News & Politics » Feature

A City Without Art

It's hard to picture Chicago without artists. But if affordable studio and living space continues to dwindle, we may have no trouble picturing it at all.



On March 30 lease-termination notices arrived on the doorsteps of the two dozen people still living in the Tree Studios Building, the State Street complex that's been home to artists for 107 years--longer than any other building in the country. The storefronts got the boot too. A few days later title to the Medinah Temple and Tree Studios complex, which had been owned by the Shriners fraternal organization since 1956, passed to a private investor group as part of a city-brokered $63.5-million deal that will save little more than the buildings' skins. The Moorish-revival temple will house a four-level Bloomingdale's home-furnishings store, and the adjacent Tree Studios will be rehabbed and opened to shops and arts-related businesses. The plan also calls for artists' studios where people can work and perhaps live; a quarter of the work spaces are to be offered at below-market rents, but former residents fear that artists won't be able to afford them.

The Tree Studios tenants were given three months to move out, though the date was pushed back so they had time to see if they were eligible for relocation assistance. Barton Faist, a painter, refuses to go quietly. He has lived and worked in a second-floor studio in the original State Street wing since 1982 and has run a gallery across the hall since the early 90s, paying $1,700 for both skylit spaces. He's been leading a public crusade to save Tree Studios, clashing with developers, city officials, and even preservationists. "They just want to make a lot of money and do what they want to do," he says. "It affects more than just artists in this building--they're locking all of Chicago's artists away. They're kicking out all the cultural people--we're all being displaced. Everybody's cashing in on us, because they aren't making money on buildings filled with cultural people."

The battle over Tree Studios is high profile, but artists around the city are increasingly frustrated with the shrinking availability of affordable spaces in which they can live, work, exhibit, perform, and do business. Some artists have been savvy enough--and successful enough--to buy their own buildings. But others can't or don't want to. Most artists can't afford separate work and living spaces, and many of them are willing to live, often illegally, in subpar industrial or commercial buildings in marginal neighborhoods where few others venture. Ironically, being urban pioneers often makes them the first wave of gentrification: they're frequently followed by developers and dollars, and their neighborhoods soon become hip and fashionable. Then artists, arts groups, galleries, and theaters--along with other low-income and longtime residents--get priced out. Wicker Park in the 1990s is a classic example.

Some observers believe that the city's artists are facing a crisis, as more and more of them are being forced to move--and not just to seedier neighborhoods but to the coasts and more hospitable places in between. "It's horrible," says Arlene Rakoncay, executive director of the Chicago Artists' Coalition, the city's oldest and largest artists' advocacy organization. "Artists are being chased out of everywhere. Everybody's being pushed around. Everything's being made into condos. That's what's so sad. There's such a shortage of adequate, affordable live-work space, and work space too."

She and other artists are disturbed that the city has done so little to stop the talent drain. "Chicago is home to the third-largest population of professional artists in the United States," says Laura Weathered, executive director of Near Northwest Arts Council, an artists' advocacy and resource organization that's been on the front line of artists' space issues for 15 years. "Yet it has the dubious distinction of being the largest city that lacks a public policy for artists' housing. Cities with smaller artist populations have established affordable artist-housing programs linked with economic development and tourism."

This isn't just whiny self-interest, for having a thriving cultural scene doesn't just benefit artists. It also builds the city's reputation as a good place to live, brings vibrancy and innovation to neighborhoods, and attracts lots of money--"Cows on Parade" generated as much as $200 million in business. But these are points the city has been slow to grasp.

The city once wanted to be a contender. In 1984 Mayor Harold Washington commissioned the Chicago Cultural Plan, which was to assess cultural needs, identify issues and opportunities, and make recommendations. Spearheaded by the Department of Cultural Affairs and nearly three years in the making, the plan took shape at the grassroots level: the city invited artists, arts leaders, and cultural and community groups to the table, and out of their meetings came a comprehensive document that, among other things, concluded the arts could be a powerful tool for economic development and neighborhood revitalization.

