Guest Blogger: Aaron Rose on Salon Session #9: Platforms

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Ethical Redevelopment Salon Series
Session 9: 04.27.17
By Aaron Rose

principle: platforms
concepts: the thing that makes the thing, hang time

A community needs a platform; a foundation that creates new social possibilities, a structure that incubates new economic or artistic prospects… A just city is required to facilitate platforms that engage those who are not fully tapped into their power and feel cheated out of their right to demonstrate their power. Don’t just create the thing, create the thing that makes the thing. Platform building means developing opportunities for people to gather and commune.

As we approached this rather solemn moment, the last of the 9 Salon Sessions, I heard the following comments a few times. “Is this it?” “What are we going to do when this is over?” Mostly I heard this from a particularly expressive Salon Member, but I think she spoke for many.

This is the Life
On the eve of Salon #9, Black Cinema House’s Moving Images, Making Cities film series presented a screening of Ava DuVernay's film This Is the Life. The 2008 documentary chronicles the alternative hip-hop scene in Los Angeles in the 1990s, which emerged from the platform created by the owner of Good Life Health Food Centre, a neighborhood health food market and café. The open mic on Thursday evenings offered an informal, workshop-like setting for artists, including emcees, poets, and musician to perform one song. Clear guidelines, including no cursing, no smoking, and no drinking/drugs, challenged artists to develop a nuanced vocabulary and take seriously their craft. Audience members responded immediately by calling out “Please pass the mic!” if a performance lacked originality or integrity, if a performer exhibited too much ego, or simply had a mediocre delivery.

Freestyle Fellowship got their start there. A mesmerizing artist named Medusa was one of the few women to perform regularly.

The film includes lively, sometimes riveting footage of original performances, and—perhaps the most interesting part of the film—interviews with performers nearly 20 years later that provide insight into the profound value of artistic expression. The emphasis on personal responsibility and expectation of genuine originality in one’s craft was a refreshing hallmark of the Good Life platform.

Evening Salon
The mood was celebratory, too. Theaster was sporting an orange jacket and orange tie. James “The Emperor” Feagin was accompanied by his wife and infant daughter, and the latter posed for a cameo shot with Theaster. Emcee Steve Edwards opened the evening with a shout-out to Theaster and the Place Lab team for sharing their creativity, passion, and ideas.

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Platform as Principle
Ideas need to materialize, Theaster began, and platforms provide an opportunity to get inside the ideas. The Salon becomes the Platform of the Principles we’ve been talking about. By reexamining development, or redevelopment, development could yield more and inform an ethos. In contrast to having a private practice, we can be learning together in real time; creating a space where knowledges leap from one to 10 or one to 50 or one to 100. Principle remains constant; platform, the space someone makes beyond themselves, is scalable and can be what we want it to be.

As an example of how a building like the Arts Bank leverages platform, Theaster related how, a couple of years ago, his “primary public frustration” was that there were no venues for music. The South Side had lost several music venues, and Theaster was mourning the loss of platforms such as Palm Tavern, Checkerboard Lounge, and Velvet Lounge, a place one could go for open-mic performance. Created by owner Fred Anderson, Velvet Lounge allowed pre-existing space to be available where, for $5, a lot of people had the chance to participate in the ongoing wisdom, expertise, and story. In addition to being a place for 1960s jazz, it was a place that allowed the future of jazz to take root.

The Arts Bank might, likewise, serve as a venue for artists, who will then go on to other platforms. Platforms are best when they beget other platforms.

Ideas need to materialize, Theaster began, and platforms provide an opportunity to get inside the ideas. The Salon becomes the Platform of the Principles we’ve been talking about. By reexamining development, or redevelopment, development can yield more and inform an ethos. In contrast to having a private practice, we can be learning together in real time; creating a space where knowledges leap from one to ten or one to 50 or one to 100. Principle remains constant; platform, the space someone makes beyond themselves, is scalable and can be what we want it to be.
Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Chicago Architecture Biennial
A new platform in Chicago, the Chicago Architecture Biennial (CAB) had its premiere in Fall 2015, and will have its second turn this year. Salon Member Todd Palmer, former Associate Director and Curator for the National Public Housing Museum, was selected to be Executive Director of the Biennial in late 2016.

