Nourishing The Root: Transforming the Urban Ecologies of Chicago

"We need another approach. So ours, which people initially said was crazy, is more of a call-and-response framework. It’s historically black, like in church. You put something out there, and you leave a space for somebody to respond. It’s like the marches in Johannesburg—when the ANC [African National Congress] was preparing and then marching through the streets. There’s a very distinct call-and response, which activates collectivity. It’s like, “Are you really ready for this? Let’s be ready."

- Emmanuel Pratt, Sweet Water Foundation.

"Nourishing The Root: Transforming the Urban Ecologies of Chicago": a conversation between Emmanuel Pratt of Sweet Water Foundation and 2019 co-curator Sepake Angiama.

Excerpted from "Common Ground," ...and other such stories," Columbia Books on Architecture and the City, 2019.
The 2019 Biennial cast a wide net around spatial practices to include “other ways of caring for and configuring land, other constellations of agents through which spatial needs and desires can be fulfilled”, as critic David Huber noted in Artforum.

Contributors Emmanuel Pratt and Sweet Water Foundation champion caring for the land as a form of "Regenerative Neighborhood Development." Pratt, co-founder and executive director of the emerging community land trust in the heart of Chicago’s South Side, frames Sweet Water's mission as a creative and regenerative social justice method that creates safe and inspiring spaces and curates healthy, intergenerational communities that transform the ecology of so-called ”blighted” neighborhoods.
In this excerpt from the 2019 edition catalog, Pratt and Angiama discuss reclaiming space and language, restituting and regenerating the land through skill sharing, and recognizing the need to collectively nourish the root as an act of radical awakening.

ANGIAMA: There are two things you’ve said about how language is appropriated and used in different ways that really struck me. The first has to do with the term blight and specifically urban blight. The second is the question of what radical means and its etymology. In your practice you relate both terms to the land.
PRATT: So the term blight is actually borrowed from agriculture, referring to the death and decay of a crop so that it no longer sustains life. As cities began to evolve in the twentieth century, the term blight began to be used in reference to the process of economic devaluation and degradation of a property or neighborhood. If I’m not mis-taken, Lewis Mumford was first recognized for using blight in reference to the process of urban decay. Others followed, using the term as a framework for understanding land economics, particularly during the rise of slums and the housing crisis during the Great Depression but more specifically with the influx of African Americans into northern cities during the Great Migration. African American neighbor-hoods in cities like Chicago were consistently identified as “blighted”—written off as spaces of concentrated poverty, plagued by decay, and ultimately in need of erasure and redevelopment.
PRATT: As urban renewal policies increasingly targeted these “blighted” neighborhoods, the practice of urban renewal very quickly and rightfully got the nickname “Negro removal” and ultimately gave rise to the nationwide practice of redlining.In every way our work at Sweet Water is a direct response to the ecology of absence that has been constructed from the application of this term blight to our neighborhoods and communities. Our work flips the concept of blight on its head by celebrating the abundance of life that exists in these same so-called blighted neighborhoods.
PRATT: A place truly becomes a place only by allowing for a frequency of iterative and localized responses. For example, gardening and farming offer initial ways to begin to bring people together to share stories, to work, to feed, to heal, to find out about family histories, medical conditions, and the real value of food to a community. But when real, value-based transactions happen, real-world market relationships are formed, bonds are formed, and then bonds of trust are created. It is within the spaces of trust that place can be built."
PRATT: There’s a joy and celebration of possibility. There’s this crazy moment of hope where there might typically be lots of doubt, despair, concern. Trajectories of history have said, “No, it’s not possible.” And we’re saying, “It is possible. Let’s go!” Yeah, it’s black."

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