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.


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.


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


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. 


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.



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?


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.


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.


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 or Visit and I’d be happy to discuss this topic and its relationship to Ethical Redevelopment further at any of our future Salons.

An interview with Salon Member Majestic Lane

Place Lab sat down with Ethical Redevelopment Salon member Majestic Lane to discuss design and Inclusive, equitable community development.

Majestic Lane is the Director of External Affairs & Membership Engagement at Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group (PCRG), a membership organization for Community Development Corporations, Community-Based Organizations, and related nonprofits that represent low- and moderate- income communities throughout Southwestern Pennsylvania. Lane works with government, philanthropy, neighborhood groups & other stakeholders to advocate for improvements in quality of life for traditionally disadvantaged communities around the issues of land, capital & mobility.  

Prior to his time at PCRG, Lane was the Director of Community Engagement & Strategy at A+ Schools, an education advocacy organization dedicated to improving outcomes for Black & Brown children in Pittsburgh Public Schools.  He also served as a legislative aide to Pennsylvania State Senator Jim Ferlo focusing on community development, education & sustainability issues.  Lane has also served as a member of the planning committee for the Heinz Endowments Transformative Arts Process (TAP), an initiative focused on building the field of those working in and through the arts in African American and “distressed” neighborhoods.

Place Lab: Can you tell us about your current role? 

Majestic Lane: My current role is the Deputy Chief of Neighborhood Empowerment for Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto. In this role, I lead the Peduto administration's neighborhood equity efforts through community-driven development, affordable housing, quality of life improvement efforts, and engaging with community and regional stakeholders.

PL: What role has design played in your work? 

ML: A big part of community driven and equitable development efforts have to do with design aesthetics that honor the current context of the neighborhood while propelling the neighborhood forward as an attractive and beautiful place to live.

PL: How can practitioners and individuals who care about spatial governance achieve collaborative design and avoid designing by committee?

ML: Try to be purposeful as possible on the front end by being inclusive and engaging. Community and stakeholder education is also a huge part of it as well.

PL: How do we tackle legacy design issues—outmoded buildings and infrastructure, arcane development patterns, etc.—in a way that is sensitive to historic preservation and current residents but addresses future needs?

ML: Again, community education plays a big part in doing this. It is possible to honor the past while moving forward, but only when everyone is operating from a similar base of information. When community members have a clear picture of what’s being proposed and why, it becomes a lot easier to begin to move towards consensus.

PL: How much can design do to fight the more intractable forces of inequality? 

ML: Design should act in conjunction with the other issues in communities to create beautiful and relevant places that everyone can be proud of. Design is not an island to itself, but an integral component of what makes place and influences people.

The burgeoning efforts to reduce neighborhood inequality by design are laudable and refreshing, but the powerful legacies of history and the multidimensional reach of inequality present formidable challenges.
— R.J. Sampson, Notes on Neighborhood Inequality and Urban Design

Community in Practice: Reflections on Detroit's Urban Speakeasy

On Thursday, December 15, Place Lab team member Carson Poole took part in Urban Speakeasy, an exchange of ideas about community engagement and creative redevelopment. Held in Northwest Detroit, the event was hosted by the Urban Consulate in partnership with Live6 Detroit and Model D. Alongside guest speakers from Detroit and Philadelphia, Carson presented about Place Lab and Ethical Redevelopment. 

Place Lab, through Ethical Redevelopment, is working to document, investigate, question, and refine the process and model of community- and arts-initiated urban development. In addition to our place-based work in Chicago, we are creating and participating in platforms where people engaged in this work can learn from one another. I was honored to participate in such an event recently in Detroit, alongside friends and colleagues from Detroit and Philadelphia. 

The evening took place at a yet-to-open coffee shop along McNichols Road, also known as Six-Mile Road. This commercial corridor is a focus of attention of Live6, a non-profit group headed by Salon Member Lauren Hood that is seeking to connect local anchor institutions more deeply to development in the area. Many of the attendees at the event were neighborhood residents who were eager to hear about the plans and to have their voices heard in the process. 

A just city is required to facilitate platforms that engage those who do not understand their power and feel cheated out of the right to publicly demonstrate their power.
— Ethical Redevelopment Principle #9 - Platforms
Urban Speakeasy. Photo: Alissa Shelton, courtesy of Urban Consulate

Urban Speakeasy. Photo: Alissa Shelton, courtesy of Urban Consulate

Ethical Redevelopment is not an answer to the complex and sometimes thorny questions that surround community practice. It’s the start of a conversation, intended to identify shared values and language, explore useful tactics, and recognize common opportunities and challenges across the places where we practice. It starts with questioning what values do we bring into this work and then wades into the tactics—why do we seek local participation, what does it actually mean, and how can community practice more effectively and authentically achieve it?

The Speakeasy was a vital conversation that brought together people from across the country, but was itself rooted in place and practice, and embodied many of the Principles of Ethical Redevelopment. For instance:

Principle #9 - Platforms 
A portion of the definition of this Principle states: "A just city is required to facilitate platforms that engage those who do not understand their power and feel cheated out of the right to publicly demonstrate their power. Platform building means developing opportunities for people to gather and commune. The event—what is happening—is beside the point. The point is that folks are meeting, exchanging, and learning."

Hosted by Urban Consulate, the Urban Speakeasy was a vital platform for meeting, exchange, and relationship-building across a diverse cross-section of Detroit. The invitation was truly open, and the location, marketing, and format attracted many neighborhood residents in addition to the members of Detroit’s creative and entrepreneurial classes. While the content of the Speakeasy—presentations, guided conversation, and so forth—were important, one of the most meaningful elements, for me, was the presence of so many voices and experiences.

Principle #2 - Engaged Participation
The type of work we do can only be done with the participation and permission of those the work impacts. While the speed at which so many projects move can make it seem like there is not enough time for authentic engagement, this Principle advises: "The value of the relationship is in the intimacy, not in the duration."

The Speakeasy was only one night, one access point, but it created a space for intimacy and sincere exchange. In that singular moment of engaged participation, many were able to play a role in the transformative work taking place in the neighborhood.

Principle #3 - Pedagogical Moments
While 'pedagogy' can occasionally be difficult to fully grasp, the Principle's fundamental assertion is that we have a social responsibility to recognize and support moments for knowledge sharing; if we shirk this responsibility, we do so to the detriment of our projects and the people who are invested in the project's success.

The Speakeasy was a pedagogical moment for practitioners, residents, and visitors alike. Each had the opportunity to be exposed to new work and ideas, challenge and be challenged by constructive criticism, and tap into sources of local knowledge and insight.  

Ultimately, I think every practitioner emerged from the Speakeasy with renewed energy and determination to pres forward in their work.

An Interview with Salon Member Ciere Boatright

Ethical Redevelopment Salon members Victoria G. Smith Ellison and Ciere Boatright sat down to discuss Boatright's work at Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives.

In her role as Program Manager, Boatright focuses on all aspects of CNI's Real Estate Development activities, including community planning, pre-development, financing, contracting, construction oversight and project close-outs. Boatright splits time between large scale commercial projects, like Pullman Park and Halsted Parkways in Englewood, and smaller scale affordable homes preservation projects in the Pullman area.

Ellison, a Chicago native raised in Bronzeville, is a graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in Social Service Administration with a concentration in Community Schools at the University of Chicago. She is an emerging scholar activist and plans to pursue a doctoral degree. Her research interests include critical race theory, black feminism, the relationship between education and housing, and community engagement.

Victoria Smith: Can you about tell me about your current role?

Ciere Boatright: I’m a project manager at Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives (CNI).  I’ve been with CNI for a little over three years.  As project manager I get to work on some really interesting and impactful projects ranging from developing grocery stores in food deserts to developing retail, a community center, industrial development and affordable housing.

VS: Can you tell me a little about CNI?

CB: CNI was formed in 2010 to coordinate resources, economic development and neighborhood revitalization efforts in Chicagoland’s low-to-moderate income communities. CNI seeks to revitalize neighborhoods and create jobs by developing high impact projects, providing financial resources to entrepreneurs and sustaining long-term community partnerships. CNI also partners with stakeholders to restore, preserve and adapt vacant and abandoned buildings and historic properties – an essential step in neighborhood revitalization.

