Chicago's creative (re)builders: a look at community-based arts projects

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Black Cinema House
We’re in an era of rebuilding. A few weeks ago I encountered a piece by David Lepeska, a contributing writer for the Atlantic Cities blog, about the growing efforts to rebuild America. Rebuilding efforts unfold in a variety of ways—from Barack Obama’s recent speech about infrastructure, American workers, and the middle-class to the growing number of DIY art projects in abandoned and underserved urban settings.

In 1990, Chicago’s population was a little over eight million. Today it’s nearly ten. Over the past 20 years, there has been a huge migration into cities; America is now more urban than rural. In light of Mayor Emanuel’s plan to use private funds for public building projects—i.e., the Infrastructure Trust—and Lepeska's article, I wanted to take note of some creative, grassroots rebuilding strategies happening in Chicago.

When I interviewed Dieter Roelstraete, he noted that Chicago is gaining attention for art projects rooted in cultural place making and creative revitalization. In his piece Lepeska mentions Theaster Gates and the Rebuild Foundation as examples of this movement. I’ve talked about Gates several times on the blog, but one project of his that I haven’t harped on is his Black Cinema House, a two-story brick building on the corner of 69th Street and Dorchester. Gates recently received an NEA Creative Placemaking ArtPlace grant in order to turn the building into a screening space, kitchen, and office for archivists, students, and scholars interested in the history of black cinema. Gates is partnering with Chicago Film Archives and Michael Phillips’s project South Side Projections.

Like Dorchester Projects, the Black Cinema House has the potential to bring new cultural resources to a severely underserved community. I am particularly excited about this project because both Chicago Film Archives and South Side Projections have done amazing work bringing historically relevant and often unseen films to the south and west sides of the city.

In late 2009 Chicago-based artist Laura Schaeffer created the Op Shop, a temporary pop-up shop that appeared in several different abandoned storefronts around Hyde Park. Last fall, the Op Shop transformed into the South Side Hub of Production—SHOP. SHOP was housed at a Hyde Park mansion for eight months and became a creative hub for Chicago artists and Hyde Parkers alike.

There are also those who view Chicago as an urban prairie, a place for both cultural and ecological growth. Torkwase Dyson (with whom I spoke last week) is one, and Emanuel Pratt is another. Pratt’s Mycelia Project began as part of his residency at the Hyde Park Art Center. It’s a collaboration between Pratt, Chicago Public Schools, Urban Gateways, and the Woodlawn Community Development Corporation and is focused on sustainability, education, and urban gardening. Pratt introduced a new curriculum to several schools across Chicago that taught students about aquaponics and gardening systems. The Hyde Park Art Center referred to the project as a way to revitalize a postindustrial city through community activism.

These are just a few of the projects happening off the grid in Chicago. Artists' projects are not going to renew Chicago—the city’s road to recovery is long—and they won’t solve the problems of inequality and economic disparity, but they do stand as examples of how one can reimagine the urban ecosystem and take agency at a grassroots level.

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