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.