VS: What project are you most excited about working on at the moment?

CB: That’s a tough one. CNI is working on several impactful, really cool projects, but I’d have to say I am most excited about the Pullman Artspace Lofts, a mixed-use affordable live/ work space for artists and their families, the project is being developed in partnership with Artspace Projects, Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives, and PullmanArts. The Development Team selected a site located on Langley Avenue, just south of 111th Street, consisting of approximately 18,500 square feet of vacant land book-ended by two historic apartment buildings. The site provides the opportunity to integrate historic preservation with cutting edge new construction and create an iconic group of buildings that anchor Pullman’s eastern boundary. The development will consist of 38 affordable live/work units, exhibition space, and community space.

Artists rendering of the Pullman Artspace. Image courtesy of Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives. 

Artists rendering of the Pullman Artspace. Image courtesy of Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives. 

VS: Can you tell me about the history of Pullman?

CB: Pullman was originally developed as an area where worker housing was located for the Pullman Company. The neighborhood was divested from the Company by court order in 1907. Since then, Pullman has been largely a working class Chicago neighborhood. In the late 1960s, a local chamber of commerce proposed razing south Pullman in favor of a light industrial park. Local residents, organized by the Pullman Civic Organization, responded by securing city, state and national historic landmark status to save their community.

VS: What has the designation of Pullman as a landmark status meant for the neighborhood and its residents?

CB: Pullman has attracted significant attention to protect and promote its historic assets. On February 19, 2015 President Obama designated the Pullman Historic District a national monument. The goal of the Pullman Historic District is to preserve and interpret the significant labor, industrial, social, civil rights and architectural history associated with the Pullman legacy.

Among Chicago’s 50 city landmark districts, Pullman is the only one that also enjoys state and national landmark status. It is the only one anchored by a state historic site. One of the oldest landmark districts in Chicago, it is, by a significant margin, the largest – fully 10 percent of all city landmark properties are in Pullman. Each year, more than 50,000 visitors come to Pullman for its annual House Tour, Garden Walk, state historic site events, guided and self-guided tours. Pullman is also garnering recognition as a unique place to live and work. In 2011, Pullman was designated one of the country’s 10 Great Neighborhoods by the American Planning Association.

VS: When you are not in the office, where is your favorite place to spend time in Pullman?

CB: At The Pullman Café’ having a locally (Pullman) grown Gotham Greens salad and the café’s amazing lemon bar.

Salon Session #3 - The Session in Review

On Wednesday, October 19th, Place Lab hosted the third 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 #3: Pedagogical Moments—opportunities for knowledge transfer that can happen at any stage of work and where the roles of teacher and student continuously shift. The Principle advises that when involved in mindful neighborhood-, community-, and city-building, we must practice a consciousness of these moments or anticipate how these moments can be structured as part of the development process. It is our social responsibility to bring people along for the ride.


To show a nontraditional model of pedagogy, we visited Chicago’s Iron Street Farm, which is part of Growing Power’s urban agricultural community food system. Utilizing a 7-acre abandoned food hub, Erika Allen and her staff oversee year-round food production, vermicompost, mushroom production, an apiary, and urban pygmy goats. Salon members were given a tour by a staff member who once was a part of the organization’s program that trains and employs over 300 city youth annually, teaching them about these systems, methods, and production. By demonstrating and educating about equal access to healthy, high-quality, safe and affordable food, Growing Power’s achieves its mission to grow minds and to grow community. 

Isis Ferguson, Place Lab’s Associate Director of City and Community Strategy, visited Growing Power prior to the Session; you can read about her visit here. Recently, Growing Power added a CTA bus to the Fresh Moves program, a mobile produce market that serves disinvested local neighborhoods.

The next site visit was to the University of Chicago’s Arts Incubator, operated by Arts + Public Life (APL) and the home of Place Lab’s offices. At the Incubator, the education department team asked us about an instructive moment or person in our lives, a question that elicited stories about family members, epiphanies, and time-delayed realizations.

APL staff members Marya Spont-Lemus, Quenna Barrett, and Gabe Moreno run a number of teen programs, including APL’s Design Apprenticeship Program, Teen Arts Council, and Community Actors Program, engaging teens in design/build, performance, and arts and culture administration, among other activities. These programs not only educate but employ teens, who learn essential job-related skills, leadership, and social development in addition to cultivating their creativity. A number of neighborhood teens have participated in the education offerings at APL, which have assumed a graduated structure to accommodate higher levels of engagement as the students master skills and look for more responsibility. The programs also maintain a level of flexibility to accommodate interests of the participants. For example, this past summer after redesigning and building new planters for our neighbor Chicago Youth Programs, the teens considered the play area and decided to build a new playhouse.


Over the course of Salon Session #3, many issues we’ve explored in the first two Sessions came up, including the intricate web of questions and ideas around community engagement and engaged participation. While it felt like we were at risk of repeating the conversations previously had, what emerged over the course of discussion were sincere efforts to talk about how complicated the issues are and dig deeper into them, unpacking and looking more closely.

To open this third Session, Place Lab screened a short highlights video from the first two that demonstrated pedagogical moments within the Salon. 

Many of the issues raised in the previous Session were revisited throughout the night, such as the double standard that requires nonprofits to offer transparency and be mission-driven while traditional developers do not. Discussion also centered on the “triple tax” of doing neighborhood-based development projects—the extra costs associated with ethical and inclusive work. Ethical Redevelopment demands greater effort, which goes into listening, teaching, and working through layers of oppression in order to move projects forward. This triple tax often becomes a barrier to scaling up, while in traditional models of development efficiency is prioritized and projects become disconnected from the communities that are purportedly being represented. 

In Ethical Redevelopment, it is not for you to become a better colonizer.
— David Stovall

David Stovall, professor at the University of Illinois Chicago and high school teacher, took the mic and gave a stirring talk about pedagogy itself. Pedagogy is not just a theory of teaching, but also a method of inquiry on the very practice of teaching and the comparative value of instructional design models. 

David gave an example from his own classroom. Speaking specifically of his high school students, David shared a question that he proposes to them: “What does a pedagogical practice look like using a racial justice frame?” The question is meant to get the students to address the underlying barriers to knowledge acquisition. In this instance, students are prompted to identify and examine structural racism, colonialism, isolationism, and marginalization. David acknowledged that he also gains valuable insight from the process, learning from his students even as he teaches. This is the heart of a pedagogical practice: it is liberating knowledge acquisition from the rigid model of instructor/student, compelling both sides to deepen inquiry and thereby strengthening the quality of understanding.

Through the pedagogical principle, David explained, redevelopers remain constantly aware that they are also part of the community they seek to serve, a driver and a beneficiary of the project. Instead of the singular question “How do I make my project work?,” the inquiry is multifaceted and the questions become: “Who has been excluded and under what terms? What is the redress for what has been taken? How do we reclaim agency?” From this deep, constant process of checking-in, a new framework emerges: “How do we make our project work?”

As David summarized it: “In Ethical Redevelopment, it is not for you to become a better colonizer.”

Following this academic discussion about pedagogy, Sam Darrigrand provided an example of direct application. Darrigrand, Workforce Development Manager at Rebuild Foundation, defined the program he manages as a business model with a community purpose: what can be learned while being on payroll? The program employs individuals who were formerly incarcerated and who are often deemed “unemployable.” Sam described meeting people where they’re at, finding opportunities for soft-skill development, and unpacking moments of conflict to see what’s behind them. The Workforce Development Program is being incorporated into a number of upcoming projects led by Theaster Gates, including Kenwood Gardens where participants will acquire skills in construction, landscaping, design, and related trades. 

For the night’s final presentation, artist Carol Zou spoke about the project Trans.lation and her role as its project manager in the Vickery Meadows neighborhood of Dallas, Texas. Trans.lation began as a monthly series of pop-up markets by artist Rick Lowe and the Nasher Museum of Art in a mixed neighborhood of immigrants and refugees from 120 countries as well as American minorities. Today, the project is an arts and cultural platform used for resident-led councils, resident-taught workshops, professional development, and pop-up exhibitions, and asks “How do we build cross-cultural learning platforms in order to develop community capacity and leadership?” 