CAB is a city-wide celebration of architecture intended to reassert the centrality of Chicago in the world of architecture. The artistic directors of the 2017 Biennial, Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee from Los Angeles, are inviting 100 architects and designers from around the world to exhibit in the Chicago Cultural Center, the city’s beautiful Beaux Arts public institution. CAB will also engage with community residents through sites around the city to present exhibitions and performances based on the theme “Make New History.”

In 2015, the newly opened Arts Bank was a CAB community-based site, as was the emerging National Public Housing Museum, on the city’s West Side.

The collaboration created a platform for the National Public Housing Museum, providing exposure to a national and international audience. The marketing, which included an article in Artforum and a story by Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin, changed civic perception of the Museum, eased some local resistance the project had encountered, and dissolved some skepticism among civic leaders about the project’s capacity to garner interest and support.

As Theaster noted, beginning with a belief and commitment, a small, grassroots group of women who are former residents of public housing, succeeded, over 13–15 years, in creating a platform that, ultimately, manifested from a vision to a physical space with funding to become a museum. He noted that the building is in an inconveniently developing area, in Little Italy on Taylor Street, near the University of Illinois at Chicago, where property values are skyrocketing. Where “new people don’t want old people coming back and remembering their playground. That’s not cute.” Having the raw space open during the Biennial allowed former public housing residents who founded the organization to share their stories, creating yet another layer to the platform of an emerging place.

The Chicago Architecture Biennial emerged from the Chicago Cultural Plan; a brainchild of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Michelle Boone, former Commissioner of the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs & Special Events, and former CAB Co-Artistic Director, Sarah Herda, Executive Director of the Graham Foundation.

Two needs emerged from the Chicago Cultural Plan. On a micro, neighborhood scale, how can art be a lever for these communities? From a global perspective, what are Chicago’s assets? A gap was perceived between Chicago’s past prominence as an architecture center, and its status at the start of the 21st century. CAB gives Chicago the opportunity to reestablish that prominence.

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Platforms as Concept in Practice
Joan Vorderbruggen, Hennepin Theatre Trust

As Director of Public Art and Placemaking for Hennepin Theatre Trust, Joan was charged with enlivening the corridor along Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis, home to the city’s three major theatres, which was originally constructed to serve as the center of art and culture in the city. As the section that has maintained more of its human-scale architecture than any other area of Minneapolis, Hennepin Avenue also attracts people who create community by making the street a home many of them do not have, and where many of them wait for the organizations that provide human services and shelter to open in the evening.

Joan was initially charged with building upon the existing platform of the Hennepin Theatre Trust, the largest arts-and-culture institution in the city, to attract suburban audiences, its core constituency, to the Avenue’s public space. Joan was successful in securing a large grant from Southwest Airlines for a project, Five to Ten, to enliven five blocks of Hennepin Avenue. At the behest of the organization’s leadership, she reluctantly staged a series of ill-conceived events for an absent audience, which were “emotionally painful” failures. Aspects of the projects, like partnering with Mad Dads, a group of men returning from incarceration and coming back from using drugs and gang violence, to provide security, and providing chess tables, were clear successes. Subsequent events presented performances by local youth, who Joan engaged in the process of co-creating events. As a platform, Hennepin has been a canvas for creativity, for unlearning and relearning.

Joan shared a video of testimony from one of the Mad Dads. He described how the partnership with Hennepin Trust created a platform for Mad Dads to interact with members of the community they see along Hennepin Avenue every day. To get to know people and offer information and support to individuals in self-destructive and self-defeating patterns, as interventions toward seeking treatment and employment. The Mad Dads nurture value in people who are seen as “the least, the last, and the lost.”

