Developing culture for neighborhood vitality

By Chris Loeber

While efforts to revitalize under-resourced neighborhoods can take the form of large-scale projects to stimulate the economy, some developers choose to take a more community-driven approach by encouraging cultural growth.

Theaster Gates, an urban planner and noted artist, has been working since 2005 to develop the Greater Grand Crossing community on Chicago’s South Side. He works closely with residents to help them build a tightly knit community through the Dorchester Project he started in 2005 to create a place for residents to explore the arts.

“What I’m really good at is creating vibrancy, getting people excited about being in a place and creating the conditions by which culture can happen,” Gates said. “It’s not in the program, and it’s not in the building. It starts with people who believe in a place.”

Gates, who holds two master’s degrees in fine arts and urban planning, fuses his background in the arts with his expertise in neighborhood development to promote the community’s cultural growth. He is director of the Arts and Public Life Initiative at the University of Chicago, which facilitates collaboration between the university and the South Side’s arts communities.

After purchasing two dilapidated buildings on a plot at 6918 S. Dorchester Ave., he spent two years redesigning and rebuilding them into the first of several properties in

the neighborhood.

Since then, Gates has established a potter’s studio, library and a listening room where he stores 14,000 records, among other endeavors that he makes available to the community.

According to Monica Haslip, founder and executive director of Little Black Pearl, a nonprofit organization that provides arts education to Chicago residents, the project is the result of the area’s immediate need for development efforts.

“Theaster’s on to a very important issue that really needs to stay at the forefront of community development, which is the role that art and cultural spaces play in the development of communities,” Haslip said. “It doesn’t matter how much housing you build or how much commercial activity there is if you don’t strategically incorporate art and cultural space.”

Gates said cultural development through shared works in the arts and the rehabilitation of unused homes can promote pride among community members and help retain the area’s population, which has dropped by approximately 16 percent in Greater Grand Crossing during the last decade, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

“Sometimes [cultural development] translates into neighborhood stabilization, and sometimes it translates into generational interest in staying [in the neighborhood],” he said.

According to Haslip, Gates is giving community members the opportunity to participate in the neighborhood’s development by educating residents in marketable skills, such as building construction and design.

The Dorchester Project has allowed Several community members to learn to build and design homes, said John Preus, creative director at the Rebuild Foundation, a nonprofit organization Gates founded in 2010.

Following the example of the Dorchester Project, the Rebuild Foundation works in other areas of the U.S., including St. Louis, Detroit and Omaha, Neb.

“We believe that art plays an instrumental role in the development of communities, whether it’s from a cultural perspective or an economic perspective,” Haslip said. “Theaster’s approach is unique in that he is able to clearly integrate art in a way that also incorporates workforce development opportunities for youth and adults in

a community.”