It’s no secret that some of Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods have suffered from a certain level of financial disinvestment, often systemic and spread out over decades.
But one Chicagoan’s efforts to inject new enthusiasm and a sense of community, anchored by artistic and cultural endeavors, are attracting global attention — and similar efforts might be the key to stimulating more equitable real estate development on Chicago’s South Side, a new report suggests.
The report reflects three years of studying creative placemaking and the impact it has on communities. It comes from the Urban Land Institute, a global organization of real estate and urban development professionals dedicated to the responsible use of land in creating and sustaining thriving communities.
ULI reports that cities are finding success with the concept of placemaking, in which developers, designers, planners and investors come together to sync up their efforts in residential, commercial and public sectors to produce active, mixed-use spaces and reverse the effects of historic disinvestment.
“There is a strong interest in creative placemaking continuing to grow and expand in its scope, particularly in these times,” said Juanita Hardy, a contributing author to the report. “We have a world pandemic, and the United States is crippled by that and (the) racial unrest that’s coming in across our country. And this time, more than any time, is when you can use art and culture to address some of these concerns.”
At the center of the ULI report is Chicago artist, developer and urban planner Theaster Gates. A 2018 winner of ULI’s Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development, Gates has been doing creative placemaking on the city’s South Side for years.
Through his Rebuild Foundation, Gates has taken abandoned buildings and transformed them into beloved community spaces in the Grand Crossing neighborhood. It began with the abandoned Stony Island Trust & Savings Bank building, which became the Stony Island Arts Bank, a public arts space and facility at 68th Street and Stony Island Avenue.
Nearby, Rebuild Foundation turned three vacant buildings in the 6900 block of South Dorchester Avenue into a combination of living quarters and art space, while the Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative grew out of a former public housing project and now serves as housing and work space for artists and community members.
Gates’ three developments are located just blocks from one another on purpose, said Tregg Duerson, Rebuild’s chief operating officer.
“It’s meant to be a long-term, master planning exercise,” he said. “We’re connecting it with the different buildings and putting a theme on each building to create an art-based community.
“The Arts Bank is a world-renowned place that’s a cultural hub for everyone. Dorchester Art is more of a community center that’s meant for people within a mile to 2 miles around the space that can take advantage of the daily and weekly programs that are being offered there.”
The Tribune reached out to Gates to discuss his real estate endeavors, but he was unavailable.
Rebuild and Gates still have a lot more creative placemaking to do, Duerson said. Their current projects include the transition of the closed St. Laurence Catholic elementary school building, 1353 E. 72nd St., into a business hub for artists, creatives and entrepreneurs. During former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s tenure, the city awarded $1.6 million in funding from the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund to repurpose the building.
Duerson said Rebuild hasn’t put those funds to use yet, but the organization will be going to City Council in the next month or two to formalize that agreement. Another project: the installation of a park behind buildings that sit along Dorchester Avenue, so artists and area residents can access open green space comprised of 15 adjacent city lots. The long-term plan, Duerson said, is to raise a repurposed barn on the property that will have separate rooms and environments for artists.
“It is meant to be artists’ workspace, but also a meditative landscaping space,” he said.
Two artists who are enjoying the effects of creative placemaking are the co-founding artistic directors of the dance company BraveSoul Movement, Kelsa “K-Soul” Robinson and Daniel “Bravemonk” Haywood. The dancers and residents of Bronzeville have hosted programming performances and rehearsals at the Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative.
“A lot of the events that we’ve had there have brought dancers and people who are major movers and shakers in the (dance) community and the culture, drawn them over to the South Side to vibe with the kids and sort of mentor and inspire them,” Robinson said. “I have seen a lot of beautiful things happen in that space. Just to see the community that’s being built there through people that live in the area, and also artists that are coming from around the city to just be a connector point — there’s a lot of synergy happening.”
But a vital part of the placemaking process, the artists said, was ensuring the community was a part of defining just what those places should entail.
“I think Rebuild has been very intentional around the arts that they bring,” Haywood said. “I think there’s a responsibility to the artists coming in there, to see the community — and not from a deficit standpoint. Not like: ‘I’m coming to give something to these kids.’ No; you’re there to learn, too. We’re sharing. I think it helps to create a space where we can begin to think about equity and access to programs.”
Although Duerson acknowledged that hard data on the effectiveness and return on investment of placemaking is hard to come by, reports like ULI’s and those from Chicago Made, an initiative from World Business Chicago to support entrepreneurs in the creative industries, are changing that and offering numerous case studies of creative placemaking happening throughout the country.
A $250 million mixed-use, transit-oriented development in Washington, D.C., garnered higher retention rates and faster lease-ups thanks to the community buy-in, according to the ULI report. Others, like Detroit’s Campus Martius Park, helped to establish interest in a community, catalyzing future development and mixed-use projects that reached up to $1 billion in value, the ULI report said.
For disinvested communities, the return on investment can mean the preservation of historic buildings, improved health outcomes and amenities that were previously not available.
Locally, the Gage Park Latinx Council has transformed a nondescript storefront in the Southwest Side neighborhood into a cultural center and community hub where it can grow the programming and foster community. KLEO Art Residences at 5504 S. Michigan Ave., opened in July 2019 as a 58-unit affordable housing complex, with artists at the forefront.
“There was always a desire to start with community in mind, but we realized there were artists struggling to find ways to be able to afford housing,” said KLEO owner Torrey Barrett. “We took about a year and did about eight community meetings in different parts of Washington Park, just to hear from the folks and artists that live there, as to what type of housing and other amenities that they would want to see, and that’s how we got to where we are.”
With over 1,000 names on the list before it opened, KLEO Art Residences is accepting applications only for one-bedroom apartments. Barrett is in the early phases of planning something similar to KLEO Art Residences across the street from the current structure since demand is high. That one may include up to 80 apartments, he said.
The ULI report also offered 10 best practices for placemaking gleaned from research — some of which entail finding and recruiting artists from the community early on in the project’s development.
Hardy said the report was created to assist those wanting to know how to go about implementing a creative placemaking project by showing examples, offering resources and showing how one makes the case for it to community leaders.
“My understanding is Theaster’s approach is one of collaboration and partnerships, so he’s bringing other people into it in Chicago,” Hardy said. “But we do have other folks that are doing what he’s doing in terms of going into underserved communities and developing those communities, doing community projects.”
That process takes time, Duerson noted. While Gates has established himself and has assembled resources and financial investment, it took years to build that level of support.
“Theaster started really small. First, it was just a couple of single-family homes that were redeveloped into art spaces/community spaces, where the programs he was doing were soul food dinners, poetry readings … essentially spaces to invite people over and just have a convening around an artist or a conversation or an idea,” Duerson said. “(Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative) doesn’t happen if Theaster doesn’t start small.”
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