Next Stop: Chicago
Where Theaster Gates and his Rebuild Foundation are remaking the South Side, one artful restoration at a time
In the neighborhood of Grand Crossing, on Chicago’s South Side, it’s not hard to find a home with a “for sale” sign in the yard or a marshal’s notice on the door. The elementary school shut down in 2002. A wait for the bus on Stony Island Avenue can easily be half an hour, and the ad space on the benches generally goes unsold.
Antonio Carter grew up on the South Side, not far from Grand Crossing. He’s 34, and over the course of his lifetime, he’s watched the money leave the South Side’s working-class neighborhoods—and the violence move in. He remembers a certain fabric from the 1980s and ’90s, one that has since loosened: “It became much more individualized,” he says. “Everybody on their own page, got to defend themselves. I think that’s why there’s been so much conflict here. Lack of jobs created that. There’s no money and there’s no family.”
The remaining resources and bonds in Grand Crossing can be hard to spot, but they’re distinctly present. The homes that have not been abandoned have windows filled with life—plants, decorative lights, kitchen tables with books stacked high—displaying defiance in the face of the surrounding divestiture. This resilience does not show up on a tax base spreadsheet; it can be gleaned only by walking the streets. Which might explain Carter’s first memory of Theaster Gates. “Theaster lived at 69th and Dorchester, and he’d just walk the streets,” Carter recalls. “That’s exactly how he became an active member of this neighborhood.”
What began over a decade ago with an acclaimed artist walking the streets of Grand Crossing, hosting cookouts and sharing big ideas, has grown into the Rebuild Foundation, a nonprofit that employs area residents and teaches them how to rehab Chicago’s South Side. Today, Gates and his nonprofit are responsible for turning eight abandoned buildings into thriving community spaces, with bigger projects on the horizon. And people like Antonio Carter who have weathered the long, hard decades on the South Side are already feeling the effects.
In 2006, Gates, newly hired as an arts programmer by the University of Chicago, needed a place to live and work near the school but couldn’t afford Hyde Park. Born in 1973 on the West Side of Chicago, among a mix of immigrant communities, he didn’t know the South Side. But he took a chance and bought a rehabbed building—an old candy store—from a friend on South Dorchester Avenue for $130,000 with a subprime mortgage and a loan from his mother. Even before he moved in, he was walking the block, getting a beat on his new neighborhood. “That’s just the kind of person I am,” he says. “I’m going to be on the street.”
Originally a potter, Gates moved to Grand Crossing just as he was reinventing himself as a conceptual artist. He’d soon pull off his first solo show, an exhibition of ceramic sculpture in which he passed himself off as the protégé of a fictional Japanese potter who, after surviving the Hiroshima bombing, immigrated to Mississippi, married a black civil rights activist, and established a commune—a ruse that critics deemed brilliant. Branching out from the niche world of ceramics, he began repurposing wood, metal, and other salvaged material into provocative, socially conscious works evoking Chicago’s black history, most prominently a coiled fire hose encased in glass he titled In the Event of a Race Riot. By 2010 he was showing his work at the Whitney Museum in New York and receiving awards from Harvard and Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Foundation. His works began to sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece. Last year, ArtReview ranked him 16th in its list of the 100 most powerful people in the art world.
Yet Gates has found his true art form on a larger scale. Influenced by his father’s labor as a roofer, he’d always worked with shingles and tar, and held an interest in rehabilitating old properties. Teaching others the skills they’d need to help him, as well as themselves and their community, came naturally—his mother was an elementary school teacher. With Rebuild, Gates carved out an artistic identity harmonizing the essences of his parents’ professions—manual labor and enlightenment—with his own artwork, a social sculpture in which the South Side is his clay.
“In my neighborhood, if I can help fix a fence or repair the concrete or rebuild a porch, and we have a mechanism by which other people who live in the neighborhood can participate in that work—that feels pretty awesome,” says Gates, whose nonprofit has taught more than two dozen South Siders the various skills it takes to renovate an old building, including masonry, millwork, and carpentry.