Both the cultural plan and the related Chicago Artspace Study, which had been privately commissioned by the Department of Cultural Affairs, recommended the creation of "arts enterprise zones," districts where nonprofit organizations, galleries, shops, rehearsal spaces, living spaces, and studios would be clustered. They also recommended that the zoning code be amended to permit people to live and work in the same space, since all too often artists move into buildings not zoned for residential use, then are tossed out when the owners are cited for code violations or the property is sold. In 1986 the City Council formed a committee headed by aldermen David Orr and Luis Gutierrez that worked with city departments to explore potential policies on artists' spaces. Laura Weathered, a photographer who'd been pushed out of several buildings in Los Angeles and Chicago, testified before the committee on the need for artists' housing and worked on the cultural plan.

But then in late 1987, Washington died. "The momentum that had been building to address affordable and sustainable space just kind of fizzled out," recalls Weathered.

Some people hung on to the vision they'd had, but there was no longer a broad public effort. Earlier that year Weathered had helped found the Near Northwest Arts Council to promote local artists' activities out of an office in Wicker Park, but she knew that the city had never decided on any policies that would encourage the creation of affordable art spaces and that gentrification was rapidly becoming a threat. She realized that her organization had to shift its focus. "We had to protect our own interests and develop our own project as an example," she says. "It seemed, from our perspective, that affordable ownership was the issue. All low-income people are vulnerable to developers and displacement until you can buy some stability."

Weathered and other members of NNWAC understood that most artists' housing was provided--and would continue to be provided--by private landlords. Some of these landlords have offered affordable live-work spaces and studios with an almost missionary zeal. Podmajersky Management, run by John and Ann Podmajersky, rents to 250 to 300 artists and arts-related businesses in East Pilsen, which has turned the area around 18th and Halsted into a de facto art colony. In Wicker Park, which was colonized by artists beginning in the late 1970s, most of the cheap loft spaces have been turned into condos. Yet the Flat Iron Building, which was acquired by Berger Realty in 1993, remains an oasis for about 100 artists in the heart of the neighborhood. Units are tiny and rents have climbed, but owner Bob Berger points out that they're still below market rate. However, it's not clear how much longer arts-friendly landlords can continue to offer affordable spaces in a no-holds-barred real estate market that's driving up their taxes.

Well aware of the pressures on landlords, Weathered and the members of NNWAC wanted to create a model for affordable artists' housing that the residents would have more control over. In 1991 they formed an advisory board made up of design, legal, affordable-housing, and community-development experts. They also got a grant from the city's Department of Planning to conduct a feasibility study, and they used some of the money to send several board members to tour projects in other cities, including the Saint Paul facilities of Artspace Projects, which now creates and manages artists' buildings all over the country. The board soon realized that Artspace didn't offer quite the right model for their project, mostly because it didn't offer equity to tenants. "We came back firmly believing that artists needed to own and to be part of making the decisions about how the space should be designed, how it should be used, and who it should serve," says Weathered. In the end, they decided on a co-op, the Acme Artists Housing Cooperative.

It wasn't easy to find support for such a venture--especially given that it would be run by artists, who are often viewed as rootless and irresponsible. Weathered recalls corralling Mayor Daley at the Wicker Park field house in 1993, handing him the Acme business plan, and requesting a housing liaison. She soon got one, but at the time the city wasn't interested in providing financing. "When we first submitted our proposal, Marina Carrott--then housing commissioner--said, 'Go get a developer,'" says Weathered. "Her staff thought the plan was creative, and they were excited about it. It linked affordable housing to economic-development initiatives, which is where they wanted to go. But she wouldn't even allow the proposal to be talked about at the table." She says a housing staffer later told her, "[Carrott] said, 'Artists choose to be poor on purpose, and we have other populations to serve.'"

The Acme board moved ahead slowly. In 1995 it conducted a citywide artists' survey, asking 37 questions about income, housing, and work space and drawing 453 responses. The follow-up report stated, "Artists have to put a lot of ingenuity and energy into making ends meet. The majority (56%) work more than one job. Only 18% gave art itself as their primary source of income, although an additional 36% found their primary livelihood through arts-related employment. Most (67%) of the respondents earn less than $5,000 a year from art. This...confirms what everyone knows--producing art is a tough way to make a living." Seventy-four percent expressed interest in a housing project along the lines of Acme.

