Bronzeville Action Coalition
Neeraj Bhatia and César A. Lopez
Decentering the Commune

While communes and collective living typologies offer meaningful forms of agency to residents, they have struggled to scale up as a widespread model for living. This is partly due to the inherent agency that these domestic types foster that is tied to a more intimate scale of decision making. American Communes have also been criticized for their enclave-nature: often self-selecting a more homogeneous group of residents to ease day-to-day tensions involved in sharing. Our proposal attempts to address these two issues by decentering the commune into a series of buildings, landscapes, and activities that occupy the myriad of vacant lots in Bronzeville. This would entail separating the programs of the co-living house into a series of structures and spaces that are locally tailored to individual sites. As a network of buildings, this would enable additional scales of sharing resources amongst residents as well as with the neighbourhood proper. Further, it would erode the enclave nature of the commune and integrate it into the neighbourhood, making visible the systems of care and showcasing alternative forms of land tenure. This decentralized model of sharing could extend beyond the domestic commons to reconsider how an urban commons might function.

Figure 1: Decentralized Commune Model, The Open Workshop, 2021

​​The urban commons is a relatively new notion and involves a shift in understanding the commons not simply as shared resources but also as a relational social framework. The expansion of the noun ‘common’ to the verb ‘commoning’ entails the active participation in the mechanisms of sharing, including the shaping of rules that sustain the commons and exploring the emancipating potentials of sharing.1 As such, commoning is a practice that is continually evolving, made and remade by the subjects involved in the commons. Through an ongoing process of working together, negotiating, and organizing, these practices produce what is to be named, valued, used, and symbolized in common. Ultimately, these practices create forms of social life—highlighting new forms of living, working, and being in common.2 Precisely for the empowerment offered by these acts, they are always under continual threat of enclosure by the forces of capitalism as they attempt to transform society’s common-wealth.

In the Bay area during the 1960s two parallel movements examined practices related to commoning that ranged from the informal to formal. The first is the well documented commune movement, whose rejection of commercialism and ideology of shared property and labor resulted in experimentation with alternative family structures while commoning and more equitably distributing resources within domestic space. Despite the hundreds of communes in the Bay Area at this time, by the mid 1970s many had disappeared. There are a series of reasons (and theories) of why they did not persist—from the challenges of living together, increased rental prices, to legal issues

Matthew Roth, "Coming Together: The Communal Option," in Ten Years That Shook the City: San Francisco 1968-78 (City Lights Foundation: 2011), edited by Chris Carlsson.

surrounding building occupation and the drug habits of residents. With relatively little trace of the original movement, it could be argued that the tactical development of communes did not scale up into a strategic vision. This is not surprising as the type not only emerged from the bottom, at a particular scale, management and accountability of the commons becomes increasingly challenging.

A critical legacy of the Bay area communes movement was the rare but impactful initiatives that extended the forms of care from the domestic commons to the urban commons. The Diggers, a radical community-action group of activists, operated across a series of communal households and were thereby able to leverage a larger range of resources and support. The Diggers repurposed and redistributed society’s ‘leftovers’ into a series of free initiatives.

Timothy Miller, “California Communes: A Venerable tradition” in West of Eden: Communes and Utopia in Northern California, Iain Boal, Janferie Stone, Michael Watts, and Cal Winslow (eds), (PM Press: San Francisco, 2012), 8

Primarily rooted in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, some of the Digger’s programs consisted of free stores, a free daily food service, ‘crash pads’ for those in need of a bed, a free health clinic, and free transportation system. For the Diggers, it was key that these services were provided for free, the term free being positioned as a noun, verb, and modifier to indicate a plan of action. At the core of their beliefs was a “desired goal of maximal personal freedom would be realized only when the goods and services essential to social life were provided gratis to all”.

Michael William Doyle, “Conviviality and Perspicacity: Evaluating 1960s Communitarianism” in West of Eden: Communes and Utopia in Northern California, Iain Boal, Janferie Stone, Michael Watts, and Cal Winslow (eds), (PM Press: San Francisco, 2012), 15.

Comprised of many street theater actors, the Diggers often used theater and play as a mechanism of inciting action. For instance, they would hold a midafternoon food-sharing ceremony at Golden Gate Park, wherein food sourced through a variety of techniques (scavenging, stealing, donations, and even roadkill) would be prepared into a communal meal through ‘guerilla theater’.