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Meida McNeal, Chicago Park District
Meida is Arts & Culture Manager for the Chicago Park District’s Arts, Culture & Nature Program. Her department is responsible for providing original programming and supporting existing programming, as well as providing general support for CPD staff. The Arts & Culture department maintains an arts partnership program with 30+ arts partners embedded in parks across the city and provides professional development for cultural instructors in the district. The department also conducts a range of youth arts programs, which are being restructured toward cultivating the next generation of cultural stewards.

They started the Re-Center project in 2015 to address uneven levels of arts offerings and expertise at the 15 cultural centers across the city that are designed to be arts and culture hubs, relevant to the communities they serve. There are currently three cultural liaisons who work in three different cultural centers over the course of a year to foster enhanced arts experiences and participation for area residents. During this third year of the project, they are working in parks on Chicago’s West and Southeast sides to create and cultivate new artists and cultural stewards from the surrounding communities.

Because activities in parks are skewed toward sports and recreation, they work with leadership to promote the Re-Center project through a series of events. Listening Parties are the first step in bringing together 40–100 individuals who the liaison identifies, through community outreach, as cultural stakeholders to discuss the past, present, and future of park cultural activities, including mining the nostalgia of older residents.

For three to four months after that, park staff holds Meet-ups with the most active participants. The cultural centers also meet throughout the year to cultivate a network that provides support. The third step in the process is Circulations, a conceptual process for learning about activities at other centers to expand the tool kit. One of their Circulations prompts is a simulation role-playing game developed by Salon Member Angela Tillges when she was on staff at the Chicago Park District. They also distribute field guides to creating arts-and-culture programming among the different cultural centers.

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Tayyib Smith, Little Giant Creative
Little Giant Creative, a project Tayyib co-founded 10 years ago, specializes in cultural competency for brands, institutions, and nonprofits. Work with their main client, Heinekin USA, for whom they develop messaging to speak to multicultural audiences, gives the firm agency and ability to do social justice work. Collaborating with clients in cultural competency, they create websites, host events series, and help clients frame their brands to diverse audiences.

Tayyib used to be in the music business and, through music, learned how to create platforms for speaking with diverse audiences. Ten years ago, it was rare for brands to have any understanding or intellectual framework for how to speak to audiences of people of color, or audiences of women. Since then, the firm has developed programming for City Hall Presents, an underutilized space, which included 36 concerts in public space with contemporary ballet, poetry events, and drumming groups. The firm created the first multicultural tourism campaign for the City of Philadelphia, called Philly 360. For the Sharp Insight Campaign, which won the Knight News Challenge, they organized a series of events in barbershops to talk to African-American men, from a nonpartisan perspective, about civic engagement.

Other projects include the Dare to Imagine capital campaign for the African American Museum in Philadelphia.

Over time, they’ve learned that, without empathy, you can’t have conversations that go anywhere. They encourage clients to have conversations with audiences, not speak directly to them, which is what hierarchical organizations and institutions usually do.

Little Giant Creative worked on an initiative, TruthToPower, as part of a cohort for the DNC campaign last year that included 100 artists who did artwork that spoke to social justice issues. Tayyib related an indicator of TruthToPower’s effectiveness. They got 250-million social media impressions in three days, and were successful in drawing 10,000 people into a 20,000 square-foot space. The DNC got 35-million social media impressions from their campaign.

In 2011 they moved out of a space they had been in for several years, and pitched to a developer friend an idea for a co-working space, which had starting taking off as a concept in 2010. The friend thought the idea wouldn’t work. In 2013, in Chicago, they built out a 100,000 square-foot co-working space. Soon after, they began demolition for what became their Pipeline co-working space in Philadelphia. The Knight Foundation, which had been sharing space with the City of Philadelphia, broke their lease to become Pipeline’s first tenant.