The Acme board gradually found people who were willing to put up $3,000 for a share in the equity, and they secured state and federal predevelopment grants. They met with bankers and bid on buildings, mostly on the near northwest side, where many of the city's artists lived. "But the loft-conversion thing was really taking off," says Weathered. "We didn't have a lot of cash--and there weren't any financial resources for co-ops. It was a very competitive market. All a seller had to do was say, 'A bunch of artists are looking at a building,' and that made it even more valuable for another developer."

Then in 1996 they found a 40,000-square-foot former metal-stamping factory and warehouse facility at 2418 W. Bloomingdale, in an area real estate marketers had begun calling West Bucktown. With the shareholder equity and $220,000 from the Chicago Community Loan Fund, which provides low-interest loans to nonprofits, they bought the building for $299,000. For the next couple of years they would be tied up with zoning issues, building-permit reviews, and developing a plan for the building.

Around this time--a decade after Harold Washington and his cultural plan died--Chicago's cultural czars realized the city had a problem. They saw that arts and arts tourism had increasingly become major revenue generators for large cities, and they acknowledged that Chicago couldn't expect to maintain a vital and varied arts scene if its painters, sculptors, photographers, filmmakers, printmakers, musicians, dancers, and designers didn't have affordable places to live and work. Buildings that had long been artists' refuges were disappearing, including the South Loop Arts Building, at 1255 S. Wabash, which is now a Storage USA facility, and the building at 221 E. Cullerton, which will soon become Prairie Avenue Lofts. "Right now, artists are being squeezed out of the spaces that are most appropriate to their needs," says Barbara Koenen, a project manager with the Department of Cultural Affairs--by which she means buildings with amenities such as big, open spaces, natural light, good ventilation, freight elevators, and storage.

Koenen, a sculptor who's been pushed out of several Chicago buildings by gentrification, concedes that her department hadn't been doing much to address artists' space issues. But she says that in the fall of 1998 Mayor Richard Daley sent a memo to cultural affairs commissioner Lois Weisberg and housing commissioner Julia Stasch. "The mayor wanted to know what we were doing about artists' housing," she recalls. She's not sure what sparked the inquiry. "All I know is that when it did come up, it was like, yes!" Weisberg, Stasch, Koenen, and other members of the department's staff became a task force, and they quickly identified the city's lack of affordable live-work space as a problem and began looking for solutions.

"Cities all across the country have become aware of why it's important to figure out ways to provide artists with decent space for their business and craft," says Koenen. "We wanted to learn from what other cities had done."

Koenen, who was made the point person on artists' housing, told the group about the work being done by Artspace, the developer Acme members had visited in 1991. Artspace had been founded in 1979 as a nonprofit advocate for the space needs of artists who were being forced out of Minneapolis's historic warehouse district by rising rents. The organization soon realized that just running a referral service didn't protect artists from gentrification, and by the late 1980s it had begun developing its own projects. At the invitation of Saint Paul city officials, it turned three warehouses into live-work buildings, one of which was intended exclusively for families. The city made interest-free loans to Artspace to acquire the buildings, on the condition that if they were ever sold to anyone besides the artists, the interest would come due--a condition that makes it unlikely that anyone else could ever afford to buy the buildings. Since then, Artspace has developed projects--all in unused or underutilized historic buildings, including schools--in Duluth, Pittsburgh, Portland, Galveston, and Reno. It's now working on projects in Seattle; Houston; Fort Lauderdale; Poughkeepsie; Bridgeport; Hollywood, Florida; and Burnsville and Fergus Falls, both in Minnesota. Marketing director Sarah Parker says it gets 20 calls a week from city officials, arts organizations, and community-development agencies around the country.

Early on, the Department of Cultural Affairs task force decided to find an old schoolhouse that could be converted to rental spaces for artists. "That's a model that's been used a lot," says Koenen, "because [school buildings] lend themselves to that use real easily and they're already in communities." She began working with the Board of Education to select a site from an inventory of vacant buildings. "There weren't many," she says, "but we felt Roentgen was an ideal opportunity." By early 1999 Stasch, who would be appointed the mayor's chief of staff that spring, had contacted Artspace about being the developer and begun working out financial arrangements.

