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

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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