On a recent sun-drenched Saturday in Chicago’s historic Pullman neighborhood, vocalist Meagan McNeal was belting out the languid notes of “Summertime.”
Neighbors and visitors had set up wooden folding chairs along the edge of the sidewalk on the 11100 block of South Langley Avenue to listen and watch McNeal perform — her hot pink dress and floral hair wrap stood out against the dark green front stoop that served as her stage.
A few doors down, people checked out the original framed art for sale at $50 a pop.
The occasion? The grand opening of a brand new community-run art center for the Far South Side: the Block House Gallery.
“Access to art on the South Side is a really big deal,” said Frankye Payne, president of PullmanArts, the all-volunteer community group that pushed the gallery — and the larger artist housing project where it’s located — into existence.
“There’s really not a gallery southeast,” Payne said. “You’d have to go to Hyde Park,” which is nearly nine miles away.
“Bronzeville has a lot of great art culture, but not in Pullman. And it’s a lot of creatives in Pullman.”
Enter the Block House Gallery. Payne said PullmanArts will offer classes there, curate shows, highlight the artists who live in the building and work to bring more artists to exhibit their work.
“If we can draw large names to a community that doesn’t really get a chance to see big artists, we would love to do that,” said Payne, whose T-shirt declared Culture is power.
The gallery is part of Pullman Artspace Lofts, 38 affordable live-and-work spaces for artists developed by PullmanArts, the Chicago Neighborhoods Initiative and Artspace, a Minneapolis nonprofit that creates artist housing across the U.S. The groups cut the opening ribbon on the project earlier this month.
Singer McNeal lives here, along with neighbors who are photographers, painters, hair stylists, makeup artists and fellow musicians.
The lofts, designed to fit in with the Pullman neighborhood’s classic row houses, take up most of the block. They’re bookended by two renovated buildings from the 1880s that are on the National Register of Historic Places but sat vacant for decades.
A large new building was added between them with exteriors styled from the original Pullman designs. Developers say it’s the first new residential development in the neighborhood in 60 years.
“This space is historic preservation, it’s new construction, it’s affordable housing and a space for artists to thrive,” said Ciere Boatright, head of real estate at Chicago Neighborhoods Initiative, the Pullman-based nonprofit that helped develop the housing and gallery space.
“[That’s] why this is so important for our community,” said Boatright, adding that the $18 million project was almost 10 years in the making.
PullmanArts got keys to the gallery and the first artists moved into the housing in late 2019, but the pandemic interrupted opening celebrations.
The gallery’s first exhibition features works from artists who live in the lofts. In one corner, a plywood panel mural displays a psychedelic rainbow eye. On another wall are abstract paintings, seascapes, plus a portrait of rapper Jay-Z.
Near the door, metalsmith, textile artist and lofts resident Etiti Ayeni was selling handcrafted jewelry — earrings, necklaces, and collars featuring bold fabric prints and metalworks inspired by her West African and American Gullah Geechee culture.
Among the paintings on exhibit are a row of portraits by artist Steve Soltis, who said the works are “intuitive paintings right out of my head.”
Soltis was looking for new housing when his lease ended, and he just happened upon the Pullman Artspace Lofts.
“I was looking for a workspace I could afford,” he said. “Not easy.”
Like lots of artists, Soltis had bounced from one Chicago neighborhood to the next — Lakeview, Old Town — for much of his career, trying to stay ahead of rising rents. Many times he’d fix up spaces, only to be booted once the owner could charge more.
Now, he doesn’t have to worry about fixing things up — or being kicked out.
“Brand new everything,” Soltis said of his new housing.
He’s got high ceilings, a big open space and a bedroom for his daughter, who stays with him half the week.
“She could ride her bike in there if she wanted to,” he quipped.
Rent is $850 a month. Soltis said he loves the mix of artists in the building.
“It’s really great. I mean, that’s my neighbor Meagan singing,” he said as McNeal’s voice drifted through the gallery’s open doors.
Soltis pushed McNeal’s two-year-old son in his stroller, babysitting while she performed.
Providing artists with affordable housing is an investment in the arts, said Tio Aiken, a spokesperson for Artspace. If meeting the rent is not their primary focus, then artists have more time and freedom to focus on their work.
“Maybe saving an extra $100 in rent will allow you to invest in materials or better invest in your craft so that you can continue to grow and make money as an artist,” Aiken said.
Artists’ needs are embedded in the physical designs of Artspace buildings. The nonprofit owns and operates 53 projects across the country, with more than 1,000 residential units catering to artists.
Artists who need natural light to work can take advantage of Artspace buildings’ large windows. Tall ceilings allow artists to work on large commissions. Open floor plans allow them to manipulate the space for sculptures or choreography or just their daily lives.
“That’s one of the areas that we often try to redirect people’s energy, is to say, hey, this is an Artspace building, they can paint on the walls,” Aiken said.
Investing in artists can also create a “ripple effect” for the neighborhood, Aiken said. Artspace screens applicants to find tenants who want to be involved in the civic life of the neighborhood. They want to bring in artists like Soltis, who will become part of the community.
PullmanArts, the small but mighty collective of neighborhood residents who sparked the entire development, will be based at the Block House Gallery.
“We didn’t have a space before this,” said Payne. “Everyone was kind of just moving around. We would go to each other’s homes and have meetings. So this is our first space.”
To Boatright, who has helped draw industrial and commercial ventures to Pullman, this project has a special feel.
“When you walk in a space you instantly feel this amazing energy,” she said. “The artists just make this space so much more than just a beautiful development. They make it home.”
Natalie Dalea is Curious City’s multimedia intern. Follow her @nmdalea.
Linda Lutton covers Chicago neighborhoods for WBEZ. Follow her @lindalutton.