Reimagining the Civic Commons

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Chicago Arts + Industry Commons connects sleepy civic spaces to recalibrate community activation, targeting resources as networks of neighborhood development, rather than as isolated assets.

Chicago Arts + Industry Commons advances an innovative approach to community development – a socially engaged neighborhood master implementation strategy. The goal is clustered and coordinated activity among a network of significant sites, enhancing public access and better integrating these places into the city. This civic commons approach for the South and West sides of Chicago increases the number of opportunities available for people who have been left out of the upside of economic development.

Three significant sites on the South Side of Chicago are reactivated and redeveloped: Stony Island Arts Bank, St. Laurence Elementary School and Kenwood Gardens. The reimagined spaces attract visitors of varying interests and from diverse communities, using intentional design that integrates educational, professional and socio-economic backgrounds.

A fourth asset, located on Chicago Park District land on the West Side of Chicago, serves as a special manufacturing asset echoing in a new era of industrial production – modern vocational training in renovated municipal industrial buildings, offering lessons about production and programming from which all cities can learn.

As a demonstration of financial sustainability, the Chicago Arts + Industry Commons employs an evolving cultural reinvestment model that uses the revitalization of sleepy assets as part of an engine that spurs new development and new capital, a portion of which is used to support the civic commons.

“Building on 10 years of developing a network of platforms, skilled people and facilities to turn our city’s perceived deficits into assets, Chicago Arts + Industry Commons will amplify and accelerate this transformation in some of Chicago’s most disinvested communities.”

Theaster Gates, Director of Arts + Public Life, University of Chicago

Making Moments

03.17.17
Garfield Park Powerhouse; photo credit: CAIC

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.

Garfield Park Powerhouse; photo credit: CAIC

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?

Vends & Vibes; photo credit: Sara Pooley

First moves

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.

Vends & Vibes; photo credit: Sara Pooley

“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.

And then? Sustainability Through Arts + Culture

02.24.17
Stony Island Arts Bank
photo credit: Rebuild Foundation

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.

Stony Island Arts Bank

photo credit: Eric Allex Rogers

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.

photo credit: Eric Allix Rogers

photo credit: Eric Allix Rogers

photo credit: Becca Waterloo

photo credit: Becca Waterloo

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.

And then…

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.

culturalreinvestmentmodel_11oct2016

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.

Garfield Park Powerhouse; photo credit: CAIC

Making Moments

03.17.17

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…

Stony Island Arts Bank
photo credit: Rebuild Foundation

And then? Sustainability Through Arts + Culture

02.24.17

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…

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