Another commune entitled Kaliflower was inspired by the Digger’s free ideology and helped establish a dialogue between communes. One of their shared amenities was the ‘free print shop’ — which acted as a publishing house to amplify voices on the ground while setting up an inter-commune network of over 300 communes. Published weekly between April 1969 to December 1971, the paper served as a bulletin board, a space for creative expression, as well as providing skill and knowledge sharing.

Eric Novel, “Kaliflower and the Dream Continues”, FoundSF, https://www.foundsf.org/index.php?title=Kaliflower_and_the_Dream_Continues (1996)

Another similar intercommunal initiative that many Kaliflower members organized was the ‘Free Food Conspiracy’. This group pooled food stamps and resources from communes to purchase food in bulk and distributed to various communes based on needs. By 1973, five years after the initiative began, over 150 communes participated in the program.


  Because many communes have a tendency towards autonomy, these initiatives by the Diggers and Kaliflower were critical forms of action to create a conversation and distributed network of care that exceeded any individual commune.

At the same time that many of the Diggers and Kaliflower’s initiatives were taking shape, the Black Panthers Party for Self Defense (later renamed the Black Panthers Party) was being established by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland. As a leading organization of the Black Power movement, the Party attempted to create alternative structures, institutions, and lifestyles that challenged the prevailing racism, sexism, classism, individuals, and materialism.

Robyn C. Spencer, “Communalism and the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California” in West of Eden: Communes and Utopia in Northern California, Iain Boal, Janferie Stone, Michael Watts, and Cal Winslow (eds), (PM Press: San Francisco, 2012), 92.

The formation of an alternative institution was rooted in communalism as a way to foster care for the community—care that was not being provided by the formalized institutions such as the government. The Panther’s established a series of “community survival programs

Newton had stated that these were “survival programs pending revolution”. See Spencer, 106.

which were much more disciplined and organizational than the initiatives emerging in the San Francisco communes. This allowed the party to offer a vast range of survival programs—free education, health care, food, clothing, subsidized housing, legal aid, land banking, amongst others. Some of the most developed urban commoning practices revolved around health and education. In 1971, the Panther’s opened a free health clinic serviced by volunteer doctors that provided services such as medical exams, sickle cell testing, immunizations, prenatal instruction, community health services, etc. Accompanying this was free ambulance services as well as free transport buses for seniors to attend medical appointments. Producing awareness around sickle cell anemia, a disease that disproportionately affects Black people, was a critical part of their health initiatives—by 1971 the Panthers established a Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation to provide free testing. This growing awareness provided publicity to the disease, advancing scientific understanding and eventual treatment plans.

Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr., Black against Empire The History and Politics

of the Black Panther Party (Berkeley: UC Press, 2016), 177.

Another critical program was the establishment of the Oakland Community School (OCS) which created a model for community-based education. Originally named the Intercommunal Youth Institute and operating out of an apartment solely for children of Party members, the school quickly  expanded into its own building and opened its doors to those outside the Party. With a key focus on critical thinking and field experience, the school offered subjects such as math, language arts, science, environmental studies and political education. The collective environment of the school housed both teachers and students, who were organized by ability rather than age.

Spencer, 109.

The school expanded to a staff of nineteen and over 110 students by 1975. While scaling up, it formalized its institutional structure and began to apply for and receive grants (including a grant it received from the City of Oakland in 1974). Gaining national recognition for its excellence in community based education, the OCS was featured on the cover of Jet in 1976. Perhaps the most well-known Panther’s survival program was the Free Breakfast Program, which launched in January 1969. In an attempt to alleviate hunger among school-age students, the breakfast program provided free food to children so that they could engage more deeply with their education. The nutritious breakfast consisted of fresh fruit, toast or grits, protein (sausage, bacon or eggs) and a beverage— providing a much needed balanced and healthy meal to school children that often lived in food deserts in Oakland and Berkeley. The program rapidly grew from St. Augustine’s Episocal Church in Oakland—serving 11 children on opening day, 135 children by week's end, to over twelve hundred children across San Francisco, Oakland, Bellejo, Chicago and Des Moines by April 1969.

Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr., Black against Empire The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party (Berkeley: UC Press, 2016)

Through the success of the program, it eventually put pressure on the Federal Government to expand and develop a National Free Breakfast program, which was established in 1975.