The project employs art as a cross-culture translation mechanism, but over time it has, by necessity, had to evolve to meet the “ordinary” needs of its community. Carol shared some of these needs, such as how the offering of Arabic language class becomes far more complex when participants are facing barriers like inconvenient or broken transportation systems. Carol also expanded on how teaching often becomes an opportunity for learning in Trans.lation, such as when the organizers of a general American Sign Language class discovered from participants that their language-learning concerns were specifically tied to helping them study for their citizenship exams.

Carol emphasized the importance of language justice, and holding space for everyone’s preferred mode of communication. As Trans.lation has grown, Carol has had to realign expectations for the project's outcomes, and has established success measures that are neither sexy nor grand, but are authentically centered on the experiences and knowledge of the people in Trans.lation’s communities. 

This idea of relinquishing power to a community and facilitating self-determination is a theme that reverberated through the night and in past Sessions.


Following the presentations and panel discussion, members broke out into groups to discuss the following questions:

  1. What responsibilities do we have to the people and places in which we work?
  2. How can city-building prioritize community knowledge and build on its foundation?
  3. How do we recognize and interrogate our own skills or talents? How do we unlock our work so that teaching/learning can happen?
  4. Moments of learning and teaching can unfold in all aspects of work and across relationships. Give us an example of when you’ve seen the paradigm of education and knowledge-sharing enhanced, disrupted, or changed.

After a short break to mingle and refuel, the group reconvened. Most groups chose to discuss the second question, which resonated deeply with members. The discussion centered around assumptions, structural faults, and knowledge gaps that lie beneath the surface of determining a community, working with it, and making sure that its needs and opinions are heard and prioritized—or whether these concerns are even considered at all.

Efficiency is inversely related to inclusion.

Members pointed out that the structures created to engage a community often end up excluding them. For example, meetings are scheduled according to a 9–5 work schedule, but not everyone keeps those hours; this is particularly true in low-income areas where residents often work unpredictable shift jobs or multiple jobs.

“Community knowledge” was grappled with as an inherently complex term. Communities are not monolithic, and carry a diversity of experiences and opinions that require time to understand. Certain kinds of knowledge become prioritized over others, such as quantitative data that influences decisions and often disregards qualitative research. Salon members reiterated that traditional developers should take the time to recognize that the people in the community have a "Neighborhood PhD." The community development train moves quickly, and developers who disregard or fail to seek out what the community knows, risk undermining their own work. As it was phrased: “efficiency is inversely related to inclusion.”

A thought that emerged later on the topic of inclusion asked how both developers and community members can share in the benefits. As a member posed it: "How do I [a developer] become a target demographic and not just a fringe beneficiary?”

Justice should never be determined by those who wrote a false history.
— David Stovall

Salon members also pointed out that when members of a neighborhood have found the time and the place to express their opinion, these members are often the most vocal individuals in the community and tend to monopolize conversation, leaving little to no room for the inclusion of other voices. It is also possible that these strong voices are not representative of the disinvested communities where so many of the members are doing work. As one member observed: "A grassroots organization could be a group of well-organized, rich white folks." Some members brought to discussion the fact that what we talk about at the Salon Sessions never makes it into “the room where it happens," and speculated what Ethical Redevelopment could really mean when the most impacted have no agency in the decision-making process.

I wasn’t taught how to win at capitalism.

One member reflected on the gaps in his own knowledge: “I wasn’t taught how to win at capitalism,” he said, and went on to explain that he had to learn a great deal about existing systems before he could even consider how to change them. It is not possible, the group agreed, to propose an alternative model to a system of which you are either unaware or do not understand. This ultimately raised an even tougher issue: that the “community” can become an obstacle to a project’s completion. Members suggested that this obstacle could be eased or overcome if developers took the time to ensure that knowledge flowed both ways.


Salon Session 3 Takeaways

  1. Seek out and listen to black youth, as they are often not in the room.
  2. The engagement spectrum runs from efficiency to efficacy, depending on the factor of time.
  3. Be authentic in the way that you are, more so than the way you are doing.
  4. Teaching while working requires investments of time and patience.
  5. Learn both the history and the context of a place.
  6. Expose and examine the “bootstrap” cliché.
  7. Complicate expertise.
  8. Always think in layers.
  9. Be mindful of how inclusivity is utilized.
  10. Immutable policy prevents/is an obstacle to change.
  11. There is a triple tax in the extra work it takes to combat structural racism and oppression.
  12. Build coalitions together—look at past models, like Italian and Irish immigrants.
  13. Recognize the multiple sources of knowledge within a community.
  14. Ask yourself if community development efforts support people's right not only to self-determination, but to defining for themselves what that means and looks like.


After this rigorous discussion, Salon Members were invited to a performance staged in the foyer outside of the the Arts Bank's Johnson Publishing collection. 

Three members of Honey Pot Performance—Abra, Joe De, and Meida (who is a Salon Member)—staged what they defined as a simulated rehearsal, an open showing of how they workshop ideas and movements. A long poem, read in alternating stanzas by each of the three performers, morphed into movement exercises that prompted Salon Members to call out a relationship between Meida and Abra. As Media and Abra entwined and broke apart, embracing and letting go, Joe De deejayed a cycle of evocative music ranging from jazz to R&B to blues.

Honey Pot Performance draws on ethnography, sociology, and fieldwork data to feed experimentation with methodologies of moving through space and exploring relationships. Honey Pot participated in the 2015 Crossing Boundaries residency at Arts + Public Life, and describes itself as “an Afro-diasporic creative collaborative community centered on feminist and fringe sensibilities.”

After applause and appreciation for the performance, Salon Members socialized freely in the Arts Bank, extending thoughts from the evening and sharing their own experiences. As one member gleefully called out, "Let's keep exchanging knowledge, people!"

Pedogical Moments: An Interview with Salon Member Matt Naimi

Matt Naimi.

Matt Naimi.

Place Lab recently hosted the third Ethical Redevelopment Salon Session, focused on Principle #3: Pedagogical Moments. At it’s core, this principle is about the myriad opportunities for knowledge transfer and shared understanding that present themselves in community practice.

Salon Member Matt Naimi recently spoke with Place Lab about this principle through the lens of his experience in Detroit with Recycle Here!, a neighborhood recycling program that also serves as a vehicle for various forms of community engagement and artistic programs.

Place Lab: What responsibilities do we have to the people and places in which we work?

Matt Naimi: When working in development and community building, it is very important to remember that the there is never a clean, blank canvas. Lives are being lived all around you. There is history that impacts perception, a web of countless memories and experiences tied to every brick, a collective attitude that changes week to week. Your core responsibility is to respect this, to allow for growth and change as knowledge is shared and trust is earned.

PL: How can we prioritize community knowledge and build on its foundation?  

MN: As I stated during the answer to the previous question, each community is a living organism. More often than not, what the community wants or needs is not inline with what a developer might want to do. Forcing a square peg into this round hole is often what disrupts communities and disenfranchises citizens. By prioritizing community knowledge, the wants or needs of the community is what should guide development, and those that are entrusted to 'city-building' should utilize the mechanisms in their power (RFP's, Zoning Laws, Tax Incentives, etc.) to benefit the community first.

PL: How do we recognize and interrogate our own skills or talents? How do we unlock our work so that teaching/learning can happen?

MN: Invite criticism. Ask for help. Listen to others. Never dictate. Empower those you work with to create. Share your vision. Be flexible. Encourage participation.

PL: Moments of learning and teaching can unfold in all aspects of work and across relationships. Give us an example of when you’ve seen the paradigm of education and knowledge-sharing enhanced, disrupted, or changed.

MN: When we began the Recycle Here recycling program in Detroit, we realized that we were building a program from the ground up. Recycling becomes habit at an early age, and then this habit is kept throughout your life, passed from parent to child. We reverse engineered the process by working with 3rd and 5th grade students in the Detroit Public School system to educate the children about the recycling program and then sent them home with the knowledge and desire to recycle and the resources to give their parents on how to access the Recycle Here recycling program. Within 7 years, every DPS student had received recycling education and the recycling program had been expanded city wide.


