopment video about 50 times. I was hooked on the possibility of promise found in the 9 Principles DNA. After meticulous completion and near miss on the submission deadline, the seed of partnership, knowledge sharing, and increased exposure through a Salon membership was planted. 

My acceptance and participation in the Ethical Redevelopment Salon series fiercely assisted with my ability to identify three core values that now lead my life's work. I established a personal commitment to incorporating representation, home place appreciation, and equity. Used as filters in aligning my passions and professional approach to work, these values were realized through the interactive Salon Sessions. 

Representation. Following my first Session, I worked hard to slow my rapidly shooting thoughts as I unpacked words of wisdom from Session panelists. How does my organization, an agency with a special emphasis on African American cultural heritage, not have images of black folk hanging up? Anywhere? Due to my exposure to the diverse Salon network and the axioms of Ethical Redevelopment, I was able to guide my agency to embrace our rich African-American tradition and heritage. Bridging the Legacy, an intergenerational multimedia exhibit in the Lyric’s main lobby, explores the narratives of black families based in Lexington, Kentucky. Original work is created and financially supported through featured artists-in-residence for three-month exhibitions. This empowerment through reflection in public spaces has generated stronger community relations. 

Photo credit: Francis Lee Baker

Photo credit: Francis Lee Baker

Home Place Appreciation. As a native Kentuckian, it was not until 2016 that I fully embraced my home place. A singular narrative made popular by the state—poor, white, and uneducated—never really lent itself to adoration. My heart searched for the ability to tell the unique experience as an African American under 35 in the state of Kentucky. Connected with the diverse Salon network, opportunities made themselves available to gather information and make better the place I called home. Attempts to attract talent and experts of color like Theaster, who often live in urban places, to places like Lexington—which are mixtures of urban and rural sprawl, have under-recognized populations of people of color, and are prone to perceptions and judgements reinforced by stereotypes of rural America—often fall on deaf ears. Urban-based talents and experts of color often fail to see the value offered through our ingenuity and vigor, our intersectionality of economics, race, and culture in states such as Kentucky. The recruitment of this talent and expertise for knowledge sharing through participating and interacting with communities of color based in places like Lexington still presents a struggle. However, I believe the dial has moved closer in our favor to serve as grounds for innovation and partnership. 

Equity. Another aspect of Ethical Redevelopment that was enticing was the close proximity to national foundations such as Knight and Kresge. At the local level, the agency facilitating relationships with these entities iced out the agency I serve. Talking points on agenda meetings of being committed to equity and inclusion in philanthropy were washed out by actions of neglect through philanthropic redlining. It was through the Salon Sessions that I learned how to navigate foundation relationships and how to present a project that reaches a large public for the betterment of all. 

In all, my experience with Ethical Redevelopment has jump-started my focus, vision, and mission associated with my life's work. The opportunity to meet scholars, experts, and impassioned community servants was motivating and challenging. Learning from Theaster and his incredible staff was exciting and a call for holistic improvement. 

Photo: Windstream Creative

Photo: Windstream Creative

Guest Blogger: Aaron Rose on Salon Session #5: Design

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Ethical Redevelopment Salon Series
Session 5: 12.14.16

By Aaron Rose

principle: design
concepts: aesthetic, desirability

“We’ve been together about five times,” Theaster began, “but we haven’t ever actually talked directly about how things look. How things look is core to how we get down, but also the thing that makes what we do different from conventional lo-fi, lo-class people doing stuff in challenged neighborhoods.”

“If we were going to have a deep, first symbolic impact, people should go in these buildings, and lose their sense of where they are… we should interrupt whatever people thought they’d come to see. Design helped us do that.”

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields


So what do we talk about when we talk about design?

At Salon #5, we talked mostly about the purpose and the process—and sometimes the product—of good design. The Salon Sessions included an afternoon tour of the Theaster Gates Studio on South Kimbark Avenue, followed by a presentation and discussion with Matthew Lister of Gehl Architects; an evening of dialogue between Matthew Lister and Salon Emcee Steve Edwards; presentation and discussion facilitated by Peter Landon, FAIA, LEED, Principal of Landon Bone Baker Architects; and an activity that invited Salon attendees to design their own project.  


Presentation by Peter Landon, FAIA, LEED
The focus of the evening session was a presentation by Peter Landon, Principal of Landon Bone Baker Architects (LBBA), about his firm’s work in the city of Chicago, and the ways their process exemplifies the Design principle. The firm’s tagline is “Good Design for Everyone.”

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

The firm’s completed projects include their collaboration with Theaster on the Dorcester Art + Housing Collaborative, which Salon Members visited during the afternoon session of Salon #2, and the Harvest Commons Apartments, a historic, green rehab of an impressive Art Deco-inspired six-story building on Chicago’s Near West Side that combines 89 units of affordable housing with a supportive services project: a teaching kitchen and social enterprise café, and small urban farm.

Legends South is an ambitious, ongoing project to replace and revitalize public housing under the Chicago Housing Authority’s “Plan for Transformation.” Developed in several phases beginning in 2007, the project, when completed, will create 2,400 mixed-income rental and affordable homeownership units, including one which will reconnect a “formerly isolated super block high-rise site to the street grid by adding new streets, scaling the blocks for more comfortable walking distances, and establishing a variety of public, semi-public, and private courtyard spaces.”

Landon Bone Baker Architects has also been selected to design the new National Public Housing Museum, located just south of the Loop and southwest of the University of Illinois at Chicago. The project will convert a 33,000-square-feet former block of the Jane Addams Housing Project into a national museum, with a library, research space, and restaurant, which will create “a living cultural experience on social justice and human rights that creatively re-imagine the future of our community, our society, and our spaces.” Salon Members visited the temporary offices of the NPHM during the afternoon session of Salon #6 for a presentation and conversation with Executive Director Dr. Lisa Yun Lee and other staff.

Most of the work LBBA does revolves around designing affordable housing. And their design, Peter explained, is inspired by beauty, which is demonstrated in murals and other public art projects the firm has created through collaboration with Chicago Public Art Group. An installation at Marquette Park, a memorial to Dr. King, is an example: the benches are made by professional artists, but mural components made of small tiles were created by neighborhood youth.

The firm doesn’t define their work as “green” architecture. They do see everything they do as sustainable, which they define as sustainable in its use by and for a community. Inspired by Jan Gehl’s books, beginning with the 1971 classic, Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space, Landon Bone Baker strives to design projects like an affordable housing project in Humboldt Park, where kids connect to and take over the outdoor space to express their own creativity.

Peter related a story that exemplified the firm’s approach to designing affordable housing. They designed a series of “tiny homes.” The houses, very small, single-family houses designed with materials, colors, and attractive design features not usually seen in affordable housing, prompted a question from Theaster about the materials used and how much they cost.

Years after the houses were constructed, a woman approached Peter to thank him for his work, saying she had “grown up” in one of the homes, which he didn’t understand, given her age. She explained that when she lived in her tiny homes, she could feel her kids around her; she knew where they were. “We felt like a family,” she said, and through this experience she “grew up.”

Now, unfortunately, Peter explained, the thinking around affordable housing tends toward a certain kind of convention: that it should look like what’s next door.

Theaster commented on the elegance of the work, and noted that he was essentially asking a question about developers. Peter pointed out the difference between developers who do affordable housing and those who do market-rate housing. Affordable housing work is fee-based, and these developers usually find themselves initiating and driving the project. In the case of Landon Bone Baker, they feel a great deal of responsibility because most developers and contractors will build whatever is presented to them, including something bad. He also noted that architects are busy being architects, and don’t spend enough time being activists around issues that call for attention and, ideally, change. He used, as an example, the complete teardown of the Robert Taylor Homes on Chicago’s South Side in 2007 as part of the Chicago Housing Authority’s Transformation for Change.  It would have been better, Peter said, to save some buildings and construct infill housing—noting that he attributes the success of the Dorcester Art + Housing Collaborative project, especially its relationship to the surrounding community fabric, to keeping the original structure, though it was slightly more costly.

The firm is currently working on a new building at the site where part of the Cabrini Green public housing project was located before it, too, was torn down during the Transformation for Change. Located on Chicago’s North Side, the project’s design—how the building is situated, the location of entrances, and landscape design to foster better relationships between residents of affordable and market-rate housing—was informed by neighborhood kids enlisted to observe street patterns and other techniques developed by Jan Gehl. Peter pointed out additional challenges when designing affordable housing. You have to use union labor, which is good, but expensive; same with accessibility standards compliance—it’s good, but expensive.

Peter finished his talk describing the unexpected benefits of creating well-designed, livable housing: that the projects also create vibrant community, and healthier, happier human beings. He gave examples of working with and hiring neighborhood kids to assist with research in the early phase of projects, and of designing a shelter for homeless youth where they used furniture in creative ways to provide safe space, and a sense of ownership and privacy.
 

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

There was a lot of information, fascinating information, about the firm’s experience working in communities, working closely with community members and future residents of their affordable housing projects, to take in during the Session. And the Q + A session after Peter spoke was an opportunity for some Salon Members to raise questions about thorny issues they encounter in their work, including one Member, who described being asked to present plans for a building that looked appealing from the street level to the second story, with no regard for the design of the rest of the building.

But most of the Salon Members are neither architects nor designers, and my sense, coming out of the Session, where the conversation was less lively than usual, was that the objectives and struggles of most Salon Members is situated somewhere outside the principles and practices of an architecture firm—though the quality of LBBA’s work is highly regarded, their approach to design instructive and inspiring, and perspective on community engagement valuable and encouraging. The core group of practitioners who attended most of the Salon Sessions are working with and on behalf of communities, or brokering relationships among communities, nonprofit organizations, government agencies and developers, to facilitate the development of smaller projects.

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

The earlier, afternoon session, that included a presentation and discussion with Matthew Lister from Gehl Architects, began a conversation that allowed participants to really let loose with questions and concerns.
 

Studio Visit and Conversation
It was a snowy, sunny afternoon when Salon Members met up on 7200 South Kimbark Avenue, at the corner of Kimbark and East 72nd Street in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood, where Theaster’s studios, and studios for other artists, are located. The project to redesign and rehab the former Anheuser-Busch distribution facility, completed in 2014, was the brainchild of Theaster and his long-time collaborator, Mejay Gula, Building Strategist + Construction Manager for Place Lab.

It’s clear from the moment you enter the front door of this 25,000 square-foot building, even standing in the quiet of the open entrance area, that there’s a lot going on in the building. Up a short, broad flight of steps to the right is the Library—a simple, elegant rehabbed space with exposed bricks and beams that exudes warmth and welcome. The bookshelves that line three walls used to hold, before Stony Island Arts Bank opened, the Johnson Collection Archives, and now hold Theaster’s personal collection of art books. Rows of reclaimed benches range from front to back of the room.

Before the film screenings and programming moved to Stony Island Arts Bank, this was Black Cinema House, and I had the pleasure of seeing several films there—Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, showings over two weekend evenings of Gone with the Wind, and 70 Acres in Chicago, about the demolition of the Chicago Housing Authority’s Cabrini Green housing project—with audience conversations facilitated by Jacqueline Stewart, Curator for Black Cinema House. The room is spacious in a way that feels like you’re among a critical mass of people, and intimate enough to see and hear everyone. I’ll miss seeing films there.

On the other side of the foyer area, a door leads to studio spaces on the south side of the building. We started out in the 3,215 square-foot woodworking shop. I was awed by the size of the space, the stacks of lumber, and all the activity going on there. I lived for a year in the 1970s in an 18th-century manor hall in England, which had several outbuildings ranged around it. Ours was a communal household, and in one of the buildings, a barn, a man named Colin had set up a lathe for woodworking. The studio on Kimbark Avenue, enormous by comparison, reminded me of the excitement that was generated when the lathe was set up; and when Colin showed me how he worked with and shaped the wood. Some of Theaster’s artwork is made in the woodworking shop, and some items for building out Rebuild Foundation spaces is fabricated there. Initially, activities related to the Foundation’s workforce development program were also conducted in the shop.

The ceramics studio, which we visited next, a space about half the size of the woodworking shop, is used by ceramics artists who are on staff at Rebuild, as well as for artists in residence, including the Japanese ceramicist, Koichi. Shelves that ran from nearly floor level up the side of the wall for six to eight feet held bowls, cups and saucers, and plates arranged and stacked in groupings, some of which are sold to raise funds for Rebuild Foundation projects. Larger pieces of ceramic art covered every available surface in the space. The pottery is fired in four kilns on site: a soda kiln, a gas kiln, an electric kiln, and the wood-fired kiln set on an open stretch of land to the south of the building. I was fascinated by the wood-fired kiln, called an anagama kiln, an ancient type of kiln from Japan/China/Korea, and corralled Place Lab Project Specialist Carson Poole into taking a Salon Member and me to see it. We trudged through the snow and got a closer look at what felt like a site for sacred ceremony, built by ceramic artist Jordan Taylor in 2015.

Photo by Aaron Rose

Photo by Aaron Rose

I’m from Detroit, and grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, when the city was still an industrial powerhouse collaborating with a cutting-edge design industry that included modern design pioneers Charles and Ray Eames, Ralph Rapson, and Florence Knoll, and companies such as Herman Miller. The manufacture and assembly of automobiles, which we viewed as kids during at least one school field trip to the Ford River Rouge Plant, and the manufacturing of diesel and automotive batteries, my family’s business, were intense and thrilling enterprises that fueled the economy and culture of my home town, and of my family. My father anticipated the rollout of new car models each year the way a farmer awaits the birthing of new calves, or an opera or theater enthusiast looks forward to a new season of productions. There were other school field trips to the Rotunda building where cars were displayed, a national tourism destination originally designed for the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago, which, tragically, burnt to the ground during installation of the annual Christmas display in 1962.

The making of things—the sounds and smells, movement, rhythms, and processes of equipment and machinery—still holds that power over me. Here the production is art: a more human-scale enterprise closer to the earth, and to home and community.

This, I felt, is what Theaster means when he talks about beauty as a “basic human service.” A place that illustrates the Design Principle. “Beautiful objects come from and belong in blighted spaces… Creative people can play a pivotal role in how this happens. Beauty has magnetism. It defines character. It promotes reverence. Design can enhance the desirability of a neglected site, corridor, or block while illustrating the reverence and care of a neighborhood and its residents.…Design informs the spirit and the use of a place. Design can recalibrate what a community comes to consider sacred and cherished while reinforcing the comfort or identity of home.”


Presentation, Matthew Lister from Gehl Architects
After the tour, we gathered in the screening space for a presentation by Matthew Lister, Director and Team Lead for Gehl-New York, one of the offices of Gehl Architects, founded by Jan Gehl in Copenhagen in 1965. The firm also has a satellite office in San Francisco.

Architects, designers, and social scientists tend to impose their ideas on a society. Jan Gehl, as the story goes, radically altered his architectural practice when his wife, a psychologist, asked him if architects ever considered the effects of the buildings they designed upon the people who inhabit them. The architect secured a grant and in 1965 traveled to Italy with his wife to research people’s behavior in cities. In 1968, Gehl used Copenhagen as a laboratory for his studies, collaborating with colleagues and students to complete the first Public Space, Public Life survey and analysis. As Salon Member Tobe Holmes, Planning and Development Director at University City Partners in Charlotte, North Carolina pointed out to me, the pioneering work and writings of Jan Gehl, including How to Study Public Life (2013, with Birgitte Svarre) and his 1971 classic, Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space, are considered standards of urban anthropology.

