Christopher Maier is a Washington, D.C.-based writer, producer of the cultural event series Little Salon, and founder of the storytelling agency Made By Little.
A constellation of projects initiated by Theaster Gates has helped create new energy in an economically devastated—and socially isolated—part of Chicago.
Art-inspired urban redevelopment is popping up along Chicago’s South Side. You see it on Garfield Boulevard in Washington Park. Around Dorchester and Kimbark avenues in Greater Grand Crossing. It’s happening on Stony Island Avenue, a little more than a mile west of Lake Michigan’s shoreline.
It roots itself in unlikely places like a once-dilapidated bank that hadn’t been active in more than 30 years, a recently shuttered currency exchange office, a retired beer warehouse, and a housing complex that had been shuttered after the city couldn’t find a way to stymie the violence that had permeated the site.
This constellation of projects is the brainchild of Theaster Gates, an internationally lauded artist, urban planner, community organizer, program administrator, and university professor. He draws on his array of skills and interests to give shape to his work in several neighborhoods in south Chicago. With each new building, he adds not only a revitalized structure to the surrounding neighborhood, but a space where visitors are encouraged to gather, observe, spectate, learn, and land themselves in interesting conversations with new acquaintances.
In a December 2015 conversation with the Chicago Tribune, Gates said that the city has “wasted opportunities that are waiting to be beautiful again, and I'm giving them a charge.” The artist continued:
“It's not so much that the buildings on Chicago's South and West sides are vacant, but that they started to lose value for the black community. These buildings had so much soul, but we imagined that, because of the violence and the schools, we should be somewhere else. So these buildings lost their soulfulness. I'm interested in showing there is still so much latent power in these buildings, and by simply making these spaces available again, and open again, great things can happen.”
Big things are absolutely happening. Not only have Gates-led projects brought a spate of new development to Greater Grand Crossing, they’ve helped propel investment in excess of $42 million in the neighborhood. What’s more, these spaces are bringing together people who may not be used to crossing paths, whether it’s neighborhood residents who’ve never spoken to each other before or visitors who trek to the South Side from other parts of Chicago and beyond to check out the unique design of the spaces, to take in something from the endless calendar of events, or simply to see for themselves what all the hubbub is about.
The whole thing began back in 2006, shortly after Gates landed the role of director of art and public life at the University of Chicago. Not long after this, he bought his first piece of property. It’s a small, quirky home along Dorchester Avenue in Greater Grand Crossing, an economically impoverished neighborhood just a mile south of the University of Chicago’s affluent Hyde Park community. Gates began hosting events in the home, cultural gatherings and cinema screenings in particular. When the house next door began to fall in on itself, he bought that, too, eventually turning it into a sister space for conversations, creative initiatives, neighborhood gatherings, and artist retreats. Over the ensuing decade, he’s purchased and refurbished dozens of buildings, ranging from houses to housing complexes to, recently, a former Catholic elementary school. Along the way, he started the Rebuild Foundation, an arts and community revitalization 501(3)c.
Gates and his colleagues frequently refer to their collection of efforts as “an ecosystem.”
“Neighborhoods need to be healthy,” explains Lori Berko, chief operations officer at Place Lab, a Knight Foundation-sponsored and Gates-directed initiative of Arts + Public Life at the University of Chicago. “You’re not healthy because you have just this one thing.” For this reason, she says, the ecosystem that Gates spearheads is decidedly “multi-dimensional and multi-disciplinary,” bridging city blocks, community narratives, and individual interests.
The spaces that make up this ecosystem range from Black Cinema House (a free, weekly screening that takes place in the same building as Gates’ private art studio in Greater Grand Crossing) to BING (a for-profit, avant-garde bookstore located along the University of Chicago-owned Arts Block in Washington Park). Of the spaces in this part of Chicago, the Stony Island Arts Bank and the Currency Exchange Café stand out as magnets that draw together people of various cultural and economic backgrounds, whether they live miles from one another or just doors away.
And that’s part of the magic in Gates’ work: pulling a range of available levers to get people to engage with the work and each other. The projects combine intentional design with versatile programming. They pair accessible civic activities with overtly for-profit initiatives. They serve the neighborhood while inviting outsiders to come on in. They honor the past while making very clear that there’s a new future on the way.
“Amazing,” says Cara as she glances around the interior of the Stony Island Arts Center. Cara, a 32-year-old black woman who lives closer to downtown with her young son, recently left an office job with the Chicago Transit Authority to begin undergraduate studies at Harold Washington College. She’s planning to finish her final two years at DePaul University, where she’ll earn a degree in urban development and planning. That’s why she was so eager to experience one of Gates’ spaces in person.
A professor of hers suggested she check out the Friday afternoon House Tea Ceremony, a free social event featuring a curated selection of world teas and music from the record collection of late legendary DJ Frankie Knuckles (a collection that’s housed in the bank). Though she came alone, she found no shortage of conversation, and that seems to be by design.