Salon Session #2 - The Session in Review

On Thursday, September 8th, Place Lab hosted the second Session of our year-long Ethical Redevelopment Salon. In this entry, Place Lab Operations + Administrative Manager, Naomi Miller, reports on the Session.


Before each Session, Place Lab offers opportunities for visiting and local Salon members to explore community and redevelopment projects happening in Chicago as well as projects overseen by Theaster Gates. Both projects correspond to the Principle on which that month's Session is focusing.

For the September Session, which focused on Principle #2: Engaged Participation, members visited the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum as the organization was making preparations to celebrate the social reformer’s 146th birthday. Located on the edge of the University of Illinois Chicago campus, Hull-House is a historical marker of the 19th-century social settlement movement and highlights the significant public policy advocacy work done by Addams, her colleagues, and residents. 

Members also toured the Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative (DA+HC), which is a part of the projects portfolio of Gates’s Rebuild Foundation. As described by Rebuild, DA+HC is “a rehabilitated public housing project that offers an art-centered residential community.” DA+HC consists of a block of 32 townhomes that provide housing for artists and community members, with the intent of fostering dialogue and collaboration between both groups. The DA+HC is mixed-income housing and features an even distribution of artist, public, affordable rate, and market-rate housing.


For the second Salon, members dug into the Principle of Engaged Participation, a subject that came up frequently during the first Salon as many practitioners considered its meaning and relationship to their projects, and how best to implement it. To frame our exploration of the meaning of Engaged Participation, Theaster posed a question that became a refrain throughout the Session—“How do we listen?”—using listening as a place to begin. 

We listened to the experience that guest expert Camille Odeh shared about her work with the Southwest Youth Collaborative of Chicago (SWYC), the former comprehensive, coordinated system of neighborhood-based youth services. Camille currently teaches in the School of Social Work at Chicago State University, and previously was the executive director of SWYC. In describing how the organization put the Principle of Engaged Participation into practice, Camille said they learned that the community needed to be literally inscribed into its infrastructure.

Various kinds of groups in the neighborhoods were identified—by ethnicity, age, race, geography, etc.—and the organizers made sure these populations were written into the by-laws and represented on the board of directors. Only by this purposeful structure building would SWYC have a chance at reaching community consensus. From this foundation, a wide variety of projects, programs, and partnerships evolved that truly served the residents and the neighborhoods in which they were based.

When asked by co-facilitator Steve Edwards about the challenges of building consensus within SWYC, including differing values and limited resources, Camille said that by establishing a basis of inclusion, everyone had access to existing resources, trust was created, and they could work towards consensus.

It’s a process of time, it’s a process of transformation, it’s a process of building, and it’s also a process of having a vision, a vision for a future in which the quality of life will be improved for everybody. I mean, that’s what this work is about. So that we can all have a good quality of life so that there can be justice for everybody. That should be the focus of our consensus.
— Camille Odeh

Keeping in mind Camille’s insightful approach to Engaged Participation, Steve then gave the mic to Demecina Beehn, Outreach and Engagement Manager at Rebuild Foundation, to talk about the DA+HC. Demecina shared DA+HC’s method of embedding artists in the community and its programming, which creates a cultural shift in the neighborhood. DA+HC worked with neighbors early on, discussing access to amenities—like laundry facilities—and general improvement in the quality of living, and giving artists who are qualified applicants preferential treatment.

When you add an artist to the mix and they show everyone a different world view, it opens their minds. And then they can begin to explore.
— Demecina Beehn

The value of creative programming being built into the reimagining of a neighborhood was echoed by Salon Member Alysia Osborne, who shared what she’s learned as the Director of Charlotte Center City Partners (CCCP) Historic West End initiative. The area is home to the oldest surviving middle-class African-American neighborhood in the North Carolina city. CCCP received an actual invitation by the residents (which Alysia noted isn’t always extended in redevelopment work) to develop economic vitality in the Historic West End.

She talked about her own version of the 9 Principles—with titles like Lose the Cape, Learn the Landscape; Be the Host, Not the Producer; and Party with a Purpose—that are predicated on the pillar of building trust. She’s helped the residents understand more about how to make change in communities, that it “actually starts before you see anything, before you start to see a building, before you start to see grating, anything—it starts with a policy.” As she’s walked residents through the process of interpreting and changing policy, they’ve identified the small-scale events and interventions they could undertake in the interim and have begun to think of a phasic approach to their work.

Alysia encouraged her fellow Salon Members to practice patience and be creative, de-emphasize ego, and focus on the people and the lives they lead in their neighborhoods.


After Alysia’s presentation, members broke out into small groups to discuss the challenges of engendering trust in city-building and to identify other pillars of the Principle. Certain themes surfaced when everyone reconvened and shared, including awareness of communication methods and learning a neighborhood’s cultural language, identifying the subjects and what their level of agency is, who does or doesn’t have power and how to create equity, what balance to strike between communities’ needs and one person’s vision, the complicated ecosystem of a community, unpacking values and access, and scaling Engaged Participation up and down to even one-on-one interactions at different stages, for various contexts and purposes. 

Based on what was discussed, Steve culled a list of pillars of Engaged Participation:

  • Build the Structure
  • Build Trust
  • Collectivize Efforts
  • Respect, Inclusivity, Communication
  • Shared Values and Process
  • Understanding History
  • Adaptive Patience
  • Listening

Each of these pillars was given an early definition that Place Lab will work to flesh out and share.

Before the session ended, Steve and Theaster teased out an important thought: For those involved in city building, residents and developers alike, Engaged Participation needs to be an ongoing process that begins with the project’s organizational foundations and is managed through construction and beyond with the production of cultural activities for people in the spaces throughout the lifespan of the project. It’s a new definition of development that takes into consideration moments in which power is relinquished or transferred, how the role of gender influences the process (Theaster wondered: “What’s the gender dynamic of women being developers?....Is there some queering that needs to happen in the conventional structures of development that would help us listen better?”), and rethinks the methodology and structure of not only development, but of all the organizations involved in the project. 

While the close of the discussion felt like it came too soon, the precepts that were laid out are a beginning framework for engendering deep relationships among the people and organizations working towards dignity and equity as a standard of living in our cities. 


The event—what is happening—is beside the point. The point is that folks are meeting, exchanging, and learning. Create intentional hang time. It builds bonds, which build community.
— Principle #9 - Platforms

As discussed in the recap of Session #1, "hang time" is an integral component of each Session. These times provide members with the opportunity to socialize and build their networks and connections alongside enjoyment of a cultural offering. 

For Salon Session #2, we co-hosted with Rebuild Foundation an after-party called Collision on the Dance Floor. Following the close of the Session, members joined invited guests in the exhibition hall at the Stony Island Arts Bank to mingle, chat, and dance to the beats of DJ Sean Owens.

Salon Session #3 was held in October. Stay tuned for the recap!

Bring your voice to the conversation. During the session, member James Feagin asked “What does a successful mixed neighborhood look like?” He’s looking for answers because it feels like an elusive, temporary stage that developing neighborhoods pass through on their way from one end of the investment spectrum to another. Share your thoughts and examples on the forum.

Pride of Place: Narrative in Historic Preservation

by Nootan Bharani, AIA, Lead Design Manager

On October 8th, the Glessner House Museum, in partnership with Landmarks Illinois, the Chicago Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, and Friends of Historic Second Presbyterian Church, hosted a day-long symposium on historic preservation. As promoted by the hosts:

This day-long symposium event will celebrate one of the first great preservation success stories in Chicago, explore why we continue to save old buildings in the 21st century, and generate broad input into the future of historic preservation, its role in society now and for generations to come.

Nootan was invited to participate in the symposium's panel, The Future of the Historic Preservation Movement

Early building preservation movements were acts of activism.

The 50th anniversary of the enactment of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) was at the heart of the day-long symposium. The day's activities included a case study presentation on the Glessner House, a review of NHPA's impact since its enactment, and a keynote by writer and human rights activist Jamie Kalven. The day closed with a guest panel, The Future of the Historic Preservation Movement. The event sought to look backward and forward at the legacy and development of this niche profession.