The Wilhelm K. Roentgen elementary school--on Homan between Madison and Monroe in East Garfield Park--had been shuttered since the early 1990s. The squat, four-story brick building with its sternly unadorned facade was built early in the century to house a telephone switching station and only later converted to a school. It sits in a slightly seedy neighborhood with brick and graystone two- and three-flats, liquor and grocery stores, and vacant lots that double as informal parking lots and gathering places. It's far from Chicago's established areas of art activity.

In mid-July 2000, while plans to develop Roentgen were moving ahead, the Department of Cultural Affairs publicly launched its artists' housing initiative by distributing surveys to artists in all disciplines around the city. The Chicago Artists Survey, put together by the department and Artspace as part of an Artists' Live/Work Market Feasibility Study, asked individuals about their space and technical-assistance needs, about where they lived and worked and where they would prefer to, and about the kinds of jobs they held and the income they generated. The surveys were mailed to 4,000 people whose names were culled from the department's database as well as lists from arts organizations; 400 more were hand delivered to art and community centers. "The information you provide," said the cover letter, "will help the City create policies, programs and projects to help you work in Chicago as a professional artist."

Artists had less than three weeks to send the questionnaires back--not enough time, some complained, especially since it was the middle of summer and many people were out of town. Some artists boycotted the survey. "They're trying to co-opt us," said Barton Faist, who persuaded some of his fellow Tree Studios tenants not to fill it out. "Did they reach all the artists who've been evicted?" Other artists, including Weathered, wondered why the city had taken so long to act and why it thought it had to commission another survey to gauge the extent of the crisis. Last October she was quoted in the "Chicago Artists' News," the monthly newsletter of the Chicago Artists' Coalition, saying, "What rock have [they] been under?"

Koenen accepted surveys long after the deadline had passed, and she says the 23 percent response rate--a tad over 1,000 artists--was adequate. The preliminary results were released last November. The west side, where Roentgen is located, didn't register as one of the "preferred areas for artist live/work development"; 63 percent of the artists who responded preferred the "near north." East Garfield's zip code--60624--didn't show up as one of the "top zip codes" where artists either lived or had studios; 60622--an area that includes Wicker Park, Ukrainian Village, and Humboldt Park--led in both categories. Fifty-six percent of the respondents rented living space; 49 percent didn't have a separate studio work space. Sixty percent said they would "consider relocating to an artist live/work development in Chicago"; 35 percent said they wouldn't. The statistic that most surprised Koenen was that 71 percent wanted to own single-family homes. She doesn't think the task force can make that preference a priority, explaining that the city "already has an extensive array of affordable-housing programs, and many artists would qualify."

The survey's results didn't change the plans to rehab Roentgen. Koenen points out that the building was both available and appropriate. "It's also a neighborhood that artists are moving into now," she says. "Garfield Park, the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance, Providence-Saint Mel High School--they're such fabulous resources. There just seems to be a lot of potential in that neighborhood. [Roentgen] is going to serve as a resource for the community--a community cultural center--as well as a place for artists and their families to live and work."

Of course East Garfield Park is also among the city's most crime-ridden neighborhoods--a recent Children's Memorial Hospital report ranked it the city's third-most violent neighborhood for youths; West Garfield Park is first--and the building is several blocks from the nearest el station. Yet private developers--not just churches and nonprofit groups--are already filling vacant lots with single-family homes for the first time in decades. A Jewel supermarket is on the way, and the Green Line's new Central Park Avenue-Conservatory el station opened in July, though the city's proposal to build a new traffic-court building near the Eisenhower fell through. "Artists from the west side will be among the first to be invited into the building," says Koenen. "There are people who already live there who aren't afraid to be out on the street at night. Hopefully, the building will go a long way toward creating an even safer and more engaging environment." She adds, "I've been getting a lot of phone calls. Once the word is out, I think the building will fill up really fast."

