Atlantic Cities

The Accidental DIY Developer

The Accidental DIY Developer
Landon Bone Baker

Earlier this month, Chicago artist Theaster Gates invited a couple dozen locals over for a soul food dinner at one of three South Side houses he's rehabbed with the help of friends and a good deal of recycled materials. Collectively known as the Dorchester Projects, the renovated spaces have sparked a minor cultural renaissance in the long-neglected Grand Crossing neighborhood and become Exhibit A in Gates' mini-empire of urban revitalization.

“The larger cultural community has become excited about Dorchester,” Gates says moments before his guests arrive, “and the dinner table becomes a way of not only connecting people socially but creating new opportunities between people where there's need.”  

The 38-year-old Gates is a fast-rising artist, known for re-purposed sculptures and curated events that often reference black history and political engagement. His work appeared in the 2010 Whitney Biennial and, last year, in a 40 Under 40 show at a Smithsonian gallery. This year, he served as the commissioned artist for the Armory Show in New York.

He's also developed, almost by accident, an innovative, arts-focused model of redevelopment that's expanding across the Midwest.

The story begins in 2006, when Gates bought a derelict former candy store in Grand Crossing, just south of the University of Chicago, where he'd accepted a job to promote arts engagement with the local community. By the time he'd rehabbed the space and moved in a few years later, his career as an artist had taken off and the housing crisis had punched the low-income neighborhood in the nose.

Grand Crossing's population declined by more than 15 percent between 2000 to 2010, according to the latest census. But rather than leave, Gates tripled down, taking advantage of depressed prices to buy the dilapidated house next door, an adjacent lot and a duplex across the street. One house became an archive and library for thousands of architecture and design books as well as an artist residence.

Another became a cinema space and a third a music listening venue, with thousands of vinyl records. Gates organized live performances, summer programs for neighborhood youth and, this spring, a series of ritualized Soul Food Dinners, which are part of the Feast exhibition at the University of Chicago's Smart Museum.

To manage and maintain the Dorchester Projects, Gates created the Rebuild Foundation in 2010. A team of artists, architects, educators, developers and activists, Rebuild has since taken over and begun redeveloping nine buildings in distressed neighborhoods in Omaha, Detroit and St Louis. The completed spaces will include a soul food restaurant, a pottery studio and several artist and performance spaces, as well as residences.

Plenty of hybrid art spaces across the country, such as Machine Project in Los Angeles' Echo Park neighborhood, mix gallery shows with disparate events like cheese tastings and scientific experiments. But the Rebuild Foundation appears to be the only arts-centered, multi-city urban revitalization organization in the country. Gates, who holds a master's in ceramics, religious studies and urban planning from Iowa State, aims to disprove those who believe artists can't live and thrive in distressed neighborhoods like Grand Crossing.

Rebuild recently gained approval from the Chicago Housing Authority to transform a chunk of South Side public housing that's been vacant since 2006 into a 32-unit mixed-income community for artists (see top image). Just down the street from the Dorchester Projects, the redeveloped blocks would include a cultural center and shared studio and performance space.

At that dinner earlier this month, guests included writers, musicians, arts patrons, photographers, an anthropologist and an urban farmer. The menu – watermelon cocktails, fried frog legs, shrimp and grits, and chitlins, or sauteed pig intestines – had been put together by soul food expert Ericka Dudley and Michael Kornick, who owns MK Restaurant and has been called “one of Chicago's true culinary masters” by Esquire magazine.

“We have the power, with our collective brains, with our collective talents, our shared interests and our fiscal and thoughtful resources, to change a place,” Gates told his guests as dessert teacakes were served, “and I'm intentionally doing that here.”

Moments later, as wine glasses were emptied and goodnight embraces shared, Kornick and his wife Lisa announced that they planned to open a new restaurant and cooking school in the neighborhood.

Keywords: Chicago, Redevelopment

David Lepeska writes about urban issues and the environment for The New York Times, Monocle, and other publications. He lives in Chicago. All posts »

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