By Isis Ferguson
On a sunny February day, members of the Chicago Arts and Industry Commons (CAIC) team and our programming colleagues from the University of Chicago’s Arts + Public Life (APL) initiative visited Garfield Park Industrial Arts, one of three assets the CAIC conveners are in the early stages of reimagining. The sites are owned and managed by the Chicago Park District and sit on the edge of a residential neighborhood, an Amtrak rail line, and in a section of the renown Garfield Park Conservatory that is typically not open for public use. With the unseasonably warm weather, we opted for a leisurely exploration of the two facilities that make up Garfield Park Industrial Arts: 13 former horse stables and a large, adjacent powerhouse.
We strolled along the cobblestone path between the sites, our heels clicking in the crisp air as we inspected the row of old wooden stables that are in varying stages of deterioration. We next toured the interior of the powerhouse with its imposing industrial remains—equipment that in past decades powered other Chicago park facilities.
The purpose of our visit was to determine whether it would be feasible to host a collaborative arts marketplace in late spring/early summer of 2017 on the grounds of the Garfield Park Industrial Arts. As the discussion and site visit went on, the “Could we host…” shifted throughout the site visit to “Should we host…” an arts marketplace?
Demonstrate by doing
‘Demonstrate by doing’ is a tenet of Chicago’s civic commons work. And as newcomers to ethical redevelopment projects on the west side of the city, our strategies of participating as a new kid on the block require us to develop tactics that balance needs assessment (what have stakeholders voiced would be helpful), asset inventory (what of value already exists) and engagement (involvement and communication in authentic, productive ways).
Questions we asked ourselves during the walkthrough and planning session:
How do we, as the newest stewards of underused spaces, introduce individuals who live around the facilities to the assets? How do we respectfully welcome a people to a place they “know” but could come to know and use in new ways?
Early conversations with our civic commons collaborators at the Chicago Park District and feedback from community forums underscored that adults in the neighborhood need jobs and youth need pro-social enrichment activities as well as employment. With that in mind, is the production of an arts marketplace appropriate as the first move? Even if the marketplace showcases local west side artists and affords us the opportunity to establish new relationships with makers, a marketplace might send the wrong signals. First moves are important moves. They determine if you will be permitted subsequent moves.
Years ago the City of Chicago ran a marketplace out of the stables. If we produce our version of an arts marketplace, based on APL’s existing marketplace model called Vends + Vibes, will potential patrons think we are that same entity who produced the City of Chicago marketplace years ago? Will people attribute their positive or negative impressions of the past marketplace to CAIC?
And our most significant question: should we ask people, particularly community members from economically struggling neighborhoods, to spend money to welcome them to a space? Probably not.
“Make and Take”
Developing economic activity is an important element of civic commons projects. A marketplace where creative entrepreneurs sell their items, make profit, and generate a customer base is positive small business development. Ultimately though, during our walk through the Garfield Park facilities, we determined we will delay hosting Vends + Vibes on the west side. Instead, as a way to gesture toward the future use of the buildings, and production and skills training related to wood products, we determined a more effective way to announce new activity, partnerships, and possibilities for the spaces can be achieved through a “Make and Take” spring/summer event.
We will invite a handful of designers and artists from the neighborhood and surrounding communities, who work with wood to showcase their work. Selling will be possible, but not the primary focus. Residents and visitors will be invited to participate in short, free demonstrations to make a simple wood object that they can take away with them. Current Chicago Park District trades people who specialize in carpentry and design will be asked to lead the “take” workshops. The making will reference or mimic the kind of education, training, and production slated to take place in both the stables and the powerhouse once they are redesigned and renovated. The Garfield Park Industrial Arts “Make and Take” framework will encourage social and economic mixing. Integration and interaction—not just sharing space—will be encouraged through activity.
Isis Ferguson is Associate Director of City and Community Strategy for Place Lab at University of Chicago.