Today, the firm continues to study public life, and how people behave outside their homes, businesses, and cars. What does it mean to have a high-quality public experience? What makes people feel good, and how do you measure well-being? All cities, Matthew noted, have information about how automobiles move through their environments, but very few have any data about how people move through and use cities. He described Gehl’s approach as “super-analogue.” They use volunteers to observe people on the ground, noting behavior, such as walking and cycling, according to demographics such as age, gender, and groups like families with children. A combination of observation and analysis enables Gehl to create strategic frameworks that inform project planning.

Matthew also described a process for project planning that observes and plans according to the behavior and use of places by people over time. Then they measure, test, and give people an opportunity to experience what change might feel like—and an opportunity to provide feedback. The practice of building trust within a community, allowing time for experimenting, re-measuring, and refining echoed the iterative process that Leslie Koch, former President of the Trust for Governors Island, described and advised during Salon #4.

There is a hierarchy of needs and priorities for people using public space: safety as the greatest concern; then consideration of the micro-climate—sun, shade, or wind; and the ability to walk freely, and to sit down. He cautioned against common mistakes: people do not like to walk for long distances, or sit in front of unbroken walls. Matthew showed an image of a superbly designed public bench, facing a blank wall, that nobody sits on. And he juxtaposed images of two public spaces in Pittsburgh, an impeccably designed, award-winning plaza that was mostly empty throughout a given day, and another, informal public space downtown with nondescript tables and folding chairs where people congregated at all hours of the day and evening.

Empathy is critical to understanding and weighing the concerns of citizens, the users, and of the government officials who bear responsibility for the success and failure of public projects. “Muscle-memory of the status quo can be super-strong,” Matthew said. Most government officials are concerned about money being spent, and about having their names connected to something that may or may not work—and having to answer to an unforgiving public. When a city feels it has to produce something permanent and perfect, they gravitate toward a conservative plan. Removing risk by implementing projects with small, temporary steps allows for more innovative and adventurous ideas to succeed.

Matthew gave the example of transforming New York City’s Times Square into public space in 2007, where automobile traffic was rerouted to create a true public square. The firm started by opening the space for pedestrians. A spontaneous snowball fight among kids was an act claiming the space as their own. As a second test, the firm purchased and placed inexpensive plastic chairs on the site to see if people would use them. They did.

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Matthew also gave examples of projects the firm had done with Salon Members Alysia Osbourne, Director of Historic West End for Charlotte Center City Partners and Steve Kay, a founding partner of Roberts & Kay, a research and organization development firm, and since 2010, Vice Mayor of Lexington, Kentucky. In Charlotte, the Gehl team worked with Alysia to develop collaborative relationships with neighborhood leaders to test models for promoting public events and everyday gatherings that led to creating a vibrant community place using limited financial resources.

In Lexington, the Gehl team created a splash park in a previously unused area at the nexus of three communities with diverse demographics. Lexington is a horse town, and one of the city’s central parks has a sculpture of racing horses near a water feature. There is a big demand for water play areas in the city, and kids were drawn to the water feature, though it was not designed or safe for play. A largely unused playground nearby was identified as a location for creating a pop-up splash park, based on the principle that “invitations work much better than rules.” The project succeeded in encouraging families with children to visit the new play area. Since, the city has seen a significant increase in people using the park and, in a survey of visitors, one in three people report recognizing someone they know when they come to the park.
 

Conversation, Salon Members
We started off with questions and comments from Salon Members when Steve from Lexington intervened and interjected: we needed to pay attention to the design for our own conversation, which was about to be conducted from benches that all faced forward. We stood up, surprised at needing to be reminded of this obvious design problem and pleased by the corrective experience, and moved the benches so that we all faced one another and restarted the conversation.

This was one of the early, free-form small group conversations, and Salon Members took the opportunity to express, while not necessarily get definitive answers to, pressing questions.

One Salon Member expressed concerns about the metrics used to determine the success of a project. Project planners are sometimes just talking amongst themselves. How do we include people from the community in discussions about metrics? Another Salon Member responded that he doesn’t always trust what he’s told by community members. Sometimes people say things they don’t really mean, and it’s often better to observe people’s behavior.

Alysia noted that when she worked with the team from Gehl, it was immediately clear to her that their metrics would not work in the Five Point community, the oldest African-American community in Charlotte where there has been influx of younger, whiter, more affluent residents. Being flexible and experimenting with three different events was key. The team asked community leaders what they should be measuring and then observed people using and interacting in the space.

Other Salon Members noted that many people don’t understand structural systems, such as redlining, and other policies that have operated in and continue to shape cities, and that cause harm and suffering. People in power have to be educated about the realities of life for people in marginalized communities; about the serious problems of income disparity.

The issue of gaps in understanding and communication and representation came up again and again in the conversation. I remembered a forum I attended organized by Paola Aguirre, where a Chicago Public Schools administrator talked about the closing in 2013 of 50 CPS schools, mostly in South and West Side communities of color, who spoke frankly about the people at the table making the decisions about school closures: “Unfortunately, they’re not the most creative people.”

How do we convene these conversations? How do we foster empathy?

Matthew left us with a good example of how to overcome thorny issues of conflicting interests, responsibilities, and needs. When his firm collaborates with a municipal government, he said, they publicly promote the success of a project as the brainchild of the government agency or official. If there are set-backs and problems, Gehl shoulders the blame.
 

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Fort Follows Feelings
Riffing on the architecture mantra, form follows function, Mejay Gula started out the last activity of the evening with an exercise to connect us with a core part of our human experience in space and place. Like beavers, Mejay noted, we strive to build. We built forts when we were kids. Why aren’t we building forts now? Mejay talked about the importance of this basic drive; the basic experience of connecting our feelings with our built environment. And the need, as adults, to bring the creative, useful spirit out of us.

The room came alive, even after a long day and though several Salon Members and guests had left. We counted off into five teams and Mejay presented us with the design challenge, and assigned a team leader, a designer, and a theme for each of the five forts: Poetry, Creating A Sense of Ownership, Quiet, Legacy, and Cool + Sexy. After a 10-minute brainstorming session to interpret our themes with one-word concepts, we set to work building our forts. Basic materials required to make a fort—small stacks of fabric in various colors, sizes and textures, long wooden poles, twine, and strands of electric lights—were provided. Everyone got very busy, and as these random but intentional groupings seem to do, organized people in ways that manifested the qualities of their chosen theme. Everyone in my group, for example, seemed like a poet.

At the end of this exercise, a spokesperson for each group described their process and their space. I will always remember how Bucky Willis, from Detroit, raised her finger to her lips: “S-h-h" and spoke to us in a perfectly clear, calm whisper as she represented the “Quiet” fort.

Like many of the events and experiences coordinated by the Place Lab team, the lessons learned during this exercise were as or more instructive than the formal instruction conveyed in the larger group sessions. In this case, the takeaway was how collaborative, ingenious, and diversely creative we can be when we have a clear task at hand, a mandate that engenders the will to share ideas and ownership, and bends the individual will or ego to the welfare of the group—how exhilarating the process can be, how satisfying the product, and how much fun we can have doing it.

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

 

 

Guest Blogger: Aaron Rose on Salon Sessions, An Interlude

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Ethical Redevelopment Salon Series
By Aaron Rose

A series of gatherings like the Ethical Redevelopment Salon series, with a commitment to group process, takes on a life of its own. It has its own rhythms and patterns: crescendos and decrescendos of energy and synergy, relationship building and discovery. And periods when things seem not to come together or to fall flat. The experience of the collective ride—surrendering to it, trusting it—can be as necessary and valuable as the information conveyed.

There’s a wide portal we pass through when we sign up to engage with a group process: an exhilarating moment of openness to inquiry and discovery. Innovative in content, structure, and spirit, the Salon series started out like any great adventure, with enthusiastic meetings of Members from cities throughout the Midwest—Detroit, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Akron—the East Coast—Philadelphia and Pittsburgh—and the South—Charlotte, North Carolina, and Lexington, Kentucky, and a large contingent of locals from Chicago. Once inside the process, that big mindspace of wonder and receptivity takes on the dimensions of the actual, when we start to integrate—to translate and assimilate —what we see, hear, and say to one another. This is when the real work—the work we do with others, and the work we do with ourselves—begins.

There was another, larger dynamic churning in the background during preparation for the Salon series and through the first three Sessions in July, September, and October. The presidential campaign reached its peak, with the debates and the frenzy of polls and predictions leading up to November 8. The implications of the Brexit vote on June 23 added to this cauldron of uncertainty and concern; to hyper-awareness and deeper questioning of challenges that might lay ahead in a national platform enthralled with beliefs and promises openly hostile to progressive movements and social change.

In recent years, writers, cultural workers, and activists have infiltrated collective assumptions to open lock boxes of buried history, revealing specific racial, economic, and environmental injustices institutionalized in policies and practices that have, historically, enforced segregation and unequal treatment with consequences so pervasive and so devastating to communities of color as to appear endemic. Think Black Lives Matter; historian Beryl Satter’s Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America; TaNehisi Coates and “The Case for Reparations”; and Michelle Alexander’s Mass Incarceration: The New Jim Crow. Just out in May is a new book by Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law. An excellent piece of investigative reporting by Nikole Hannah-Jones for Propublica, “Living Apart: How the Government Betrayed a Landmark Civil Rights Law,” was brought to our attention by Dr. Lisa Yun Lee, the new executive director of National Public Housing Museum and a Rebuild Foundation board member, during an afternoon event for Salon #6. 

We know now that embedded in the structures of our metropolitan regions are designs that separated black Americans from other Americans, and deliberately disadvantaged black communities. Federal policies developed by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) in the 1930s during the Roosevelt administration, following New Deal legislation, explicitly benefitted real estate developers and development of residential communities for people considered to be white. They laid the groundwork for decades of engineered advantages in housing, education, and civic amenities for privileged communities, while black communities continued to be segregated, exploited, and starved of resources.

With the election of the National Disgrace, and the pile-up of incompetence, perfidy, and other manifestations of mal intent among his advisors and clown car cabinet, we are facing down an unapologetic foe of equity and justice whose entire desperate endgame is to reseal the lockbox, pull the covers of ignorance and denial over the national consciousness, and drag us back down into sleep.  

The first two Ethical Redevelopment Salon Sessions laid groundwork—ethical, aspirational groundwork—for the intention and interactive dynamic of the series: for asking basic questions that serve as a premise for inquiry. The first Salon, with the principle “Repurpose and Re-propose,” raised questions about how one looks at a structure or space, not merely or primarily as property, private or otherwise, that exists for ownership and profit, but as a place that offers opportunities for human experience and human endeavor; for transformation of the individuals and community who use and inhabit the place. Like the art of sculpture, the practitioner who sets out to repurpose and re-propose allows the essence of the material at hand to reveal its intended shape and manifest its purpose. Rather than impose, the ethical practitioner co-creates.

Similarly, discussion during Salon #2, which addressed the principle of “Engaged Participation,” circled around how we discover and sustain the essential element of relationships, critical to achieving short- and long-term success with any project. Who and how we engage is another organic, alchemical process that requires respect and openness and allowing what is present and possible to emerge, over adherence to strict timetables and preconceived plans. Many questions and truths were raised: the kinds of questions, confessions, and truths overlooked or consciously avoided in typical transactions of capitalist development, but that are essential to ethical redevelopment.

I think, especially, of the statement of one participant, an elder resident of the Greater Grand Crossing community, who attended Salon #2 and who spoke of working with and responding to the needs of people who have been most harmed by community disinvestment and civic neglect. She asked, “How do you touch people who don’t know what it means to be touched?”

This profound question was a prelude to the two Salons that followed, which addressed the principles of “Pedagogical Moments” and “The Indeterminate.” Salons #3 and #4, with their poetic titles and evocative themes, allowed us to set aside routine expectations and habitual activities that can appear to dominate the exigencies of everyday reality, and enter that higher realm that governs how we view our prospects for change, the bigger picture of the landscape in which we make choices. This is the aspirational vista in which we employ vision and activate to our advantage the complexities and nuances of what is and what is possible—the true drivers of what play out in the every day. They were pivotal, powerful sessions.

They were also the Sessions that straddled the before and after—that took us from the months of suspended disbelief of the danger facing our country, to the stark disbelief at the end of that long period of wondering.

In this new era, worry replaced wonder and a more or less reliable landscape of reason and acknowledgement of, if not adherence to, to fundamental human values cracked open and seemed to fall away. So when we met in November, the week after the election, there was a sense of new, cruel possibilities creeping up from a dank basement floor of fear and all the baser emotions and reactions that fear breeds.

The Salon series continued to unfold in the shadow of this national event. A few weeks after the election, in response to a question I posed about living and working under the new administration, Theaster wrote, “my labor is my politics.” As we live with an administration that bounces between aberration and disaster, we do well to remember that what we do every day is our response and has the power to shape reality in our cities.

In the months since the January 20 inauguration, articles and talks have popped up in digital, print, and broadcast media, about the ability of cities to elude psychic capture and attempted hegemony by a toxic federal regime.

NPR replayed a series of TED talks for TED Radio Hour. Building Better Cities included a talk by the political theorist Benjamin Barber, Founder of the Global Parliament of Mayors and author of If Mayors Ruled the World, who talked about cities as the true crucibles of democracy, where the potential for incubating change is great. Mayors, Barber pointed out—using the example of Michael Bloomberg who was a Republican, then a Democrat, then an Independent—are not elected and motivated by ideology, but by their ability to get things done. Within this framework, we also have power, independent of partisan politics, to get things done.

Neil Kleiman, director of the NYU Wagner Innovation Labs, wrote in an op-ed for Next City about the importance of data during the current administration, “In the Age of Trump, Open Data Matters Now More Than Ever,” that “while the national conversation may be caught in a mess of alternative facts and imagined realities, cities are moving forward, using data to make sure that the road ahead is smooth.”

And in a piece for his CityLab publication, titled “The United Cities of America,” Richard Florida wrote: “Americans on the right have long argued for the devolution of power from the federal government to the states. With President Trump in office, Americans on the left should consider taking that idea further: devolving power to cities.”

With that in mind, I quote Theaster when he started off the evening session of Salon #4 with a call to action: “We can actually be the fuck about it.”

For more information on the series and the author check out the series introduction. 

Guest Blogger: Aaron Rose on Salon Session #4: The Indeterminate

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Ethical Redevelopment Salon Series
Session 4: 11.17.16

By Aaron Rose

principal: the indeterminate
concepts: faith, intuition, and imagination in city building

Salon #4, with the theme The Indeterminate, was an opportunity to explore the interstitial spaces where cultural alchemy and the metaphysical aspects of redevelopment take root. Also, post 11/9, commitment to democratic principles of freedom, tolerance, and access to public space.

Thinking back on Salon #4 brings mixed emotions. It was a beautiful, late-autumn afternoon, and I walked under blue skies, in the glow of warm sunshine from the bus stop on 71st  Street to Archive House and Listening House on Dorchester Avenue. There, a small group from the Salon cohort met for tours of Theaster Gates’s early creative settlements, and a presentation by Leslie Koch, former President and CEO of the Trust for Governors Island in New York Harbor.

