Venture: Low home prices fuel artist's vision

How the housing crash is enabling Theaster Gates to create an arts community

March 21, 2011

By Ashley Gross

Download Story
(WBEZ/Ashley Gross)
Theaster Gates in front of the art history library he's creating in the Grand Crossing neighborhood.
(WBEZ/Ashley Gross)
The building that Gates bought for $16,000 cost more than $300,000 just a few years ago.
(WBEZ/Ashley Gross)
(left) This converted candy store is Gates' home. (right) Gates' art history library was rehabbed with salvaged wood.

Each Monday here on Venture, we aim to give you a headstart on the week's business news in Chicago. We want to get insight into the health of the economy by exploring how people all around us are experiencing it.
 
Tomorrow, Deerfield, Illinois-based Walgreens reports second-quarter earnings – and that should help us understand how consumers are feeling these days. Later this week, we’ll find out just how fast the economy has been growing – and that has implications for the recovery of the job market.

We’ll also get housing data, including new home sales on Wednesday.

Today, the Illinois Association of Realtors said home sales in the Chicago metro area in February fell 8.8 percent from a year earlier, and the median price slipped 7.6 percent. In the city of Chicago, sales fell 14 percent, while the median price was little changed, up less than one percent.

Still, home prices in the Chicago area have lost about a third of their value since the peak in 2006.

But those low prices are drawing out investors. Mabel Guzman, president of the Chicago Association of Realtors, says a lot of them are plunking down cash.

"You have investors that are coming in saying I have that kind of money, I have that cash," Guzman said. "So you know, might as well use it. So basically right now investors are looking at how can I get into this marketplace and be profitable?"

But not everyone is motivated just by profit. In one South Side neighborhood, an artist is taking advantage of bargain-basement prices to create a cultural oasis.

Theaster Gates is a potter and musician who works as director of arts program development at the University of Chicago. For him, the housing crisis means a chance to connect the arts world he works in with the block where he lives – in a census tract with a poverty rate almost three times as high as the Chicago metro area. A third of his block is either empty lots or vacant buildings.

He’s buying those boardups to create space for artists to live in and an art history library that includes a collection of art slides from the University of Chicago.

And on an empty lot, he’s planning what he calls a soul food pavilion – a space for dinners, jazz, lectures – the kind of gathering spot he says his neighborhood of Grand Crossing just doesn’t have. In essence, this stretch of Dorchester Avenue has become his latest work of art:

Gates moved to the block about five years ago to live in an old candy store that he rehabbed, using recycled stone and salvaged wood. When you walk in, you feel transported – like you’ve landed in a Zen temple.

Gates says the idea to turn his block into something more came when the three-flat next door became abandoned:



In addition to staying, he’s creating a way for others to stay as well. His message is – with imagination, people can turn devastated neighborhoods into desirable places to live. He says none of this would have been possible without the recent drop in home prices:



Theaster Gates has explored the world of shoeshines in his artwork. He says a shoeshine is like cheap redemption – a transformation that can happen in 12 minutes.

And that leads us to our Windy Indicator, where we veer onto the economy’s sidestreets for a little reality check. At Metro Shoe Service in the pedway by Millennium Park, Mazen Shunnarah says business is down about 30 percent compared with two years ago.




So the shoeshine indicator is not pointing to a recovery quite yet.

Next week, our Windy Indicator takes a crack at bat.