I admit that throughout the morning, I had moments of intense Imposter Syndrome. I doubted the value of my presence and input at the impending panel, and kept wondering: Why was I invited here? How can my experience, mainly in adaptive re-use, possibly influence a generation of folks that have done exceptional work in technical building preservation? I worried there would be retribution from traditional preservationists, if they learned about how I had to make hard choices to alter details in old buildings.

New ideas must use old buildings.
— Jane Jacobs

As discussions continued during the day, I learned that the origins of the Historic Preservation movement actually have a lot in common with the work that I do. I discovered that early building preservation movements were acts of activism—where communities found common ground in the collective effort to save structures endangered by outside interests entering the neighborhood. Preservation became a vehicle for communities to find agency in saving important cultural icons in their communities.

Jane Jacobs holds documents in support of the Committee to Save the West Village in New York in 1961. Library of Congress.

Jane Jacobs holds documents in support of the Committee to Save the West Village in New York in 1961. Library of Congress.

An example would be the preservation efforts that occurred during the 60s in Lower Manhattan. These efforts united culturally disparate communities in pursuit of a shared goal: to protect their places. This movement to preserve and protect their buildings from the impositions of outside forces is credited in part for keeping the community united.

Though not expressed in the discussions, I felt that early preservation movements, of which there are many examples all across the country, shared a commonality: the story of the local communities at the time of the preservation efforts are just as significant as the stories of the earlier communities who created the structures. To include and amplify both narratives in the preservation process cultivates community pride in the building.

...the story of the local communities at the time of the preservation efforts are just as significant as the stories of the earlier communities who created the structures.

It was this thought that made me realize why I was invited to speak at the panel. Layered storytelling about a singular place was a concept I was already intending to discuss in my presentation. Somewhere along the way in legitimizing and formalizing the Historic Preservation process, an important reason to preserve at all had become lost: the creation and nurturing of community pride in place.

Place Lab works with all of the entities that have been created by artist Theaster Gates to bring the contemporary community’s relationship with the built environment to the forefront, while also honoring past communities.

The adaptive re-use of the Stony Island Arts Bank exemplifies this approach. Designed by William Gibbons Uffendell and built in 1923, the bank has a storied history. In the 60s and 70s, the Bank was where the grandparents of today's generation secured loans to launch businesses or purchase homes; where great uncles and aunts saved for their families’ futures. At one point, the savings and loan was black-owned; it provided access to credit to a historically excluded people, and served as an emblem of autonomy and self-determination in the neighborhood. The preservation of this community anchor aimed to recall this heritage while simultaneously preparing the bank for its next life.

The same reverence for the meaning of place was at the heart of early preservationists’ efforts, but that value seems to have been eroded over time. Historic preservation's original aim was to prioritize communities over buildings—a good thing—and highlight the stories of people alongside the stories of place. That there is a multiplicity of narratives isn't considered in the current formal process of preservation. Our approach at Place Lab is to layer multiple stories—of the past, the present, and the possible future—to develop an even greater narrative of pride in place. 

A return to the belief that the narrative of people and place are strongly interdependent may mark the direction for the Future of Preservation.

Let’s Play: Thoughts on the Intersection of Creativity + Urbanism

by Mejay Gula, Building Strategist and Construction Manager

The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) Illinois invited Mejay to present at CNU Illinois 9: Pragmatic Urbanism, a mini-conference that took place within the 2016 American Planning Association, Illinois Chapter's (APA-IL) State Conference. On September 29, Mejay presented Play Urbanism: Creative Interventions Undeterred by Regulation, Policy, or Learned ‘Best Method’ Practices. The presentation was part of CNU Illinois’ Tactical Urbanism SLAM! program, a PechaKucha happy hour hosting eight presenters. PechaKucha is a presentation style in which twenty images are shown, each for twenty seconds. They are informal gatherings where creative people get together and share ideas, works, and thoughts. 

The theme of the CNU mini-conference was Tactical Urbanism. Tactical Urbanism takes an approach to city-building that leverages rapid, small-scale, creative interventions. As CNU Illinois described it:

Leaner. Quicker. Easier to deploy. And sensitive to different neighborhoods and scales. That’s tactical urbanism. Pragmatic urbanism makes quick improvements to urban spaces to make them more livable and walkable and to build a constituency for longer term improvements. Tactical urbanism allows for vivid exploration at a cheap price tag.

Playing. Remember that? (image from Mejay's "Fort Follows Function" community class)

Playing. Remember that? (image from Mejay's "Fort Follows Function" community class)

The CNU Illinois mini-conference explored the question of the best and most innovative practices currently supporting Tactical Urbanism. If you’re familiar with Place Lab and what we do here, then you know that our work tends to fly in the face of common ‘best practices,’ so I decided to address the question from a different angle. I presented on a mindset I call Play Urbanism, a reminder to urban practitioners that there is value in playful practice. 

When we were kids, playing informed and inspired us. Playing nurtured our imaginations and emboldened us to take risks and try new things. But as we grew older, we grew out of playing. The act of putting playfulness behind us in fear of appearing too childish is an act of limiting our creative ability. Play Urbanism encourages us to strengthen our creative muscles with regular workouts—playing.

When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.
— C.S. Lewis

Community arts-based practitioners grapple with a common hurdle: sustaining momentum. The lengthy time required to pass projects through regulatory processes often causes interest in the project to wane. Supporters, stakeholders, communities—and even we practitioners—become dispassionate or disillusioned. The driving force behind the project slows or dies completely. Play can prevent this from happening.

Play can be used as a pivotal tool for engagement, infusing creativity and imagination during various stages of the development process. Play can also incite dialogue, strengthening the emotional investment of supporters while often drumming up new interest. Through play, we can avoid the threatening pause that often comes as we wait on regulations, rules, licenses, and permissions. Play maintains project vitality.

Tactical and Play Urbanism go hand in hand. Both are about quick, effective, creative happenings. Tactical Urbanism supports projects that create lasting impact; Play Urbanism supports interim moments of engagement that keep the fires for change burning.

Very good play can even endure.

The Better Block project of Oak Cliff Dallas is a fantastic example of how play can translate into permanence. A group of community activists, neighbors, and property owners collaborated to revitalize a single commercial block in an underused corridor in their neighborhood. The group pooled community resources to convert the block into a walkable, bikeable neighborhood destination for people of all ages, complete with bike lanes, cafe seating, trees, plants, pop-up businesses, and lighting. The project demonstrated how the block could be reimagined to improve area safety, health, and economics. Like other Better Block projects developed throughout the world, many of the temporary infrastructure improvements and businesses became permanent.

St. Laurence Board-Up project.

St. Laurence Board-Up project.

Here at Place Lab, every project involves considered opportunities for play. We are currently working on a demonstration project called Board Up, a community engagement series that involves communities in reimagining the possibilities of spaces during  redevelopment. Our first Board Up focused on St. Laurence Elementary School, a building long vacant that is a part of Chicago's civic commons initiative. This past summer, young people in Chicago's Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood engaged with the property through artistic intervention. They used the windows in the building as a canvas, their original designs providing comment on the possibilities of new life for St. Laurence. The window boards required on the property became murals, and in doing so, signaled the beginning of the building’s transformation from abandoned to activated space.

Tactful and Playful Urbanism remind us to continue the cycle of prototyping ideas. Get iterations of your project out there, visible and vulnerable for feedback. Successful projects are often the ones that engage before the space even exists.

Pedagogy + Transformation: Visiting Chicago's Growing Power

by Isis Ferguson, Associate Director of City and Community Strategy

Will Allen, founder and CEO of Growing Power Inc.

Will Allen, founder and CEO of Growing Power Inc.

On October 19, urban practitioners will visit Chicago for Ethical Redevelopment Salon #3: Pedagogical Moments. Prior to the evening Salon, they will have the opportunity to spend some time with Place Lab and local Salon members on an outdoor site visit to Growing Power’s local urban farm.

