By Theaster Gates
There was a building that used to matter. Soaring above its neighbors, the monumental granite and terra cotta structure represented so much more than the commercial activity within its walls. In its vibrant heyday, it was a radical symbol of self-determination for a people historically disenfranchised. The building was theirs, a space created for and by them, the purpose it served greater than the purpose for which it was intended.
And then things changed, as things do. Time passed. The building was abandoned. The pieces that made up its body—its walls, its ceiling, its floor—decayed and crumbled. Its paint peeled. Its fixtures collapsed. This building that used to matter rusted into a beloved cultural memory for the people who could no longer sustain it, and became a monstrous eyesore for the people who did not care to.
And then the unthinkable happened. This building escaped the wrecking ball. Its ceiling was repaired, its walls reinforced, and its floor strengthened. It was restored—to a point. There are blemishes here and there, distinguished scars intentionally preserved to bridge the past and present. This old, storied building was made ready for a new life.
And then the doors were reopened. People returned, and it filled up with culture and history, artists and scholars, curators and collectors. With the strength of vision and the power of art, the support of old friends and the contributions of new ones, this building that once mattered, mattered once again.
This is where the celebrated reports about transformation in America’s most disinvested neighborhoods tend to stop—with beautifully restored and reactivated buildings serving as new cultural stages. A feel-good urban story briefly interrupting the narrative of penury, destruction, mayhem. The logical next chapter is often glossed over or ignored because it tends to bring down the room. Having surmounted almost insurmountable odds just to get it done in the first place, nobody wants to be the killjoy asking how spaces reimagined by arts and culture can be sustainable.
Yet if transformation is not sustainable, what is there to celebrate?
In 1983, the United Nations enlisted former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland to investigate the question of why industrialization had failed to universally raise living standards. The Brundtland Commission, in its final report Our Common Future, defined sustainability as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The report consolidated decades of research, ultimately showing that economic production must go hand-in-hand with ecological health and social equity if sustainable development was to be achieved.
Sustainability is the cornerstone of Chicago’s Reimagining the Civic Commons demonstration, the Chicago Arts + Industry Commons (CAIC). The CAIC will give new life to a collection of buildings and lots on the city’s disinvested south and west sides. The vision of the CAIC is a system of well-coordinated assets that employ the transformative power of arts and culture to achieve not merely temporary activation, but the economic, environmental, and social sustainability that defines high quality of life.
The core of Chicago’s civic commons network is the Cultural Reinvestment Model, a cyclical system of development that transforms underutilized assets into economic engines capable of generating new development and new capital for reinvestment. In the simplest terms, the Cultural Reinvestment Model is an initial investment in people and place that spurs additional investment in people and place. The revitalization of underutilized properties through adaptive reuse—pedagogy, training, shared tools and resources, job creation and incubation—activates spaces and draw in people, which in turn attracts commerce. Commercial, residential, retail, and manufacturing enterprises now have consumers to serve, and are willing to make investments that support the presence and delivery of amenities. This powerful for-profit and nonprofit engine creates asset stability and ignites economic sustainability.
While the Cultural Reinvestment Model is focused on driving and sustaining economic growth, the CAIC employs a supporting four-mode framework to redress environmental and social degradation afflicting Chicago’s south and west side communities These four modes—education, resources, wellness, and mobility—remove barriers to access and equity; eschew demolition in favor of preservation and adaptive reuse; integrate neighbors into development efforts and thus promote pride and commitment to place; and teach stewardship for maintenance and longevity of assets. These four modes of investment in both people and place create a healthy urban ecology in which economy, environment, and social sustainability engender and maintain long-lasting prosperity.
By creating a body of civic vitality powered by the heart of arts and culture, the CAIC advances a model of sustainability that underscores the relationship between process, people, and place. Through artist-led transformation, CAIC creates a platform for creative and diverse communities. The Stony Island Arts Bank, the flagship CAIC asset and the reactivated building of the opening story, is just such a platform.
An investment was made in a once-dilapidated bank, and then this created a space where people congregated to immerse themselves in culture and community, and then this brought positive activity to a struggling neighborhood, and then this amplified pride and commitment to place, and then this paved the way for a better model of urban transformation, and then this strengthened the belief that people and place are worthy investments.
And therefore an equitable, sustainable future can be built.
Theaster Gates is the convener of Chicago’s Reimagining the Civic Commons demonstration, the Chicago Arts + Industry Commons.