In much urbanist theory and scholarship through recent decades, there is an ongoing and appropriate concern with the inclusions and exclusions that result from types of use of public space, and the problems associated with its appropriation for private use including, for instance, de jure segregationist and neglectful low-income civic planning. Much of this is founded on the transactionalism pioneered by thinkers such as John Dewey and Hillary Putnam to find solutions to widespread alienation in the 1960s.
Describing a shared “organism environment” of the body politic and its civic environs that was intended to present a way for individuals to act over time to find their place in it, this background notion of how to effectively countenance the “good life” was in part challenged by collective worldwide actions inspired by the flawed, but ingenious Occupy movement, which sought to agitate against the norms and values of public institutions that have been ineffectual at serving the interests of those on the margins.
Today, mega-developments like Lincoln Yards (and Hudson Yards in New York) are front-and-center in these discussions, as the pendulum of state support swings back toward private interests, with the transfer of public lands into private ownership atop a laundry list of troubling, exploitative transitions of public resources into private hands. Indeed, many such transitions follow on the heels of growing suburbanization and white flight characteristic of a great many cities, including Chicago.
Chicago’s history in this regard presents us with a complex portrait, described by economist Janice Madden at the University of Pittsburgh as “one of only two major cities where the concentration of poverty grew at a faster rate in the suburbs than in the inner city from 1980 to 2000,” with the advent of the “conversion of office buildings, warehouses and factories into condominiums,” high-income luxury development housing downtown and in places like the West Loop. In the latter neighborhood, by way of anecdote, Affordable Requirements Ordinance rules mandating that developers “put affordable apartments in all new developments of ten or more units that seek zoning changes from the city or use city land or subsidies” were ineffectual due to a loophole allowing developers to pay an “in lieu” fee to opt out of the requirement. The rules were skirted so consistently that it prompted Alderman Walter Burnett Jr. to describe his ward as becoming “a bigot neighborhood.”
These types of clashes are evidence of a larger, ongoing struggle for the preservation of publicly equitable spaces against corporatist attempts to appropriate them for private gain. Examples of successful defenses range from attorney Thomas Geoghegan’s denial of the Olympics and the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art the use of our parklands. Failure to defend against such efforts are also numerous, and include the thoroughgoing privatization of public services and closing of South Side schools. Alternatively, there are examples of attempts to correct exclusionary rollbacks of access to public spaces, such as Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s effort to expand library services to include Sunday hours, and the Friends of the Park’s efforts to defend Montrose Beach against JAM Productions’ determination to stage shows, particularly at the expense of endangered bird species who have nested there. These instances mark shifts in stakes that have expanded and detracted from the public equity, and what that means in terms of shared commitment to improve the world this city provides access to so well.
With all this recent history in mind, it’s notable that in the statement for the third installment of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, kicking off this month, economics (or oikonomos in the philosophical nomenclature) takes center stage: “Today, despite the promise of economic development, Chicago, like many other established and emergent global metropolises, faces challenging urban conditions that require the reimagining of forms of exchange between human activity, technology and the natural world.” Note again that word, exchange, upon which the promise of economic development is predicated, packed with notions of fair trade and equal value—could we not go even one step further when imagining the future of our public spaces, to reflect on and question the efficacy of non-transactional approaches to public equity and, especially, of the kinds of assembly it may help to foster? Dewey was, of course, critical of its neoliberal implications, but with the shift in dialogue to a concern with public space, can we not incorporate a modicum of class consciousness into the social engagement these programs intend to address?
It’s tricky ideological territory. One may invoke privatization arguments in the guise of anti-transactionalism, citing examples like the Bundy clan occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, justified using Posse Comitatus-derived views that led to the live shooting death of member Robert LaVoy Finicum in a standoff with the FBI and Oregon State Police. Essentially motivated by specious claims over grazing rights to public lands, this archconservative approach in fact wasn’t ultimately concerned with anti-transactional notions so much as asserting an argument about economic (read: white) entitlements.