The Black Panther’s Party survival programs were both political and socioeconomic. Bobby Seale emphasized that the programs were not “reform programs” but rather “revolutionary, community, socialistic programs”, with an expanded vision of transforming capitalism to a more equitable socialist structure.

Ibid, 183.

Fred Hampton, the Deputy Chairman of the Illinois chapter remarked, “First you have free breakfasts, then you have free medical care, then you have free bus rides, and soon you have FREEDOM!” Freedom was born through political liberation due to necessity being attended to. For Newton, the programs were called “survival pending revolution” as they “were designed to help the people survive until their consciousness is raised, which is only the first step in the revolution to produce a new America

Huey P Newton, Revolutionary Suicide (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich, 1973), 297.

. Ultimately these programs empowered Black Americans to take control of their community, while offering a vision of how grassroots programs might scale up strategically across multiple geographies each with local nuances.

Not surprisingly, there was some cross pollination between these two urban commoning projects within the Bay Area. Panther leader David Hillard credits the Digger’s free grocery store service as a key inspiration for the Panther’s free breakfast program. In face, Emmet Grogan of the Diggers dropped off a first batch of food to the Panthers to aid in setting up the free breakfast program.

Andrew Cornell, Unruly Equality: U.S. Anarchism in the Twentieth Century (Oakland: University of California Press, 2016, 253.

The Diggers also printed the first issues of the Black Panther’s newspaper. While the conditions under which both groups required care differed greatly, the solidarity between urban commoning practices reveals a mechanism to retain local control while gaining the benefit of strategic alliances. In a similar fashion, reframing the individual vacant sites of Bronzeville as part of a larger system of urban commons would allow for a scale of resource sharing that exceeds any individual household, organization, or site. As a distributed model, it would offer nimble mechanisms for residents to take action and engage the spaces around them.

Precarity to Solidarity

The term precariat is a neologism that combines the proletariat and precarity. It has been used to capture the material and psychological uncertainty felt by a class-in-the-making, which is a byproduct of neoliberal transformations in labor practices within advanced capitalism. Terms such as creative labor, network labor, service labor, affective labor, immaterial labor, etc. reveal the diverse practices of labor that have emerged through globalization and information technology. These labor practices have caused an increasingly large sector of the population to live in precarity—referring to, “all possible shapes of unsure, not guaranteed, flexible exploitation: from illegalised, seasonal and temporary employment to homework, flex- and temp-work to subcontractors, freelancers or so-called self-employed persons. But its reference also extends beyond the world of work to encompass other aspects of intersubjective life, including housing, debt, and the ability to build affective social relations.” Moving beyond traditional social status divisions, the insecurities of the precariat are both objective and material as well as subjective and emotional. Precarious work does not provide the economic security to support the necessities of a household and the reproduction of life, threatening amongst other things, the ability to act in public. These forms of precarity compound upon already existing systemic forms of precarity—tied to economics, race, lack of support systems and resources, amongst other factors.

Examining Bronzeville, the majority of the neighborhood is living on less than $33,000 annually, making it difficult to account for day-to-day necessities while also participating in the community. In a capitalist framework, where ‘time is money’, those living in poverty typically lack both. While programs such as SNAPs have been helpful to these residents, they do not address the underlying systemic issues of this poverty. The unemployment rate in the neighborhood ranges from 5 percent to 61 percent—averaging close to 18 percent, and well above the national unemployment rate, which stands at 5.4 percent in September of 2021. While economics plays a large role in one’s precarity, so do support systems, or lack thereof. With many households in Bronzeville being composed of just one to two residents, there are few internal support systems within the home. These statistics are shocking on one hand, but also completely in line with historically redlined neighborhoods across the country. As a majority African American neighborhood still today, Bronzeville has not received the same levels of support, investment, and maintenance as other non-redlined neighborhoods. And while the community and its efforts are strong within the neighborhood, most still rent, which positions residents in a different form of precarity due to market fluctuations tied to housing. Simultaneously, Bronzeville has also taught us that through precarity different forms of solidarity can emerge. If the inspiring work of various mutual aid and solidarity initiatives were brought together to form an urban commons, might this allow for new forms and scales of sharing, collectivities, and ultimately stability in the face of precarity?