"It's a great place and a great neighborhood," says Sarah Parker, Artspace's marketing director. "I think the building will lend itself very well." The Chicago Artists' Coalition's Arlene Rakoncay says she's "not opposed" to Roentgen. "We're trying to work with the city," she says. "They're the ones with the bucks and the clout. Artists don't have that. I guess the west side is the only place left that's cheap."

The plans for the building are coming together, though Parker cautions that every Artspace project is unique and takes time. "Every community we're in we have to figure out how best to serve their needs," she says. "It's never quick, never easy." Koenen agrees. "There's a lot of bureaucracy--it's a daunting task," she says. "It's taking longer than we had hoped." The project's manager, Brian Gorecki, says Artspace has retained a Chicago-based architectural firm, Architects Enterprise, and a general contractor, Holsten, who will turn the school into 32,000 square feet of usable space. The $5.2-million cost is being funded primarily by city, state, and federal affordable-housing programs, including $3.1 million in low-income tax credits. There are to be 24 units, ranging from 550 to 1,350 square feet, and they'll cost $425 to $650 a month.

It's not a done deal, though the City Council is expected to sign off on it this week. Then Artspace will buy the property, paying, according to Koenen, "significantly less than market value." The building should be ready for tenants eight to ten months later.

Some people worry about how the artists who live there will be chosen. The Department of Cultural Affairs will have some input, but final decisions will be made by Artspace. "Will it be a diverse community?" asks photographer Heidi Hickman, an Acme member who also works with the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance, which will create gardens around Roentgen if the project is approved. "If there's a fair opportunity for artists of the west side to live there, I think that's great."

To help ease such concerns, the Cultural Affairs Department and Artspace have begun working with 28th Ward Alderman Ed Smith's office and the Duncan YMCA's Chernin Center for the Arts, which they hope will be "a connector in the creative community," according to the center's artistic director, Ifa Bayeza. "We've been making recommendations to ensure that the project gets off on a good footing and that it will be a boost to the community and not a displacement." As part of that effort, she says, the center is helping to find tenants by identifying "a broad roster of artists from different disciplines, some in our programs, who are either from the west side or who have already developed some kind of a relationship to the area." She's also been talking to arts groups, including the Congo Square Theatre Company and Conjugate Projekt, about doing programs and residencies there, and she wants to help Roentgen's tenants provide arts education and mentoring to young people in the neighborhood.

Once Artspace buys the building and construction is under way, says Koenen, the center and other community groups will help put together a plan for managing the building and doing tenant screening. To qualify to live there, artists will have to earn at least 40 percent of the area's median family income, or 40 percent of $14,301, the latest figure available.

After the tenants have been selected, they'll elect a committee to manage the building. One of the committee's first tasks will be to assign spaces to artists. "We try to meet every individual's needs," says Artspace's Gorecki. "We try to get residents involved in the running and the operations so they can develop a sense of ownership."

Some artists are concerned that if they move into Roentgen they'll make yet another neglected part of the city safer and more attractive for waves of developers and entrepreneurs--a likelihood Artspace acknowledges on its Web site: "Other neighborhood development typically follows within three years of the completion of an artists' live/work project. This development in turn helps generate other cultural activity and a general increase in visitors to the area....Invariably, the community that evolves within an artist live-work project soon spreads into the surrounding area, breathing new life, energy, and stability into the entire community." Koenen says that if that happens, at least the artists in Roentgen won't be kicked out, because the federal low-income-housing tax credits will guarantee that its units will be "affordable for at least 30 years." Other low-income residents will have to fend for themselves.

As the Roentgen project was moving ahead, the plans for NNWAC's Acme project were jelling. Its former metal-stamping factory on West Bloomingdale would be turned into homes for 25 artists and their families, as well as offices for three nonprofits--NNWAC, the Community TV Network, and the Chicago Mutual Housing Network. The energy-efficient units would range from 750 to 1,800 square feet and cost an average of $125,000, and there would be a community arts center, a gallery, a central courtyard, a roof-deck garden, a darkroom, and laundry facilities. A bed-and-breakfast unit would provide extra income, and a co-op market would give members a discount when they bought art supplies and services.