Refuges and parklands, however, are central to the discussion about how we delineate the use of public space, and the kinds of equitable engagements we may be able to foster. “Friends of the Parks has been imagining a project that we call ‘Common Ground for the Common Good,’” writes executive director Juanita Irizarry, “centering parks as gathering spaces to bring Chicagoans together to have potentially difficult conversations. These would start as conversations about what our parks mean to us, assuming that parks are important to all of us, though there are lots of different entry points for caring about parks. For us, this flows from a lot of internal and external discourse—whether correct or not—about the different ways and levels that different racial and ethnic groups as well as people of different income groups may or may not value parks, green space, the environment, and so on. We think it’s valid and important to have these discussions and to find ways to find common ground, despite the many ways that each of us differs. We see this as extremely important to our very fractured democracy, as well.”
In any serious attempt to thread the needle of these fractures, and to define potential future notions of public assembly, and its relationship to non-transactional spaces, we should also include libraries, playgrounds, streets, beaches, plazas and paved ways, POPS-like spaces, and a variety of other public-private spaces, as well as reflect on shifting definitions in the discourse on how to repair existing exclusionary rifts. There is a rich historical record written in our architecture of the awareness of the need. “Andrew Carnegie funded construction of more than 1,800 public libraries in the United States and Canada,” notes Lynn Osmond, president and CEO of the Chicago Architecture Center, “to provide equal access to knowledge for self-improvement regardless of wealth. While those libraries still deliver on the original promise, fresh commitments are required. Former Mayor Emanuel invested in new neighborhood libraries designed by Chicago architects that include affordable housing. John Ronan Architects’ Independence Library and Apartments in Irving Park; SOM’s West Loop Branch Library in a former Harpo Studio building transformed by design lead Brian Lee; Perkins and Will’s Northtown Branch Library in West Ridge by a team led by design director Ralph Johnson. Mayor Lightfoot continued new investment in libraries that today provide high-speed internet access and homework assistance, by allocating budget to keep these critical resources open on Sundays.”
Mayor Lightfoot’s focus on libraries as essential public space reflects this ongoing and deeply rooted historical part the institutions have played in defining our civic spaces. Yet, against that background of a unified sense of civic duty, clouds of privatization loom larger and seem more insidious. Part of the vast willingness to embrace corporatization appears to pose questions about probable sanitization of the public discourse—it’s hard to imagine corporatist assent, for instance, to any kind of polemics in public-private spaces, partnerships that historically “have put entire neighborhoods under corporate control but this control is only visible to those who are excluded.” In fact, dissent of many kinds is then excluded from the publicity that should be included to inform policy-making on how the use of public space should be designated.
“A thriving, livable city requires a variety of well-designed and thoughtfully executed civic spaces (neither private nor commercial) where residents gather and interact,” says Osmond. “Meeting our neighbors face-to-face is more critical than ever before because digital spaces seem to be isolating our communities. Vibrant civic spaces are part of Chicago’s architectural legacy extending back to the 1909 Plan of Chicago that identified six categories the plan would address. Half of those six wholly or in part address civic spaces: improvement of the lakefront; an outer park system linked by boulevards; development of centers of intellectual life and civic administration to give coherence and unity to the city.”
Osmond sees indications for growth in coming years, and an even greater need to consider expansion of access to non-transactional spaces. “The population of greater Chicago will likely reach ten million in 2024. We will see density increase in the city and suburbs in subsequent years. These more numerous residents require not only improved transportation and other infrastructure but also improved civic spaces and parks. Chicago’s innovative architects and urban planners can lead Chicago in a citywide conversation about what Chicago should look like in ten, twenty or thirty years. In the early twentieth-century Chicago made good on key elements of the 1909 Plan of Chicago in developing affordable housing (the Chicago bungalow) with access to both parks and employment opportunities at nearby manufacturers.”
However successful historically, much manufacturing has since evaporated, and today bungalows may not provide an affordable-enough solution to housing for those in economic brackets that exclude ownership options. As the city becomes less and less economically accessible, more affordable options are needed, or solutions such as rent control, especially as concerns our city’s low-income and homeless populations. “Rent control can prevent displacement,” says Rosanna Rodriguez, newly elected alderwoman of the 33rd Ward, “and help increase affordability by limiting increases in rent to a reasonable schedule. It can also help small landlords by creating provisions to establish a tax credit and a repair fund for those who face challenges fixing buildings or are hit hard by property tax increases.” Among the notable handful of Democratic Socialists swept into office this year on such kitchen-table issues, rent control is not a radical idea. Supported in the pages of Crain’s Chicago Business, DSA member Carlos Ramirez-Rosa sees rising homelessness (current figures hover around 86,000 citywide) on the back of an eighteen-percent decrease in overall affordable housing options. In addition to including such critiques, as Osmond notes, many of the Center’s exhibits and programs are intended to attempt “the thorough, broad review needed to create a Twenty-First Century Plan of Chicago.” Practical solutions are needed.
Present-day solutions presented as elements of any future plan often assert the benefit of arts industries, usually on the back of assertions about the autonomy of art as an ostensibly pure good for driving civic change, regardless how notoriously difficult it has proven again and again to measure its efficacy. There’s also a dawning recognition that part of the challenge, as it is conceived in our cultural institutions, is how the role of art is too often reduced to its cultural exchange value. Much long-accepted conventional wisdom has claimed that the presence of arts industries are leading indicators and instigators of the advances of gentrification. Most recent studies, including one focusing on Chicago among a group of three other major American metropolises, have returned findings that indicate “the standard arts-led gentrification narrative is too generalized or simply no longer applicable to contemporary arts-gentrification processes.” In fact, the results outright indicate that the opposite is true, and that arts industries instead take advantage of the displacement that occurs due to gentrification.
To what degree, then, are arts industries, including architecture and attendant place-making theory and practices even capable of ameliorating the effects of gentrification, if at all? If we take the arts-as-revitalization case par excellence in Chicago, and think on Theaster Gates’ and the University of Chicago’s South Side art-as-civic-planning efforts, for instance, many don’t see the difference between an artist acquiring a property portfolio to create “anchor buildings” intended to draw cultural interest, the investment that’s supposed to follow, and how developers usually operate. Of course, these projects are intrinsically also about reversing current erasures as well as about seeing and realizing the value of black spaces and communities in and of themselves. But it also seems there’s a compelling argument that should be made, as many community activists will suggest, that the rigorous creation of community impact agreements with developers can help to assuage the displacement of poorer constituencies which inevitably occurs from rising property values.
Other projects, where artists have paired themselves with local institutions, such as the Floating Museum, a barge-turned-exhibition space collaboration between the artist’s collective of the same name and the DuSable Museum, have faced similar public-use challenges. For the iteration of the project at its 2017 LaSalle location install, artists were barred from placing works on the Chicago Riverwalk walkways for fear of blocking transit of the space for activities including jogging and dog-walking—although a dance party did ensue on the walks when music was played by a DJ on the barge.
On a purely institutional level, there seems to be an admirable and burgeoning recognition that more must be done, that beneficence is insufficient. There’s the example of The Museum of Contemporary Art’s public-engagement space, The Commons, which patrons can access free of charge, and which is designed to place “artistic and civic exchange at the heart of the museum.“ Much of this has incorporated a strong dance and performance art program. [Full disclosure: I presented there last year.]
The MCA’s program is in keeping with much conventional practice. Dance, movement and performance art, long examples of art’s ephemerality, and emblematic of Lucy Lippard-style “dematerialized” forms, traditionally intended to rebuff the commercial appropriation of art, have been enthusiastically embraced by museum programs in most major cities. Unsurprisingly, on the heels of the advent of participatory art forms, dance and performance have also been embraced and elevated across a great many institutional programs (including the Biennial), and are consistently granted longterm residencies at parks, and perform in those and other public spaces such as beaches and plazas across the city.
“Theories of politics are full of ideas, but they have been less successful in articulating how the concrete labor of participation necessary to execute those ideas is gathered through the movement of bodies in social time and space,” dance critic Randy Martin perspicaciously wrote. “Politics goes nowhere without movement.” Emulating the lessons of Occupy movements, dance and performance are seen as critical extensions of the body from the public and into institutional space, and transposed into these environments with the expectation of equally transformative outcomes.
However, as critic and theorist Claire Bishop noted recently, in an important critical essay about the widely reviled, newly opened New York performance space The Shed, this capacity has been very nearly hyper-extended, coming more and more to resemble an instance of institutional groupthink. “Every arts venue in the city seems to be developing a hybrid visual art and performance program: the Whitney Museum of American Art, the New Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and MoMA PS1, the Park Avenue Armory, Performance Space New York. Even the Metropolitan Museum of Art has a performing arts series.” Is engagement, then, sufficiently efficacious as an institutional bar? Sufficiently radical enough a model for addressing the inadequacies of urban inequality, or more an attempt to model a living avant-gardist measure of art’s social relevance within a notably reductive, more traditional framework of facilitating art and audience? Institutional reliance on appropriation of previously, supposedly ineffable art forms, such as the Judson era’s founding instance of avant-garde dance, can at times serve to heighten the art professional’s myopia, while evincing both a respect for an attempt to get the history right, as it can a blindness to the possibility of an art in an embrace of the here and now.
Chicago’s churning urban environments have long served as a social laboratory where the experiment in Democratic ideals of equality have been tested and strained against at times terrifying stressors of race, class and creed. It’s that tension itself that late Chicago critic James Yood used to refer to as the source of the city’s art-historical “figure in distress.” That distress persists today in the remains of a city still racially and economically divided across lines that mark the divisions of rustbelt collapse, compounded by a still-consequent global economic crisis, the ripples from which continue to echo beyond the drift of metropolis and into neighboring states. Our continued embrace of transactionalist approaches to these cataclysms legitimizes arguments that we should accede public space as a corrective are more than ever more than problematic: they present a continued inability to staunch the bleeding, finally to recover and heal.
Irizarry sees in these losses an exemplar of bureaucratic gridlock, rooted in a continued lack of clarity and definition about how we value our public versus private interests. “Friends of the Parks is extremely concerned about the trend of privatization of public spaces. We continue to push back hard against the ‘Lincoln Yards’ and ‘The 78’ developments because the green space that is envisioned for those spaces is often referred to as public, but it will be owned by the developers. The Chicago Park District inexplicably chooses not to receive that land into its portfolio, even after both developers have made public commitments to pay to create it and to maintain it in perpetuity, even after turning it over to the park district… In fact, our democracy may be even further in trouble if the private nature of the newer park spaces means that we cannot use them for protest.” Osmond agrees, and adds: “A denser Chicago will require improved infrastructure of all types, particularly transportation as more residents forgo automobile ownership and other personal options multiply. But the most critical need in a denser Chicago are new or expanded civic spaces and parks to ensure we maintain and improve upon the legacy of the 1909 Plan of Chicago.”
Those civic spaces, open and available to the public for peaceful assembly and protest are essential to any equitable future plan. If, by failing to give voice to the needs and necessities facing the full range of the public, we accept the exclusion of general “others,” and especially black, brown and working-class people to access and participate in the sociocultural life of our city, our institutions will have to accept their complicity in a civic life that preferences the white supremacist, wealthy and powerful. That’s simply unacceptable, and right now our track record is a bleakly gluttonous history of open-handed privatization that excludes those most in need of pathways to participation. We can, and should do better.
Michael Workman is an artist, writer, dance, performance art and sociocultural critic, theorist, dramaturge, choreographer, reporter, poet, novelist, curator, manager and promoter of numerous art, literary and theatrical productions. In addition to his work at The Guardian and Newcity, Workman has also served as a reporter for WBEZ Chicago Public Radio, and as Chicago correspondent for Italian art magazine Flash Art. He is currently producing exhibitions, films and recordings, dance and performance art events under his curatorial umbrella, Antidote Projects. Michael has lectured widely at universities including Northwestern University, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and The University of Illinois at Chicago, and served as advisor to curators of the Whitney Biennial. His reporting, criticism and other writing has appeared in New Art Examiner, the Chicago Reader, zingmagazine, and Contemporary magazine, among others, and his projects have been written about in Artforum, The New York Times, Artnet, The Financial Times, The Huffington Post, The Times of London, The Art Newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, Art In America, Time Out NY, Chicago and London, The Gawker, ARTINFO, Flavorpill, The Chicago Tribune, NYFA Current, The Frankfurter Algemeine, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Village Voice, Monopol, and numerous other news media, art publications and countless blog, podcast and small press publishing outlets throughout the years.