Power and the Placemakers


A railroad runs down the middle of 71st Street in South Shore (credit: Steven Vance)

By Krisann Rehbein

This originally ran in Lumpen #125: The Placemakers and Takers issue

As a strategy for increasing livability and spurring economic growth, cities across the United States have pinned their hopes on the so-called creative class. The presence of artists and other broadly defined “creatives” is seen by many civic leaders as a key ingredient in 21st century urban transformation. In cities across the Midwest from Chicago, to Milwaukee, to Detroit, there has been an emphasis on luring young talent and creating festival-like spaces in dense, downtown areas to provide 24/7 entertainment. From artist lofts to micro-apartments, these strategies are part of the 21st century development toolkit.

What happens when people try to apply these strategies to spur development in their own neighborhoods? Can residents impact their community through grassroots creative placemaking?

In South Shore, a neighborhood on the far southeast side of Chicago, residents have rallied around their artists and embraced creative placemaking and all of its techniques but the area is still plagued by scores of vacant storefronts. Sometimes, you can do everything right but not get the outcome you intended. Of course, the playing field is uneven. The story of South Shore points to a few gaps in the creative placemaking narrative.

I had the opportunity to partner with an amazing group of residents and activists from South Shore for three years as they worked to transform their neighborhood, work that continues today. A few years ago, I was running community-based programs for the Chicago Architecture Foundation and created a pilot program to train people to give tours in their neighborhood. Our efforts focused on identifying and celebrating assets and creating tours to improve perceptions of both visitors and residents. In total, we worked with three neighborhoods – South Shore, Bronzeville, and Chatham – but in South Shore we found the model community partner.

In 2010, after my first meeting with the Executive Director of the South Shore Chamber of Commerce, she pulled together twenty residents and stakeholders to help create the tour. Together, we identified sites of significance, created a route, and trained docents. We created an architectural tour and people came. Relationships were formed through the work of creating our architectural tour. Visions were shared. And many, many projects were spurred as a result.

The tour created a focal point and gave people something to rally around. One of the tour guides organized residents on her block to welcome tourists with hot chocolate, apple juice and homemade baked goods. They clean up their block for tours. They proudly display signs on their porch, handcrafted by the docent’s husband, that say “It’s a Shore thing”. A sense of community was created.

The tours turned out to be the perfect conduit for channeling the residents’ energy. The focus on architecture and culture offered something concrete with outcomes focused on changing perceptions and celebrating the positive. The strategy engaged a broad range of homeowners from retired professionals to real estate agents who otherwise might not become involved in community activism.

After coming together around a common, cultural goal, residents continued to work together on many initiatives that fall roughly under the banner of “creative placemaking.” The South Shore Chamber, in partnership with the Chicago Architecture Foundation, launched a vacant storefront art show that ran for three years. In its first year, the show was traditional and basic, with art displayed in vacant shop windows. By its third year, a curator was hired and eleven new, large-scale murals were commissioned for the commercial streets in the area.

In collaboration with the South Shore Chamber, he Black United Fund (BUFI), and the Chicago Public Schools, CAF created a summer internship for local teens to transform a vacant storefront along 71st Street into a tourism center to highlight stories from the community and serve as a launching point for events.

The local Special Service Area, or SSA, sponsored a competition to design a new bike rack which was then fabricated and installed on the commercial corridors in the neighborhood. A student from a local middle-school had the winning design. I worked to host an event for artists and collectors to discuss the impact of arts on the community.

The docents, energized by their shared vision and momentum, organized several events and activities in the public sphere. A local business owner founded a community “think tank,” hosting salon-style events out of a perfume shop. Other members took over a lot across the street from their already vibrant community garden and planted a hospitality table constructed of floorboards from the gym of the recently demolished brutalist South Shore High School. The table hosts picnics and community planning charrettes, and serves as a hub for a summer gardening program for teenage eco ambassadors.

The community also has support from CAF to bring in more visitors. For three years running, the Chicago Architecture Foundation has featured the community as part of Open House Chicago. Thousands of people have visited the community through the event, and every year, someone purchases a unit in a pre-war co-op as a result of visiting for the first time. Through each of these efforts, perceptions are changed, residents are energized and more positive activity bubbles up.

Artists have been central to this effort. For example, prominent photographer and Ted Senior Fellow, Jon Lowenstein, opened an experimental photography center to show work and gather artists and residents in his South Shore co-op building. He hosted three events in the center’s incubation period. From that, a partnership grew with public art and community engagement project See Potential. Several photographers from the neighborhood have participated.

Artist Faheem Majeed worked with the Chamber to get permissions to construct an installation as part of his Shacks and Shanties project. The community started to rally around the role that artists can play in neighborhood transformation. These efforts have not gone unrecognized. The City of Chicago selected South Shore (along with South Chicago) to be one of four select focus neighborhoods for Chicago Artist Month in 2013. In 2014, South Shore was designated as “neighborhood of the year” by Neighborhoods USA, a national not-for-profit that helps strengthen community organizations.

Yet, the changes that many hoped to see have not completely materialized. As all the community rallied, more bad news about businesses on the commercial corridors came. Urban Partnership Bank closed. Dominicks closed, and the store on 71st Street remains the only location in the city that has not reopened under new ownership. It sits vacant as a symbol. When it opened, the entire shopping complex was celebrated as a feat of financing and planning set to energize the critical intersection of 71st and Jeffrey. Now that once vibrant intersection is full of vacant buildings.

These vacancies spurred a grassroots call to action. Residents circulated petitions and held public conversations in a local cafe to discuss what kind of grocer they wanted to recruit to South Shore. A group called the Planning Coalition started an outdoor farmer’s market, in collaboration with Real Men Charities and the Black Oaks Center for Sustainable Living. It moved inside for the winter, making South Shore one of only a handful of neighborhoods in the city to have a year-round market.

Other residents created their own tour of 71st street as the neighborhood’s “Main Street” in an effort to call attention to the potential and save the existing building stock. A preservation campaign aimed at saving the iconic Jeffrey Theater building facade formed. The relationships built and skills honed were applied to this effort.

They are winning the battles, but not the war.

Creative Placemaking in South Shore has captured the imagination of the residents and activists, but the city hasn’t caught on. Even with the activities, and with all the artist involvement, this kind of urban transformation still requires money, the cooperation of property owners, and political leadership. No one with political power is presenting a comprehensive vision for the community. Building owners haven’t warmed to the idea that artists will improve their property values.

Many vacant and derelict buildings that line the commercial corridor are owned by absentee landlords. Residents tell stories of trying to buy or rent buildings with storefronts only to be met with silence, or to find that the buildings’ owners are merely speculating on the property, uninterested in any development that precedes rising property values. In many cases, owners would rather let a building sit boarded up, vacant, and derelict, than rent it to a burgeoning artist.

A vibrant arts scene enhances city life. However, the narrow focus on the role of artists and creatives to transform our cities mask the most crucial components necessary for change: money and power. Artists can’t transform our neighborhoods if no one will let them.

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