In 1998 Acme got $200,000 in city housing grants for the rehab of the building. The city also offered funds through the New Homes for Chicago Condominium Rehabilitation Program, which provides subsidies to qualified buyers based on income and family size. But to qualify, Acme would have to give up the idea of being a co-op with a single mortgage and go condo. "It was a difficult decision," says Weathered. "It took us three months of debate and six meetings to know and understand who it impacted, what it meant, what it cost."

Under the program, buyers with incomes under $68,900 for a family of three were looking at a $10,000 subsidy, while those making below $51,000 for three would get up to $30,000. In the end, the Acme members, who earn $12,000 to $40,000 a year, voted to sign on, though Weathered says, "More than a handful of people couldn't qualify for mortgages under that scenario and had to drop out."

Now called Acme Artists' Community Condominiums, the project finally had a ground-breaking ceremony last December, and the first residents are slated to move in sometime next year. Weathered concedes that the long wait--over a decade--has been frustrating, but she's proud that Acme is "unique within the U.S., in that it is entirely artist owned and has been developed through grassroots participation with several community organizations." It's set up so that units will remain affordable for 99 years and be protected from speculation: under its limited-equity agreement, the condo association has the first right to buy units for resale, and the repurchase price is the original price plus whatever the owners spent on improvements and a percentage increase tied to the consumer price index for housing costs in the Chicago metropolitan area.

While its units will be individually owned, Weathered emphasizes that Acme will still be "governed through cooperative values." She says the members--who are 59 percent white, 26 percent Latino, and 9 percent African-American; 6 percent are physically challenged--have been involved in the development process every step of the way. Residents will manage the building themselves, and they will make and enforce the rules and regulations. "We're looking at, how do you create community, and what kind of community do artists need or want?" she says. "They want big spaces with good light and heat, but they also want the ability to be more effective as artists. The biggest complaint artists have is that they work in isolation. They need access to each other; they need access to tools, equipment, and technology; they need access to marketing and business services. Like other small businesses, they want to thrive, limit overhead, save money on supplies, and increase income. They're concerned about insurance and retirement.

"We're in the business of owning property, that's all. We each have shares and votes and equal say in running the business of this property. And artists can live and work there in privacy, managing their business, and have the advantage of public access when they choose to. They're very interested in having equity--and not for the same reason that yuppies want to own lofts. There's nothing in those buildings"--she motions toward a condo village rising across Western from Acme--"that has anything to do with community, with sharing talents and resources. Those lofts aren't gonna welcome anybody that's got sawdust, power tools, paint fumes."

Acme and Roentgen will both provide artists protection from gentrification, but together they will offer fewer than 50 live-work spaces. What about the hundreds, perhaps thousands of other artists who'd like to be part of similar buildings? If Roentgen works out well, the city's cultural affairs and housing departments will consider nurturing similar projects. "We're looking at this as a model to perhaps be replicated in other communities," says Koenen, "maybe with Artspace as the developer, maybe with other developers." She's also been talking to other community-development agencies "about the benefits of having artists as anchors in communities in other neighborhoods in Chicago." She says no specific buildings and no specific areas have been identified, but she's had discussions with groups in Pilsen, Bronzeville, and Edgewater.

City officials are already considering designating Pilsen an arts district. Early last year, when the members of the Cultural Affairs Department's task force were getting their housing initiative off the ground, Mayor Daley sent them a memo asking whether they'd considered an artists' colony at 18th and Canal. Koenen says that got them thinking about Pilsen, which already has a large artist population.

Beginning last July the Cultural Affairs Department and Artspace held a series of meetings--focus-group sessions with arts and community leaders, an artists' forum, and a town-hall meeting--to discuss the idea of making Pilsen an arts district and the incentives and protections that would entail. A draft report--which draws on the 1987 Cultural Plan in recommending several buildings in an area roughly bounded by 16th Street, Damen, and the Chicago River to the south and east for arts-related uses--details the responses of the Pilsen residents. Despite "strong interest" in the arts-district concept, there was also "a great deal of skepticism" about it: "Participants were mistrustful of the city's motives, concerned about cultural divides between the eastern and western portions of the community."

