Guest Blogger: Aaron Rose on Salon Sessions, An Interlude

 Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Ethical Redevelopment Salon Series
By Aaron Rose

A series of gatherings like the Ethical Redevelopment Salon series, with a commitment to group process, takes on a life of its own. It has its own rhythms and patterns: crescendos and decrescendos of energy and synergy, relationship building and discovery. And periods when things seem not to come together or to fall flat. The experience of the collective ride—surrendering to it, trusting it—can be as necessary and valuable as the information conveyed.

There’s a wide portal we pass through when we sign up to engage with a group process: an exhilarating moment of openness to inquiry and discovery. Innovative in content, structure, and spirit, the Salon series started out like any great adventure, with enthusiastic meetings of Members from cities throughout the Midwest—Detroit, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Akron—the East Coast—Philadelphia and Pittsburgh—and the South—Charlotte, North Carolina, and Lexington, Kentucky, and a large contingent of locals from Chicago. Once inside the process, that big mindspace of wonder and receptivity takes on the dimensions of the actual, when we start to integrate—to translate and assimilate —what we see, hear, and say to one another. This is when the real work—the work we do with others, and the work we do with ourselves—begins.

There was another, larger dynamic churning in the background during preparation for the Salon series and through the first three Sessions in July, September, and October. The presidential campaign reached its peak, with the debates and the frenzy of polls and predictions leading up to November 8. The implications of the Brexit vote on June 23 added to this cauldron of uncertainty and concern; to hyper-awareness and deeper questioning of challenges that might lay ahead in a national platform enthralled with beliefs and promises openly hostile to progressive movements and social change.

In recent years, writers, cultural workers, and activists have infiltrated collective assumptions to open lock boxes of buried history, revealing specific racial, economic, and environmental injustices institutionalized in policies and practices that have, historically, enforced segregation and unequal treatment with consequences so pervasive and so devastating to communities of color as to appear endemic. Think Black Lives Matter; historian Beryl Satter’s Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America; TaNehisi Coates and “The Case for Reparations”; and Michelle Alexander’s Mass Incarceration: The New Jim Crow. Just out in May is a new book by Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law. An excellent piece of investigative reporting by Nikole Hannah-Jones for Propublica, “Living Apart: How the Government Betrayed a Landmark Civil Rights Law,” was brought to our attention by Dr. Lisa Yun Lee, the new executive director of National Public Housing Museum and a Rebuild Foundation board member, during an afternoon event for Salon #6. 

We know now that embedded in the structures of our metropolitan regions are designs that separated black Americans from other Americans, and deliberately disadvantaged black communities. Federal policies developed by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) in the 1930s during the Roosevelt administration, following New Deal legislation, explicitly benefitted real estate developers and development of residential communities for people considered to be white. They laid the groundwork for decades of engineered advantages in housing, education, and civic amenities for privileged communities, while black communities continued to be segregated, exploited, and starved of resources.

With the election of the National Disgrace, and the pile-up of incompetence, perfidy, and other manifestations of mal intent among his advisors and clown car cabinet, we are facing down an unapologetic foe of equity and justice whose entire desperate endgame is to reseal the lockbox, pull the covers of ignorance and denial over the national consciousness, and drag us back down into sleep.  

The first two Ethical Redevelopment Salon Sessions laid groundwork—ethical, aspirational groundwork—for the intention and interactive dynamic of the series: for asking basic questions that serve as a premise for inquiry. The first Salon, with the principle “Repurpose and Re-propose,” raised questions about how one looks at a structure or space, not merely or primarily as property, private or otherwise, that exists for ownership and profit, but as a place that offers opportunities for human experience and human endeavor; for transformation of the individuals and community who use and inhabit the place. Like the art of sculpture, the practitioner who sets out to repurpose and re-propose allows the essence of the material at hand to reveal its intended shape and manifest its purpose. Rather than impose, the ethical practitioner co-creates.