The Salon events, in the afternoon and evening, were memorable—lively and stimulating platforms for sharing new information and for thoughtful, nuanced conversation. But it was the week after the election. I know I wasn’t alone in feeling shell-shocked. Theaster Gates noted that “this evening will be more sober,” and that he’s never felt more than he did at that moment the need for networks of support. In the afternoon, Koch, the guest expert who had just flown in from New York, hesitated for a moment during her presentation to say, “It seems like time has stopped.”
 

Photo by Aaron Rose

Photo by Aaron Rose

The Listening House and Archive House hold the history of Theaster’s work in the economically under-resourced community of Greater Grand Crossing on Chicago’s South Side, where more recent projects like Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative, Rebuild Foundation, Stony Island Arts Bank, and St. Laurence School are also located. A predominantly African-American community, Greater Grand Crossing, like many communities on the city’s South and West Sides, has struggled to survive in the wake of population loss and economic disinvestment. Mejay Gula, Place Lab’s Building Manager + Construction Specialist, who has collaborated with Theaster on design and construction projects since the early years on Dorchester Avenue, led the group tour.

Theaster bought the building that had once been a candy store, and became the Listening House, in 2005. He lived in the building, which served as ground zero for his radical experiments to transform community redevelopment ideas and practices, and held his first gatherings there: a blend of communal meals and performance that established the House as a community building enterprise, giving primacy to the synergy that happens when people come together for cultural exchange and experiences, such as sharing meals, enjoying performance, and swapping plants.

Photo by Aaron Rose

Photo by Aaron Rose

The Houses, like all of Theaster’s built projects, were redeveloped with a spare, elegant style, using mostly reclaimed materials—a blend of the old and new that, as Steve Edwards has suggested, creates a sense of mystery and evokes wonder and curiosity. Materials are allowed their organic, poetic process of aging, while newly designed infrastructure, freshly painted surfaces, and meticulously appointed details hold the whole in contemporary space.

Photo by Aaron Rose

Photo by Aaron Rose

Today, Listening House is lined with bookshelves that hold a collection of Dr. Wax records, portions of the Johnson Publishing Library archives, and books from the now-closed Prairie Avenue Books, an architecture bookstore that was located in Chicago’s South Loop. Archive House, which, until the construction of Stony Island Arts Bank, served as offices for Rebuild staff, is reserved as living space for artists in residence. Archive House, too, is a lean, spare, open space lined with bookshelves, and with ceramics and other art on display. On the first floor, on a table placed against the north wall creating the appearance of an alcove, is an altar, with a “Bowl of Woes,” as well as pens and paper so you can write about and leave them there.  

Photo by Naomi Miller

Photo by Naomi Miller

After the tour, we gathered in the front room of Listening House. We sat, smiling bravely and chatting cheerfully, in a jagged semi-circle around Leslie Koch to discuss her 10 years directing the development of New York City’s new public park.

Koch began her presentation by showing a video of a ceremony held on Governor’s Island in Summer 2016. The occasion was the opening of The Hills, a new, human-designed, engineered, and constructed section of the park for hiking and sliding. The ceremony also marked the end of her tenure; Koch stepped down from her position following the completion of The Hills. Koch noted that she has watched the video of the “bittersweet” ceremony a few times since, as “therapy,” and wanted to share with us the messages she related that day.

As she spoke to the small crowd gathered around her in the “innocent days of July,” Koch quoted from words spoken at two earlier ceremonies at the Island: 10 years earlier, by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and 20 years earlier, by President Ronald Reagan. I quote from Koch’s speech, because we need to be reminded of the democratic ideals that the US was founded upon; and that ideals of freedom, of welcoming and assimilating immigrants into a great nation, are not partisan.

“We have come here to Governor’s Island to stand where the earliest settlers first set foot in New Amsterdam and where the seeds of religious tolerance were first planted. In New York City, our doors are open to everyone: everyone with a dream and a willingness to work hard and to play by the rules. New York City was built by immigrants, and sustained by immigrants; by people from more than a hundred different countries speaking more than two hundred different languages, and professing every faith. And whether your parents were born here or you came here yesterday, you are a New Yorker.”

“We sometimes forget that even those who came here to America first to settle the land were strangers. Call it mysticism, if you will. I’ve always believed that there was some divine providence that placed this great land here between the two great oceans, to be found by a special kind of people from every corner of the world, who had a special love for freedom, and a special courage that enabled them to leave their own land, to leave their friends, and their countryman, and come to this new and strange land, to build a new world of peace and freedom and hope. We’re bound together because, like them, we, too, dare to hope. Hope that our children will always find here a land of liberty, a land that is free.”

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Koch closed her remarks by noting that “it is important for us to reflect, at a very challenging time, as people are talking about difference and about strangers, and potentially about building walls between us and between people who don’t look like us, that we built Governor’s Island for New York, by New York, to be a place that everybody shares, that embodies the openness that is our city and nation.”

And left us with the reminder to ask ourselves: Where do we live? Why do we do what we do? Why do public spaces and cities matter?
 

Governors Island is a 172-acre former military installation, part natural land, part landfill, just south of Manhattan, with a panoramic view of the Statue of Liberty and New York Harbor. Koch was brought on in 2006 and asked to create a vision for the Island, which she promptly refused to do. Instead, Koch approached her assignment with the understanding that vibrant cities and public places are messy: they develop as people use and create them. She asked not “what will Governor’s Island be?” but  “what questions do we ask?” and guided her team to use intuition and experimentation in creating an entirely new public place to reflect, nurture, and be “deeply welcoming” to New York City’s diverse cultures and communities.

The result is a spectacular park designed for cycling; for climbing and sliding on the recently opened Hills; for recreating with hammocks, mini golf, baseball, and badminton; for art exhibitions, punk band and classical music concerts, food festivals, and flash mobs. The unique and risky beauty of the process is that Governor’s Island does not fund, select, or curate events and projects hosted there—all programming applications are submitted online and considered first-come, first-served. As Koch noted, some of the art displayed can be quite bad. But in relinquishing ideals of artistic quality and perfection, Governor’s Island achieves the democratic ideal of equity in ownership, reflecting a core commitment to addressing issues and questions that have become especially, profoundly important, post-11/9: Why do cities and public space matter? How do you create more opportunities for people to be in physical space with other people who don’t look like them?

The conversation spilled into earnest, searching dialogue about how we foster inclusive communities, not just in the nation’s first city of commerce and culture, but in rust-belt cities, rural communities, and suburban enclaves across a divided nation. The conversation, though subdued and thoughtful, was the most contentious of any I witnessed during the Salon series, as people sought to understand and express concerns and frustrations about who we are or think we are as a nation, and how our work might or might not be able to reach across chasms of differences.

In his own post-11/9, “more sober” introduction to the evening session at Stony lsland Arts Bank, Theaster Gates reflected that he had justified the Ethical Redevelopment series to funders, knowing something would come of this structure-making exercise. Now, Theaster issued a blunt call to action, saying the enterprise can do something much bigger than the grant requirement, something interesting in cities across the country. “We can actually be the fuck about it!”
 

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Brent Wesley, founder of Akron Honey Company, started off a panel discussion with four Salon Members that included Angela Tillges, former Senior Program Specialist for Culture, Arts, and Nature at the Chicago Park District, who is now Great River Passage Fellow for the City of Saint Paul; and Ernel Martinez and Keir Johnston of the Amber Art collective in Philadelphia.

Wesley described the purely intuitive process, motivated by desire to “build better people, build better places,” which led him to buy the vacant lot around the corner from where he lives in West Akron, before he knew how he would use it. Inspired by a love of honey, and a childhood family trip into Amish country where he tasted raw honey for the first time, Wesley loaded a couple of apiaries, roaring with the sound of bees (“don’t try it”), into his trunk. In less than three years, Wesley’s experiment became Akron Honey Company, with second and third locations in East Akron, a site for summer Market Days featuring local vendors, and a fledgling line of skin care products with the goal of offering customized products and experiences similar to a microbrewery.

As Great River Passage Fellow, Angela Tillges, is charged with developing programming based on a master plan for the 17-mile stretch of the Mississippi River that flows through 26 miles of riverfront and 3,500 acres of parks, public space, natural areas, wetlands, and lakes in Saint Paul. Tillges, a Saint Paul native, acknowledged that implementing all 321 projects outlined in the master plan is not a realistic or even desirable goal, and, instead likened her process to planting seeds, then weeding or watering what comes up. Tillges recognizes that she’s walking a fine line managing aspects of the indeterminate that may appear indecisive, uncommitted, or unresponsive.

In response, the cohort took the opportunity to discuss Koch’s advice to set aside the master plan, as something too perfect—too grand, massive, and overwhelming; something that doesn’t allow for experimentation, and that doesn’t address what people really want to know about a project: what can we do there? Think big and act small, Koch advised. Create a simple, straightforward narrative about the project, telling people what you will do in language that ordinary people can understand. Stick to your narrative. Give updates. Keep promises.

Ernel Martinez and Keir Johnston are working with the Fairmount Park Conservancy to bridge a cultural divide between the African-American community of North Philadelphia and the historic Strawberry Mansion district, situated within the city’s largest park. Historically, residents have felt unwelcome in Strawberry Mansion, and have not benefitted from Fairmount Park’s cultural and recreational amenities. The team will collaborate with area residents to create a community museum in one of the district’s vacant houses, collecting and curating artifacts and personal histories that reflect the rich cultural history of a community along the Lancaster Avenue corridor, home to jazz greats like John Coltrane.

When moderator Steve Edwards asked about curiosity as an indeterminate, Martinez noted his curiosity about personal histories—the histories of a community, family, house or block—and the importance of asking questions to elicit those histories. “If you talk to and teach people, that’s how you facilitate dialogue. That’s how you learn.”

So what questions do we ask, as we anticipate our collective work in that deep, thick fog of the indeterminate through which we peer at the next four years?

Parts of this blog were originally covered in a story for Newcity magazine.

For more information on the series and the author check out the series introduction.

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Guest Blogger: Aaron Rose on Salon Session #3: Pedagogical Moments

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Ethical Redevelopment Salon Series
Session 3: 10.19.16

By Aaron Rose

principal: pedagogical moments
concepts: knowledge transfer, social responsibility

Moments of learning and teaching unfold in all aspects of work…By tapping into the existing, possibly latent talent within a community and putting it to use for the community, exchanges for transfer of knowledge reach across identities, roles, practices, disciplines, generations, and localities… Whether creating programs that capitalize upon existing talent or establishing workshops, training programs, and business accelerators, the ability to recognize moments for knowledge and skill sharing is a part of one’s social responsibility, effectively deepening the network of relationships within a community, its ecosystem, and the larger social economy.

Lord Thing
The evening before the Salon, I headed over to Place Lab’s offices in the Arts Incubator, for a screening of the 1970 documentary Lord Thing. The space was packed—standing room only. More than 75 people, including people of all ages from the city’s South Side and West Side, showed up to see the film. Lord Thing, the work of Chicago documentarian DeWitt Beall, tells the history of a West Side gang in a multilayered dramatization featuring some original gang members. Started in 1958 by seven young men coming out of the St. Charles youth reformatory, by the mid-1960s the Vice Lords had 10,000 members and, influenced by the Black Power movement, called themselves “a nation,” made up of factions like the Comanche, Tomahawks, and Vikings.

Under the leadership of men that included co-founder and spokesman Bobby Gore, a faction of the Vice Lords redefined themselves as an organization dedicated to black empowerment. They became the Conservative Vice Lords and incorporated as a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization.

CVL harnessed the energy of the community to foster social change. With a $275,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and funding for community development from Lawndale-based corporations, including Sears Roebuck and Co. and Western Electric, from West Side aldermen and the Chicago Police Department, they organized programs to clean streets and create recreational areas and public art. Their achievements included starting black-owned businesses, the Art and Soul collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Art to promote black artists, employment programs, and Teen Town youth services.

Lord Thing is a modest masterwork of art and politics. Available on YouTube, with footage restored in 2013–14 by Chicago Film Archives, Lord Thing presents bleak scenes of poverty with an inescapable immediacy and intimacy. There is no distance between the viewer and the heart-wrenching scenes being viewed: dilapidated buildings give way to alleys and streets littered with trash. The tearful face of a frightened, overwhelmed little girl of three or four trying to cover her ears against some unknown external or internal distress is unforgettable, as are scenes of young boys running through alleyways under el tracks as a screeching train passes overhead. The narrator speaks of the “hell” that greeted African Americans who came north during the Great Migration, forced to live in slumlike conditions.

Early in Lord Thing, a youthful, charismatic Gore speaks before a group of CVL members. He speaks with the voice a prophet, using the analysis of Paolo Friere’s liberation pedagogy, about conditions in urban communities of color. “For everything that happens, there’s got to be a reason. The way we live, the food we eat, the amount of money we got in our pockets, if none of this is suitable, we gonna leave home with an attitude… [O]ur problem is really not among ourselves. Because the things we argue and fuss and fight about, it’s not coming from us. It’s coming from environment. The brother is not his problem. This problem comes from someplace else... Let’s find out where our problems are coming from.”

We know a lot more today about what contributed to these slumlike conditions: FHA-sanctioned housing segregation, commonly known as redlining, and the unscrupulous practice of selling real estate on contract that exploited African Americans unable to obtain legitimate mortgages. Beryl Satter’s 2009 landmark book, Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America, which inspired TaNehisi Coates’s 2014 story in the Atlantic, “A Case for Reparations,” documents how African-American families in Chicago were essentially robbed of their earnings and the opportunity to acquire equity in their homes by paying two and three times the value of a property, and describes the risk of being evicted and losing that property if they missed just one monthly payment. We also know a lot more about the traumatic effects of living in poverty.

Complex factors led to the demise of CVL as an agent for social change in a community engulfed by crisis. In April 1968, after the assassination of Dr. King, the entire commercial district in North Lawndale, almost two miles along Roosevelt Road, was destroyed by fire, which some attributed to CVL members. CVL was also implicated in drug dealing activities of other gang factions. In 1969 and the early 1970s, Mayor Richard J. Daley and Cook County state's attorney Ed Hanrahan, the same team who arranged the murder of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in 1969, aggressively investigated, imprisoned, and ultimately decimated the leadership of CVL.

During the post-screening panel discussion, Benneth (“Benny”) Lee, a former high-ranking CVL member, and an audience member whose own journey from gang membership loosely paralleled Lee’s, spoke of growing up on Chicago’s West Side. In what was, at the time, the second largest city in what was considered the most advanced industrialized nation in the world, both men entered prison as young adults unable to read. Both men, upon their release, earned advanced degrees. Benny is now an adjunct instructor at Northeastern Illinois University.

Benny described how Mayor Richard J. Daley got his start as head of Southwest Side Irish gangs that predated the formation of African-American gangs. Irish gangs were enmeshed in the notorious Chicago political machine, and benefitted from protection by the Chicago Police Department, for which many gang members were primed for secure, well-paid jobs. National media coverage, from tweets and comments by the National Disgrace to stories about Chicago’s 2016 murder rate in major news outlets, such as the New York Times, offer contrasting narratives about the devolving fate of black gangs, of black men who have no political power.

Photo by Aaron Rose

Photo by Aaron Rose

Growing Power
The following afternoon, Salon Members toured Growing Power’s urban farm on Iron Street, on Chicago’s Southwest Side. The farm, headed by Chicago and National Projects Director, Erika Allen, is a center of Growing Power’s food distribution activities on the South and Southwest Sides. An outpost in the one-time Daley stronghold of Bridgeport, the farm also altered the landscape of the psychic map of the city. Growing food in four feet of composted soil atop concrete, Growing Power has reclaimed land that supports communities of color living within a system of food apartheid, in a part of the city that, historically, was so hostile to African Americans that some black Chicagoans still refuse to go there.

