Artists and scholars convene to address equitable neighborhood development

University Communications

Ashley C. Smith arrived at the “Public Convening on Ethical Redevelopment,” sponsored by UChicago’s Place Lab, looking for arts ideas and inspiration to bring back to her hometown of Lexington, Ky.

What she found were artists, academics, community activists and even one self-professed ARTivist. They gathered June 22 in the Performance Hall at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts for a theatrical event focused on nine principles of ethical redevelopment and their potential for rebuilding neglected communities.

The day’s performers and speakers were working toward a common goal of equitable neighborhood development that includes local voices in the process.

“I’m trying to grow a network, and I’m interested in the exchange of ideas, of hope and of purpose,” said Smith, development coordinator for The Lyric Theatre, which serves as an arts center and community gathering place. “I ask myself: ‘How am I getting my hands dirty in the rebuilding?’”

Organized by the Place Lab, a partnership between the UChicago Arts initiative Arts + Public Life, and the Harris School of Public Policy, the aim of the ethical redevelopment public convening was to spark conversations in cities across the country.

Place Lab, led by Theaster Gates, professor of Visual Arts and the College, and director of Arts + Public Life, has been focused on arts- and culture-led transformation in forgotten neighborhoods. He said the nine principles created by the Place Lab and urban practitioners in various fields are just a beginning.

Place Lab’s working definition of ethical redevelopment is the shifting value system from conventional financial and development practices to conscientious interventions in the urban context. The nine principles include: repurpose and re-propose; engaged participation; pedagogical moments; the indeterminate; design; place over time; stack, leverage and access; constellations; and platforms.

“These are homegrown ideas. We are learning from each other, playing off of each other’s ideas,” said Gates, noting there’s nothing magical about the number nine. “These principles could change into 37 or two.”

Act I: Envisioning the nine principles

Artists, urban planners and activists captured the nine principles through personal expressions delivered in bursts of urgency, conversational persuasion, sentiments of deep sadness, simmering soul-bytes, and calls for understanding and action.

Rebirth Poetry Ensemble blended poetry and song to capture the first principle, which is repurpose + re-propose. Voices sung, hummed, overlapped and intertwined, providing lyrical glimpses of ghetto life, with a spotlight on the smallest of inhabitants. “Some of these angels don’t even have backyards,” said a performer, so they play in the alleyways and use what’s at hand to create their childhood games.

Gates, who described what everyone had just witnessed as “policy performance,” co-hosted the event with Steve Edwards, executive director of UChicago’s Institute of Politics. Others performing the nine principles were Nadia Sulayman, Asha Rosa, Ethan Michaeli, E’mon Lauren, Arthur Wright, Peter Lavavi and Stacy Patrice, Kristiana Rae Colón and Coultrain.

Act II: Academic voices

Five scholars addressed the obstacles and challenges to ethical redevelopment, including centuries of anti-Black policies and practices and discrimination against communities of color. They spoke about the roles of movement building, the queer community and black space in the ethical redevelopment of a city.

Cathy J. Cohen, the David and Mary Winton Green Professor of Political Science and the College, referenced NBA player LeBron James, who’s known not just for his championship wins—including the 2016 NBA Championship for the Cleveland Cavaliers—but also for his philanthropy to support children in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. “LeBron James said the city took care of him,” said Cohen, referencing the basketball player’s support of scholarships for children living in poverty, a life he experienced as a child.

She said the people who can push for change in neighborhoods and end “the systematic attack on black communities,” are those who are “marginalized and neglected, those with skin in the game. Can we say that we care about black children when their education is inequitable and they live in poverty? How does ethical redevelopment happen in such conditions?” she asked.

Charlene A. Carruthers, national director of the Black Youth Project 100, reminded the audience that “ethical redevelopment cannot be a feel-good conversation,” because of historical inequities.

Also speaking at the public convening were Kerwin Charles, interim dean and the Edwin and Betty L. Bergman Distinguished Service Professor at Chicago Harris; Lisa Yun Lee, a faculty member at the University of Illinois at Chicago; and Mabel O. Wilson, a professor at Columbia University.

Lee addressed the role of the artist in the ethical redevelopment of the city and the significant work of women reformers in the early 20th century. She said “it would be irresponsible to imagine the role of the artist in ethical development in Chicago without also remembering some of the foremothers of this work in our city.” She added the Hull House Settlement on the West Side, now the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, was run by a “group of reformers, social sculptors, if you will, who lived and dreamed of a better world for all of us at the turn of the century.”

Act III: Conversing

Gates ended the afternoon taking questions from the audience. One question was about gentrification and if that could be the future for the South Side communities that he’s working to rebuild.

He said there’s always the chance for anxiety about gentrification and its effect on property taxes. Organizers for community change must always think about how to build alliances within neighborhoods and communities and address economic generation. Networks or “constellations” of people who are moving change forward must always include residents of a place, Gates said.