Gates’s first building on the South Side, the candy store, quickly evolved from a personal workspace and home into a public-facing space. He called it the Listening House and started hosting soul food dinners, DJ’ing listening parties, and performing with his own experimental gospel ensemble, the Black Monks of Mississippi. “In a way, the Listening House was about trying to create a public way of sharing: If you cook the hot dogs, I’ll cook the steak; if you bring the buns, I’ll bring the corn,” says Gates. “Because I want to feel like I’m part of a community. I don’t want to feel like I’m a missionary in a community. I want to feel like I can go next door and ask my neighbor for something too.”
Through the Listening House, Gates met people who had 20 or 30 years of neighborhood stories. They spoke of others who had already left, selling their homes as jobs dwindled. The Grand Crossing that Gates discovered had more renters than it once did, which meant more turnover and weaker connections to the neighborhood. Meanwhile, the country was headed toward a housing market crash of epic proportions, to which the South Side of Chicago was not immune. After the crash in 2008, South Side landlords abandoned many of their properties. To most it looked like blight, but Gates saw it as an opportunity to expand his efforts beyond the Listening House. “That’s what really birthed my investment in other buildings,” he says.
In 2009, Gates bought a clapboard bungalow next door to the Listening House for $16,000, gutted it, and refitted it with wood from a North Side bowling alley. Dubbing the converted space the Archive House, he used it to store and share the inventory he bought from downtown Chicago’s recently closed Prairie Avenue Books, which specialized in architectural books, along with the University of Chicago’s collection of glass lantern slides, 19th-century devices for image projection. The following year, Gates acquired a two-story redbrick townhouse one block from the Archive House and converted it into the Black Cinema House, giving people a place to watch and discuss films by directors of color. To facilitate public use of the properties, he obtained a 501(c)(3) in 2010 and officially turned Rebuild into a nonprofit organization, fueled by a mix of fundraising, grants, and the sale of Gates’s own artwork.
“I thought if we didn’t manage a portion of what exists [on the South Side], it would be managed by a large portfolio that’s getting resources that I’ll never have access to,” says Gates. “So we did what we could to initiate culture and stabilize the lives of the people who were already in the neighborhood.”
On Kenwood Avenue in Grand Crossing, a row of 13 vacant lots runs parallel to the old railroad tracks that give the neighborhood its name. In one of the lots, ash tree trunks are piled eight feet high beside an unused electricity substation. Gates acquired hundreds of the trees from the city after emerald ash borer beetles killed them; he plans to convert the substation into a mill to cut lumber for tables and other furniture. In fact, Gates plans to convert the whole strip, essentially a city block, into a complex called Kenwood Gardens, an urban utopia with space for community food production, landscaped gardens, and short-term housing for visiting artists and craftspeople. It’s one of four sites included in Gates’s latest and most ambitious project to date: Chicago Arts + Industry Commons (CAIC). A collaboration between Rebuild, the University of Chicago’s Place Lab, and the City of Chicago, the initiative, which has received more than $10 million in funding from national and local foundations, also includes plans to convert an old school, a bank, and a powerhouse into apartments, art studios, galleries, libraries, skills training facilities, and space for industrial arts fabrication.
“The properties we’re working with—they were kind of the dregs,” says Gates. “They’re the parts of the neighborhood that the institutions and local administration just don’t know what to do with. So we said, ‘Is there a way we can have these buildings in trusts with a mission so that, as change happens, people have the right to public spaces?’”
The CAIC project sites will be developed over the next two years, with programming scheduled to start at each by 2019. One site, however, is already up and running: a 1923 community savings bank. Renamed the Stony Island Arts Bank, the rehabbed Neoclassical structure houses a multitude of public art spaces: a gallery; a bookstore; the publishing archives of Ebony and Jet founder John H. Johnson; a slide archive with over 60,000 images of art and architectural history from the Paleolithic to the Modern era; 4,000 objects of “negrobilia”; and the vinyl collection of Frankie Knuckles, the godfather of house music.
On a street lined with modern strip malls, the building’s stone columns stand out, a gleaming reminder of the past. “This whole street used to look like the bank,” says Sheree Goertzen, director of programs and development at Rebuild. “And as a lot of people left the area and divested in the area those buildings came down.”