Erika, daughter of Growing Power founder Will Allen, along with Quinten, a former student and now employee at the site, gave us a tour of the seven-acre farm. Its mural art, hydroponic fish farming, hoop houses, vermin-composting and mushroom production systems, apiary, and family of pygmy goats are nestled on land and in a warehouse once occupied by a trucking firm, in a mixed industrial and residential neighborhood. As noted by Erika, the farm demonstrates that you can build food systems in urban environments where people live. “You can grow a farm on concrete, and people of color can do this in a sovereign way.”

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Salon
Presenters for the evening Salon included David Stovall, a scholar of community, housing, race, and education at University of Illinois Chicago; Sam Darrigrand, the new workforce development manager at Rebuild Foundation; and Carol Zou, the project manager at Trans.lation in Dallas. Theaster Gates, Steve Edwards—the series’ Emcee—and Place Lab’s Isis Ferguson introduced the presenters.


Dr. David Stovall, University of Illinois at Chicago
Dr. David Stovall is Professor of Educational Policy Studies and African-American Studies at University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). He participates in the UIC’s Great Cities Institute, and volunteers as a social studies teacher at the Greater Lawndale/Little Village School for Social Justice. David talked about the junior high and high school students who are his experts, and how, in whole segments of the city—with a tactic that might be termed intellectual redlining—students of color are proscribed from the process of thinking and creating. They are taught history in ways that are intended to bore, not to enlighten or empower them; ways that are designed “to settle, not to trouble, the waters.”

This is also the way we talk about gun violence in Chicago, David said. We don’t complicate it. And he described the moment in 2011 when he heard Jody Weis, Chicago Police Department Superintendent from 2008–2011, who was also a former FBI agent and, significantly, an outsider, say publicly, on the radio, that displacement is one of the key drivers for violence. “I almost crashed my car on the highway. He let folks in on something we see in the day-to-day, but we don’t ask critical questions about.” Weis was gone from the department a few weeks later. 


Sam Darrigrand, Rebuild Foundation
Sam Darrigrand, a small business developer and the new workforce development manager at Rebuild Foundation is in charge of workforce training for Rebuild, including St. Laurence School, where people from the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood will have the opportunity to learn and get paid. He talked about the importance of meeting people where they’re at as a way of facilitating moments of teaching and learning. Sam focuses on interrupting behaviors and diffusing points of conflict—like not making eye contact or shaking hands, not being on time or following instructions—that often keep job applicants from being hired or cause people to lose their jobs.
 

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Carol Zou, Trans.lation
Carol Zou spoke about her work as Project Manager at Trans.lation in the Vickery Meadow community in Dallas, Texas, founded by Rick Lowe, who also founded Project Row House, and the Nasher Sculpture Center. Trans.lation is located in an immigrant, refugee, African-American, and Latinx neighborhood. The organization describes itself as a space of cultural freedom, where arts and language classes allow residents to self-organize and build community. Language is where we begin to see pedagogical differences, Carol noted, and talked about “language justice,” people’s right to communicate in a language in which they feel most comfortable.

Carol and Trans.lation serve as co-facilitators with community leaders to enable them to realize their vision; the organization hires residents to lead community workshops and other learning platforms, such as literacy classes. Carol told a story about poorly attended classes, including an English Literacy class. Women were not showing up for class because they didn’t know how to drive and couldn’t get there. The teacher spent the next four months translating a learner’s permit training into Arabic and recruited a colleague to train 20 new immigrant women to drive.

Carol also described how pedagogy, in language and literacy, becomes political for new immigrants. A young Togolese participant in the English Practice class decided to paint all the US presidents, starting with George Washington, and hung his painting on the wall at Trans.lation. When a local black leader saw the painting, she asked, “Why is there a portrait of a slave-owner in our space?” The incident illustrates how ESL classes and citizenship tests assimilate new immigrants with misleading neutrality. Uninformed about histories of race and class in the US, new immigrants can develop beliefs that cause division and conflict with US-born people of color, and that prevent new immigrants from recognizing and collaborating with communities of color to address issues such as gentrification, police violence, and poverty.

Photos by Brandon Fields

Photos by Brandon Fields

Following the presentations, Salon Members broke into small-group discussions. Members of my group created a pedagogical moment by sidestepping the suggested topics. There was a spontaneous rush from a couple of Members, and this before the November 8 election, to pursue deeper levels of inquiry into common questions and expectations about how we pursue redevelopment. How, and for whom, do we plan for the future—for the 30-year-olds or the five-year-olds? How do we prioritize community needs—for longtime community residents or for more affluent, younger people who are moving into the community? Who possesses community knowledge and how do we change core belief systems? Do we privilege people who attend meetings, or quiet community leaders who don’t? The example of the Brexit vote came to the fore: the majority of Brits who voted to leave the EU were Baby Boomers, who, some say, resisted change and yearned for the past. The younger generations of Brits, who mostly voted to remain, will have to live most of their lives with the consequences of that choice.

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

The evening closed with a performance piece by members of Honey Pot Performance, who draw on ethnography, sociology, and fieldwork data to feed experimentation with methodologies of moving through space and exploring relationships. The three performers, including Salon Member Meida Teresa McNeal, who is also Cultural Manager for the Chicago Park District, read a poem and presented for the audience a simulated rehearsal in progress. When the audience was invited to contribute responses, it felt like another pedagogical moment—a moment to recognize and reflect back the many dimensions and complicated perceptions of lived experience.

Pedagogical moments come when we are open to them, to the discoveries they bring and the truths they reveal, however inconvenient or uncomfortable. These moments of teaching and learning come when, as Benny Lee testified, we connect with our history, when we resurrect and examine purposefully forgotten, disparate narratives. Or, as David Stovall said, when we complicate things, when we are willing to trouble the waters, and the status quo. When, as Sam Darrigrand noted, we are willing to meet people where they’re at—not where we think they should be. And, as Carol Zou described, when we create spaces and conditions where diverse communities come together to learn, to imagine, and to recognize their shared values, needs, and, above all, their power.

Parts of this blog were originally covered in a story for Newcity magazine.

For more information on the series and the author check out the series introduction

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

 

 

Guest Blogger: Aaron Rose on Salon Session #2: Engaged Participation

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Ethical Redevelopment Salon Series
Salon Session 2: 09.08.16
By Aaron Rose

principle: engaged participation
concepts: neighborliness, localism, access points

September marked the one-year anniversary of the opening of Stony Island Arts Bank, when Theaster Gates introduced this splendid new palace, a peoples’ palace of black space to hold the “highest imaginable culture.”

The former bank had been vacant for over 30 years, on the verge of being sold to the lowest bidder for demolition, when Theaster purchased the site from the City of Chicago for $1, along with a promise and proposal for transformation. Today, the Arts Bank, which houses the Johnson Publishing and Frankie Knuckles Archives, among others, a library and gallery spaces, garners international attention for its ambitious reimagining of unused space into an anchor of community redevelopment, rooted in that highest imaginable culture.

The Arts Bank, Theaster said that fall day, demonstrates an archetype of artist-run space. He talked about reshaping politics the way one molds clay, and asked whether city and state, philanthropic, housing, and cultural policies are reasonable forms that can be molded and shifted like paint, and like the clay he uses to imagine other forms.

With the launch of the Ethical Redevelopment Salon series, practitioners and thinkers from the region and across the country—community developers and community members, artists and architects, urban planners and program planners, administrators, educators, and philanthropy partners—are collectively engaging in this creative, alchemical process.

The first Salon Session addressed strategies that employ artistic vision to repurpose and re-propose existing structures and space. During the second Salon, with selected readings and tours, during large- and small-group discussions, and social time, we explored the second Principle, Engaged Participation, with related concepts of neighborliness, localism, and access points.

In the Ethical Redevelopment handbook of the 9 Principles, Engaged Participation is, in part, described as follows: [m]aking changes to the physical and spiritual environment brings heat and activity to a neighborhood for its own benefit… Cultivate and build upon neighborliness as a way of relating—an informal relationship, a cultural practice of reciprocity and interdependence. Engender intimacy by the familiar nature of programming: discussions, performances, interactions, and shared experiences…The value of the relationship is in the intimacy, not in the duration. Engage for as long as it makes sense to engage. This intimacy sparks commitment to a vision, and the neighbors, staff, and visitors become participatory producers…


Jane Addams Hull House Museum
On a sunny September afternoon, two dozen or so Salon Members—from Detroit, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Akron, Lexington, Kentucky, Minneapolis, and Chicago—gathered around a glass-enclosed case in one of the front parlors of the Jane Addams Hull House Museum. The vitrine holds a model of the turn-of-the-20th-century buildings that represented the Hull House settlement. The 13 buildings, 12 of them constructed between 1889 and 2011, included Chicago’s first public art gallery, a theater, coffee shop, gymnasium, children’s building, men’s and women’s clubs, and a labor museum. There was a music school, where “King of Swing” Benny Goodman took clarinet lessons; in the Residents Dining Hall, Upton Sinclair wrote his novel The Jungle, about the infamous Chicago stockyards.

More than 10,000 “neighbors,” mostly immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, came through the settlement each week for activities from English language classes to traditional craft making to union organizing. Only the original Hull House mansion, where Jane Addams and her close associates lived, and the adjacent Residents Dining Hall remain, testaments to the efforts of a small cadre of women who pioneered radical social change that has left a deep imprint in Chicago, as well as a larger national and international legacy of social justice.

Jane Addams, the first woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize and for whom the University of Illinois Chicago College of Social Work is named, is known for advocating new policies in healthcare, immigrants rights, and education. But the vision of Addams and her college roommate and Hull House co-founder, Ellen Gates Starr, who was committed to “cross-cultural communication,” was to create arts, theatre, and other cultural space to help immigrants acclimate to a new country and urban living conditions, and to practice and celebrate their traditional crafts and other specialized skills. Hull House responded to urgent needs among the surrounding immigrant community, who lived in tenement conditions, by building public baths, offering child care, constructing the city’s first public playground, and arranging for trash removal. But Hull House was first and foremost “a cultural center with music, art, and theater offerings… a safe haven and a place where the immigrants living on Chicago's Near West Side could find companionship and support and the assistance they needed for coping with the modern city.”

We moved through rooms that had been parlors and bedrooms, reading about reformers such as journalist Ida B. Wells, who campaigned against lynching, sparred with Addams over the exclusion of African Americans from services at Hull House, and started her own settlement on Chicago’s South Side. Wells and Addams also collaborated to block segregated schools in Chicago and to establish the NAACP.

Photo by Naomi Miller

Photo by Naomi Miller

The meticulously curated exhibits we viewed showed the Hull House organizers’ painstaking attention to detail as they sought to learn about and reach out to the surrounding immigrant communities. An upstairs room displays photographs, surveys, and color-coded charts and graphs representing Hull House efforts to document, with great specificity and without the aid of computers, the demographics of the individuals and families they served and catalogue the challenges they faced. It was a humbling experience for this new cadre of activists, a century later, still discussing community engagement, inclusion, and coalition building, and how to transform what appear to be competing interests into confluent action. 

Photo by Naomi Miller

Photo by Naomi Miller

The Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative
The Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative in Greater Grand Crossing, a few blocks from Stony Island Arts Bank, was the second stop on our walking tour. Originally the Dante-Harper Townhouses, 36-units of public housing that wrapped around 70th Street and Dante and Harper Avenues, the building had become a magnet for drug activity and prostitution, and was closed by the City in 2007. With architects and a developer on board and a plan for mixed housing in hand, Theaster persuaded the City, and community residents who wanted the building demolished, to redevelop the two-story structure into one-third affordable and one-third market-rate housing, and one-third of the units designated for artist residencies. Landon Bone Baker Architects, Brinshore Development, and, site design group, who did the landscaping, transformed the site, accentuating its modern simplicity with bold colors and native plantings.

Photo by Aaron Rosse

Photo by Aaron Rosse

Four units in the center of the complex were replaced with a central community space, the Art Center, in response to neighbors requests for performance, especially dance, space, and an adjacent workshop area. The building’s backyard encourages relationship building within the peaceful landscape of a rock garden and prairie grasses. During the tour with John Veal, Communications Assistant for Rebuild Foundation, and Place Lab’s Building Strategist + Construction Manager, Mejay Gula, we learned about the organic process Rebuild allows for engaging area residents in their programs. John talked about the young boys who, at first, were paid to keep the area clean, and whose curiosity led them to participate in arts programming.

Photo by Aaron Rose

Photo by Aaron Rose

Inside one of the units for visiting artists, a compact but comfortable, light-filled two-bedroom apartment, Mejay and John told the story of saving this structurally sound housing, despite the community’s initial desire to have the building, and all it had come to symbolize, torn down. The story prompted questions from Salon Members from Detroit, where 4,000 properties are slated for demolition in the next year. They were able to engage in real-time discussion about strategies for reclaiming and rebuilding community fabric.

On the way to our next destination, we saw, in the small park across the street, new playground equipment, installed by the Chicago Park District since the Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative was developed.
 

St. Laurence School
The next stop was St. Laurence School, a former Catholic primary school, and the only campus building that remains since the demolition, in 2014, of St. Laurence Church. During the first Salon walking tour, we stepped through hallways littered with fallen plaster to see the impressive space that served as the school auditorium and gymnasium, where plush burgundy velvet drapes still hang.

Since then, Place Lab has completed the St. Laurence School Board Up project. Using pattern-making as a lens for exploring identity and culture, students from South Shore Fine Arts Academy, across from Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative, worked with artist Ruben Aguirre to design and paint bold, bright panels that now greet visitors from the building’s Art Deco-style, vertical windows.

Photo by Aaron Rose

Photo by Aaron Rose

Carson Poole, Project Specialist for Place Lab, related an encounter he had the day after the community celebration for the Board Up unveiling. A couple of young kids from the house next door, who attended and made Frankentoys at the event, were throwing them out the window at him. Poole approached the window and asked why they were throwing the toys. What followed was a 30-minute conversation about the kids’ frustrations and concerns. Was the school going to be torn down? Were they going to get a playground? How about a park? There are no parks in the area, they said, and they need one. This exchange, this spontaneous opportunity for the kids to express their fears about what was happening in their neighborhood, was, as Poole noted, only possible because he was there, because Rebuild Foundation has a presence in the community.


Evening Salon
During the evening Salon, on the third floor of the Arts Bank, moderator Steve Edwards facilitated conversation between Theaster and Camille Odeh, presentations of case studies by a Rebuild Foundation staff member and a Salon Member, and large- and small-group discussions.

Camille Odeh, a long-time community leader on Chicago’s Southwest Side, and currently on the faculty at Chicago State University School of Social Work, spoke movingly of her own experience conducting outreach as the former executive director of Southwest Youth Collaborative. Odeh spoke of “caring about, loving, and believing people in the community, because that’s where the change will come.” Our society is structured to separate individuals, she said, and it is imperative that activists structure projects and organizations to ensure inclusion and the diversity of viewpoints and participation that follows. From the beginning, during planning, with by-laws that dictate proportional representation, and when assembling board members, everyone—from the most to the least powerful stakeholders—must have a role and a voice. This, Camille insisted, is how we build consensus, how we achieve inclusion.