Growing Power inc. was established in Milwaukee in 1993 by farmer Will Allen, who offered his land as a work opportunity for teens seeking to learn and earn. This partnership grew into a national and global commitment to sustainable food systems, and Growing Power now has sites in Chicago and Madison, WI.

The Chicago project has several sites, and Growing Power is farming over 12 acres within the city. Our Salon members will be visiting the urban farm on S. Iron Street in Chicago's Bridgeport neighborhood. The site, originally housing an industrial warehouse, had been abandoned for nearly a decade when Growing Power began work on its transformation. The land now serves as a hub for Growing Power's neighborhood-based food production, green job training programs, micro-enterprise development, and education center.

Taco, the urban pygmy goat

Taco, the urban pygmy goat

In late September, I enjoyed a couple of hours out in the September sun previewing Iron Street's hoop houses, worm compost bins, rows of arugula and kale, and the aquaponic tanks.

I even met an urban pygmy goat named Taco.

One of Growing Powers central tenants is that a farm is an educational lab, a place for learning and experimentation, where ideas can be formed, tested, and revised as the work moves forward. They create methods for urban farming, including the rearing of livestock, that can be replicated in neighborhoods around the world.

Chicago has been in the news a lot recently regarding food deserts and the impact of food insecurity on health and wellness. Growing Power works to teach Chicagoans ways that individuals can exercise a level of agricultural agency in an urban environment. The organization provides opportunities for locals to reconnect to food sources by offering education about the most nutritious food choices; skills training in how to efficiently and sustainably grow food locally; and providing high-quality, safe, healthy, affordable food regardless of residency.

As the organization itself acknowledges, their methods are not fancythey are methods meant to remove barriers to access that exist in so many urban communities. Simple. Replicable. Teachable. These three components are key in making urban farms sustainable.

Growing Power Chicago annually trains and employs over 300 city youth in urban agriculture and community food system development. Through their work in urban gardens and greenhouses, the Chicago Youth Corps learned how to grow soil, vegetables, herbs, flowers and launched a unique line of hand-crafted beauty, culinary, and craft products.
— Growing Power

Teachable is the element that will be in the spotlight for our Ethical Redevelopment Salon visit later this month. Knowledge transfer and social responsibility are interlocked, critical concepts of Principle #3: Pedagogical Moments. Growing Power's rich portfolio of teaching/learning opportunities, which include youth corps programming, internships, and workshops, will set the stage for the Salon's exploration of what pedagogy means in neighborhood transformation.

When we return to Growing Power’s Iron Street farm on Oct. 19, the Salon members will connect what we see, hear, and sample to conversations about community self-determination, food systems, and knowledge transfer.

Investing in People + Place: Reflections on the Akron Roundtable

From September 14–15, Theaster Gates and Place Lab team members Lori Berko and Carson Poole participated in a series of events in Akron, Ohio, as part of the Akron Roundtable. Now celebrating its 40th year, the mission of the Akron Roundtable is to bring speakers to the city who inform, educate, and stimulate listeners on topics of importance to the region, the country, and the world. In this entry, Place Lab’s project specialist Carson Poole reflects on the conversations had at the September 14th discussion sessions.

A session-in-progress.

A session-in-progress.

On September 14th, the Executive Director of the Akron Art Museum, Mark Masuoka, and President of the Akron Arts Alliance, Barbara Feld, convened two groups of Akronites for discrete discussion sessions facilitated by Theaster Gates. These groups represented a diverse collection of artists, writers, leaders of community based organizations, representatives from anchor institutions, members of the philanthropic community, and other residents of Akron who were working to create change in their city. 

The discussions, a prelude to the following day’s Roundtable, touched on challenges that would be familiar to almost anyone in the field: a lack of affordable spaces for artists to practice and engage the community; restrictive and inflexible land use regulations that can delay projects for mixed-use, dense, and walkable development; siloed institutions and disconnected organizations; disparate information; and intense competition for funding. Though the groups met in separate sessions, both agreed that there was plenty of energy and interest in making change, but that these barriers prevented the work from happening at the scale they felt was necessary to drive impact. The groups agreed that communities are all “willing, but not able.”

Scale and impact are issues that I have found come up time and again. Why make investments in the arts, artists, and cultural spaces when resources are limited? How can creative, incremental development compete with transportation, housing, infrastructure, and traditional economic development?

While these investments are all important, the discussion sessions both hit upon the power of arts and culture to do things that other interventions simply cannot. Cultural spaces create generative platforms within communities that propel work forward in previously unforeseen ways. People are provided opportunities to gather and commune, access to one another begins to cross boundaries, and relationships expand. New possibilities can be imagined and realized, and novel economic prospects emerge.

VIDEO: The Grand Exchange: Understanding the Black and White

VIDEO: The Grand Exchange: Understanding the Black and White

The power of the arts to bring people together for critical conversations was echoed by Akronite and Ethical Redevelopment Salon Member Brent Wesley, who told the group about a community conversation that he and fellow Salon Member Jeremy Lile, of City Hope, held in Akron this summer. Wesley said that he and others felt the need to bring people together to discuss “race in America, how to better understand each other, what certain people go through, how we arrived at this point, and what we need to do as humans.” The Grand Exchange: Understanding the Black and White drew over 150 people. The attendees represented widely different views on social justice and race. The organizers were able to create a space for conversations to occur across race, class, and ideology.
The close of the Akron discussion sessions did not solve issues faced when trying to bring a vision to reality. Questions remain about “how to get there.” How can artists and like-minded small developers break through the challenges and barriers in front of them? One of the most prescient solutions involved a reimagining of the relationships between institutions, artists, developers, and stakeholders in city government that would drive substantive changes in policy and build solid foundations to support sustainable change. New coalitions were imagined that would collapse and blur the divides between artists and developers, funders and practitioners, as well as municipal government and the residents they serve. 

Ultimately, the discussions held in Akron drove home a fundamental truth about ethical, people-first transformation efforts: the drive is there, but it demands a wide-range of diverse partnerships and interdisciplinary working groups that can leverage the right mix of resources, knowledge, and power to effect lasting and meaningful change.

You can read more about the September 15th Roundtable discussion, led by guest speaker Theaster Gates, here.

Salon Session #1 - The Session in Review

On Wednesday, July 28, Place Lab hosted the opening Session of our year-long Ethical Redevelopment Salon. In this entry, Place Lab Building Strategies + Construction Manager, Mejay Gula, reports on the Session.


Rain didn’t deter pre-Salon tour participants from venturing through the fenced-in construction zones of St. Laurence Elementary School or a former ComEd Substation, nor did it stop the lunch and tour excursion to Inspiration Kitchens. These optional excursions are designed to expose Salon members to people, projects, and places that are engaged in inspirational, community-based, ethically-minded civic projects in Chicago.


The goal is to get into the weeds of practical ideas, questions, concerns, tips, and how-tos.
— Theaster Gates

On a grey, muggy Thursday evening, 50 Ethical Redevelopment Salon members and invited guests packed an intimate and private gallery space at the Stony Island Arts Bank. It was the first of nine Salon Sessions and provided the first opportunity for members to be open, inspire, share, and commune among a diverse group of practitioners representing several cities across the country. 

The Session kicked off with a warm welcome from moderator Steve Edwards, and stage-setting commentary from Theaster Gates:

“Our hope is that today will be a day of starting to dig in. The first big Convening was a poetic introduction to the ideas around Ethical Redevelopment, nine ideas that are not meant to be turned into Biblical law, nor are they nine steps that will lead you to a perfect development. These were ideas to get the party started. The intentions for the Salon Sessions are to go in-depth to the nitty-gritty about some of the work you’ll see presented today and to engender conversation where you can bring all of your projects, perspectives, and experience to the table. The goal is to get into the weeds of practical ideas, questions, concerns, tips, and how-tos.”

The Session focused on Principal #1: Repurpose + Re-propose. Taking words from the Ethical Redevelopment booklet: This approach to city- or community-building is about resource availability and ingenuity—start with what you have and recognize existing local assets and latent value in the discarded and overlooked. Theaster advised to “not only start with what you have but look at what you have and scratch your head and ask what else it can be? What I think is often left off the table in development is how important vision is to the process. We want to start off by acknowledging the power and importance of vision in the re-proposing process.”