The tea ceremony is held in a cozy area with a wooden bar just behind the main gallery. As new folks arrive, they’re greeted by one of several volunteers, which seems to encourage dialogue from the get-go. Most of the 15–20 other guests who wander through the tea ceremony between 4 and 6 p.m. receive a similar greeting and, like Cara, end up chatting with folks they hadn’t known before they arrived. Some—like painter Arthur Wright, who also holds a fellowship at the Arts Bank—are regulars. Others, including a group of early twenty-somethings dressed in thrift-store-hip attire, arrive as first timers with questions and cameras at the ready.
As the twenty-somethings leave after hanging around for an hour or so, they most likely see Wright, who’s now dancing alone in the bank’s main gallery, his eyes closed as he sweeps across the room to the house-music beats from one of Frankie Knuckles’ old records.
The programming at the Stony Island Arts Bank covers a lot of territory. Over the course of three days in early May, the space hosted two jazz performances, a public cello rehearsal, a tea ceremony, a program that lets community members help catalog books in the bank’s library, an event featuring oral histories from South Side residents, a talk led by an accomplished photographer, a workshop conducted by an accomplished painter, and a building tour. On top of that, an ongoing exhibition of paintings by the late Noah Davis kept light traffic flowing in and out of the building during off hours.
Whether attending the Thursday night jazz concert or the Saturday morning oral history sessions, visitors almost always see Anansi Knowbody, gallery coordinator at the Arts Bank. Originally from Jacksonville, Florida, the 35-year-old Knowbody first arrived in Chicago in 2004 to study film at Columbia College, before migrating south to earn an MFA from Southern Methodist University in Texas. He’s been back in Chicago now for twelve months and working for Rebuild.
Knowbody says that the variety of programming at the Arts Bank attracts a broad cross section of visitors. Sometimes these people strike up conversations with one another and other times they keep to themselves, just perusing the art or scanning the book spines in the bank’s nonpareil library.
“People tend to interact only as far as a social event will allow or encourage,” says Knowbody. Events like esoteric music performances by musicians-in-residence may only draw in a specialized crowd of music connoisseurs. But other, less proscribed events invite a wider range of visitors who are free to shape the experience for themselves and offer the sort of undefined experience that lends itself to striking up a conversation with the person sitting next to you. It’s something Cara experienced at the tea ceremony.
Mikael David is a 29-year-old Chicago native who grew up in Bronzeville, an historically African-American community on Chicago’s South Side, before he and his family moved a few dozen blocks away from downtown to South Shore in 2001. He still lives in the South Shore neighborhood, where he’s become a regular attendee and volunteer at many of the Rebuild Foundation-sponsored events. He’s quick to point out the “many layers” of Rebuild’s work: art, commerce, real estate, programming, archives, mentorship, and more. It’s this variety of interests and influences that lets the Rebuild projects feel more like an integrated ecosystem than a collection of discrete spaces.
David admits, though, that when he first stumbled upon Rebuild (and the full gamut of Gates’ work) a year-and-a-half ago, he didn’t understand the complexity of the efforts. He had simply heard that there was a guy in his neck of the woods gobbling up a bunch of real estate and doing some wild stuff with it, which, as an aspiring real estate professional, caught his attention. “I was like, ‘Why? Who is this guy?’ I had no idea he’s one of the most important artists in the world right now.”
Now he’s well aware of Gates and his programs, which David tries not to miss. On a Thursday night in early May, he’s in attendance for a pair of jazz performances at the Arts Bank. The next day he’s back at the Arts Bank for the tea ceremony before heading over to the Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative to help facilitate a youth chess club. That night, he and Knowbody arrive together at Black Cinema House. On Saturday, he returns to the Arts Bank, where a variety of programs are in effect.
“It’s totally changed my life,” he says, speaking not only about the ecosystem of programs, but about the overall approach to “ethical redevelopment,” a term that Gates and the Rebuild team have coined to describe empathetic, intentional, historically conscious investment and development in struggling neighborhoods.
David sees this South Chicago brand of ethical redevelopment as something that begins with experiencing art and grows into something more all-encompassing. That is, it comes with the potential to change the direction of lives for the better and, over time, to alter the course of entire neighborhoods.
He talks in particular about the youth culture in his neighborhood: the shootings, the drug dealing, the lack of respect for other people, and the absence of ability to sculpt a fruitful vision of themselves in the future. “These kids today have lost their minds,” he says. “They have lost their minds.”
Greater Grand Crossing’s Rebuild projects, he says, are offering these kids a new way to think, a new way to see the world, a new way to interact with a more varied group of people who can demonstrate different possibilities.
During a quiet Thursday morning in May at the Currency Exchange Café, you see patrons ranging from college-age students slouched behind laptops to young women slowly strolling through the dining area with cameras to academic and activist Barbara Ransby thumbing through her phone over a cup of coffee as she sits in front of the large windows that face out onto Garfield Boulevard.