Theaster talked about the ways that engagement can be disingenuous, taking insidious forms that do not utilize resources of, or benefit communities they purport to serve. White, well-funded organizations with no black board members, for example, sometimes plant stakes in communities of color without creating the relationships that are at the core of any community engagement process or product.


Rebuild Foundation, Cast Study #1
Demecina Beehn, Outreach and Engagement Manager for Rebuild Foundation, described Rebuild Foundation strategies to engage area residents as resources to create programming for their community, foster community agency, and facilitate sharing of knowledge, interests, and vision. Artists and other creators are essential to facilitating this process. As was noted later in the evening, it can be difficult to imagine something beyond what one knows or has experienced. Showing up in a community and simply asking community residents what they want, without providing a creative platform or process for imagining something new and different, can cause frustration for everyone.

Rebuild and Place Lab use artistic intervention, bringing culturally attuned perspectives that spark imagination, tap inner resources of participants, and create cultural shifts. Demecina pointed to the “Myth of Me” mask-making project that engaged youth in creating masks painted with three positive words; and a group for young women that evolved from the self-named “Young Ladies of Chaos” to “Young Ladies of Class.” The group was guided by a community elder, who insisted members sign a contract that committed them to show up each week. The young women developed personal self-care rituals that they practiced outside of the dance classes they attended, and performed at the second annual Dorchester block party. An artist-in-residence also facilitates conversation with neighbors about changes to the South Side during the weekly Coffee, Tea + Chat at Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative. As Theaster emphasized, a developer must be committed, not just to creating a building or structure, but to supporting ongoing programs essential to transforming a building into community space.


Historic West End, Case Study #2
Salon Member Alysia Osbourne, from Charlotte, North Carolina, an urban placemaker who serves as Director of Historic West End for the Charlotte Center City Partners, presented an almost dizzying array of projects that demonstrated her ability to identify and activate community engagement opportunities across multiple access points. She described getting sponsorship from local businesses for the Hip Hop University project, using Hip Hop to addresses digital literacy. Soul Junction, “where the city meets the village,” is a music festival that benefits local artists and vendors. Among the words of caution and wisdom Alysia shared was the advice to “host, not produce,” to facilitate what community members cannot do themselves, without micromanaging—assisting with economic development, marketing and branding, for example, and allowing community members to do what they can.

Alysia advised the group to: “Lose the capes (of assumption, privilege, baggage) and learn the landscape”; “Be visible” (“Show up”); “Find the talent within”; “Know the policies and politics”; and “Party with a purpose.” Osbourne also emphasized the primacy of trust in fostering community engagement, an issue we explored in discussions that followed.


Small Group Discussions
Salon Members and guests broke into small groups charged with responding to two questions: What are the inherent challenges to building trust? What are other pillars of engaging communities?

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

It seemed most of the groups riffed on the first question, and discussed how to build trust. Here are some of responses reported back:

Have heart-to-heart conversations between individuals to build trust. Speak to people in every day language, not the lexicon or jargon of the scholar or expert.

Trusting yourself, first, is important. Taking risks is important. Perception is important.

Is your concern for humanity? Are you willing to reach out to people emotionally, to touch and be touched by people who don’t have the experience of being touched?

Be honest about your intentions, beliefs, or assumptions. Establish understanding about what is being discussed, and how and why. Be open and ready to hear what others have to say.  

Learn the language of a community. Connect with a community member who serves as a bridge.

Serve as a facilitator rather than an expert.

Is there community benefit as well as community engagement? Is there flexibility and time for a community to be creative? Do you relinquish power to empower community?

Build momentum over time, rather than trying to hit ‘home runs.’ Celebrate the small moments, the small achievements along the way.

Pillars of engaged participation included:
Project Gravity Increase strength and potential through collaboration with multiple stakeholders.
Values Focus on what is of lasting importance, on the intended legacy of the process.
Respect A foundation for appreciating historic challenges and structural inequities.
Inclusivity Gender and racial balance within an organization and with other organizations.
Communication Talk in ways that everyone understands. Send culturally appropriate messaging.
Adaptive Patience Value organic process over efficiency.

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

As a finale to the working session of the Salon, we were introduced to artist-in-residence Arthur Wright. Wright documented the Session in a drawing he shared, which captured the synergy of the group and the robust exchange of ideas. We were then invited by Theaster to transition from our intellectual to our relational selves in the exhibition hall on the first floor of the Arts Bank.

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

After the first Salon, I thought about something Theaster said during an event, "Reimagine Our Region for 2050,” co-sponsored last June by CMAP (Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning) and Chicago Community Trust. In his opening remarks as one of the panelists, Theaster raised the question of how we learn about and think about development. One learns about development in business school. What if development was taught in divinity school? Along with conventional economic drivers, what if development was driven by beauty, and by faith? What if development was motivated by love?   

I think about this again remembering the woman I met when we gathered at the end of the Salon to socialize. The woman stood alone, smiling, with her eyes closed, her face radiant. She told me she lived in the neighborhood and said she had gone to the Dorchester block party in the summer. I don’t remember if she talked about it, or if I just intuited it: her deep pleasure at being present in this grand place; the magnificent, cavernous first floor of the Arts Bank, where a sense of mystery heightens a sense of anticipation, of what is possible. And I think of my own experience of the space, which reminds me, when entering through its portico and walking inside among the arched pillars, of a Greek Temple, built at a time when the art of cultivating fledgling, albeit deeply flawed, democracies flourished.

I think about this when I remember events in Charlotte following the shooting death by police of Keith Scott; and the work of Alysia Osbourne in Charlotte to create and heal community.

And I think about this when I remember the closing pages of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, when he travels from Chicago’s South Side to the North Side, and writes about the light years of separation that existed, and that still exist, between those geographies. He closed the letter to his nephew, and to all Americans who would hear him, writing about the opportunity to forge something greater than these separate countries, and warning that, if we do not come together, we will surely perish together.

An image stays with me from that transformative day in September: the new board-ups at St. Laurence School. If eyes are windows to the soul, the brightly painted boards, with their bold shapes and colors, project a new power, new aspirations in a community too used to being looked at, to being examined and judged. The board-ups display a community’s bold intention to design, shape, and color its own place and its own destiny. If we engage with respect, if we listen with compassion, and make a commitment rooted in trust and, yes, in love, we can hope to be invited to dance in that dance.

For more information on the series and the author check out the series introduction

Guest Blogger: Aaron Rose on Salon Session #1: Repurpose and Re-propose

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Ethical Redevelopment Salon Series
Salon Session 1: 07.28.16
By Aaron Rose

principle: repurpose + re-propose
concepts: neighborliness, localism, access points

“Turn to page 6 in your hymnal,” intoned the preacher.

The preacher was Theaster Gates. The house of worship, Stony Island Arts Bank. And the service, the first of the nine Salon Session series.

“Vision is left off the table in development.” Traditional development, Theaster noted, starting off the evening, travels the path of least resistance—giving the least and getting the most. In contrast to a strategy of convenience, the Principles of Ethical Redevelopment are a set of values that inform community-centered development practices. “The virtue,” Theaster posed, “is to start with what you have, and ask, what else can this be? As soon as you propose that the thing you have will become something else, the challenges begin.”

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

About fifty people gathered on the third floor at the Arts Bank that evening: about three dozen Salon Members, a few journalists, myself included, and Place Lab staff. The first Principle we explored was Repurpose and Re-propose, which includes the proposition that [p]eople, property, and materials can be remixed and reimagined if you propose a new use. This… becomes a transgressive act by replacing allegiance to profit-as-motivator and allows for other considerations to drive the creation of place. Objects and projects do not have to be monetized to be useful.

Case Study #1: St. Laurence School
Using the current St. Laurence School project as a case study, Nootan Bharani, AIA, Lead Design Manager for Place Lab, describe guiding concepts of the first Principle, vision, and transgression.

St. Laurence School, a Catholic primary school, was part of the St. Laurence Church complex, a Romanesque revival-style church, a rectory and parish house, and an Art-Deco influenced school, at the corner of E. 72nd Street and S. Dorchester Ave. The church was opened in 1911; the school, in 1924. In 2002, the Archdiocese closed the school, and, in 2005, sold the property, described by Landmarks Illinois as one of Chicago’s “most intact and impressive early-20th century religious complexes.” St. Laurence Church and the church buildings were demolished in 2014.

Once a welcoming anchor of beauty, stability, and personal histories in the Grand Crossing community, St. Laurence Church and its streetside urban campus, suffered, like other Catholic parishes, from declining church attendance and dwindling funds. According to some, after a developer purchased the site, the property, especially the church, was allowed to decay—exposed to the elements, squatters, and dumping until it was deemed too damaged to escape demolition. Theaster tried to take ownership of the church, but it was too late. After the church buildings were demolished, Theaster salvaged all the bricks—a redemptive act in the art of repurposing.

Theaster did acquire St. Laurence School. St. Laurence School will become a home for established art programs, including Black Artist Retreat and Black Cinema House. The building will also serve as a site for new programs that “encourage new pathways in the areas of art, architecture, design, fashion, and fabrication, which will significantly enhance neighbors’ skills and employability.” In the wake of the largest school closing in the city—the shuttering of 50 Chicago Public School buildings in 2013, mostly in South and West Side communities of color—this project will demonstrate reuse of an architectural and cultural landmark that will benefit the surrounding community.

The critical starting points for repurposing and re-proposing, Theaster and Nootan emphasized, are to make space for vision and to take the risk to transgress.

In order to re-propose, it’s necessary to have clear vision as a guide to what is possible. Viewed from the creative lens of artists and culturalists who are in community, what is possible is best assessed and determined by asking the questions: What is missing? And what is needed?

While a conventional, for-profit developer will seek that path of least resistance, this team’s approach is one of “conscious intervention,” often the path of most resistance. Inviting something different is the first of many acts of transgression. All the tactical, practical considerations that arise from that, Nootan explained, are intertwined, and the team works to untangle them.

Nootan then described a series of steps Place Lab established for the St. Laurence School project.

1. Accept it. Receive it. Own all of it, its beauty and flaws.
The team's first task was to demonstrate ownership through good stewardship. Like most abandoned properties, the school had become a dumping ground. They cleaned up the surrounding property and performed basic remediation, such as boarding up windows.

2. Planning is about allowing one thing to become another. Addressing the issue of zoning is all about transgression.
Currently, the area is zoned for residential purposes and doesn’t allow for the uses Theaster has in mind. To pursue their intended purpose, the team has to change the zoning, a resource-intensive process that requires either a lot of money, or a lot of time. There is, Nootan noted, a “sliding scale of feasibility.” How does one successfully “translate” the zoning of the city and get an advocate?

3. Design
To pursue the process, you have to determine what you want to do, balancing clarity of vision with flexibility. Vision has to allow for adjustments, in all dimensions of a project. Adaptive reuse projects, such as Stony Island Arts Bank and St. Laurence School, can upset the expectations of building officials.

4. Community Benefit
It’s important to introduce a structure to the public as an asset. St. Laurence School is engaging students from a nearby public school in a design process that will present their work and animate the structure. A project may benefit the community without generating income. Income from one project may be required to support another project. It’s important to keep in mind this is not the way a traditional bank invests.

Nootan offered two parting questions: What gives us the courage to transgress? How do we do this with credibility, given that the ultimate purpose of the building may not be clear until the work is completed? 

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Case Study #2: The Skyscape Project
The Skyscape Project, in the Lindale Gardens community on the Northeast Side of Detroit, is the vision of Rebecca “Bucky” Willis. Soon after getting her M Arch from the University of Detroit Mercy, Bucky started her own community-based design firm. Bleeding Heart Design (b.h.d) advocates the use of human-centered design methods to inspire people to become more altruistic by using public art, design, and architecture as conduits for social change.

Bucky described her own evolution from wanting “bad things in the neighborhood to go away,” and realizing she had become what she once criticized, to seeing and encouraging others to see the in-between: between indoor and outdoor; between razing and renovating. Now Bucky asks: How can we use what we have, and celebrate that? What kinds of programming can be done in different settings, in different seasons?

Willis opened by describing Mayor Duggan’s plan to demolish 4,000 properties in Detroit in the next two years. When a place is lost, Bucky noted, its history is also lost, which lends more urgency to reclaiming and reusing existing properties in the city. In the process of developing her vision, Willis participated with other students from U of D School of Architecture on the Art House project. With permission of the owner and a contribution of $1,000, and after informing area residents, the team of volunteers painted the exterior of an unoccupied house. Though the house was eventually demolished, Art House inspired Lindale Gardens residents to rethink the way they view derelict properties and to be creative in reclaiming visual real estate.

At the time of the Salon, b.h.d. had identified a prospective site for Skyscape. Though it had no roof, the vacant commercial property in the neighborhood met Willis’s requirement for having sturdy brick walls and no basement. Another building has since become available, and following inspection of the structure, Bucky is hopeful that b.h.d. will purchase the site.

With U of D’s Detroit Collaborative Design Center as the fiscal agent, b.h.d. secured $38,000 for the project—grants from the Knight Foundation and the Kresge Foundation—to develop the space, and engage neighborhood residents in the project. Inspired by the roofless buildings in Detroit’s Peace Garden in the Old Redford Artist Village on the city’s West Side, Willis and her team envisioned using landscaping and lighting to develop Skyscape as a place for urban camping, live performance, and art demonstrations.

Bucky was asked why she would choose a roofless structure in a climate like Detroit’s. She responded that replacing a roof is too expensive. And a roofless structure maintains that liminal state between demolition and preservation.


Q + A
The floor was opened to questions, moderated by Steve Edwards and guest expert Dan Peterman, Associate Professor in the Department of Art at University of Illinois at Chicago. An artist who co-founded, in 2006, the Experimental Station, a Chicago-based incubator of small-scale enterprise and cultural projects, Peterman was an early pioneer in the art of how to repurpose and re-propose.            

The questions were mostly pragmatic. They were asked with the kind of urgency that emerges when there are few opportunities to ask the questions and get good answers. It was clear that the fledgling Salon series was offering practitioners—many working on their own and facing entrenched challenges—a space for support, as well as information and advice.

Questions were raised about how to stay the course when trying to purchase a delinquent property. Do you dig in with making overtures to a delinquent property owner? How long before you stop playing nice? When do you decide to move on?

Anticipating the Principle of Salon #2, Members asked about engaging with community residents. What do we mean by community engagement? Does this require community approval? How do you assess what a community wants without having them micromanage the process? What is the value you are pitching and offering to community?

How many people have to be involved in a project to sustain year-round programming? How do you sustainably animate a place or space to keep it useful, festive, and vibrant?

What levels of community participation are possible? And how do you, or your project, empower this? How do you keep community residents engaged over time?

How do you deal with the issue of community residents who don’t understand the regulatory process? How do you bring someone with expertise, from outside the community, into the process without appearing to sell out?

Gates brought the service to a close with a small act of transgression. Hoisting the blinds on the south wall of windows, he revealed a rooftop ensemble led by drummer Mikel Patrick Avery—Musician-in-Residence at Rebuild Foundation and one of The Black Monks of Mississippi, who filled the space with electric, eclectic jazz while Salon attendees continued the conversation, began getting to know one another, and said goodbye until the next Salon


Pre-Salon Tours
Before the evening Salon, participants were invited for afternoon walking tours of St. Laurence School and a substation, another new Theaster project. After lunch at Inspiration Café, a social enterprise restaurant in the Garfield Park neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side, a few blocks from landscape architect Jens Jensen’s magnificent Garfield Park Conservatory, we met up at the Arts Incubator, a space developed by University of Chicago Arts + Public Life initiative, and took a shuttle to the corner of S. Dorchester Avenue and E. 72nd Street.