Salon members were assured that the Session was an environment of trust, where participants were encouraged to be open, honest, and released from their most scared and vulnerable moments and challenges. The hope is that this Salon experience can be taken back home to be used as a template to create new sets of values for the members’ local teams.

Place Lab’s Lead Design Manager, Nootan Bharani, and Bucky Willis of Bleeding Heart Design in Detroit, each presented on creative reclamation projects. The presentations summarized, for discussion by the group, the projects’ challenges. 

Nootan presented on the St. Laurence Elementary School redevelopment project in Chicago’s Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood. The school, once slated for demolition following its closure in 2002, is the focus of a creative reuse project that aims to make the property a hub of artistic, educational, and economic activity.

Nootan Bharani presenting on the St. Laurence Elementary School project.

As Nootan described it, conventional methods of refurbishing dormant properties—methods that are profit-driven—are being set aside in favor of Conscientious Intervention, a people-driven approach for redevelopment that is implemented in all of Theaster’s building projects. Conscientious Intervention is based on vision, intuition, indeterminacy, and creative adaptations that are concerned with the greatest benefit for the community, not the pocketbook of the developer. Nootan cautioned that this approach to reimagining a building’s use often takes the path of most resistance.  

Nootan discussed some of the complexities of Repurposing + Re-proposing: the initial building acquisition, the headaches of as-built conditions and structural failures, concerns about vagrancy and illegal dumping, the obstacles that accompany remediation, and rigid zoning laws. All of these roadblocks, Nootan explained, are simply part of “allowing one thing to become another.”

The zoning ordinance governing St. Laurence favors certain uses and densities of specific areas. Those uses and densities, she stressed, were established in a by-gone time and environment; the factors that shaped the initial zoning ordinance are no longer applicable to the area as it exists today.

“It just doesn’t, by right, allow for the uses we envision,” Nootan said. 

Theaster’s project team, led by Nootan, is going through an uncharted process with the City of Chicago to find a solution to the zoning problem. The outcome of this process could establish St. Laurence as a model for how old ordinances can be made to accommodate modern redevelopment. 

During the discussion that followed, Theaster offered great insight into what I have found can be a significant hurdle for small, grassroots organizations and creative entrepreneurs: understanding the law. A city’s zoning laws can read like a foreign language to the uninitiated. Developers with sufficient capital often move their projects forward with the aid of lawyers to translate and, if necessary, make the case for why the developer’s project should not be held to the ordinance. But the types of projects that Salon members and Place Lab are tackling simply do not have that type of capital, and making things happen requires a bit of creativity.

 “There’s a sliding scale of feasibility, changing code, access to lawyers—the amount of money—and you have to put these things into a calculus,” Nootan continued. “If you don’t have the money, it will take you a little longer unless you get advocates in the city to believe in the new thing that you want to do. You might need to read into the zoning of your city, bringing to attention something the city council wasn’t aware of and find someone there that can help you.”

Confronting the list of impediments to a redevelopment effort can be discouragingly overwhelming, and too often leads to incomplete or failed projects. I sensed that some of our Salon members were struggling under these restraints within their own projects. Nootan concluded her presentation by sharing a handful of examples of ways Theaster’s team has transgressed these issues and left the Salon Members with these questions:

Do you have an answer to this? Can you share your insight, experiences, lessons learned? Please share on the Ethical Redevelopment forum.

Do you have an answer to this? Can you share your insight, experiences, lessons learned? Please share on the Ethical Redevelopment forum.

Bucky Willis followed Nootan’s presentation with a case study of her current project, led by her new public interest design movement, Bleeding Heart Design (b.h.d.). Based in Detroit, b.h.d. advocates the use of human-centered design to inspire people to become more altruistic by using public art, design, and architecture as conduits for social change. Bucky’s career and research lies at the intersection of architecture/design and social issues/emotional impact. She walked us through b.h.d.’s Skyscape Project, which aims to transform a dilapidated, commercial building into a roofless indoor/outdoor community space in the Lindale Gardens Community of Northeast Detroit.

Bucky Willis presenting b.h.d.'s Skyscape Project.

b.h.d. approaches design concepts by first asking themselves: How does this project inspire altruism, generate generosity and more love for people? Bucky shared a graph that represented Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s plan to increase the amount of demolitions happening in the city, amounting to over 40,000 demos within the next two years alone. Bucky expressed sadness at the loss of stories and history embedded within these buildings, and at how disjointed communities will be after all of the demolitions. The Skyscape Project aims to inspire neighbors to fight for these structures and for community members to take ownership of what happens in, and to, their neighborhood.   

Some challenges in the Skyscape Project include: having a modest and inflexible budget; fixed deadlines associated with grant resources; implementing a sustainable management plan for the space; acquisition of the building (beginning with finding ownership information); and, as b.h.d. was working with a dilapidated building, reducing the high construction costs. 

With all of these challenges in mind, Bucky pondered, “Can this be a barn raising—but without the barn?” From that emerged the creative idea for a roofless outdoor space to host events and programming.

The Salon participants took about 20 minutes to cultivate follow-up inquiry to both presentations, coming up with several questions around community engagement, public policy, project sustainability, interest sustainability, the realities of being outside expertise entering a community and gaining trust, race and administration, building and demonstrating capacity, and gaining credibility: 

  • Is there a way that cities can more clearly communicate ownership of vacant buildings? How much do we have to do things in a transparent and mission- and goal-oriented way? Is there a double standard in how community development projects have to be conducted versus how other developers get things done?
  • What does community participation look like in a project like Skyscape? What do we mean when we say ‘community engagement’? Does it mean direct engagement, community approval, co-creation? When working with community engagement, what value(s) are you presenting and offering to community and partners? What levels of community participation that are available to people? When do you engage the community in the process, planning, and vision if the regulatory processes, like zoning or acquisition, are not yet secured?
  • When working with a community that doesn’t understand the regulatory process, how do you tactfully leverage neighborhood expertise while also employing outside expertise in a way that feels co-equal or complimentary? Theaster observed the need to consider Race and Administration—if ‘expertise’ seems to live in Whiteville and ‘problems’ appear to live in Brown/Blackville, then how do you create equity and camaraderie and friendship? Is there a scalable way of addressing these various regulatory projects?
  • How many people does it take to sustain activity in this space during the planning process, construction, and after it has opened? How do you keep people engaged so that they feel heard and inspired when projects have regulatory delays or lengthy completion timelines? How long do you continue to engage and encourage property owners to participate in activities for their blighted building? How long do you dig in, when do you stop playing nice, and when do you decide to move on?
  • How do you negotiate and create balance between action and gaining reaction? Building capacity, demonstrating capacity. How much energy do you put into both fields so that you build credibility and ability? Is there a better way to use funds that can build capacity? How do you determine the highs and best purpose for vision? 
  • To build a movement around Ethical Redevelopment and strengthen the message, can this group actually reach a consensus around a number of Principles?


The Salon’s respondent was Dan Peterman, an artist, educator, and co-founder of Chicago’s Experimental Station and Blackstone Bicycle Works. Dan used the three-decades-old Experimental Station as a framing device for his response. He explained:
“The project has undergone several stages of occupying the building bit-by-bit, slowly acquiring the building, to later having a part of it burn down, then building on top of it, building different organizations within the structure, and growing a not-for-profit that has a very different administrative set of tasks that it deals with now than when it was a more flexible artist-driven project at its start. I prefer to program a building in a way that doesn’t over-define itself. The programs can speak for what was happening in the building. The programs can develop its audience organically.” 

Dan is a strong advocate in artist equity and supporting creative stakeholders to allow things to grow and evolve over time, and believes that stringent goals can limit a project from developing in an intrinsic fashion. Developing a mission statement early on was a bad idea! He also believes that it can be very confusing for a project to be so open, trying to answer all of a community’s needs.

Dan suggests to instead communicate more clearly by landing on a concept and saying, “I want to do this, because I don’t think there’s anything like this in the neighborhood,”—to stick with your intention while still being adaptive to feedback and trials. Even if a program is small in scope, capturing a small part of the community, it is still a start. 