Tayyib noted that, according to a recent study by Pew Charitable Trusts, four out of five businesses in Philadelphia are owned by white people. Paradoxically, at one time, the city was called the New Jerusalem because of the history of free blacks living there, and more businesses in Philadelphia were owned by blacks than anywhere else in the Western hemisphere. Creative Cities Lab, under development, will be a series of events to educate communities that have benefitted from social-engineering policies, such as redlining, and for economically impoverished communities that may not have the skills to articulate what they’re experiencing.

The recent Little Giant Creative platform he’s most proud of is the Institute of Hip Hop Entrepreneurship, for which they won a Knight Cities Challenge grant in 2016. Because of his experience in the music world, Tayyib has many colleagues through Hip Hop, who are not in the Hip Hop business. One, a friend who is the creative director for Spotify, who is also a venture capitalist, discovered Lady Gaga when he was a producer, after he started out as a street teamer distributing leaflets. For many of these colleagues, across a wide range of industries around the world, their first business experience was Hip Hop, which gave them an independent road map to a career. The Institute of Hip Hop Entrepreneurship works with 24 students over nine months—including a young woman who wants to teach fiscal literacy to children and another who wants to create accessible vegan foods—to inspire them to use Hip Hop thinking to create their own business.

Creating the thing that makes the thing.

Afternoon Workshop, Salon #8
During the last three Salon Sessions, Members met in the afternoon with Naomi Miller, Place Lab’s Operations and Administrative Manager and Carson Poole, Project Specialist, to discuss the 9 Ethical Redevelopment Principles.

During Salon #7, we reviewed the first three Principles. During Salon #8, we reviewed the second set of three, and during Salon #9, the last three.

Carson presented us with essentially the same questions about the utility of the 9 Principles and the language used to explain them. He also asked us to consider what additional information or adjustments in approach might be warranted in taking a document about Ethical Redevelopment, its ethos or practice, into a setting beyond the environment of the Salon series.

The workshop group for Salon #8 was small, and a few of the people seated at the table had attended only one or two Sessions.

The discussion focused on ideas for creating a document or documents that expand or interpret the basic Principles in ways that are relevant to people from diverse disciplines and professional fields. One Member said she would be interested in having an evaluation modality that allowed people, primarily program staff in different disciplines, to separate out how different practitioners applied the Principles differently.

Another Member suggested using storytelling as a technique for how to elicit thoughtful ideas from community members about what they would like to see in their neighborhood. The document might be designed along the lines of a welcome packet, for people seeking to learn about a community.

Carson noted that the process of developing, or using, an Ethical Redevelopment handbook might be about presenting best practices; or seeking to find common ground, a shared language in the Principles among individuals or entities with different perspectives or needs. The process of integrating the Principles of Ethical Redevelopment into public policies would be much more complex, requiring translation into more technical and less poetic terms. We talked about providing more foregrounding in the document, to achieve this; recreating the document differently for different audiences.

Afternoon Workshop, Salon #9
During the workshop before Salon #9, Carson asked us to consider some of the same questions about the utility of the Principles and how they might be used going forward, in other contexts. Might a toolkit be useful? Providing case studies?

In addition to considering the language and the utility of the language, what about the ultimate utility, in broad terms, of Ethical Redevelopment? How might the document or approach, or something similar, be shared? Are there other themes, theories, or topics that come to mind?

More Salon Members attended this group that the earlier afternoon workshops, and several of the Members had attended at least three, in some cases all, the Salon Sessions. Additionally, at least three of the Members in the workshop had specific experience developing real estate projects, which lent a layer of expertise to the discussion that earlier afternoon discussions about the Principles lacked. The discussion was robust, with lots of nuanced examples and hypotheticals. Given that, in some way, we had had the chance to get to know one another, and the material related to the Principles, over nine months, there were a lot of opinions freely shared with ample space and flexibility for friendly challenging and intragroup questioning. I remember, at the time and afterwards, feeling how satisfying it was to arrive at this point in the Salon process: we knew, complemented, and valued one another and the distinct expertise and perspective we each brought to the process. In some important ways, it felt like we were just getting started in conversation that grappled directly with specific issues and strategies.