The following morning, before the lunch rush picks up, the café is quiet. Four people—all in their 20s or early 30s—hang out at the bar, laughing and talking with the baristas. They’re relaxed, but don’t stay long. Back by the more secluded tables in front of the kitchen, two women, also in their 20s or early 30s, sit with their computers. This morning, all of the patrons are black, which reflects the population of this part of Chicago as well as the audience that Gates’ projects tend to court. That said, over the course of the next several days, the mix of patrons’ racial, economic, and geographic backgrounds is tough to miss. From an older black man in worn, simple clothes sitting by himself with a cup of coffee to a professionally dressed trio of white women hunched over paperwork, the crowd is mixed.
“We have a lot of regulars, plus a lot of people who follow [Gates’] work and the other artists here, too,” says Imani Bonne, a 29-year-old barista and waitress who’s worked at Currency Exchange Café for a little under a year. “And we get a lot of play from the university, students and professors from the university. And people from Hyde Park in general wander over here.”
The following afternoon, a group of women in their late 50s or early 60s—two black and two white, all dressed casually—walk into the café. One of them turns to her friends and wonders aloud, “This used to be an actual Currency Exchange, right?”
“Correct,” interjects a smiling Bonne, who overhears the question. “We kept the name, added some tables, and gave it a try.”
“That’s so cool,” the woman says. She turns to her friends: “I’ve never been anywhere like this.”
This sort of interaction is common at the Currency Exchange Café. Employees rarely miss the opportunity to greet someone new as they come in, encouraging them to find a seat wherever they’d like or to just belly up to the dry bar. Some of the more popular seating includes the pair of long, rectangular tables that stretch through the center of the room. Even when the dozen or so other tables are largely unoccupied, you’re likely to see the communal tables filling up and patrons saying hello to their table-neighbors between sips of coffee. That said, after the occasional friendly exchange, most people get back to the activity that brought them into the café in the first place: catching up with friends or knocking out some work or simply enjoying a quiet moment alone, watching the L train come to a stop at the Garfield Avenue station across the street.
On Friday night, about a dozen people turn up at Black Cinema House, an expansive book-lined room with a well-equipped audio/visual system. Black Cinema House shares an address with Gates’ private art studio. The building itself is a former beer warehouse and sits at the edge of railroad tracks in Greater Grand Crossing, which is one of the ten most violence-ridden communities in the city of Chicago. On this night, though, the weather is mild and trouble feels far away.
Guests trickle in between 7 and 7:30 p.m. While the attendees do vary, most are black and most are women. Everyone is gathering to watch and discuss Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life. The evening is led by University of Chicago professor Jacqueline Stewart and Northwestern University professor Miriam Petty.
When the film ends, the professors say a few words about not only Sirk’s film, but also the original version of Imitation of Life, directed by John M. Stahl in 1934. When the room opens up to Q&A, a woman sitting off to the side begins to tell a story about watching the original film with her mother. She describes the ridiculous racial characterization of one of the film’s main characters. Three women—including one who’s at least old enough to be this woman’s mother—all nod in agreement. The professors add to the concord. And as the conversation deepens, it’s hard not recognize how much all of these women have in common, despite the fact that, in their everyday social circles, it’s very unlikely they’d ever cross paths.
At the heart of all of this sits creativity, and that’s something we shouldn’t lose sight of, says Isis Ferguson. “It’s neighborhood development through art.”
But what’s offered through this Gates-inspired ecosystem isn’t necessarily accessible to all. Not everybody has the wallet for one of the several-hundred-dollar art books lining the high shelves at the BING bookstore. And not everybody has the appetite for avant-garde, jazz-inspired music that musicians from France and Chicago brought to the main hall of the Stony Island Arts Bank one Thursday evening in May. Specialization is balanced by the $1 coffee at the Currency Exchange Café and the laid-back, unstructured vibe of the Arts Bank’s Friday afternoon tea ceremony. And with these low-barrier-for-entry experiences, this ecosystem implicitly invites visitors to learn a little more, dig a little deeper, and expose themselves to something slightly more esoteric. All while remaining in their personal comfort zone, whatever that might be.
The Currency Exchange Café got its name from the actual currency exchange shop that existed in the same space before it. The Stony Island Arts Bank was once the Stony Island Savings & Loan. In each of these names, there’s a deference to history and a healthy appreciation for the notion that forging ahead doesn’t have to mean forgetting what’s behind.
Which makes sense. After all, Gates seems to be most comfortable at that shaky intersection between the past and the future, where an abandoned bank becomes a vibrant arts center, where crumbling homes become community meeting spaces, and where burdened neighbors are reminded that the people and places surrounding them have remarkable potential that’s just waiting to be tapped.
This article was written with the support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation as part of a broader examination of the challenges, opportunities, levers, behaviors, and mindsets that impact socioeconomic mixing in public spaces and the civic commons.