Networks of Solidarity and Care

The forms of solidarity that communes and the commons promote already exist in Bronzeville through a range of inspiring organizations and initiatives focused on mutual aid, resource sharing, and skill building. This design intervention speculates on how these various initiatives can assemble a network of sharing that leverages the numerous vacant lots in the neighborhood and across Chicago. [Figure 2] The speculative network focuses on four key resources—food, making, ecology, and care—that would be tied to an associated hub building to give more local control to residents in crafting their own ways of life. The network provides a framework to allow for local grassroots activities to flourish while finding symbiotic alliances. This framework is what we entitled, The Bronzeville Action Coalition. Bringing together already existing initiatives and organizations, as a coalition it might allow for tactical interventions to also be strategic; for resources to be shared in more complex ways; for experiments in alternative forms of land tenure and possibly the establishment of a community land trust; for alternative forms of currency and exchange to transpire; and ultimately to realize goals that exceed the capacity of any individual or group. [Figure 3]

Figure 2: Bronzeville Action Coalition Network, The Open Workshop, 2021

Figure 3: Bronzeville Action Coalition Network, The Open Workshop, 2021

The grounds of the former Anthony Overton Elementary School feature one of these tactical insertions: a meeting space for the community called The Center Won’t Hold. [Figure 4] This prototype incorporates a loosely framed enclosure with the intent of delineating space while simultaneously promoting unfettered access along all sides.This framing is proposed to mark the edge of all activated sites which allows the community to visualize the network on the ground. The interior of this prototype is a malleable framework that utilizes a series of curtains for residents to curate an array of interactions—from intimate to collective gatherings. The fabric enables transformations of the space that acknowledges the evolving practices and values of commoning.[Figure 5] The Center Won’t Hold because we live in a world that has complex distributions of power.  The Center Won’t Hold because of nested interdependencies between people and resources. The Center Won’t Hold because the society we want is no longer top down and centralized but rather finds a framework to bring together grassroots and local initiatives. [Figure 6-9] By decentering the commons we might realize a new form of power—one that emerges from acting in concert. Representing this network to the residents of Bronzeville, required exploring a mediums reminiscent of the community’s history of activism and organization.

Figure 4: The Center Won’t Hold—Concept Image, The Open Workshop, 2021

Figure 5: The Center Won’t Hold—Configurations, The Open Workshop, 2021

Figure 6: The Center Won’t Hold, The Open Workshop, 2021

Figure 7: The Center Won’t Hold, Photo Credit: Dennis Milam, Borderless Studio, 2021

Figure 8: The Center Won’t Hold, The Open Workshop, 2021

Figure 9: The Center Won’t Hold, The Open Workshop, 2021

The Center Won’t Hold was not only an opportunity to construct and evaluate the project’s ability to activate the community, but it also allowed a local organization to participate in this project. This prototype was fabricated and installed by Revolution Workshop, a non-profit organization whose mission is to teach unemployed and underemployed residents the necessary skills to access work in the construction industry. Their intent is to address a rising labor shortage of skilled-trades workers in Chicago while at the same time advancing social and economic equity through job skills training and career development. Revolution Workshop is akin to several of the organizations documented in an intercommunal directory that disseminate the research to the community.

The Bronzesheet

This project was selected and commissioned by the 2021 Chicago Architecture Biennial. Participating teams were paired with a neighborhood containing a vacant site that would become the site for their installations. In contrast to prior iterations of the biennial, the intent was to contextualize each project and produce work that engages communities through the biennial structure. The challenge here of course is that meaningful engagement takes time to establish trust and relationships with community members which would be impossible within the Biennial’s timeline. Given that none of the authors in this project was born, raised, or ever lived in Chicago—the team felt it was critical to develop a component of the project, in addition to the physical site installation, that highlights the inspiring work being done on the ground, and provides a resource to the community that will outlast the Biennial timeline.

The number of community organizations currently at work in Bronzeville is a testament to the foundation laid by the various counter-cultural movements in Chicago since the 1960s. In addition to this robust activity, community organizations constantly seek ways to raise their visibility to those who need it the most, making outreach a continuous effort. This project proposes a coalition that intersects these numerous organizations and grassroots initiatives into a network of mutual aid and care by finding synergies between resources and creating greater and more holistic conversations than the sum of their parts. This is realized not only through the design proposal but as well through its representation and dissemination. The Bronzesheet is a series of large-format prints that consolidate information on the various organizations working to provide resources on the ground to the people of Bronzeville. They are categorized by the same themes that organize the design project's spatial network—food, making, ecology, and care. [Figure 10] By highlighting their impacts and missions, we assemble an accessible directory of information critical to creating new forms of solidarity as a coalition.