Similarly, discussion during Salon #2, which addressed the principle of “Engaged Participation,” circled around how we discover and sustain the essential element of relationships, critical to achieving short- and long-term success with any project. Who and how we engage is another organic, alchemical process that requires respect and openness and allowing what is present and possible to emerge, over adherence to strict timetables and preconceived plans. Many questions and truths were raised: the kinds of questions, confessions, and truths overlooked or consciously avoided in typical transactions of capitalist development, but that are essential to ethical redevelopment.

In recent years, writers, cultural workers, and activists have infiltrated collective assumptions to open lock boxes of buried history, revealing specific racial, economic, and environmental injustices institutionalized in policies and practices that have, historically, enforced segregation and unequal treatment with consequences so pervasive and so devastating to communities of color as to appear endemic…
We know now that embedded in the structures of our metropolitan regions are designs that separated black Americans from other Americans, and deliberately disadvantaged black communities. Federal policies developed by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) in the 1930s during the Roosevelt administration, following New Deal legislation, explicitly benefitted real estate developers and development of residential communities for people considered to be white. They laid the groundwork for decades of engineered advantages in housing, education, and civic amenities for privileged communities, while black communities continued to be segregated, exploited, and starved of resources.

I think, especially, of the statement of one participant, an elder resident of the Greater Grand Crossing community, who attended Salon #2 and who spoke of working with and responding to the needs of people who have been most harmed by community disinvestment and civic neglect. She asked, “How do you touch people who don’t know what it means to be touched?”

This profound question was a prelude to the two Salons that followed, which addressed the principles of “Pedagogical Moments” and “The Indeterminate.” Salons #3 and #4, with their poetic titles and evocative themes, allowed us to set aside routine expectations and habitual activities that can appear to dominate the exigencies of everyday reality, and enter that higher realm that governs how we view our prospects for change, the bigger picture of the landscape in which we make choices. This is the aspirational vista in which we employ vision and activate to our advantage the complexities and nuances of what is and what is possible—the true drivers of what play out in the every day. They were pivotal, powerful sessions.

They were also the Sessions that straddled the before and after—that took us from the months of suspended disbelief of the danger facing our country, to the stark disbelief at the end of that long period of wondering.

In this new era, worry replaced wonder and a more or less reliable landscape of reason and acknowledgement of, if not adherence to, to fundamental human values cracked open and seemed to fall away. So when we met in November, the week after the election, there was a sense of new, cruel possibilities creeping up from a dank basement floor of fear and all the baser emotions and reactions that fear breeds.

The Salon series continued to unfold in the shadow of this national event. A few weeks after the election, in response to a question I posed about living and working under the new administration, Theaster wrote, “my labor is my politics.” As we live with an administration that bounces between aberration and disaster, we do well to remember that what we do every day is our response and has the power to shape reality in our cities.

In the months since the January 20 inauguration, articles and talks have popped up in digital, print, and broadcast media, about the ability of cities to elude psychic capture and attempted hegemony by a toxic federal regime.

NPR replayed a series of TED talks for TED Radio Hour. Building Better Cities included a talk by the political theorist Benjamin Barber, Founder of the Global Parliament of Mayors and author of If Mayors Ruled the World, who talked about cities as the true crucibles of democracy, where the potential for incubating change is great. Mayors, Barber pointed out—using the example of Michael Bloomberg who was a Republican, then a Democrat, then an Independent—are not elected and motivated by ideology, but by their ability to get things done. Within this framework, we also have power, independent of partisan politics, to get things done.

Neil Kleiman, director of the NYU Wagner Innovation Labs, wrote in an op-ed for Next City about the importance of data during the current administration, “In the Age of Trump, Open Data Matters Now More Than Ever,” that “while the national conversation may be caught in a mess of alternative facts and imagined realities, cities are moving forward, using data to make sure that the road ahead is smooth.”

And in a piece for his CityLab publication, titled “The United Cities of America,” Richard Florida wrote: “Americans on the right have long argued for the devolution of power from the federal government to the states. With President Trump in office, Americans on the left should consider taking that idea further: devolving power to cities.”

With that in mind, I quote Theaster when he started off the evening session of Salon #4 with a call to action: “We can actually be the fuck about it.”

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