It was a stormy summer afternoon. About a dozen of us gathered outside St. Laurence School, under cloudy skies and misty rain, to hear Mejay Gula, Place Lab’s Building Strategist + Construction Manager and Shirin Shahin, Project Management Coordinator, tell the story of the acquisition of the building, a three-story structure, and the loss of St. Laurance Church, across the street. Located approximately one mile from the Arts Bank, before it was destroyed, the St. Laurence Church complex was a nexus of community and cultural activity in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood. To re-engage the community, Place Lab coordinated the Board Up project. Over the summer, they brought students from South Shore Fine Arts Academy to collaborate with Chicago artist Ruben Aguirre and use pattern-making to reimagine use of the structure. The brightly colored panels they painted now look out from what had been St. Laurence School’s boarded up windows.

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

We entered the school through a narrow back entrance and walked along corridors of cracked and crumbling walls with peeling paint, the floor and staircase littered with plaster. As in most schools, the gymnasium we came to view had doubled as an assembly hall. The tall, rectilinear windows of the auditorium—which is square, not the typical rectangular shape of a modern gymnasium—give the space formality, referring back to a time and place when presentation and ritual, even for very young children, was taken seriously.

Viewing the St. Laurence interior reminded me that water causes a lot of damage, very quickly. And maintaining buildings requires ongoing, vigilant attention and a regular infusion of human and cash resources. Something else about structures: like Bucky said later that evening, they contain the history, and the energy, of what took place within them. When a building is destroyed, what the structure held is dispersed and lost. When done mindfully, repurposing a building allows the past to continue to inform and support the structure’s purpose and community.

Our next stop was a former ComEd substation. The rainy, overcast day lent an added sense of mystery to the adventure, as we drove north along Kenwood Avenue. We passed open land and neat rows of felled trees, stacked high—perhaps 15­­–20 feet, perpendicular to the street, so we could see their bases uniformly treated with white paint. The Prairie-style substation, built in the 1920s, is also situated perpendicular to the street. The eastern end of the long narrow building reaches toward the property lines and backyards of Theaster’s first redeveloped buildings: Listening House and Archive House.

Theaster, we were told, envisions repurposing the substation as a kind of monastery, a rehearsal and performance space for the Black Monks of Mississippi, who will use the space for another kind of retooling and retuning, this time of “Eastern ideals of melodic restraint” with Black gospel and Blues. The lumber stacked on the street was acquired when the City gave away beetle-infested ash trees. In another redemptive act of repurposing resources, Theaster is considering installing a sawmill in the substation to mill the lumber, Mejay told us, then transferring the sawmill to the St. Laurence School for a woodworking program.

When we left the substation and the Kenwood lots to the south and north, I was enveloped with a sense of magic. There are no buildings on the west side of the street, and the veil of trees and dense undergrowth felt peaceful and calming the way green places do. It was easy to just be there, and I imagined biking from the St. Laurence School to the substation to the Arts Bank. In this radius of a mile and a half or so, there was a sense of intentional industry, rooted in place and community with the vision that held it. It was an evocative, poetic landscape, with its own purpose and integrity.


After the Salon Session, I caught a ride to the Loop with friend and colleague Monica Chadha, founder of Civic Projects LLC. I raised a question that came to me during the event, when Theaster cautioned against getting caught up in the particulars and problems of one building. “The field is more complicated than your building. Think about 100 buildings.”

I write about placemaking and, as Bucky calls it, placekeeping—but don’t do the hands-on work that brings these projects into being. I wouldn’t argue with advice to think big, but wondered what it might feel like to practitioners in the room, working on shoestring budgets, to hear this. Is this not daunting, or discouraging? Monica emphatically assured me it was not. “Theaster was in the same position when he started out. He also had limited resources.”

The question came up again during a phone conversation with another Salon Member, Keir Johnson, one of the co-founders, along with Salon member Ernel Martinez, of the Amber Art and Design collective in Philadelphia. He sometimes feels “locked down” to the Philadelphia area, Keir said, so the opportunity to come to Chicago, to be “in the same room with the best thinkers in the field, talking formally and informally and building relationships, is an experience you can’t replicate on your own. Theaster has resources other people do not have, but the scale of Theaster’s projects doesn’t seem unachievable. They speak to me of possibilities. They inspire me, and give me hope.”   


While writing this blog post, I also had the chance to talk with architect Paola Serrano Aguirre, founder of Borderless Studio, about Theaster and Place Lab’s work. Paola has known Theaster since the early days of his work creating the Listening House and Archive House on Dorchester Avenue, and described how he always brought an artistic element into events he hosted. “Theaster understands the importance of human-centered work,” Paola noted. “Art can be beautiful, but have no meaning. Architecture and design can be functional and beautiful, and lack meaning. Social justice work can be practical and profoundly meaningful, but be completely lacking in beauty.” Theaster talks about beauty as a service, and experiencing beauty is a basic human need—and a human right. He understands and is able to layer and balance individual and communal desire and need.


I’ve worked with nonprofit organizations for more than two decades. Some of the groups I’ve worked with are social justice organizations whose work addresses economic and social injustice, including racial and gender injustice and the violence that injustice breeds. I come to the work of creative placemaking, and the Ethical Redevelopment Salon series, having witnessed the important, sometimes radical work of individuals who toil for years in offices and conference rooms to change laws and public policy, and provide critically needed human services to individuals and communities. The work they do it heroic. The issues they address are rooted in the fabric of our society and the founding of our country, and the problems they deal with often seem intractable and intransigent.

It is profoundly exciting, and inspiring, to witness people generating a movement with a very different show to tell: one that addresses economic, racial, social, and cultural injustice embedded in our landscapes by envisioning and manifesting places where shared appreciation of and access to creativity and beauty animate the platform, and hold the template for a future of new and seemingly impossible possibilities.

 

For more information on the series and the author check out the series introduction

Guest Blogger: Aaron Rose introduces her posts on the Ethical Redevelopment Salon Series

Place Lab asked writer Aaron Rose (bio follows Introduction) to attend and write about each of the Salon Sessions on Ethical Redevelopment that took place July 2016 through April 2017 at the Stony Island Arts Bank. She was an embedded observer and, thankfully, active participant. Some of the projects she describes have shifted or changed in the time between when they were discussed and the present moment but we've tried to keep to the realities of the time in which they were discussed. The pieces will be posted in pairs (Salon Session 1 and Salon Session 2 will post same day as this Introduction) on the Fridays leading up to the Salon Finale on June 22nd. The Salon Finale will not be a public event, as originally conceived; rather, it will be a chance for the Salon Members and other participants to assess the discussions and the impact of the series. All content generated for and during the Salon Finale will be made available to the public in the months that follow.

The Ethical Redevelopment Salon Series began in June 2016 and, this June, comes full circle. As I look back on the series, and revisit the blogs I have written, the question, “What do we talk about when we talk about ethical redevelopment?,” comes to mind. This is, of course, the question we’ve addressed throughout the series, examining the nexus of barriers and bridges between what is and what can be; what we know and what we do not yet know; and what we need to do and can do to bring into being what it is that we want.

It’s important to begin with the understanding that ethical redevelopment is not about placing a kinder, gentler adjective before a notoriously ruthless process, smoothing out the jagged edges of redevelopment as it is commonly, historically practiced in US cities: sometimes rapacious in scope, sometimes bland and dull in product, and often disrupting the synergy and deadening the spirit of a community.

Exploring Ethical Redevelopment in the Place Lab series has been a radical examination, motivated by and expressed through a radical act of faith. Salon Members, and the Place Lab team, talk about themselves and their work like the Tarot archetype of the Fool, the innocent’s jumping off the cliff into the unknown. They dare to think and do things differently based on the knowledge that how we have historically built and rebuilt our cities and neighborhoods align with beliefs that have led us to urban crises we face today: of discrimination and inequality in housing, employment, and education; systems of food and health care apartheid; of disinvestment, dislocation, and violence. The belief that it is important, even necessary, to divide people, to keep people apart, especially by race, but also by class. The belief that in order for a society, or city, to thrive, some people and communities have to be supported and sustained with special privileges, succored and protected, while others must be sequestered, contained and controlled. Beliefs that caused many cities and public spaces in the US to be constructed, not for the greatest potential for democratic, free, and fair cultural and economic exchange and mutuality, but to be constructed on a foundation of fear of difference and scarcity, and, dare we say, greed, that engineers segregation, and engenders more fear, mistrust, and inequity—and all the social ills that follow.

I attended all the Sessions. As a writer, not a practitioner, I mostly listened. I have spent nearly three decades working in the social impact sector, with nonprofit organizations, interpreting and translating for different audiences, from funders to the general public, their work around social justice, human services, and community engagement with arts and culture. What I heard from Salon Members was a kind of manifesto, voices of women and men who work in different sectors and settings—independently, as artists and designers and community developers, in nonprofit organizations, and in civic and government agencies—insisting on liberation from old paradigms.

Together, with Theaster Gates, moderator Steve Edwards, guest experts, and the Place Lab team, we stepped inside those interstices between what is and what can be. We deconstructed perceived conflicts and obstacles, and asserted the primacy of establishing different priorities and experimenting with new possibilities. In Salon #3, with educator David Stovall and artist Carol Zou, we examined and illuminated the value of the third Principle, Pedagogical Moments. We talked about the tendency in our culture to oversimplify; the way truth gets buried when we disallow nuance and complexity, in public education or public discourse, so that the status quo, not individual and community well-being, is supported and maintained.

Leslie Koch, former President and CEO of the Trust for Governors’ Island in New York City, joined us for Salon #4, and discussion of the fourth Principle, The Indeterminate. We talked about the tyranny of master planning: the need to do it, and the need to set is aside. For Place Over Time, the Principle discussed in Salon #6, journalists Richard Steele and Ethan Michaeli, and Theaster, brought home the discussion to valuing place over time in a society where it has become too easy and too common for some places, especially places where people of color live, to be subject to waves of disinvestment and neglect and then opportunistic plunder, where their built fabric, culture, and history are lost to the affluence and ambitions of, usually white, newcomers.   

The Ethical Redevelopment series included site visits, tours, films, and workshops, as well as the evening Salon Sessions. We visited the Jane Addams Hull House at the University of Illinois Chicago campus; Growing Power in the South Side neighborhood of Bridgeport; and offices of the new National Public Housing Museum. We toured Rebuild Foundation’s early sites, Archive House and Listening House, and new project at the former St. Laurence School. We also went on an insider’s tour of Theaster’s studio.

The 9 Principles were neither prescriptive nor solutions, but starting points for the journey; stepping stones in this rapidly flowing river of dramatic political and social upheaval, where old ways of doing and knowing are being released and washed away to allow for new ways of imagining, talking about, and creating the kind of communities and cities we want to live in.

Sitting on my shoulder, whispering running commentary, is the angel of ethical writing and consciousness. She smiles with encouragement, but sometimes wryly as I, ever the fundraising storyteller, write with my most optimistic, persuasive voice. Like the language of any field, or field of inquiry, the language of this blog series and the interactions it is meant to represent can sound clichéd, too neatly crafted, projecting a vision or process or outcome that maximizes advantages and opportunities and minimizes difficulties and inconsistencies.

I have made peace with my perspective, my process, my role. We are living through troubled and troubling times, with an overabundance of discourse that diminishes and denigrates. As Professor Stovall emphatically stated, our culture tends to “not want to trouble the waters.” If we are to be troubled, let us trouble the waters with the best we have, the best we can be. Like any experience, we take from the Ethical Redevelopment series what we put into it, and what we take from it ripples and radiates well beyond the Place Lab and Arts Bank community and gallery spaces where we met, and the descriptions and interpretations on this virtual page. The seeking, discovery, and repositioning is real; and the effects will make themselves known in the future in the form of different decisions, unlikely partnerships, and new bridges of understanding and cooperation.

The Ethical Redevelopment Salon series is a platform for sharing and tussling with the reality of everyday struggles and triumphs. Although the settings were curated, with a few dozen people selected to attend, and amply supported by a generous grant from a major national funder, the topics, questions, and responses, and the urgency with which they are delivered, represent neither a luxury, nor an elitist exercise in academic or cultural debate. Our connections can change the social, emotional, and spiritual, as well as physical, infrastructure of places that will serve as crucibles for a fractious society to heal and to evolve. Information, ideas, and intentions we generate, even in their infancy, are small but mighty harbingers of the transformations of which we are capable as a society, as a nation.

photo ARose.jpg

Aaron Rose is an independent, place-based writer in Chicago whose work is rooted at the intersections of history and social justice, social practice, and spirituality. Her stories about city building and public space appear regularly in Newcity magazine.

An accomplished storyteller and fundraiser in the social impact sector, Rose collaborates with not-for-profit clients in her consulting practice, interpreting and amplifying organizations' aspirations in order to cultivate resources and engage community stakeholders.

Rose’s current writing projects include guest blogging for Place Lab’s Ethical Redevelopment Salon Series, and investigating community redevelopment on Chicago’s west side as Writer in Residence at Nichols Tower—the original Sears Tower—in North Lawndale. Her Learning from North Lawndale blog launches in Spring 2017.

Rose holds an AB Degree in English Literature from the University of Michigan and an MFA in Creative Inquiry, Interdisciplinary Arts from the California Institute of Integral Studies.

Photo courtesy of Aaron Rose.

 

 

Ethical Redevelopment Principle #9: Platforms

Many cities, regardless of where they are located or the combination of factors contributing to their context, suffer the same challenges—disinvestment and neglect, population loss, abandoned buildings, and pockets of almost immutably bleak landscapes. Far too often, the "solutions" offered in the face of these issues is singular, an idea that exists in a vacuum.

No single building, individual, or program can reroute a neighborhood’s trajectory. Neighborhoods are successful when compound ideas exist with expanded relationships and networks of opportunity. In order to propel work forward, attract these variables by providing the community with a platform.

A platform serves as a foundation that creates new social possibilities, a real or symbolic structure that incubates new economic or artistic prospects. Platform-building means developing opportunities for people to gather and commune. These opportunities do not have to be flashy or expensive or excessively programmed. The event—what is happening—is beside the point. The point is that folks are meeting, exchanging, and learning.

Creating a platform is to create intentional hang time, which builds community through a space that encourages deep conversation, new friendships, and, ultimately, a community of people who want to be a part of transformative work in the neighborhood. A space where like-minded folk can come and say, “What else can be done? What can I do 10 blocks away from my block? How do I share what I love to do with others?”


Platforms in Action

Owned and operated by the indefatigable Eric Williams, The Silver Room n Hyde Park is a boutique retail store—and so, so much more:

Located in the heart of Hyde Park, The Silver Room is much more than a storefront. The Silver Room is a gathering place, event space and artist gallery. The Silver Room represents community, culture and art.
— The Silver Room, Chicago

The Silver Room, in addition to its retail offerings, is renowned for its annual Block Party, its long-running open mic "Grown Folks Stories," its gallery offerings, yoga classes, and the opportunities it provides for young, local artists to create, learn, and network.

