Ethical Redevelopment Salon Series
Session 4: 11.17.16
By Aaron Rose
principal: the indeterminate
concepts: faith, intuition, and imagination in city building
Salon #4, with the theme The Indeterminate, was an opportunity to explore the interstitial spaces where cultural alchemy and the metaphysical aspects of redevelopment take root. Also, post 11/9, commitment to democratic principles of freedom, tolerance, and access to public space.
Thinking back on Salon #4 brings mixed emotions. It was a beautiful, late-autumn afternoon, and I walked under blue skies, in the glow of warm sunshine from the bus stop on 71st Street to Archive House and Listening House on Dorchester Avenue. There, a small group from the Salon cohort met for tours of Theaster Gates’s early creative settlements, and a presentation by Leslie Koch, former President and CEO of the Trust for Governors Island in New York Harbor.
The Salon events, in the afternoon and evening, were memorable—lively and stimulating platforms for sharing new information and for thoughtful, nuanced conversation. But it was the week after the election. I know I wasn’t alone in feeling shell-shocked. Theaster Gates noted that “this evening will be more sober,” and that he’s never felt more than he did at that moment the need for networks of support. In the afternoon, Koch, the guest expert who had just flown in from New York, hesitated for a moment during her presentation to say, “It seems like time has stopped.”
The Listening House and Archive House hold the history of Theaster’s work in the economically under-resourced community of Greater Grand Crossing on Chicago’s South Side, where more recent projects like Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative, Rebuild Foundation, Stony Island Arts Bank, and St. Laurence School are also located. A predominantly African-American community, Greater Grand Crossing, like many communities on the city’s South and West Sides, has struggled to survive in the wake of population loss and economic disinvestment. Mejay Gula, Place Lab’s Building Manager + Construction Specialist, who has collaborated with Theaster on design and construction projects since the early years on Dorchester Avenue, led the group tour.
Theaster bought the building that had once been a candy store, and became the Listening House, in 2005. He lived in the building, which served as ground zero for his radical experiments to transform community redevelopment ideas and practices, and held his first gatherings there: a blend of communal meals and performance that established the House as a community building enterprise, giving primacy to the synergy that happens when people come together for cultural exchange and experiences, such as sharing meals, enjoying performance, and swapping plants.
The Houses, like all of Theaster’s built projects, were redeveloped with a spare, elegant style, using mostly reclaimed materials—a blend of the old and new that, as Steve Edwards has suggested, creates a sense of mystery and evokes wonder and curiosity. Materials are allowed their organic, poetic process of aging, while newly designed infrastructure, freshly painted surfaces, and meticulously appointed details hold the whole in contemporary space.
Today, Listening House is lined with bookshelves that hold a collection of Dr. Wax records, portions of the Johnson Publishing Library archives, and books from the now-closed Prairie Avenue Books, an architecture bookstore that was located in Chicago’s South Loop. Archive House, which, until the construction of Stony Island Arts Bank, served as offices for Rebuild staff, is reserved as living space for artists in residence. Archive House, too, is a lean, spare, open space lined with bookshelves, and with ceramics and other art on display. On the first floor, on a table placed against the north wall creating the appearance of an alcove, is an altar, with a “Bowl of Woes,” as well as pens and paper so you can write about and leave them there.
After the tour, we gathered in the front room of Listening House. We sat, smiling bravely and chatting cheerfully, in a jagged semi-circle around Leslie Koch to discuss her 10 years directing the development of New York City’s new public park.
Koch began her presentation by showing a video of a ceremony held on Governor’s Island in Summer 2016. The occasion was the opening of The Hills, a new, human-designed, engineered, and constructed section of the park for hiking and sliding. The ceremony also marked the end of her tenure; Koch stepped down from her position following the completion of The Hills. Koch noted that she has watched the video of the “bittersweet” ceremony a few times since, as “therapy,” and wanted to share with us the messages she related that day.
As she spoke to the small crowd gathered around her in the “innocent days of July,” Koch quoted from words spoken at two earlier ceremonies at the Island: 10 years earlier, by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and 20 years earlier, by President Ronald Reagan. I quote from Koch’s speech, because we need to be reminded of the democratic ideals that the US was founded upon; and that ideals of freedom, of welcoming and assimilating immigrants into a great nation, are not partisan.
“We have come here to Governor’s Island to stand where the earliest settlers first set foot in New Amsterdam and where the seeds of religious tolerance were first planted. In New York City, our doors are open to everyone: everyone with a dream and a willingness to work hard and to play by the rules. New York City was built by immigrants, and sustained by immigrants; by people from more than a hundred different countries speaking more than two hundred different languages, and professing every faith. And whether your parents were born here or you came here yesterday, you are a New Yorker.”
“We sometimes forget that even those who came here to America first to settle the land were strangers. Call it mysticism, if you will. I’ve always believed that there was some divine providence that placed this great land here between the two great oceans, to be found by a special kind of people from every corner of the world, who had a special love for freedom, and a special courage that enabled them to leave their own land, to leave their friends, and their countryman, and come to this new and strange land, to build a new world of peace and freedom and hope. We’re bound together because, like them, we, too, dare to hope. Hope that our children will always find here a land of liberty, a land that is free.”
