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Built in 1888, this once-vacant house
on the South Side of Chicago
has been renovated inside and out
to serve as the Library and Archive
House, holding a collection of art and
architectural books.
Credit: Propellerfund

About eight miles (12.8 km) from Chicago’s Loop, in a dilapidated brick house in a down-on-its-luck South Side neighborhood, an experiment is taking shape. Chicago’s Grand Crossing neighborhood has lost almost half its population since the 1960s, and building slowed to a near halt long before that. But today, an old two-story home on South Dorchester Avenue in the neighborhood is getting new plumbing, and new windows are snug in their frames. By early summer, it will become home to the Black Cinema House, a live/work space presenting films and hosting residencies for video artists and filmmakers of color. And this unusual hybrid space could, with only a small footprint, help change the neighborhood.

The project is part of a larger intervention in the community by visual artist and urban planner Theaster Gates, whose art has been included in the Whitney Biennial, the New York Armory Show, and the Inax Ceramic Museum of Japan. In addition to his arts pedigree, Gates has a master’s degree in urban planning and a passion for revitalizing neighborhoods like Grand Crossing.

Listening Locally

Gates grew up in Chicago and moved back a few years ago. When Dr. Wax, a soul and gospel record store in nearby Hyde Park, was going out of business, Gates saw an opportunity. He bought the store’s entire record inventory and placed it in a former candy store in the neighborhood. He renovated the old candy store with recycled materials, including flooring from a Chicago bowling alley.

Gates started hosting listening parties in the candy store, where anyone could choose a record from the collection and put it on the turntable. The events grew, and last year local jazz musician David Boykin held open rehearsals in the space. An artist-in-residence program has taken root as well. And the space is an artwork in its own right, as Gates turns unwanted ephemera into beautiful objects. He particularly likes to use recycled woods, like timbers from closed Chicago factories and wood from regional barns.

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A two-story building on South
Dorchester Street is being renovated
to serve as the Black Cinema House.
All rights reserved Rebuild Foundation

“Theaster is someone who sees value in things that have essentially been discarded, in both his place making and in his art,” says Carol Coletta, a fellow Chicagoan and president of ArtPlace, a new collaboration made up of ten major foundations; six large U.S. banks (Bank of America, Citi, Deutsche Bank, Chase, MetLife, and Morgan Stanley); eight federal agencies, including the National Endowment for the Arts; the U.S. departments of Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, Agriculture, Education, and Transportation; and leadership from the White House Office of Management and Budget and the Domestic Policy Council. Its goal is to advance creative place making to help bring blighted neighborhoods back to vibrancy. ArtPlace invested $125,000 in the construction and programming of Black Cinema House, citing the potential in Gates’s process for revitalizing communities. “By focusing on the neglected cultural assets of the community, he has been able to build something extraordinary,” Coletta says.

Gates’s second experiment in place making in Grand Crossing is the Library and Archive House. When a bookstore focusing on art and architecture was closing in 2009, Gates bought its collection of more than 14,000 books, installing them in another vacant building he bought in the neighborhood, lining the walls with books and old card catalogs. Gates sees these collections as archives that will serve as a catalyst for the creation of new works by local artists and creative people. More important, perhaps, is that they create a cultural backdrop for conversation and reasons for people to congregate in a neglected neighborhood.

halbur_5_200Black Cinema House, a much more ambitious project, is the next step for the neighborhood. With the grant from ArtPlace, Gates has an opportunity tostretch, elaborating on his unique formula for revitalization and artistic reinterpretation. “If you create space where creative people can do the things that they do very, very well and create an environment where they feel ownership of that space, the feeling of ownership will lead to better stewardship,” he says. ArtPlace sees the potential for such stewardship to create vibrancy in the community­—an increase in the people, activity, and value that will lead to additional development. “Economic investment and activity often follow creative initiative, as developers and business owners start to see more              on the streets, more energy in the community,” Coletta says. “Projects like Black Cinema House draw out the energy and vision inherent in the community and create a hub, a place that thrives on that energy—a place where people want to be.”

The Artist and the Developer

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The opening reception for a
University of Chicago conference
on art and the city was held on
South Dorchester Avenue.
Credit: Really Boring

Once Gates announced his intention to make the site a venue for African American cinema, he found potential partners in the Chicago Film Archives and a group called South Side Projections. Both organizations have sizable archives of rare and local South Side films.

Coletta says magic happens when arts organizations realize there is strength in numbers. “In many of the projects we’ve been supporting, we’re seeing this ‘aha’ moment where a cluster of local arts groups figure out that by joining forces, they can succeed exponentially.”

halbur_6_200On the Black Cinema House, Gates partnered with Rich Sciortino, a principal of Northshore, Illinois–based Brinshore Development, a firm that specializes in affordable housing. Sciortino was instrumental in getting the city of Chicago to adopt the Chicago Abandoned Property Program to reduce the impact of foreclosed properties on neighborhoods through debt negotiation, selective demolition, and other strategies. Gates says that when he and Sciortino began talking about Black Cinema House, he said that if Sciortino would think about the tax credits involved, he would think about the programing. “If Rich would deal with the logistics of getting the buildings rehabbed and redeveloped, then I would help catalyze the space and bring the artists,” Gates says.

Now they are making bigger plans with a new project, the Dorchester Arts Collaborative. Gates found a cluster of abandoned 1970s-era brick buildings that formerly served as public housing, and with Sciortino is working to transform them into an art center combined with affordable housing specifically for artists and families with modest incomes who are interested in the arts. “We’re looking at it loosely as a social experiment,” says Sciortino, “because public housing really hasn’t mixed these two elements together in any formal fashion.”

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The Library and Archive House is the home of more than 14,000 books purchased by visual artist and urban planner Theaster Gates when a local bookstore focused on art and architecture closed. Credit: Mejay Gula

Gates and Sciortino share the belief that this is a practice that takes time, that place making has to grow organically out of the cultural fabric of the neighborhood. Each of Gates’s projects is an evolving installation that begins with a reimagining of an undervalued cultural asset. Teasing out the potential in the space and allowing it to emerge is a process made up of many small decisions. When it works, the new space fosters creativity and forges new connections, and other possibilities begin to emerge.

“Take a building at a time,” Gates says. “Over several years, grow a small community. Figure out the need, see if there’s a ‘there’ there. And then scale. Don’t worry when you start if it’s a 90-unit building or ten blocks. Ask if there is a culture interested in aggregating.”

Creative Place Making

Coletta and ArtPlace are supporting creative place-making projects at a variety of scales, from a new town square for Miami focused on the city’s performing arts center to an incubator for designers and entrepreneurs in an ailing mall in Milwaukee. “Art can be a powerful driver of the transformation of local communities by increasing vibrancy,” says Coletta. “And there are a thousand different ways to make that happen.”

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The former Dr. Wax soul and gospel record collection is housed in the former candy store. Credit: Mejay Gula

5M PlaceWorks in San Francisco is another ArtPlace project pairing a developer, Forest City Development, with an arts organization, Intersection for the Arts. Built into the old headquarters of the San Francisco Chronicle, the 5M project is a two-year-old prototype community of 2,000 entrepreneurs, technology companies, and artists. In addition to adding gallery space and artistic cachet to the development, Intersection for the Arts is working to connect the community’s art scene and take a deliberate approach to creating a sense of place for locals. And, Coletta observes, “What makes a place popular and authentic for locals is the same thing that attracts people from the surrounding area and beyond.”