Dan’s discussion raised a lot of questions around community engagement. One member asked: “What is the balance when a developer comes into a community and says this is what you are going to get versus asking what is it that you want?” 

It seems that it takes a certain level of creative confidence and sense of agency to overcome being an “outsider.” Theaster responded: “Something has to be birthed and someone has to birth it. The difference is that a developer has an obligation to set up a town hall meeting because they are getting public money and need to provide a community benefit agreement of some sort. People with vision usually aren’t benefiting from the same kind of cash that would flow toward these projects. We’re adopting capitalist developer pursuits on money that is already public money for things that are our own personal vision.”

So, What does community engagement look like? What value are you pitching and offering to a community and partners and what are the levels of community participation that are available to people? A Salon member answered: “There’s a way of reaching a middle ground here to provide agency and a sense of ownership to people that are already in the neighborhood who have that creative vision, whether its through the team you’re bringing on or the events that you host. It creates a balance.”

Speaking to the deep willingness members need in order to understand the existing field of development if they wish to accomplish anything significant, Theaster ended the Session with a proposition to its members: “The world of Place is bigger than our building… The proposition that we make can be big but it also means that the criticality that we have around understanding the field has to also be big.”


With that proposal, Theaster transitioned the Repurpose + Re-propose Session to "hang time," a free block for members to socialize while enjoying a musical performance. He walked to the windows of the Salon, brought up the blinds, and revealed a group of musicians plucking and percussing their instruments, serenading members from the lower roof of the Stony Island Arts Bank.

Interdisciplinary artist Mikel Patrick Avery and his band provided this artistic moment for the Salon. One of the underlying philosophies of Ethical Redevelopment is that artists of all kinds have something significant to contribute, need to be part of the conversation, and provide space for the often-neglected right side of the brain in discussions about city-building.

While the musicians played, members ate, drank, met each other, and began conversations that will continue for the coming year. Artistic moments and hang time have been built into each of the Salons Sessions. The ninth Principle—Platforms—includes this idea: “The event—what is happening—is beside the point. The point is that folks are meeting, exchanging, and learning. Create intentional hang time. It builds bonds, which build community.”

In order to track the development of these bonds and capture what is discussed during the Salons, we asked Arthur Wright to draw what he hears and illustrate the concepts, words, and emotions that emerge. Diligently sketching in the background, Arthur visually unfolds the discussion over the course of each Salon as a different kind of reference point for the evenings. Arthur is local artist, participated in the first Fellowship Program at the Stony Island Arts Bank, and talked about Principle #6: Place Over Time at the Public Convening in June 2016. More of his work can be found here.

The next Salon Session will be held in September. We'll see you soon.

Bring you voice to the conversation—share your thoughts on the forum.


Ethical Redevelopment Principle #6: Place Over Time

“Rome was not built in a day." Great things take time to create. Ethical Redevelopment Principle #6, Place Over Time, asserts that place is a function of time—a sense of place grows and matures the more time people spend engaging in and within a space. 


Place is not just a geographical location. As geographer Yi-Fu Tuan illuminates in Space and Place, a space only achieves definition when it is given meaning—positive or negative—by people. Meaning emerges from the feeling or perception held by people about the place, and not from aspects inherent to the place itself. By living/working/doing things in a place, participants form attachments and relationships, and a sense of belonging is created—an identity coalesces.

Making a place cannot happen quickly. The element of time is crucial. Time permits intentions to be realized, and visions to become realities. With the participation of myriad neighbors, partners, stakeholders, and curious participants, a place becomes imbued with culture, soul, life, identity. This is an organic process. The identity of a place is not fixed; as needs of the people change, the place must adapt. The evolution of place can take years, and is entirely dependent on the affinities of people. Approach with patience the notion of place, or there may never be a there there.

Creating great places isn’t a linear activity. Sustaining them is even trickier.
— Daniel Gilmartin, Executive Director and CEO Michigan Municipal League in The Economics of Place

Place Over Time in Action

Hope Works is a Community Development Corporation (CDC) that “seeks to empower our neighbors to become active participants in and catalysts of a flourishing Woodlawn and South Side of Chicago community.” The CDC came out of a long, faith-based process, initiated by the opening of a satellite location in 2003 by the Portage Park-based Bethel Christian Church. The church, located at and in partnership with the University of Chicago, and lead by a white pastor from Tennessee, initially attracted mostly University students. Over time, Bethel attracted a more diverse congregation and in 2010 became the Living Hope Church. With a newly acquired building in Woodlawn sorely in need of renovation, Living Hope welcomed volunteers, offering food and shelter to anyone who lent a helping hand. After four years of hard work and direct community involvement, the Living Hope Church became a part of the fabric of its neighborhood.

In 2010, Hope Works CDC was established to facilitate and drive the growth of economic opportunities for Woodlawn families. The organization provides employment assistance, programs aimed at economic and cultural engagement, and works on issues of housing development. Hope Works recognizes that many systemic and personal barriers are faced by those who are under- or unemployed, and address these barriers through work on housing, transportation, and health care. From the website: “Ultimately, people are able to not only get jobs but keep them.” Over time, the church found its place and became a place itself, a resource for participants to increase their contribution to the larger Woodlawn community and find structure and self-sufficiency in their lives and those of their family members.


Have you been a part of a place, organization, or vision that you’ve seen grow, change, and become transformed by participation? Tell us about it in the comments section.

Ethical Redevelopment Principle #5: Design

Design impacts a city as much as policy and governance do. Design dictates everything from the way your subway fare card looks and works to the layout of a city, which is designed by urban planners, often to the advantage of some and the disadvantage of others. Good design and beauty are basic services that can be available to all neighborhoods, even the most disinvested and neglected. By valuing what others discard, creative people—including invested residents—can resurrect fallow spaces with poetic moments that make a place desireable. Design and aesthetics attract attention because they convey the care and pride present in a neighborhood, as well as the identity and character of the people who live there. Deciding the layout of a community garden plot, where and what a mural artist paints, and what your frontyard or apartment window looks like contribute to the design and aesthetics of a neighborhood.

Place Lab’s Isis Ferguson recently wrote in a FastCo article that more people need to be part of the design of cities and neighborhoods:

Asking the typically untapped people — artists, misfits, outsiders, elders, immigrants, people of color, and women — what the most joyous, liberatory, and authentic spaces are for them is a good start at imagining more for public life and for creating places of greater possibility for all in the public realm.
— Isis Ferguson, Associate Director of City and Community Strategy at Place Lab

With inclusive practices and thinking, design can offer multiple uses for public space, adapt to needs, and promote social equity in urban spaces.


American alleys are distinct from small thoroughfares in other parts of the world. While Europeans use them as pedestrian passageways and Japanese cities build small retail shops, the uses of alleys in the US are for behind-the-scenes activities like garbage collection, car storage, and loading docks. Alleys can take up a large amount of a city’s real estate—Chicago’s 13,000 alleys amass 3500 acres, among the largest in the country. The Atlantic's City Lab recently reported on re-imaginings and re-designs of alleyways in cities around the US—surprising and creative ways that benefit the city’s environmental ecosystem, the social and cultural lives of residents, and entrepreneurs and small businesses.

The Chicago Green Alley program covered the city’s alleys with permeable surfaces “that redirect storm water into the ground and away from Chicago’s ‘overtaxed’ sewer system.” In Seattle, the International Sustainability Institute (ISI) took advantage of the city’s restructured trash collection, which removed dumpsters from alleys and now rely on trash bags. ISI has since programmed alleys with “projecting World Cup games from the back of a U-Haul truck, to cat adoptions, to revolving art installations.” In Los Angeles, the East Cahuenga Alley went from being known as “Heroin Alley” to a pedestrian walkway with outdoor dining and a Sunday artists’ market, and idea that has spread to other cities.

The success of these projects shows how it’s possible to take a space that was once a liability, and turn it into a resource.
— Daniel Freedman, Los Angeles Sustainability Collaborative, in FastCo


What design ideas do you have for your community? Share them in the comments below, and continue the conversation in the Ethical Redevelopment public forum.