Naomi Davis: Reflections on the Public Convening for Ethical Redevelopment

Naomi Davis, Urban Sustainability Expert

Naomi Davis, Urban Sustainability Expert

On June 22, 2016, Place Lab introduced Ethical Redevelopment with a Public Convening. Held at the Logan Center for the Arts, this this interactive, theatrical event explored and showcased how residents, artists, entrepreneurs, developers, and civic leaders are joining forces to explore a more equitable approach to community transformation.

In this guest blog, urban sustainability expert Naomi Davis reflects on the Public Convening.


Theaster Gates experiments.

A way of thinking about islands of people: literally loved into living themselves and their neighbors as "acts-of-art." Places are made in the confluence of regulations, performance, contemplation, and questions. Is Theaster asking how places work best for art-beings?

And what would Theaster’s walk in art+ethics say to the ages if lifted from the dust of a dig by archeologists a millennium from now? Scholars and school kids judge the creativity and scruples of societies long ago and far away – an exercise in their powers of observation – but maybe without the key ingredient: intimacy. Will future folks feel pressed-up-close-and-personal where the most important question one can ask is, “how do I feel about myself in your presence?” 

Will they feel his art places had virtue? Did folks felt better about themselves there? Did folks feel better feeling about me, too?

When observing lovers court and spark, we naturally grasp the ebb and flow of feelings – but not so much when neighbors come and go through buildings. Yet, if as people move through time and place they experience “Embrace,” then hasn’t something virtuous happened? They felt loved!


My own heart skipped a beat at Ethical Redevelopment when guest expert Cathy Cohen moved in close on the impact of choices driven by the placemakers called developers. She put this question in their mouths:

How will this decision demonstrate love for the young people in this community?
— Cathy Cohen, Black Youth Project 100

Case closed. This was a litmus test anyone could understand and stand for. Wasn’t it right/on?

Still…there are so many ways to love, doesn’t the question become “how do I want to be loved?”

Do I want to be loved by a high price for my home and a soft kiss goodbye? Do I want to be loved by a new boom box next door beating my wall like it wants in? Do I want to be loved by a flourishing banner reminding me to "stand my ground, before it’s too late"? Do I want to be loved by "freedom of choice" in spite of my race and class?

Thus my mad crush on Kerwin Charles percolated at Ethical Redevelopment when he questioned:

What is the role of the previous residents who’ve lived through everything and all of it, and how do we spread the gains [the pleasures of beauty?] across historical residents and new entrants?
— Kerwin Charles, UChicago Harris School of Public Policy

The “long arch” of Dr. Martin Luther King was a ‘journey to justice’ – a journey requiring the strength to love all those who didn’t love you back with their processes, distributions, outcomes…or redevelopments.

I’m clear: I want to feel good about myself in the presence of redevelopment. I want to feel good about my freedom of choice – that my freedom of choice matters more than the freedom of the market to extend America’s extreme racial wealth disparity…to foster my failure in the real estate market of cash buyers…to sacrifice my displacement on the altar of profit…to profit again from the structures of inequity.


As a “Curator of Questions” I selected an audience question about Ethical Development and ‘capitalism’ – I thought, “yaaassss, where the rubber meets the road…”

The question was passed to the room where straight away capitalism was declared unethical, unnatural – because it enshrined monopoly…because it fed on scarcity. Two guests unconditionally declared it must die.

And after a robust run, the night was done – a performance metaphor for The 9 Principles of Ethical Development – another Theaster work of art. A complex program with so much flourish but also simply elegant…a profusion with a calming effect…a program that left me at peace.

Courtesy of Naomi Davis

Courtesy of Naomi Davis


The archeological dig of not a millennium, but a month later – 

I observe I want to feel the virtues of life that imitates art. Judgment, grace, and mercy are the instruments of God, just as art is a gift from God to the province of man. Our Creator loves us unconditionally – all we need do is love ourselves enough to know it and choose our god-like powers of design/build. Art also requires our wisdom: its prism separates us inside, where we must decide if it loves us – and if not, leave it. And when redevelopment doesn’t love us, our freedom of choice not to leave requires we replace hateful old infrastructure that would rob us of our sovereign right.

At Blacks in Green™ we use the prism of love to separate the visible spectrum of Environment, Economy, and Equity. We teach The 8 Principles of Green-Village-Building™ – The 12 Propositions of Grannynomics™ – “The Conservation Lifestyle/The Beautiful Life” – “The Age of the Neighbor Investor” – and preach that “Nothing Trumps Ownership of the Land” – especially for those whom the market tends to target, marginalize, disinvest, and then displace. In that order, we have been systematically and repeatedly removed from whatever homesteads ‘those-who-don’t-love-us’ wanted. For BIG™ – redevelopment requires a new currency exchange – where homes aren’t mere commodities…profits flow on a level playing field…and control of who comes-and-goes is powered by neighbor agency.

Audience response board.

Audience response board.

I observe that here in the Centennial of America’s Great Migration, many African Americans feel at the mercy of a market that does not love us, the purgatory of ‘a dream deferred’…no 40 acres, no mule – even as we hold the inalienable, God-given power in our hands to create a New Promised Land whose love we do feel. We needn’t yield to demands that the art-we-are and the places-we-make can only be improved by adding another color. We are the artists and monochromes are also beautiful. Who assumes a Chinese enclave must be improved with the addition of Greeks?

I love myself, and I love art that reminds me I am beautiful as I am. I want to live in a place that loves me, too. I want to live where the gains of beauty are sweetly shared…where I’m more important than profit…where seven generations ahead my children and the archeologists can feel it was so.

Intention, policy, and practice – in that order – bend the long arc of justice. Kudos to Theaster for putting love first, where it belongs.

Ah, the art of the deal.

Join the conversation on the Ethical Redevelopment Public Forum.