Inheriting the Grid #9

In each of AREA Chicago’s previous issues, founding editor Daniel Tucker wrote an editorial called “Inheriting the Grid.” This is the first “Inheriting the Grid” he hasn’t written and the first issue he hasn’t been centrally involved in editing. For this issue, the grid that Dan S. Wang and I have inherited is, thus, Daniel’s. This is part of a significant moment in AREA’s history—a moment that’s especially relevant to this issue’s theme. The question posed to the organization right now is this: how do you move the periphery to the center in an organization that’s been largely driven by the labor and vision of one particular person?

AREA’s advisory board is now leading a planning, evaluation, and growth process to bring more of the current advisory board members into the everyday running of the organization. We’re also considering shifts in focus, planning to do more with our website and to include more multimedia content. But we also need to bring more people into the organization. We’ve created a more transparent process for contributors to join the advisory group: all contributors are invited on a yearly basis to become advisors. And contributors and non-contributors alike should always feel welcome to volunteer with the organization; this year we have our first international intern, who came to us because she’d heard of AREA and was interested in helping out and finding out more.

So we’re expanding our range of media, inviting contributors to become advisors, persuading advisors to become more involved. One question we’re addressing is this: how can we diversify and extend AREA’s community? Over the past four years AREA has taken on numerous topics of particular relevance to minority and poor communities. Many, many writers of color have contributed to the magazine. But disproportionally small numbers of people of color have become centrally involved, taking on substantial editorial or advisory roles. Not everyone needs to become involved. Not everyone wants to or has time to. But for those who do, one thing that might sometimes be a little offputting is that AREA’s organizational structure seems to be made up of friendship networks as well as political alliances and working relationships. No one intends to create an inside and an outside. But somehow, inevitably, networks form and reinforce themselves. And in an organization where all the work is done on a volunteer or underpaid basis, the informality of the structure reinforces reliance on existing personal contacts. Once a loose network exists it can appear, from the “outside,” to be more firm and solid than it actually is.

How do you move from “periphery” to “center” in an organization like this? My own path was full of false starts and failures. The first time I tried to write an article, it fell apart through my own inertia when I couldn’t get an immediate response from an interviewee. I volunteered to work on a committee but couldn’t seem to keep up with meetings. Finally I responded to a request for help with grantwriting; I came through, had a minor success, and was hooked. When I was ready to be involved, the organization was ready for me. It is open and democratic not only through conviction (which it has) but because it needs to be; so much help is needed to keep it going.

At this point, a lot is up for grabs: it’s an exciting moment, and lots of hands are needed. Will AREA continue as a print publication? Will we publish a book? Will we focus on making videos? Will we develop a more rigorously defined political orientation? Will we create neighborhood bureaus? These questions remain to be answered, and our readers and contributors are invited to help us do so. (Write to areachicago@gmail.com or areaeditors@gmail.com if you want to find out how.)

AREA has always held positions on the periphery—it’s always staked out ground at the periphery of mainstream political culture, and proudly so. In our examination of the spatial politics of Chicago, we have often used the example of the El. El lines meet in the middle, suggesting an image of Chicago as spokes of a wheel where only the Loop joins the city’s diverse neighborhoods. AREA tries to produce alliances among the “spokes,” creating connections that don’t depend on the center. But what about those spokes? How good a metaphor can the El really be, when the Red Line only goes as far south as 95th Street? The city extends 43 blocks further south.

This issue begins by imagining what an AREA of the Calumet Region—loosely, the far Southeast Side and parts of the South Suburbs and Northwest Indiana—would look like. A lot is happening in those 43 blocks and beyond. Next, artists, writers, activists, and teachers examine movement between center and periphery, and then try looking, with deep “peripheral vision,” from some other points of view on the edge. We look at places viewed as peripheral, and how they got to be that way. We document the people in those places who are tenaciously practicing resistance. We look squarely at those issues and questions that tend to slip slightly out of focus, or just out of view, subsumed in the intensity (or boredom) of our daily grind.

Our next issue, #10, will be the sole issue of 2010. It will focus on “Institutions and Infrastructures”—for and by the people. Issue #9 has been attuned to economic matters, among others, as it builds on the “money issues” of Issue #8. So too should our approach to institutions and infrastructures be infused with the wisdom that comes from peripheral vision.