One focus of the conversation was on areas where individuals and entities, including a city council panel, demonstrated a clear need for or interest in the Principles of Ethical Redevelopment. Another Member said that his city seems to be getting a lot of media attention for innovation. But because of economic development, there is also a lot of displacement, and media attention around that. No written standards exist for how investors or developers should be operating, or, more importantly, how they might be encouraged to operate. Recent plans for a development by Whole Foods were cancelled because of conflicting communication and lack of clear expectations from the city.

The conversation also explored how the Principles might be used. One Member suggested that the Principles might be drawn up like a constitution, not a set of laws or regulations, but providing a sense of direction to be deliberated on a case-by-case basis. We discussed the possibility of distinguishing between a larger, more abstract framework, and guidelines for specific, demonstrable steps that a developer might be encouraged or expected to follow. A baseline expectation of what is required of a development, with a clear standard or standards, allows a city to refuse a development project if it does not meet their standards. Another Member said he can only realistically envision options that are either regulations, incentives, or good will.

Carson said that a couple of people have noted that the Ethical Redevelopment Principles might be a starting point for evaluating projects. Quantifiable metrics are needed in order for this to be something a developer might willing to consider. A couple of Members talked about the value of storytelling as a strategy for evaluation, and for communicating the needs, desires, and humanity of community members in situations where they are rarely welcomed at the table. Whether it’s meeting with funders, developers, or government agencies, dialogue with community residents is seen as inconvenient or unnecessary or problematic.

To evoke empathy and a sense of shared humanity, one Member is initiating a project to create a public platform for storytelling by people who are never invited to the table. People who are currently rendered invisible will be seen. She believes people of all backgrounds can begin to see each other differently, to take the time and make the effort to stop and connect. How do you take visuals like this and use them with developers? Someone suggested developing a grid that connects stories of community residents with a particular Principle.

Ideally, someone else noted, community members should be prepared, ready to present their ideas for development directly to a developer. Another Member said that if you don’t have a long-range plan that adjusts to the way market forces operate in low-income communities, you’re going to have to remain vigilant, showing up developers again and again. Market forces are relentless. If you don’t have regulations or public pressure on your side, you can’t let up.

It seemed to me that we were talking about shifting the cultural paradigm when it comes to how we, the collective we, think and act vis a vis development. There are different ways to achieve this, through peer or public pressure, mostly—the way we tell one vendor that if they don’t recycle, we will shop at the business that does. Can we find an ally to convince a developer to do the ethical thing? Or consider Theaster’s strategy when he makes it cool to do the right thing.

After much back and forth about tactics for dealing with developers, someone asked if we, representing communities, were going to continue to be driven by or react to outside forces of development. Is the ultimate goal to continue to have to do these interventions? Or do we want something different to happen? What if we dare to think about stepping outside of the dynamic of anticipating, reacting to, or being conciliatory with developers?

The conversation had come full circle, back to Theaster’s truth-telling during Salon #6, Place Over Time, when he challenged Salon Members to apply what they’ve learned to ensure that communities are not in the vulnerable position of being at the mercy of someone or something else.

“We have the capacity to self-organize,” Theaster said. “All of the solutions to the challenges we face are in this room.”

Big gratitude to Theaster and the Place Lab team for facilitating the amazing journey through the 9 Principles and the Salon series.

Thanks, too, for the kick-ass karaoke after the final Salon Session, when performers sang “Time After Time,” “Groovin’ Together,” “Baby, Baby, Baby,” “What a Fool Believes,” “Tainted Love, “Purple Haze,” “Stop in the Name of Love,” and “Let’s Go Crazy.”

Hang time. Indescribable.

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields