[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #13 in April 2013]
Notes from Chicago’s “Space Cadets” Working Group
Chicago needs a city-wide center urgently focused on creating, igniting, and sustaining the widest range of social movements capable of rethinking, re-imagining, and rebuilding our city and our nation from the bottom-up. Chicago—the city of neighborhoods, the town where community organizing is front and center—is home to dazzling and diverse examples of spaces that sustain excellent work from cultural centers like Decima Musa (R.I.P.), Mess Hall, Experimental Station, Co-Prosperity Sphere, to meeting and organizing places like the Chicago Freedom School, UE Hall and Jobs with Justice, to shared workspaces like 3411 W. Diversey, Grace Place, Centro Autónomo and In These Times, to event spaces like Heartland Café and Simone’s and institutions like the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum and the Chicago Cultural Center. These spaces are constantly under pressure from fluctuating real-estate markets, over-use as well as neglect, and the on-going challenge of the building sustained activity and broad community in our segregated city.
The Space Cadets Working Group was initiated in early 2011 to engage in an intentional process to explore how to set up a central gathering space in the city that can become a hub for movement building and support neighborhood culture and politics—a place where we can intersect, learn, grow, and build together. We need a central space centrally engaged in igniting our radical imaginations toward movement-making. We need a creative educational home-base where we can dream big and act intentionally, “preach to the choir” when appropriate, unify neighborhood-based activists, hammer out unity on major contradictions, and re-culture the movement and ourselves. And with all this, we are mindful of many challenges and contradictions from the start, including the importance of engaging differences, the problem of dynamically defining community, the danger of alternative institutions disappearing, the social and political cost of money, and more. In the face of a city government that has privatized everything, we initiate this process to create a long-term and rooted effort invested in making more and better public spaces.
To present as thoughtful of a proposal to our larger communities as we could, we have been engaging in discussions, readings and meetings to generate a clearer vision for what this movement building center might be and what challenges we should anticipate.
We started out by reading some recently collected reflections on what this space could and should be, in the AREA Chicago interview, which asked several space-makers, “Why does Chicago need a new community cultural center that will facilitate city-wide networking and community and movement-building? Where would you imagine this place being located, and what are some things that might happen there?” See their replies here.
We have also been sharing our own reference points and readings about making such community spaces. Some excerpts of readings that motivate and challenge us are included in the footnotes from the following books: In and Out of the Crisis, Memories of Black Mountain College, Caution! Alternative Space! By Group Material, Transformative Organizing by Movement Strategy Center, and Memoirs of a Dil Pickler (1).
Also, we have been investigating and interviewing folks from a wide range of progressive spaces around the world, and we are mapping what exists both locally and nationally. Thus far our “map” includes Highlander Research and Education Center of Tennessee, the Brecht Forum and 16 Beaver Street (both in NYC), and the Heartland Café in Chicago (2).
These meetings led to significant insights and offered invaluable lessons for any future endeavor. Those include: the central importance of relationships and truly caring for the people you embark on this process with; respecting history without getting stuck in it; the role of the movement center changes with the state of the movement – sometimes attracting more of a generally critical/curious crowd and other times being a center for organizing; being in debt, overworked and underpaid; informal structure may be more efficient at times but can also lead to a small number of people holding power and notoriety while others come in and out and gradually disinvest as the work gets more challenging; mission statements and other trappings of non-profit organizational structures can be valuable guides and declaration of values but can also stifle development and prescribe audience/constituency/community; importance of approach to external communications (tone of emails, flyer design, function of website, etc) to defining how open or closed the project is and where it can go; involving people from different backgrounds only happens through involving people with different backgrounds and not through endless discussion, guilt or processing; long-term engagement, endurance and time determine a lot about what the project will be and what role it will play in peoples lives.
Real Estate Consultation:
In a meeting with representatives from Livingroom Realty, we visited five properties for sale located between 18th street on the South, Ashland on the West, Canal on the East, and Chicago Avenue on the North. The properties included an office space, frozen food locker, former Italian restaurant, late 19th-century light industry factory, and a former bar. Each space was full of possibility, and we were surprised by the prices being lower than expected at $200,000-$750,000 depending on how much work each space required.