[The Silver Room] is a hybrid of retail, event space, art gallery, community gathering place. A lot of it is locally made. It uses local fashion, local art. It’s a gathering space with a social impact to it.
— Eric Williams, in CUSP Magazine

Ethical Redevelopment Principle #8: Constellations

Charismatic leaders are ineffective without teams. Both are strengthened by the presence of the other. Their complementary skills and practices can initiate exchange across specialty and advance the quality of the work. Ethical Redevelopment Principle #8 argues that projects benefit from a variety of roles among team members—visionaries, believers, implementers, collaborators, and evaluators—each exchanging unique expertise, forming a network or “constellation.”

A project taps into a particular kind of power when it refuses to be singular, when it takes up space and assembles believers from disparate corners. A vibrant constellation or a rich ecosystem is responsive to the pairings and groupings that suddenly emerge throughout the work process. Some webs of connectivity mature more slowly, gradually revealing formerly unforeseen affinities. Successful ecosystems cultivate organic exchange and foster collaboration throughout the work process.

CONSTELLATIONS IN ACTION

Hive Learning Network Chicago utilizes a constellations-based approach to expand youth-learning opportunities that leverage youth agency to develop digital and internet literacy skills. Hive Chicago forms an ecosystem of 85 youth-development focused member organizations, from museums and libraries to advocacy groups and tech start-ups. These organizations work together to make space for the Internet as a tool for learning within and beyond the classroom. See the Hive Chicago introduction video to learn more. 

“Connected learning is when someone is pursuing a personal interest with the support of peers, mentors and caring adults, and in ways that open up opportunities for them.” -Connected Learning Alliance 

Hive Chicago member organizations motivate and inspire youth within an environment guided by the design values of connected learning. They provide close mentorship and offer hands-on making opportunities that act as platforms for learners from which to base and explore their ideas.

In addition to their work with youth, Hive Chicago mentors form a network designed to cultivate exchange across specialty. According to their website, they share expertise on how to maximize the “unique assets of their community, integrated digitally and face-to-face, to provide a learning ecology in which youth can discover their agency, pursue their passions, and learn.” The unique backgrounds and skill sets of mentors advance the quality of the work and form connections to resources beyond the constellation.

Over the last five years, the Hive Fund for Connected Learning has supported youth-curiosity-inspired projects such as the Community Telescope Ambassadors, Safe Passages for Teen Skaters and Bikers, ChiTeen Lit Fest, and Minecraft + Design Process + Civic Issues in the Built Environment. (See full list of projects.) The success of these programs is due in part to methods outlined in Ethical Redevelopment Principle #8, Constellations—to foster exchange among team members. Hive Chicago maximizes its connections between learners, mentors, and their respective networks to create a peer-learning community for innovation in education.

Have you participated in a constellation that advanced the work on a project? What unforeseen benefits emerged? Tell us about it in the comments section.

Ethical Redevelopment Principle #7: Stack, Leverage + Access

Successful interventions, whether a single project, location, or gesture, have impact and reverberation. Ethical Redevelopment Principle #7: Stack, Leverage + Access, asserts that excitement can lead to investment and that resource streams can come from diverse sources.

TURN INTEREST AND EXCITEMENT INTO INVESTMENT

An investment in yourself, in your ideas and projects, sends a signal to those watching your work that you value place and people over profits. It is critical to have skin in the game, to have something at stake, even if the investment is sweat equity. 

Ethical projects require belief and motivation, sometimes more than they require funding. Early, small successes demonstrate feasibility and can spur the next success or even the next project. Whether you work on a series of projects or just one, leverage the attention garnered by your idea to amplify it. Let the work attract more believers.

Have a vision. Be demanding.
— Colin Powell, 65th U.S. Secretary of State

STACK RESOURCES, LEVERAGE INTEREST + PROVIDE ACCESS POINTS

Over time, a project from your initial days of engagement and experimentation can mature. Something that you passionately believed in, but had little external backing for, can grow in scale and scope to become a sophisticated version that many stakeholders support and believe in. Demonstrating this type of capacity permits access to greater resources.

Establishing relationships with funders, gaining access to multiple spheres of influence, and incorporating expertise are crucial to the enduring success of your project. You may not have access to sufficient funding from one distinct source. However, you can stack and bundle resource streams from diverse sources to meet the price tags of your projects. 

STACK, LEVERAGE + ACCESS IN ACTION

The Chicago Arts + Industry Commons (CAIC) is a collaboration between the City of Chicago, artist Theaster Gates’s Rebuild Foundation, and the University of Chicago’s Place Lab. The concept excited people with a new model for artist-led, neighborhood-based development for mindful city-building. It proposed using arts and culture as tools to revitalize. It attracted believers. 

The project leveraged this interest to garner financial support. CAIC acquired $10.25 million from four major foundations: JPB Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation, as well as individual donors and philanthropic organizations. 

CAIC’s self-sustaining, cultural reinvestment model appealed to funders.  The project description explains, “CAIC employs an evolving cultural reinvestment model that uses the revitalization of sleepy assets as part of an engine that spurs new development and new capital, a portion of which is used to support the civic commons.” Funders are more likely to support a project when their contributions will catalyze ongoing economic change.
    
The project stacked and bundled resource streams from diverse sources to meet its initial price tag. This provided access to a level of funding that would be otherwise unavailable, resulting in a more impactful project. Finally, the inclusion of multiple funders offered more people access points to involve themselves with the project. A larger community could take ownership over the work and have a stake in its ongoing success.

Have you worked on a project that cultivated investment from excitement? Did you stack, leverage, or access resources? Tell us about it in the comments section.

A Portrait of the Stony Island Arts Bank

Global Girls perform at the opening of the Stony Island Arts Bank in 2015.

Global Girls perform at the opening of the Stony Island Arts Bank in 2015.

At a recent event at the Stony Island Arts Bank celebrating the paperback edition of Natalie Moore’s The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation, Place Lab’s Isis Ferguson used the text as a point of departure to ruminate on the Arts Bank and its history and role in South Side culture.

Near the end of Moore’s book, she writes, “Black life in Chicago is a place of loveliness, contradictions, and negotiations.”

As a black, mixed-race South Sider, this statement resonates with me for a host of reasons, specifically because I think it’s emblematic of the project we are experimenting with at the Stony Island Arts Bank.

We, too, are a building of loveliness—a stunning piece of architecture built in the early 1920s on a once-thriving South Side commercial thoroughfare that has seen extensive deterioration and neighborhood depopulation over the last half century. The facility was and is visually imposing—a three-story, neo-classical, terra-cotta-clad building. This building, which had operated as a bank on and off for six decades, permanently closed in 1980. And now that you are inside, you may notice the effects of 32 years of vacancy and disuse that were deliberately built into the fabric of its renovation from 2012 to 2015. A former repository for black money, it’s now a repository for black cultural production and archives. To keep the Arts Bank’s legacy clearly visible to visitors, our architects and design teams chose not to restore the building to its pristine condition, but instead leave much of the damaged surfaces untouched. We made a decision to point out that something can be far gone and you can work hard to bring it back by keeping a mixture of old and new and by showing what was lost and what was salvageable. Loveliness is significant because the loudest voices with the biggest traction would have all of us believing nothing good, right, or hopeful exists below Roosevelt Road.

Loveliness exists in South Shore, Englewood, Chatham, and Bronzeville. When Theaster Gates presented a TED Talk in 2015, he ended the Q&A with “Beauty is a basic service.”  At Place Lab, we believe that it’s a service often not extended to “forgotten parts of the city.” It is an amenity considered incongruent with certain places. But in this room, we all know that beautiful objects come from and belong in blighted spaces just as they do in high investment areas of the city.

Natalie called out a second quality of black South Side life—contradictions. Within our three floors, we are filled with contradiction. Take for instance The Johnson Publishing Archive + Collections, on the second floor, which includes over 16,000 volumes of books and periodicals donated by the Johnson Publishing Company, publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines. The content amassed together in floor-to-ceiling shelves commands respect, awe, and reverence. Its size, when seen together, demonstrates just how deeply and widely black cultural production and intellect and politics have influenced American culture. But that only tells one version of blackness in America.

Make an appointment and you can travel up to the third floor and look through the Edward J. Williams Collection: 4,000 objects of “negrobilia”—mass “Americana” cultural objects and artifacts that feature racist caricatures of black folks meticulously collected by an individual determined to get them out of circulation. The objects are a stark contrast from the imagery of “racial uplift” motifs found in the Johnson collection. Between two floors, you can immerse yourself in a world of radical and progressive black thought, black respectability, and black degradation.

And lastly, Natalie pointed out that negotiations are an integral part of black life on Chicago’s South Side. The Stony Island Arts Bank is a constant act of negotiation, of give and take, of concession and democratic public use, and also a place of singular artistic and programmatic vision with a point of view trying to achieve a specific goal. It is a black space for black use and for others to find themselves within those narratives, collections, programs, and performances.

It is for neighbors on 68th, Dante, Dorchester, and it’s for French tourists, architecture nerds, black cinema scholars, 5th graders from South Shore Fine Arts, retired tradespeople, and unemployed painters who come so often that a painting residency is built around them.

It is a space intentionally trying to create conditions for integration while rooting itself in the works and contributions of black people, black objects, and black lives. The Arts Bank is a cultural neighborhood amenity that services many publics, hopefully at the same time. We want to show that being black-led and black focused is not incongruent with integration, social mixing, and inclusivity.

The Stony Island Arts Bank is run by the Rebuild Foundation, a lean staff with artist Theaster Gates at the helm. It is one building in a constellation of collaborative cultural spaces in Greater Grand Crossing, South Shore, and Washington Park working towards the ethical redevelopment of important historically or most recently black neighborhoods. We are optimistic about the blocks where our work is clustered, where we work and live, and we strongly believe that arts and culture matter in the spatial governance of neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago and in other urban settings across the United States.

In October, we will celebrate our two-year anniversary. We are a toddler of an institution with great ambition, trying to finding our way. Stumbling sometimes, other days succeeding. Like Black Life on the South Side, we are filled with loveliness, contradictions, and negotiations.

An Interview with Salon Member Hunter Franks

Place Lab recently sat down with Ethical Redevelopment Salon member Hunter Franks to discuss the Ethical Redevelopment Principle 'Place Over Time,' and the role of public voice and imagination in community development. 

Hunter Franks is the founder and Artistic Director of the League of Creative Interventionists. His participatory projects create shared spaces and experiences that break down social barriers and catalyze connections between people and communities. His projects include a 500-person meal on a freeway, a storytelling exchange to connect disparate neighborhoods, a public display of first love stories, and a vacant warehouse turned community hub.

In 2014, Franks was named one of GOOD Magazine's GOOD 100 and his Neighborhood Postcard Project was named one of "12 Bright Ideas for Better Cities" by the Los Angeles Times. His work has been exhibited throughout the United States and featured in Fast Company, the Guardian, and Atlantic Citylab. In 2011 he walked from Los Angeles to New Mexico - an experience that fueled his desire to connect with strangers and tell the stories of underrepresented places.


What is your approach to urban practice? 

Hunter Franks. 

Hunter Franks. 

The only way to solve our challenges is to start talking to each other instead of about each other. My work creates shared moments of introspection and empathy and is an invitation for people to recognize the power of each other for their stories. I create platforms that allow people to recognize that they can create the city and world that they want to live in. My work began in 2013 with youth in the Bayview neighborhood in San Francisco, who wanted to change the perception of their neighborhood, often stereotyped as a dangerous place. I developed the Neighborhood Postcard Project, and worked with them to collect personal, positive stories of the neighborhood and then mail those postcards to random people in different neighborhoods in San Francisco. The project serves as a simple way to invite people to reimagine how they think about their city, both socially, and physically. I open-sourced the project and it has since been carried out all over the world.

Hunter Franks' Neighborhood Postcard Project. Image courtesy of Hunter Franks. 

Hunter Franks' Neighborhood Postcard Project. Image courtesy of Hunter Franks. 

What have you been working on lately? 

After several years of doing this work, I carried out my largest project to date called 500 Plates in Akron, Ohio with support from the Knight Foundation. A year-long initiative, the project sought to engage every neighborhood in the city to reimagine their relationships with each other and also share ideas for a soon-to-be inoperative freeway. We began by identifying one resident in each neighborhood to serve as a neighborhood ambassador. We interviewed these folks and collected their favorite household recipe, which we then printed onto custom stoneware plates and used at a giant community meal for 500 people in the middle of the freeway.

500 Plates in Akron, Ohio. Image courtesy of Hunter Franks. 

500 Plates in Akron, Ohio.

Image courtesy of Hunter Franks. 

Attendees were encouraged to write and draw their ideas on a table runner and were guided by volunteer table hosts to discuss their personal stories as well as the challenges and opportunities of their neighborhoods, public space, and the future of their city. Ideas for the space were collected and shared with the City of Akron to help inform the development of the space. I'm currently continuing my work in Akron, Ohio to create resident-led activations of underused spaces in the Summit Lake neighborhood, including the transformation of a vacant building into a community art and culture space. 

 

 

 

The city is a space where the powerless can make history. Becoming present, visible, to each other can alter the character of powerlessness.” - Saskia Sassen

How can we see cities, and make spaces that allow for communities to assert themselves and express power?

Cities and particularly public spaces are valuable platforms for self-mobilization. The city can serve as a vehicle for the unexpected and spontaneous. When we harness these moments and create intentionality around them, they we are able to align our desires for how the city functions and also recognize a new potential to create spaces that serve people. We often only assert ourselves and express power when we face conflict or crisis. I think if we are able to create simple, low barriers to involvement that are rooted in authenticity then folks will maintain a more consistent mindset of agency and power.

 

There is often false dichotomy of choice that exists in stigmatized places - "you have to escape to achieve success and that if you stay, you will become a victim of circumstance.” How can interventions in place and space alter this dynamic?

I believe that this starts small and simple. Someone who has never attended a town hall meeting on the architectural permitting plans for a new building is not going to be propelled to suddenly do so out of the blue. That person must be met where they are; on their porch, at the community center gym, or walking down the street. This process begins by asking them what they want. That alone can be a revolutionary act. Then those folks need to be invited to actually help create that thing they want to see. Invite people to build things together with their hands. Help people see how simple it can be to positively change their environment and create investment. Once someone sees that others care about a place, they themselves will be more compelled to do the same. 

Image courtesy of Hunter Franks.

Image courtesy of Hunter Franks.

How can practitioners extend pop-up, temporary strategies—common in tactical urbanism—to shape longer-term investments in places?

These are difficult questions that involve a large ecosystem. I do think that short-term projects can deeply inform longer-term investments but this is only successful when the developer is open to this which ultimately requires a deeper intent than profit. If profit continues to drive community development, then we will continue to be left with cities that continue to separate people and breed fear. We have seen how the trends of past generations have left us with severely physically and economically isolated neighborhoods. I do believe that temporary strategies can allow us to test ideas and see what will and will not work in the long-term while allowing us to change that approach in the future.

How do we cultivate a spirit of a place so that it holds meaning and authenticity?

I think that strategies need to be personal, they need to consist of building relationships and capturing stories and history of a place to ensure that it maintains meaning. We have to make these things visible and celebrated. Otherwise, they will be washed away and forgotten in the rush to profit. 


(For more about the Neighborhood Postcard Project, take a look at this short video of the project being carried out in Detroit.)

Salon Session #4 - The Session in Review

On Thursday, November 17th, Place Lab hosted the fourth Session of our year-long Ethical Redevelopment Salon. In this entry, Place Lab Operations + Administrative Manager, Naomi Miller, reports on the Session.