The report lays out the ways in which artists and other residents could benefit from the creation of an arts district. "Artists frequently operate unregulated and unsupported in many neighborhoods," it states. "Proper and supportive zoning and planning will allow them to come 'above ground,' and operate with support similar to that offered to other Chicago businesses and residents." It also suggests several ways to head off "imminent gentrification" in the neighborhood, including tax incentives for artists' landlords.

The report recommends that an advisory group of artists, businesses, developers, arts organizations, residents, and city officials be formed to study the idea. In the meantime, an ad hoc group has put together a 50-question survey that will be distributed in the neighborhood to get a more accurate picture of artists' needs. Koenen cautions that the plan is still in its preliminary stages and will undoubtedly change with community input. "We still don't know exactly what it would mean," she says. "It's still going to be a couple years' process."

The report was an acknowledgment that zoning designations often create big problems for artists. In mid-May 2000, for example, the 30 or so painters, sculptors, photographers, musicians, woodworkers, and graphic designers who lived and worked in the building at 312 N. Laflin on the near west side got summonses to appear in housing court later that month. The artists and Laflin Properties' Al Guidice were named as defendants in a city suit stemming from building-, fire-, and zoning-code violations. According to court records, the city had been after Guidice not only for the code violations but for leasing units for residential use even though the six-story building was in an area zoned as a general manufacturing district.

The artists, who'd signed industrial-loft leases allowing them to work and live there, didn't know about the zoning problem. They quickly organized, and 20 of them showed up in court with an attorney who argued that the summonses hadn't been properly served. City lawyers and the Fire Prevention Bureau maintained that the building wasn't safe for people to live in--among other things, it didn't have a fire alarm system, the sprinkler system wasn't working, and the elevator was broken. They also objected to the "hazardous commercial and industrial activities," including woodworking and iron welding, that were going on in the building.

The judge ordered Guidice to fix the fire-code violations and the tenants "to immediately discontinue using the subject premises for residential purposes." He ordered that all "sleeping materials" be removed by June 5 and that no one be in the building between the hours of 3 AM and 7 AM.

He did force the landlord to give the artists a month and a half of free rent, but that wasn't much consolation, because many artists, including some who'd sunk thousands of dollars into renovating their spaces, had to move out. "Nobody could afford to live and work in different places," says metal sculptor Jim Brenner, who moved into the building in 1996 after relocating from Minneapolis. He says he's lived in three different places over the last year, including an apartment in the building on West Division that used to house the Bodybuilder and Sportsman gallery; the gallery and the artist tenants were kicked out last fall to make way for what's being called the Artists Village Condominiums--where units will cost $300,000, well beyond the reach of most artists. He's having trouble finding something affordable that has room for his large sculptures and heavy equipment. "I need to keep a focus on my purpose, which isn't about vengeance or being a victim," he says. Being forced to move, he adds, "gave me an opportunity to spur it on to the next level, to find a place under my control so I don't have to worry about getting kicked out. What this city should do is make it easier for artists to acquire their own spaces and have ownership."

Dimitre Barde, a commercial photographer who'd lived at 312 N. Laflin since 1993 and who documented evictions for the CITY 2000 exhibit, says that the building had harbored artists for at least 20 years and that its large, low-rent, low-overhead spaces fostered "a strong creative community of a lot of risk takers"; the band Poi Dog Pondering was once a tenant. He says that some of the artists who were forced out left the city. "Some have moved into smaller spaces where they're no longer doing the same creative things they did before."

But he's doing all right. He and some other Laflin tenants have now relocated to a former church near Noble and Erie, where they have a ten-year lease and the option to sublet spaces. He says he'd eventually like to live in a place that's separate from his business, but for now he likes the idea of being part of a community along the lines of the one he had to leave.

He and Brenner believe the city deliberately targeted the North Laflin building because the near west side is booming and once-derelict warehouses and factories are being converted to uses that generate more tax revenues. They think developers who coveted the property pressured the city to enforce the zoning law. Guidice didn't return calls, but his leasing agent, Larry Goldwasser of Grubb & Ellis, says the building isn't on the market, that repairs are being made to bring it up to code, and that it's being gutted, one floor at a time, and turned into loft offices and studios. The rents are sure to jump.