After considering past and current models and various options for starting a space from scratch, we have come to the conclusion that it would be most advantageous, practical and symbolically powerful partnering with others already engaged in the maintenance and operation of venues and spaces for the intersection of community and political engagement.
With a new globally networked Mayor who is advancing neoliberal restructuring of schools, neighborhoods and public services as well as playing host to the G8 and NATO conventions next May – we need to take this step together. With our rich history of Labor, community and cultural organizing falling victim to non-profit depoliticization, corruption, and budget cuts – we need to take this step together. With neighborhoods simultaneously experiencing land-grabs and disinvestment – we need to take this step together.
Chicago’s movement for the future needs a place to come together. If you agree and want to discuss this further, then email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to keep in touch about an upcoming fall potluck dinner to discuss and plot together.
1) Reading Quotations:
In and Out of Crisis:
“… effective political participation demands the time to do it – the time to read, think, learn, attend meetings and events, debate, take part in strategizing, and engage in organizing others…..How we do this is what the question of alternatives is ultimately about. Crucial to this rebuilding is to get people to think ambitiously again…Educational centers that can cut across current campaigns are absolutely central to developing a deeper and broader understanding of issues, and also for developing the set of skills that people need to become effective organizers and grounded community leaders.”
Memories of Black Mountain College:
“A group of ex-BMC Mountaineers in New York is thinking of making another try at it elsewhere. I sincerely wish them luck. But they should ponder the question whether the defects of BMC and other experimental colleges are all accidental and avoidable or inherent and inevitable. BMC has had many accidental failings. But I do not think the conflict of personalities, for example, can be numbered among them….they overestimate the extent to which we can in these ways escape and surpass our world. The policy is still economically determined, only by the money-getters, not by the money-givers….As a determinant it is weak; it is itself largely determined.”
Caution! Alternative Space! By Group Material, 1982:
“We looked for space because this was our dream – to find a place that we could rent, control and operate in any manner we saw fit. This pressing desire for a room of our own was strategic on both the political and psychological fronts…. We never considered ourselves an “alternative space.” In fact, it seemed to us that the more prominent alternative spaces were actually, in appearance, character and exhibition policies, the children of the dominant commercial galleries.
Everything had to change. The mistake was obvious. Just like the alternative spaces we had set out to criticize, here were sitting on the 13th street waiting for everyone to rush down and see our shows instead of us taking the initiative of mobilizing into public areas. We had to cease being a space and start becoming a workgroup once again….”
Movement Strategy Center:
“Transformative movement building has the potential to reshape the vision, values, and practice of organizers and organizations. It holds a promise for a long-range cultural shift in the progressive movement through a dynamic process of transformation and change at multiple levels: Individual, Organizational and Societal.
Our goal is not to make everyone into a professional organizer, but to create a movement that is relevant, attractive and accessible to all kinds of people.
This does not mean watering down the politics. Rather, it means watering down the politics with the richness of diversity and an openness to change.”
Memoirs of a Dil Pickler:
“…I thought Greenwich Village was America’s intellectual center. Red argued that it was only the artistic center; when people went to the Village, he said, they went looking for poets, writers, artists, and other longhaired members of the Great Unwashed. But when they came to Chicago’s Near North Side, they were looking for the bums who talked like college professors.
But what was the Pickle? Art center, little theater, indoor Bughouse Square, Bohemian tourist trap, a latter-day hangout for country-store solons, or just a dive for nuts? Maybe it was all of these things. How would I know? I was only one of the habitues. Considering myself a young pseudo-intellectual, it was home to me. Home is where the heart is. Home is where you establish rapport with other humans. Or, if you want to be nasty about it, sub-humans. Who cares?”
2) Thank you: to everyone that responded to our interview requests, Pam McMichael @ Highlander, Katy Hogan @ Heartland, Jesal Kapadia, Pedro Lasch, Rene Gabri, and Paige Sarlin at 16 Beaver, Kazembe Balagun, and Max.Uhlenbeck at Brecht Forum; thanks to Kristen Cox, Robin Hewlett, Ryan Lugalia-Hollon, Wishbone, Lauren Cumbia, Experimental Station, Abraham Mwaura, Beth Gutelius, AREA Chicago and Annie and Richard from Living Room Realty.