Koch closed her remarks by noting that “it is important for us to reflect, at a very challenging time, as people are talking about difference and about strangers, and potentially about building walls between us and between people who don’t look like us, that we built Governor’s Island for New York, by New York, to be a place that everybody shares, that embodies the openness that is our city and nation.”
And left us with the reminder to ask ourselves: Where do we live? Why do we do what we do? Why do public spaces and cities matter?
Governors Island is a 172-acre former military installation, part natural land, part landfill, just south of Manhattan, with a panoramic view of the Statue of Liberty and New York Harbor. Koch was brought on in 2006 and asked to create a vision for the Island, which she promptly refused to do. Instead, Koch approached her assignment with the understanding that vibrant cities and public places are messy: they develop as people use and create them. She asked not “what will Governor’s Island be?” but “what questions do we ask?” and guided her team to use intuition and experimentation in creating an entirely new public place to reflect, nurture, and be “deeply welcoming” to New York City’s diverse cultures and communities.
The result is a spectacular park designed for cycling; for climbing and sliding on the recently opened Hills; for recreating with hammocks, mini golf, baseball, and badminton; for art exhibitions, punk band and classical music concerts, food festivals, and flash mobs. The unique and risky beauty of the process is that Governor’s Island does not fund, select, or curate events and projects hosted there—all programming applications are submitted online and considered first-come, first-served. As Koch noted, some of the art displayed can be quite bad. But in relinquishing ideals of artistic quality and perfection, Governor’s Island achieves the democratic ideal of equity in ownership, reflecting a core commitment to addressing issues and questions that have become especially, profoundly important, post-11/9: Why do cities and public space matter? How do you create more opportunities for people to be in physical space with other people who don’t look like them?
The conversation spilled into earnest, searching dialogue about how we foster inclusive communities, not just in the nation’s first city of commerce and culture, but in rust-belt cities, rural communities, and suburban enclaves across a divided nation. The conversation, though subdued and thoughtful, was the most contentious of any I witnessed during the Salon series, as people sought to understand and express concerns and frustrations about who we are or think we are as a nation, and how our work might or might not be able to reach across chasms of differences.
In his own post-11/9, “more sober” introduction to the evening session at Stony lsland Arts Bank, Theaster Gates reflected that he had justified the Ethical Redevelopment series to funders, knowing something would come of this structure-making exercise. Now, Theaster issued a blunt call to action, saying the enterprise can do something much bigger than the grant requirement, something interesting in cities across the country. “We can actually be the fuck about it!”
Brent Wesley, founder of Akron Honey Company, started off a panel discussion with four Salon Members that included Angela Tillges, former Senior Program Specialist for Culture, Arts, and Nature at the Chicago Park District, who is now Great River Passage Fellow for the City of Saint Paul; and Ernel Martinez and Keir Johnston of the Amber Art collective in Philadelphia.
Wesley described the purely intuitive process, motivated by desire to “build better people, build better places,” which led him to buy the vacant lot around the corner from where he lives in West Akron, before he knew how he would use it. Inspired by a love of honey, and a childhood family trip into Amish country where he tasted raw honey for the first time, Wesley loaded a couple of apiaries, roaring with the sound of bees (“don’t try it”), into his trunk. In less than three years, Wesley’s experiment became Akron Honey Company, with second and third locations in East Akron, a site for summer Market Days featuring local vendors, and a fledgling line of skin care products with the goal of offering customized products and experiences similar to a microbrewery.
As Great River Passage Fellow, Angela Tillges, is charged with developing programming based on a master plan for the 17-mile stretch of the Mississippi River that flows through 26 miles of riverfront and 3,500 acres of parks, public space, natural areas, wetlands, and lakes in Saint Paul. Tillges, a Saint Paul native, acknowledged that implementing all 321 projects outlined in the master plan is not a realistic or even desirable goal, and, instead likened her process to planting seeds, then weeding or watering what comes up. Tillges recognizes that she’s walking a fine line managing aspects of the indeterminate that may appear indecisive, uncommitted, or unresponsive.
In response, the cohort took the opportunity to discuss Koch’s advice to set aside the master plan, as something too perfect—too grand, massive, and overwhelming; something that doesn’t allow for experimentation, and that doesn’t address what people really want to know about a project: what can we do there? Think big and act small, Koch advised. Create a simple, straightforward narrative about the project, telling people what you will do in language that ordinary people can understand. Stick to your narrative. Give updates. Keep promises.
Ernel Martinez and Keir Johnston are working with the Fairmount Park Conservancy to bridge a cultural divide between the African-American community of North Philadelphia and the historic Strawberry Mansion district, situated within the city’s largest park. Historically, residents have felt unwelcome in Strawberry Mansion, and have not benefitted from Fairmount Park’s cultural and recreational amenities. The team will collaborate with area residents to create a community museum in one of the district’s vacant houses, collecting and curating artifacts and personal histories that reflect the rich cultural history of a community along the Lancaster Avenue corridor, home to jazz greats like John Coltrane.
When moderator Steve Edwards asked about curiosity as an indeterminate, Martinez noted his curiosity about personal histories—the histories of a community, family, house or block—and the importance of asking questions to elicit those histories. “If you talk to and teach people, that’s how you facilitate dialogue. That’s how you learn.”
So what questions do we ask, as we anticipate our collective work in that deep, thick fog of the indeterminate through which we peer at the next four years?
Parts of this blog were originally covered in a story for Newcity magazine.
For more information on the series and the author check out the series introduction.