Theaster Gates redefines the art of urban planning and renewal in Chicago’s South Side
In 2006, 39-year old sculptor, gospel artist and urban planner Theaster Gates purchased a home in Grand Crossing, returning to his childhood neighborhood after years of study and work abroad. Situated on the South Side of Chicago, eight miles south downtown and near the University of Chicago, Grand Crossing is a mostly black neighborhood with a rich cultural history. But as Gates was moving in, he watched one family after another vacate their homes and businesses, leaving a hollowed out community hit hard by the recession.
So he began purchasing and rehabilitating a few of them on his block. Over several years, he converted a candy store, duplex, and single family house into a library, bookstore, music archive, performance space, and cafe using workers he hired from the area, some of whom were previously unemployed. He outfitted each with materials gutted from homes and the surrounding area. He then filled them with cultural relics of the area snapped up in inventory sales and donations- 8,000 LPs from a former record store, a local collector's back issues of Ebony and Jet, 14,000 architecture books from a defunct store alongside shelves of 60,000 glass slides from the University of Chicago's art history department, and films from Chicago Film Archive featuring black actors—many of which local children have never seen.
Dorchester Projects, as his project is called, is both practical and poetic, bridging the creation of new art with the adaptive reuse of resources. But what started as a project on the block has since expanded into an umbrella non-profit called the Rebuild Foundation with over 20 staff and full-time training and programming for the neighborhood. Gates has leapt into stardom in both the arts and urban planning world as he slowly transforms his entire neighborhood into a vibrant cultural oasis, beating back the domestic detritus that has plagued so many similar blight-stricken and neglected communities across the U.S.
And none of this was accidental. The youngest and only son in a religious family of nine children, Gates grew up in East Garfield Park, helping in his father's roofing business and singing in the choir (which he began leading at age 14) at the Baptist church the family attended. While crisscrossing the city to attend middle school in the city's wealthy north, he first noticed the inequity of Chicago's classes, how the white families he saw up there weren't any better than his own and yet their sanitation trucks seemed to trundle by more regularly. He felt slighted, and he knew he wanted to find a way to save cities.
He went on to earn degrees in Urban Planning, Ceramics, and Religion. He worked as an arts planner for the Chicago Transit Authority, taught ceramics and soon landed a job at the University of Chicago, working his way up to his current post as the University’s Director of Arts and Public Life. In these positions, he noticed how rarely artists were invited into conversations with city entities struggling to find better solutions for socioeconomic inequalities in the urban landscape. He wondered if the results would be different if artists got a seat at the table.
These questions also deeply permeate his artwork. In a recent interview, Gates stated "I was always making art that was asking questions about the city, and why the city functioned the way it did. How does cultural and economic disparity happen? How can we fight it? I was trying to present these questions in the form of little abandoned ceramic houses and drawings or performances that spoke to the issue. And I just got tired of pointing a finger at it and wanted to actually do something about it, challenge it in a real way…whenever people here do better, they move, but that just means they don't want to be around poverty. I'm interested in the politics of staying." So he started exploring how he could he get them to stay.
With every invitation to concerts by local performance artists and communal meals on his block, Gates breathes new life and kinship back into the once bustling cultural district around Stony Island Avenue and 71st Street. The resulting ecosystem feels intimate even as it sweeps in ideas about race, class and urbanization in America. It is a beautiful and irresistible re-awakening that beckons his former neighbors back to their roots.
With Dorchester Projects, Gates has found a way to leverage artistic practice not simply for commentary, but for making real change on the ground and a bottom-line difference in the lives and health of a community. By empowering the community to engage in rebuilding and combining locally-rooted cultural experiences with radical hospitality, Gates has perhaps found a new formula for economic and cultural neighborhood revitalization. He proves artists are not just meant for museums and galleries, but they in fact have real and priceless staying power when they play in the real market, with real people in the real world.