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Bridgeport Art Center expands for growing community of artists
A massive 100-year-old former warehouse in the Bridgeport neighborhood is getting a new lease on life because of its growing role as a haven where local artists can work, collaborate and—eventually—live.
The building, located at 1200 W. 35th St., recently got approval from the City Council to construct 108 live/work rental units, a special zoning category that allows artists to use up to half of their residence to produce, display and sell art.
Since purchasing the 500,000-square-foot building, which formerly housed the Spiegel catalog company warehouse, in 1999, owner Paul Levy has been steadily converting old storage and manufacturing space for artistic use. The portion of the building housing the Bridgeport Art Center is composed of artists’ studios, an 18,000-square-foot event space and a gallery.
Levy said the idea to rezone the building came from the artists themselves. After being asked by several artists if they could live in their studios, Levy and his team submitted a proposal with encouragement from the community.
“We had 20 or 30 letters of neighborhood support,” Levy said. “The Chamber of Commerce supported us. Some even wrote letters to the chairman of the zoning commission. There was, literally, not one bit of opposition.”
Levy said he wants to keep the residences as affordable as possible, and he’s still in the early stages of determining what the project will cost. One proposed plan has approximately 27 units per floor, with each 1,000-square-foot residence containing a work area, kitchen, bedroom and bathroom.
Two additional projects are also in the works at the BAC. First is the construction of a dedicated space for fashion designers that will include individual studios and a common work area, which Levy hopes to have completed within four months. He said he is also in the early stages of planning a similar space for ceramic artists.
The growth of the BAC is indicative of the community becoming a destination for artists, according to Levy. He said in the last decade, many artists have been forced out of the Pilsen community and moved farther south because of the rising cost of rent.
Luis DeLa Torre was the first artist to move into what was to become the BAC 11 years ago. Having lived in the community most of his life, he said many residents still lack an appreciation for the arts, although he’s seen many economic improvements to the neighborhood.
“I think the South Side has always been a very hardworking [area],” DeLa Torre said. “I think since we don’t have the luxury of having the time to appreciate art and we’re not directed toward it, we lose appreciation for the finer aspects of our culture. I think that’s one of the major blocks in our community.”
DeLa Torre brought in many of the artists who initially occupied the studios. As word spread and more studios became filled, the artists created their own organization three years ago, Artists of EastBank. Today, the group includes painters, sculptors, metalworkers and woodworkers.
“There are so many people here [from] so many different backgrounds,” said Pam Hamilton, a painter who rents a studio and also serves as gallery director for AOE. “That’s one of the reasons I love this place. There’s so much diversity here. I think I learn something different from everybody.”
DeLa Torre said he appreciates the flexibility and freedom AOE gives its members, and the vibrant artistic community around him, but he also has adequate space to delve into his own projects.
“Being isolated is like working in a vacuum,” DeLa Torre said. “When you start having a community of artists [and] when you start talking to people, you’re affected by everyone else’s approach to their own work. It helps you work differently. I’ve been very grateful for that.”
For more information on the Bridgeport Art Center, including its upcoming open studio night and other Chicago Artists Month events, visit BridgeportArt.com/Events.