This Salon Session, we focused on Principle #4: The Indeterminate—a guiding tenet built on concepts of imagination, intuition, and faith. The Principle encourages an approach to redevelopment work that permits for the suspension of knowing, embracing uncertainty, accepting ambiguity; believe in your project but resist believing there is only one path to achieve it.

 

PRELUDE

In response to the first three Salons, we heard from many members that they wanted more time with each other—more time for unstructured discussion and hanging out. The Indeterminate seemed like a perfect Principle for this to happen. In the early afternoon, members met at the Listening House on Dorchester Avenue for this undirected purpose. After a thorough tour and narrative arc of the Listening House and Archive House  by Place Lab team member Mejay Gula, visiting guest expert, Leslie Koch, talked about the project she had shepherded from idea to implementation for a decade: the redevelopment of Governors Island, in New York, as a dynamic public space. It being a week after the Presidential election, Leslie played a video of the dedication ceremony this past summer, pausing to remark that everything she spoke about feels that much more important.

Formerly a military base in the New York Harbor, Governor’s Island is now a public park operated by the Trust for Governor’s Island and is largely programmed by the public. Salon Members listened as Leslie described how she and her team figured out the project as it evolved and navigated funders and government without a primary vision. Leslie detailed an open submission process for exhibitions, installations, and programs on the Island. Without a formal review process, or a budget, this approach meant people were truly allowed to dictate the type of activities and programs that took place throughout the year. This democratic/anarchic, approach felt like a stark difference between the highly curated and closely considered programming that might take place in other premier public spaces. The assembled group asked questions and shared thoughts as they drank tea and ate snacks. One question probed the importance of context and place in that the project had singular factors—an island in New York, a major city with enormous cultural capital—but could such a project succeed elsewhere?


PART I

A sedate Theaster Gates opened the Salon with some thoughts also influenced by the election. He called on members to think about the challenges and complications involved in their projects—how city structures and a lack of courage make things that much more difficult in forging a path for their work. Drawing parallels with the state of the country, Theaster offered that power can be gained from embracing this moment of indeterminacy, that “things that seem symbolically and realistically out of our control—there are still ways to affect change with the people we touch and the people around us.” With Steve Edwards, they agreed to turn towards the adversity, to meet it instead of turning inwards, and to more fully engage networks of people, one of which has been formed through the Salons and is proving to be greater than its grant-based intention.

To flesh out Theaster’s introduction of indeterminacy and the topic for the evening, Steve compared the standard development process with that of Ethical Redevelopment—how the traditional process requires an endgame to satisfy risk-averse investors and to meet the litany of requirements for local and state governments. For Ethical Redevelopment, which prioritizes art and culture to lead interest in disinvested neighborhoods, The Indeterminate plays as much of a role in the process as a determined plan does. It’s an element familiar to artists as they turn an idea into substance—the unknown teaches and leads their practice so that a path is a process of discovery. Ethical Redevelopment leaves room for project iterations—a version, then another, then another—that are refined over time, leveraging serendipity and considering imagination and belief as assets.

What question you ask is probably the most important thing you will do.
— Leslie Koch

With this initial definition in mind, Steve welcomed Leslie for a brief discussion about the initial phases of turning Governor’s Island into a public park that places arts and culture at its core. Leslie revealed that they had a Master Plan but no money in which to carry it out. Instead of clarifying a vision, she took the approach of recognizing that cities are inherently messy, drew a parallel with the artistic process, and went from there. “What question you ask is probably the most important thing you will do,” said Leslie. Her question was “What to do first?” rather than “What will Governor’s Island be?” In working with governments, the question you ask frames (and reveals) the situation even if you don’t know what it is. The language you use is also of utmost import—drop often esoteric field-specific terms and colloquialisms, instead using words and structures that are comprehensible across communities. Clear language allows for clearer, accessible projects. Learn what Governor’s Island has become based on this approach.


PART II

Three Salon Members briefly presented about their respective projects, each of which are at different stages and scales, and have different goals. Brent Wesley (aka Wesley of Wesley Bright & the Honeytones) recounted how he created the Akron Honey Company (“It was an accident, really”), and described being convinced by a friend to become a beekeeper and use Brent's newly acquired lot for making honey. Brent figured that not only would he never have to buy honey again, he would also be able fulfill his aim to add value and provide a community-use for the lot. Through a number of iterations, Brent grew the company to a place he never imagined: cosmetics. Along the way, he learned to make and sell microbatched honey, produced a Market Day on a quiet street, and was a contestant (winning and ultimately declining an investment offer) on Cleveland Hustles.

On the other end of the project spectrum was Angela Tillges, who spoke about recently relocating from Chicago to her hometown of St. Paul in order to implement (with one colleague) the Great River Passage (GRP) initiative for the city. The ambitious GRP master plan includes 321 arts-and-culture projects, which Angela is charged with seeing to fruition, in the parks, public space, and natural land along the city’s 17-mile stretch of the Mississippi River. Two months into the project at the time of her Salon presentation, Angela said she’d spent a few days in the office and the rest of the time onsite, observing and talking to people without revealing her job title. Hefting the sizable, weighty publication that is the GRP master plan above her head, Angela pointed out its determinacy while noting that the process of enacting its prescribed steps and number of projects is anything but. She thought of the projects as seeds: some will fail, others will become something else, some will bear fruit—and she will be an attentive gardener.

Somewhere in between the self-starting Akron Honey Company and a city-directed initiative lies the efforts of Keir Johnston and Ernel Martinez of AMBER Art & Design, an artists’ collective in Philadelphia. AMBER is working with the Fairmount Park Conservancy (FPC) to repurpose one of the park’s disused mansions in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood and activate it as a museum that preserves the cultural identity of the neighborhood as it changes. Keir and Ernel described the history of the ethnic and cultural makeup of the neighborhood, which began as a WASP-y summer retreat, changed to a mixed-income community populated by Jewish people, then to a disinvested neighborhood almost exclusively populated by African Americans. Ernel and Keir said they are in the process of talking with the existing coalitions and networks in the community. By creating partnerships, securing the structure, and gaining the residents’ investment, they said they hoped to make an institution that they can hand to the residents for self-stewardship.


PART III + IV 

During the discussion with the panel and the following conversation with Steve, Theaster, and Leslie, we mined the concepts that underlie The Indeterminate—imagination, intuition, and faith—finding links and new aspects. One of them was credibility. In order to create believers in your project, you need to build credibility. This can happen through people who already know you, which is how Brent received early support—through his family, friends, and neighbors. Leslie approached it from the opposite side: she was the government and needed win the trust of the tax-payers. She built credibility through being consistent in her messaging of what she was going to do and then actually doing what she said: transparency, narrative, and being clear and consistent. Theaster needed to build credibility early on with the city before they would fund him because he didn’t have a track record, a place many people find themselves at the beginning of their work. Sometimes meeting the interests of a city first builds the credibility, which allows for flexibility further down the line. Trust, faith, and belief are highly valued foundations of any neighborhood-based, multi-partnered project and a lot of work goes into establishing them.

Theaster discovered that methods of iteration work well for building credibility. He observed: “Indeterminacy is closely related to iteration.” An iterative process allows a version to follow another, changing each time in response to feedback on the previous one. But iterations are often superseded by the hype around master plans, which is determinacy defined. Much of the discussion volleyed back and forth between these two ideas, noting the nuances of each. For example, master plans are often best used for discussions with funders and government—people who feel reassured that some sort of map and end game exists. It’s another piece of the credibility puzzle. But master plans are often of little to no interest to the public; as Leslie noted, “Humans don’t relate to master plans.” They’re exhaustive, exhausting, and exist next to reality instead of in it. Some members pointed out that master plans have been used as tools to deny access for a project. Theaster commented that there might be a way for them to be turned into a tool that works for you—make it a document that actually communicates and connects instead of being an unrealistic explosion of imagination and excitement. 

Our discussion exploring the tension between master plans and iterations also highlighted the tensions between the priorities of different groups of people involved in a project's process. Developers, funders, neighborhood members, and artists each have different relationships to risk, and can easily and often find themselves in opposition. While funders and investors work to lower the unknowns and manage fear, artists inherently embrace risk by taking leaps of faith in order to bring something new to light. Suggestions were made about how to work around these conflicts. Artists could work with their social and cultural capital (and what exists with neighborhoods and partners) before even broaching economics—they might be surprised how far this goes. Another approach underlined the usefulness of iteration for several groups: they can show investors that there are people who will use the space, and the neighborhood sees that the space is for them. In general, members agreed that it’s easier to begin at a low-cost basis, or as Leslie phrased it, “Think big, act small.”

Leslie also emphasized the importance of narrative, language, and framing. She encouraged members to use real language and to be honest with all individuals on the power spectrum. You need to be clear on what you are about and why you are different. Shaking her head, she described some of the language she used in her narrative early on because it acted more like filters and veiled messages rather than stating clearly what was going on. And it’s important to know when you’ve run ahead of your own narrative—assess when it needs to be revisited and revised. Theaster nodded in agreement that language can work against you later in the process: “Don’t box yourself in by using a certain kind of specificity when no one’s asking for it.” Leave space for change.

Space is also needed for inefficiency, a point Theaster made by saying “Iteration makes room for inefficiency.” He underlined that inefficiencies are a part of the process, and need to have a meaning and carry a value—if they are perceived as a waste, then people become fearful of iteration. What if the government valued The Indeterminate as much as any other box to check off in their process? Room for error, for iteration, for learning and living is needed. This musing lead to another one by a member who asked how we could include developers in these conversations, how to show them the pros and cons of ambiguity versus results. It’s assumed that only artists are skilled with working with the indefinite when city planners, programmers, and project implementers work very much in the same way.


Part V

Salon Session 4 Takeaways

  1. The role of curiosity—ask questions, listen, learn, pursue your interests
  2. Master planning works for funders and government, not as effective for residents
  3. Build room in a master plan for The Indeterminate
  4. Use iteration to begin at a low-cost basis, build credibility, allow for efficiencies, and minimize risk
  5. Be intentional and consistent with narrative, language, and framing
  6. Ask the right question for the project
  7. Use social and cultural capital for buy in
  8. Risk means different things to different people
  9. To build credibility, be honest, clear, and transparent
  10. Leave room for the project to evolve and be discovered

Part VI

At the close of these various threads of conversation, Steve invited members to talk to each other, tell each other stories about the work they do, and generally socialize. Again, we wanted to make sure the members had time to connect and have casual, intimate conversations. We also set up a Confessional Couch where members could tell a story about their project in front of a video camera. Videos will be made available at a later date on our website and Ethical Redevelopment group page on Facebook. Feel free to join the group and learn more about the projects our members are doing around the US and engage in discussion.

 

Pedagogy. Place. Liberation.

D. Denenge Duyst-Akpem, Super Space Riff: An Ode to Octavia Butler and Mae Jamison in VIII Stanzas. Photo: Matt "Motep" Woods

D. Denenge Duyst-Akpem, Super Space Riff: An Ode to Octavia Butler and Mae Jamison in VIII Stanzas. Photo: Matt "Motep" Woods

D. Denenge Duyst-Akpem is an Afro-Futurist space sculptor, performance artist, designer, writer, and educator. For the last 15 years, her award-winning work has bridged the disciplines of interior design, site-specific sculpture, public art practice, and science fiction. Duyst-Akpem is the founder of Denenge Design+Studio Verto which offers specialized, holistic design services and site-specific sculpture for residential and commercial clients. 

In this guest blog, Duyst-Akpem reflects on the methodology of liberation.


As a scholar and practitioner, I utilize the teaching of Afro-Futurism as a methodology of (Black) liberation. The foundation of this is exercising the visionary and imagination muscles in sculpting new futures that affirm the present and are rooted in the past.

Afro-Futurism is more than a desire to take a ride on a spaceship—though, of course, I would welcome the chance for an orbiting spa vacation or a lunar exploration—rather, it is about possibility and learning to activate that in a concrete, effective ways. In this, the connections with Place Lab and Principle #3: Pedagogical Moments are in concert.

In my courses on Afro-Futurism, we cover a range of texts and practitioners to gain the broadest vision of this genre, beginning with Sun Ra’s iconic film Space Is The Place. Other works which address issues of place and space, of community and individual agency, include: W.E.B. DuBois’s The Comet; Paul Miller’s Rhythm Nation and Book of Ice; and Wanuri Kahiu’s award-winning short film Pumzi which presents a post-water wars settlement in what is present-day Kenya and merges environmental consciousness with representations of science, technology, archiving, and costume beyond the usual Euro-Western frame.

By centering and studying in earnest the creative representations of place and community in African Diasporic and Indigenous works, we move past ingrained Eurocentric notions of how things “should” be or how things are, and open space to imagine ourselves in the future which brings students back to the present, to their own agency as they see themselves reflected. I emphasize through the curation of the syllabus students’ ability to shape experience and movement through the world. Space becomes malleable; time can be spiral; and underground digital pathways are sites of radical re-envisioning of self and community.

Still from Pumzi (Wanuri Kahiu, South Africa, 2009, 23 min)

Still from Pumzi (Wanuri Kahiu, South Africa, 2009, 23 min)

It is about exercising that visionary muscle. I watch the development of students over the course of four months, entering the study of Afro-Futurism with careful interest, excitement, curiosity, wondering how the concepts may apply to their work. As Stevie Wonder sings in “A Seed’s A Star/Tree Medley” from the iconic Secret Life of Plants in reference to Po Tolo in Dogon cosmology, the seeds grow to sturdy young plants over the course of the semester. Students who may not have found space to express their voices or who have never been centered before find fertile ground here. I present Afro-Futurism through a lens of liberatory practice, an Africanist foundation that honors infinite ways of being; through art historical study and embodied ritual—recognizing the body as a space also that can be activated through location with location and sculptural objects—students find their own power and radiate the outward into their relationships, their communities, and their work as artists and conscious cultural producers.

This year, the Huntington Library in Pasadena, California, in collaboration with Radio Imagination has hosted a monthly series of events, film screenings, and commissioned works by practitioners such as Mendi + Keith Obadike whose sound works reconfigure how we understand memory, history, space, and time. As Butler wrote her future into being, we learn to manifest our own futures, declaring as she did “So be it!  See to it!”

A hopeful and inspiring development in this vision of Afro-Futurism as a pathway and methodology of liberation was last week’s final Afro-Futurism course media presentations at School of the Art Institute Chicago (SAIC). Of particular interest to the Place Lab discussions, one student chose to contextualize newly elected Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx as an example of Afro-Futurism in action through her commitment to seeking justice for the disenfranchised and using her position to fight the prison industrial complex. Additionally, students also presented on the intersectional art of Juliana Huxtable as representative of Afro-Futurism’s shape-shifting qualities and on Theaster Gates’s projects that seek to reshape space and our understanding of community engagement. We had a lively discussion of Place Lab and its role in Chicago and beyond.


Recommended Reading

Rockeymoore, Mark. What is Afrofuturism?

Hairston, Andrea. Octavia Butler—Praise Song for a Prophetic Artist

Nelson, Alondra. Afrofuturism: Past-Future Visions


For further information, and please feel free to contact me at denenge@denenge.net or dakpem@saic.edu. Visit denenge.net and theAfrofuturist.tumblr.com. I’d be happy to discuss this topic and its relationship to Ethical Redevelopment further at any of our future Salons.