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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo courtesy of Aaron Rose.