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“Artist-Led and Community-Driven”: Revitalizing Chicago’s South Side With Theaster Gates

The Classical Revival Style Stony Island Trust & Savings Bank Building in Chicago, which has a “temple front” façade featuring large columns.In 2015, Rebuild Foundation reopened a long-vacant former savings and loan building (shown) as the Stony Island Arts Bank, which serves as a gallery, archive, library, and community center. Credit: Altawati, Creative Commons. Image cropped and retouched.

To artist and University of Chicago professor Theaster Gates, neighborhoods are not merely collections of buildings and infrastructure; they are fundamentally about the human beings who share a place and a history together. In Chicago, Gates practices community development as slow, spiritual work that is as much about nurturing and healing the soul of the South Side as it is about bricks and mortar. Gates wears many hats and eschews the label of “developer,” insisting on the distinct perspective that artists can bring to development — to the deep and complex questions at the heart of what it means to build and to dwell. Gates believes that if development is to nurture a community toward self-empowerment, it should seek to care for the things of the past, build pride and dignity in the people, and labor to create beautiful moments. In recognition of his visionary work, the Urban Land Institute (ULI) awarded Gates the 19th J.C. Nichols Prize in October at its fall 2018 conference in Boston.

The Slow Work

Gates is the founder of the Rebuild Foundation, an organization that uses “innovative, ambitious and entrepreneurial arts and cultural initiatives” to strengthen and develop communities in the South Side neighborhoods of Chicago. Gates’ work takes seriously the notion that artists can and should have a voice in the development process. Arts and culture, Gates believes, should have a robust role in community life and not be reduced, as they often are, to a branding strategy. In 2011, he conceived what would become the Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative (DA + HC), a project to transform a vacant former public housing project into a mixed-income development with affordable housing for artists. (Read more about DA + HC, which received the 2016 American Institute of Architects/HUD Secretary’s Award for Housing and Community Design, here). In another project, when the city of Chicago found itself forced to cut down tens of thousands of ash trees stricken by sap-hungry beetles, Gates offered to take the trees off the city’s hands and use them in a workforce development program teaching milling and other skilled crafts to local residents. “This is a kind of slow work, farm-to-table development,” says Gates. “We’re training folk from the inside.” This effort provides more than just jobs, said Michael Spies, chairman of the Nichols Prize jury. It “infuses a sense of community pride that transforms disenfranchised residents into involved stakeholders.”

Beautiful and Sacred Things

Rebuild’s undertakings show Gates’ philosophy in practice. In 2015, Rebuild reopened a long-vacant former savings and loan building as the Stony Island Arts Bank. Currently serving as a gallery, archive, library, and community center, the uses of the building were allowed to emerge from the process and practice of rehabilitation, informed by how people were using and imagining the space together. The most immediate task was simply saving the building from demolition, but the potential benefit to the community was profound: “I think that in some cases the black South Side just needed moments that were simply beautiful,” said Gates, “and that they were beautiful for the people who already lived there.” Rehabilitation work was gradually completed over 2 years, allowing Gates time to use the process of repair as a process of nurturing community through the work. “By having time and spending time and showing up every day, people would become curious, and then they would become participants.”

Later, serendipity helped flesh out an actual program of use. Planting grass adjacent to the bank, for example, led people to imagine that the space was a park, and in its usage it became a park. Some collections archived at the bank arrived by similarly unexpected means. Books and periodicals from the Johnson Publishing Company, publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines, were donated by the daughter of the company’s late founder. Gates has long felt the need to have a space to care for and contemplate “the old things of our people,” and much of his work is focused on saving and understanding the everyday objects that give richness and texture to a community’s identity. In this caretaking, Gates demonstrates the thesis of his approach to development, suggesting that distressed neighborhoods are not dead but merely sleeping and asking whether they “are formerly sacred spaces that have just lost that sacred power?”

A Serious Role for Art

The questions Gates engages through his work are relevant for all developers, community builders, and advocates even as he recognizes that the particular model that sustains Rebuild may not be universally replicable. His growing stature in the art world has allowed the sale of his artworks — often created out of excess materials from rehabilitation projects — to help fund the Rebuild Foundation’s activities, generating more raw materials in a self-sustaining cycle. His experimental approach of a slow unfolding of the work and a deep investment in people “just takes more time, it takes more money,” he says, than many traditional developers might be able to undertake. The achievements so far realized in the South Side, however, testify to the central importance of real community building and real involvement of the people as partners. “Building the building was more like a means to an end, and the end was, in some cases, hope.”