Renowned Chicago artist Theaster Gates has turned abandoned buildings into cultural gems in the economically struggling Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood. Former blighted homes now brim with vinyl records, books and performances for the public.
As Gates continues to marry art and urban planning on the South Side, he’s now turning to nearby public housing that’s been vacant since 2006.
Gates, Brinshore Development and the Chicago Housing Authority are redeveloping 32 public housing units on 70th Street between Dante and Harper. The scattered-site CHA housing will be turned into a mixed-income community: a third public, a third affordable and a third market-rate units.
Artists will be recruited to live in the apartments. There will be a shared artist workspace for programming and volunteer work with youth.
“Thinking about the role that artists play in redeveloping neighborhoods so the artists that are interested in living in this space, we’d like to build in a component of service. You can call it volunteer but I’d really like to think of it as an extension of how we live in our neighborhoods,” Gates said.
The idea of using art as ammunition against blight has taken hold across the country. Noted economist Richard Florida advocated that artists – or the creative class, as he calls them – can help revitalize cities.
Gates agrees – to a point.
“The creative class that Richard Florida talks about, I don’t think he’s actually talking about some of the folk that we have identified as creative or that live in this space,” Gates said. “It’s true that creatives and people who are interested in creativity and design and architecture have substantial impacts on neighborhoods. But I don’t think they’d necessarily be attracted to living on Dorchester.
“Part of what I’m excited about is that there’s a whole segment of the creative class that’s not been asked to be players in city. I’m talking about black artists, artists of color,” he said
CHA has approved the developer and groundbreaking is scheduled to start in 2012.
These redeveloped artist units will be included in the broader Plan for Transformation, the sweeping 15-year CHA plan that has knocked down high-rises and built mixed-income communities. The controversial plan has pitted the agency and residents against each other. But this artist project appears to be a sunny spot.
Tenant leader Francine Washington is working with Gates.
“I’ve been part of this transformation ever since its existence. I think this is one of the best. This is different; it’s unique and it’s creative and innovative,” Washington said. “And Theaster is the best.”