Brenner and Barde aren't the only artists who think the city has stepped up its enforcement of code and zoning violations in industrial and commercial buildings, leaving artists adrift. Artists in 2520 S. Western were forced to stop sleeping in the building and stop being on the premises between 3 AM and 7 AM after the owners, Sandeen & Associates Management, were cited for building- and zoning-code violations earlier this year. That created a problem for painter Wesley Kimler, who frequently worked all night in the 5,000-square-foot studio he'd had for eight years. "I happen to be a night worker," he says. "Your 2 AM is like noon to me."

In June, Sandeen & Associates sold the property to a commercial developer. Kimler has four years left on his lease, but he recently moved his living quarters to Ukrainian Village. "Not only can't I live and work in the same place," he says, "but with the amount of money I'm paying for both my studio and rent--about $2,000--I might as well move to Brooklyn. It used to be so cool--the city knew you lived in these buildings but didn't care. The best thing they ever did was turn a blind eye."

City officials say there hasn't been any crackdown. Keerthi Ravoori, a spokesman for the Department of Zoning, says, "There may have been one or two isolated incidents, but there's not a concerted effort" to kick out artists. Koenen agrees. The city, she says, "responds to complaints. I don't know who complains or why people complain, but that's what my understanding is. That's a scenario that's happened over and over again over the years, and that's part of the reason why this is a complicated situation. Chicago has a lot of space, a lot of cheap space. Not as much as it did ten years ago, but still cheap compared to New York and other places. But artists have also been living in a state of sort of benign neglect. They tend to move into buildings that are experiencing benign neglect--which I guess is OK--but as long as everything is benign and neglected, it doesn't treat them at the same level as other people. If they're in a building that isn't zoned residential, then it's not built for residential needs, for fire safety, and they're endangering themselves in order to pursue their artwork."

But Koenen acknowledges that the city's zoning code does cause problems. When it was last revised in 1957, artists' live-work spaces weren't even considered. And they weren't considered in 1995, when the Home Occupation Ordinance was passed. The ordinance allows residents to operate a business from their home if they pay an annual licensing fee, but its restrictions often exclude artists; for example, the work use must be secondary to the residential use, and no more than 10 percent of a home or 15 percent of an apartment or loft--and no more than 300 square feet--can be for work. Moreover, city departments sometimes have conflicting interpretations of the ordinance: the Zoning Department says it's illegal for artists to have studios in their homes unless they have a business license, but the Department of Revenue says artists can have studios without a business license as long as they don't sell artwork.

Koenen says, "It's recently become clear to me how important [zoning reform] is." And she says that the city is already working on the problem. In May and June the Zoning Reform Commission, set up in 2000 by a mayoral directive, held a series of public meetings at the Chicago Cultural Center to gather information and evaluate the impact of zoning on neighborhoods. The Cultural Affairs Department is now pushing the commission to create an "artist live/work space" designation that could fit all zoning categories--residential, business, commercial, and manufacturing--and would allow artists to legally rent spaces that are appropriate to their needs.

"Without an ALWS definition," says a letter sent by the Cultural Affairs Department to local artists in May, "Chicago artists will continue to live and work without access to the safeguards and supports available to other businesses, and artist spaces will continue to be vulnerable to displacement due to upscale development and rising property taxes. With an ALWS definition, individual buildings can be zoned for artists, and financial incentives can be created specifically for them, as long as they remain affordable and targeted to artists."

Koenen says that the ALWS designation is "still in discussion, and it will be addressed within a year" and that the Zoning Reform Commission is continuing to hold community meetings. But she knows there are other problems the city needs to address. She says the Cultural Affairs Department is now pushing the city to consider offering financial incentives such as tax breaks, special grants, and fee waivers to building owners and developers to encourage them to create more affordable live-work spaces. "The real estate market is so hot that it's difficult to convince a developer or a builder-owner to make something into affordable spaces for artists--and to make it make money," she says.

She, like many artists, believes that these kinds of changes are critical if Chicago is to remain a world-class arts city, though she admits there are no guarantees that the city's efforts will solve the problem. But if something isn't done soon, more and more artists may be forced out of the city altogether.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.

Add a comment