The former garage at 6100 S. Blackstone was already home to a community of artists, artisans, and activists when Dan Peterman took over the title in 1996. The Resource Center--which had owned the ramshackle brick building before Peterman--pioneered recycling programs and neighborhood projects in Woodlawn beginning in the early 70s.
"Recycling as a business sustained the Resource Center," says Peterman, "but it helped foster many different kinds of projects," including a community garden, a salvaged-bike shop, and a woodworking shop.
Peterman got involved with the center in the mid-80s as an artist, finding in it first a source of material for his work, which frequently recycles consumer and industrial waste. In 1986 he moved his studio there. But, he says, it was always more than just a space to work in. "It was a social connection as well."
At the time Woodlawn was dealing with the legacy of more than 20 years of depopulation and disinvestment. Sixty-first Street functioned as a no-man's-land between the upper-middle-class community huddled close to the University of Chicago in Hyde Park and the poor, black community of Woodlawn.
The Resource Center was "moving across boundaries in a way that very few other things were," says Peterman. "They were working to improve the situation. Not by direct solution, but just by saying, 'Well, look, there need to be more points of connection, more points of interface.'" The garden, which brought together people from both sides of the divide, was an example of this strategy.
Peterman's decision to buy the 80-year-old building came at a time when the Resource Center was becoming more involved in recycling programs in other parts of the city. He wanted to stabilize the center's situation, which was increasingly vulnerable to the whims of philanthropic funding and the real estate market. "There was a sense that the building needed work, needed energy invested into it," he says. Since then he's worked to reinvigorate existing projects, as well as introduce a few more.
The Baffler opened its headquarters in the building soon after Peterman bought it. "It looked like exactly the kind of thing we wanted," says Dave Mulcahey, managing editor of the magazine. "It was sort of a cooperative setup. There was a lot of stuff to be done, so we could pay through sweat. The underlying theme was, 'You've got resources that you can help everybody else out with, everybody else has resources they can help you out with.'"
Peterman says the strong relationships among the building's tenants have evolved more out of convenience than a sense of mission. "It takes some years to realize that it's really interesting to have a publishing operation next to a wood shop next to a bike shop," he says. "Of course you wouldn't sit down and say let's put these things together, because it's just not that obvious how they work. It's actually a really fascinating set of relationships."
In the last five years Woodlawn's fortunes have started to turn, with demolition and construction going on all over the neighborhood, including a recent expansion of the Andrew Carnegie Elementary School next door to Peterman's place and the nearby construction of the new University of Chicago Press building.
On April 25 a fire destroyed much of 6100 S. Blackstone. For several weeks the future of the building was uncertain, but it now appears that Peterman will rebuild. With a little luck, by October all of the old tenants will be back in the newly christened "Experimental Station," a name taken from Frank Lloyd Wright's famed "Art and Craft of the Machine" speech, in which he wished for an environment where art and technology could come together.
"For years we resisted naming it in order to let it evolve and not run ahead and say this is what it is, this is our goal," says Peterman. "Now it's easier, because some time has passed and given us more insight."
Tonight Peterman will be joined by Baffler editor Tom Frank, artist Laurie Palmer, and music writer and record producer John Corbett for a roundtable on independent cultural production in Chicago.
"Chicago has always been a good city for me," Peterman says. "There are a lot of things I don't like about it, a lot of difficulties. But that can also translate into what needs to be done. It does matter to fight for certain things here because the city needs it. Hyde Park and Woodlawn are places that need this kind of project."
Through the Experimental Station, he says, the community will "continue to evolve and hopefully become more complex and more useful to more people from more diverse angles."
The free discussion will begin at 5:30 Friday, June 15, at the Instituto Cervantes in the John Hancock Center, 875 N. Michigan, suite 2940, and will be followed by wine, tapas, and a jazz set by the Tim Fitzgerald Trio. Call 312-335-1996 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andrew Gregg.