The bank closed in the early ’80s. By the time Gates first saw it, in 2012, it had been deteriorating for decades: Skylights had collapsed and years of rain had poured in, flooding the basement. Just days before it was scheduled for demolition, Gates, who had developed a personal relationship with Rahm Emanuel, spoke to the Chicago mayor about saving the structure. Emanuel was intrigued, and the city sold it to him for $1—on the condition that he raise $3.7 million for its restoration. Gates did just that, in part by turning the building into art. After turning the marble slabs dividing the bank’s urinals into works of art resembling bank bonds—each engraved with “IN ART WE TRUST”—he brought 100 of them to the Art Basel fair in Switzerland and sold them for $5,000 apiece, raising half a million dollars for the restoration.
Five years later, to move from room to room in the bank is to move from one world to another, each discrete yet in conversation with each other. At the main entrance, visitors are met by a gallery, a cutout in its back wall revealing the second-floor research library and its floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. In the basement, the walk-in vaults, underwater for years, remain in place, their safety-deposit boxes bright orange with rust. That interplay between deterioration and restoration is a hallmark of Gates’s work, and part of a strange, striking interior that’s been a beacon for the neighborhood. “We have a lot of tours, a lot of buses with society women coming to see everything, which is fantastic,” says Goertzen. “It’s the first time a lot of people are making it to the South Side.”
People in the neighborhood, once they saw what we were doing, they’d ask us if we had jobs,” says Gates.
So far, six of the 17 people who have come through Rebuild’s workforce program have gone on to obtain general contracting licenses, according to Sam Darrigrand, the manager of the program and a self-described “run-around-get-stuff-done guy.” For 10 years, he owned Zaleski & Horvath, the Hyde Park café where he first met Gates. Now he oversees a team of five who work on projects like the restoration of St. Laurence Elementary, one of the CAIC sites, which will soon provide more space for Rebuild’s skills and craft training. He estimates he gets asked for jobs three or four times a day.
“Mostly it’s people walking down the street,” he says. “We’re on the streets, we’re shoveling sidewalks, we’re raking lawns—and people see us working. The great thing is you get the people who are motivated, because they’re the ones who are going to approach a stranger and say, ‘I want to do that.’”
The wages Darrigrand can offer can’t compete with what other employers might pay for skilled labor—most Rebuild workforce participants start at $10.50 an hour—so he encourages everyone to move on as soon as they feel ready: “They don’t have to sneak around going to interviews or doing side jobs. We want that. Because then we can grab someone else off the street.”
For the past two years, Darrigrand’s crew has included Antonio Carter, the South Side lifer. And now that Carter has acquired a range of skills—flooring, woodworking, dry walling—he’s itching to open his own shop. He’s already got a few jobs going on nights and weekends, including a bathroom renovation and a new kitchen. “Eventually, I want to be doing my business full-time,” he says. “Let somebody else come in here and learn.”
Carter discovered Rebuild not long after he got out of prison. The kids in the neighborhood who used to see him standing on the corner now watch him go to work. “It changes your thinking pattern,” he says. “A lot of people are used to doing what the last person did. You gotta break it up. We all been in trouble before. We all relate. It’s like a family. That brother sitting on the corner? I been there before. He sees that I’m going to work every day. He likes that. Now he wants that.”
The return of the familial feeling wasn’t always so certain for Grand Crossing—much less the return of economic possibilities. “The bank wasn’t a smart investment,” says Gates, recalling skeptics who deemed the neighborhood a lost cause. “When everyone told me it was a dumb idea, not only did I have hope, but I had the capacity to give hope, structure, strategy, and prayer. People started to see I was going to do it. Hope breeds new hope. Even the naysayers, now they’re saying, ‘You’re like a real estate king, a horse whisperer.’ I say, ‘No. I built that. There’s no whispering.’ Somebody has to put a belief in the ground, their money in the ground, their presence in the ground, and they just have to build.”
Antonio Carter gets it. Not only did he start his side business; he even bought a blank canvas. “I got it at home right now,” he says. “I can’t afford one of Theaster’s art pieces,” he adds with a laugh. “So I’ll do my own. I think it’s going to be more valuable to me. Because I did it.”