Figure 10: The Bronzesheet, Food, Care, Ecology, and Making Sheets, The Open Workshop, 2021

The inspiration for The Bronzesheet drew from The Original Rainbow Coalition, which intersected organizations such as The Black Panther Party, the Young Patriots Organization, and the Young Lords into a multicultural movement towards the common goal of social and economic empowerment. Despite nuances in ideologies and approaches, they cemented solidarity through joint action against poverty, corruption, racism, and substandard housing, leading to demonstrations that brought greater awareness of common causes. This model of activism led to successor programs later offered by the Intercommunal Survival Committee, which built upon the Black Panther's work by providing access to affordable foods and healthcare for residents of Chicago. The Bronzesheet is reminiscent of the newspapers and magazines circulated by The Black Panther Party, the Original Rainbow Coalition, and the Intercommunal Survival Committee, which relied on print media to build advocacy and knowledge among a disaggregated organization. These printed platforms were largely seen as a way to inform their community, as well as a source to educate others about the dangers and marginalization their communities were experiencing. For instance, The Black Panther newspaper, a central output of the Black Panther Intercommunal News Service, published weekly reporting on their communities worldwide and writings about the party’s ideology. It also became a critical resource for elevating the consciousness of Black and poor communities and providing service and survival information to sustain their people. The Bronzesheet takes a cue from The Black Panther by prominently listing addresses, and telephone numbers of the local mutual-aid organizations featured and available to the community. Figure 11-15]  Using the printed broadsheet as the primary form of disseminating this project's research and design components, The Bronzesheet untethers critical information from numerous social media pages into a printed platform that leverages the inherent accessibility of print media.

Figure 11: The Bronzesheet, Project  Sheet / Information Side, The Open Workshop, 2021

Figure 12: The Bronzesheet, Food Sheet / Information Side, The Open Workshop, 2021

Figure 13: The Bronzesheet, Care Sheet / Information Side, The Open Workshop, 2021

Figure 14: The Bronzesheet, Ecology Sheet / Information Side, The Open Workshop, 2021

Figure 15: The Bronzesheet, Making Sheet / Information Side, The Open Workshop, 2021

The Bronzesheets, once unfolded, can be read in multiple states. While a different theme grounds each sheet, the design interventions that bind them in the design project also ties them together through two drawings. On the front side of each sheet is a zine drawing that spans across and connects them, revealing the potential interactions, exchanges, and solidarity on the vacant sites when their value is seen beyond land and economy. Often a key component of a counter-culture movement's rise and continued prevalence, the zine, as a graphic device, frames narratives that fall out of line with conventional society. This ethos made the zine a mission-aligned representation that communicated the new subjects and resources activating these networks. On the backside of each Bronzesheet is an axonometric drawing belonging to a larger portrait that provides a complete overview of the spatial network of the vacant sites and resources. Each tile shares a glimpse of areas related to all four themes, speaking to the dialogue among these resources. As the representation of this project frames initiatives on the ground, the politics seek to bring legibility to actions in the community that often remain hidden. The Bronzesheet intersects the project's design and research components into a resource that can start new conversations and bridge representation and action.


Guido Ruivenkamp and Andy Hilton, Perspectives on Commoning: Autonomist Principles and Practices (ZED: London, 2017), 1, as well as Stavrides, Common Space, 32.

Stravos Stavrides, Common Space: The City as Commons (ZED: London, 2016), 35, 2.

Brett Neilson and Ned Rossiter, FCJ-022 From Precarity to Precariousness and Back Again: Labour, Life and Unstable Networks, The Fibreculture Journal: 05, (2005, 1).

Based on the ACS data from 2015 - 2019, of the approximately 37,400 units of housing stock in Bronzeville, 24,800 were renter-occupied. See: American Community Survey 2015-2019. Data obtained from CMAP Community Snapshots.

Ashish Valentine and Libby Berry, 50 Years after his Death, Fred Hampton's Legacy Looms Large In Chicago." NPR. (NPR, December 5, 2019).

Survival Pending Revolution. (Vamonde. Accessed September 9, 2021). https://www.vamonde.com/posts/survival-pending-revolution/1077

The Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation, “Intercommunal News Service 47,” in The Black Panther Party Service to the People Programs, ed. David Hilliard (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008), 47-53.

Stephen Duncombe, Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture, (Portland: Microcosm Publishing, 1997), 7-8.