A once-dead corner on Chicago’s South Side is ready for a party.
Live music, art exhibits and public talks will fill the airy space of a spanking-new arts incubator in the Washington Park neighborhood.
It’s the creation of renowned artist and urban planner Theaster Gates, with backing from the University of Chicago. The incubator cheers up Garfield Boulevard and the surrounding Black neighborhood that once was on the verge of revitalization, but instead found itself wedged between blight and dawdling reinvestment.
“We’re in a moment where the South Side’s cultural asset, it’s spatial asset should be recognized by the rest of the city,” Gates said at the grand opening earlier this month. “I’d love to have difficulty deciding where I'm going to go because there are so many great opportunities for cultural engagement.”
The South Side dweller admits he doesn’t have that breadth of choice—yet.
Throughout EBONY.com's ENOUGH series on Chicago violence, writers like myself have tried highlight the oft-unreported truth about our city, its disparities as it relates to education and neighborhood living. There are bleak moments but there are also bright spots, and not just in the solid Black middle-class neighborhoods.
In an earlier piece, I wrote that rough neighborhoods existed beyond their statistics and aesthetics. Gates drives that point when he talks about the South Side’s spatial assets. Vacant storefronts and weedy lots are ripe for opportunities. It’s much bigger than planting flowers or cleaning graffitti.
Urban agriculture is a growing movement and a natural fit in a place like Englewood, the neighborhood that bred superstars Derrick Rose and Jennifer Hudson and which has become associated with the violence that has a strong hold on its streets. Unemployment and pre-housing bubble bust foreclosures destabilized the low-income Black community. But the tracts and tracts of empty land can into be viewed as rolling prairie rather than urban eyesore.
Growing Home became the city’s first urban farm several years ago in Englewood. It provides the community and farmers markets access to fresh, healthy produce amid life in a food desert. And it employs people with job instability or former substance abuse problems. The model is working. A second farm on adjacent vacant land behind a viaduct is in the works. When the site is complete, Growing Home will increase its production from 12,000 pounds of food in 2011 to more than 53,000 in 2013.
Separately, there’s a plan to create a “green belt” in several South Side communities with urban agriculture at the heart. There are literally thousands of empty lots spread across 11 communities. Organizations and individuals are looking to see how this land can make their area more healthy, vibrant and open to entrepreneurs.
The theme about turning deficits into assets is running strong through Black Chicago, also made evident through See Potential, a project out to capture community via imagination. The public art community engagement initiative mounts large documentary-style photographs on vacant buildings. Organizers want people to visualize their space and the potential beyond the blatant abandonment.
In struggling Roseland, Diane Latiker, a 2011 CNN Hero, turned her home into a community center for youth. In Woodlawn, Naomi Davis uses the Blacks In Green movement to promote not just farming, but village building that can make neighborhoods walkable and inhabited by small-owned businesses. While Chicago yuppies trip over themselves to enjoy the expensive cupcake craze, Stephanie Hart sells oversized, cheap and delicious cupcakes at Brown Sugar Bakery in Greater Grand Crossing.
The South Side is full of gems hidden from the eye of Chicago's mainstream news and those who observe the city as outsiders. But it is important to note is that beleaguered Black neighborhoods are full of working folk doing the best they can in impossible circumstances.
Sometimes failed policies force creativity. It’s like what Theaster Gates said—we must recognize the assets in our possession and try to transform them to fulfill our needs.