When it Works: in Chicago



Last month I spent an intense week getting to know the city of Chicago, which is currently hosting its first global Architecture Biennial, themed “The State of the Art of Architecture”.

Described by the organisers as “taking stock of the extraordinary ways in which architects, artists, designers, planners, activists, and policy-makers from around the world are tackling the most pressing issues of today”, I took a chance on this alone being worth the air-fare, and packed my bags.

The Chicago Architecture Biennial website explains that the event will be looking at “how creativity and innovation can radically transform our lived experience”, presenting projects from all over the world; all tackling a wide range of current social, political and economic issues.

With this in mind, I thought it might be interesting to point the spotlight back on to the host city…

How are Chicagoans using creativity and innovation to make change within their communities? With our escalating housing crisis back home in London, can we learn anything from how things are done across the pond? The biennial is an inspirational round-up of ideas for making a better future, but I wanted to meet the people who are getting their hands dirty and making change happen now.



The Freedom Principe, MCA


Arts and Education

My first port of call was a youth theatre in the Albany Park neighbourhood, north of the city centre. I met with David Feiner, founder of the Albany Park Theatre Project (APTP), who showed me around their facilities in an old Park District building.

They started out in 1996, putting on productions with school kids and formerly homeless people in supportive housing, but quickly grew frustrated with the “temporary social benefits” of working on a performance-by-performance basis.

They knew that if the art was going to shape people’s lives, they needed space and time to let it do so. They looked for a venue, choosing to settle in Albany Park: one of the most ethnically diverse neighbourhoods in the country.

Feiner knows that when people hear the words “youth theater” they run a mile. APTP’s unique approach is what sets them apart from so many other similar projects. The material produced and performed is all based on oral histories and interviews conducted by the kids themselves, in their own neighbourhoods.

This is made possible because of their tight network of schools, community groups and local families, which they have built over the years. The result is that the theatre is pivotal in presenting the stories of Chicago’s marginalised communities to a wider, mainstream audience (for the last 5 years, they have staged their main productions downtown at the city’s famous Goodman Theatre).

In addition to rehearsal and production facilities, APTP can provide kids with a range of support services: from after-school tutoring, to language support, immigration advice and even healthy nutrition.

And after the kids leave them? APTP has a 70% alumni graduation rate by the age of 24- which is 5 times the rate for Chicago Public Schools.

I came across several other projects crossing over from the arts into education. For example the Art Institute of Chicago is home to a youth project called After School Matters, which has been running for over twenty years and provides teenagers with work experience opportunities and apprenticeships in the arts.

The Museum of Contemporary Art also runs programmes focusing on out-of-class enrichment, including a free bus service from all Chicago public schools around the city, to and from the museum. They make all the arrangements so that the (already stretched) schools don’t get tied down with admin.

One organisation in downtown Chicago is using the art itself to try and change the way we look at the world around us. ArtWorksProjects aim to raise awareness of and educate people about human rights issues, presenting each subject to the public in the form of exhibitions, lectures, books, recordings, films, and events; collaborating with schools, universities and humanitarian agencies, whom they invite to use the exhibitions as a platform for their own educational work.

Their exhibitions (mainly photography) aim to bring people together to talk about an issue. They have so far run programmes of events tackling subjects such as: genocide, sexual violence, women’s rights, famine, child labor and human trafficking, ethnic cleansing and tyranny. But their aim is not to shock or overwhelm.

I met up with Claire Dillon, director of education and outreach, who explained to me that while many of these subjects may not initially seem relevant to Chicagoans, each series tries to bring to life the human scale of a problem.

Some ArtWorksProjects have brought the focus closer to home: House of Cards, looked at the housing crisis in Chicago. In Sustenance: Chicago and the Food Chain, the realities of food access in Chicago were documented through the eyes of children. At the time of my visit, they were setting up an exhibition about labour conditions of workers in Mexican agriculture, the produce of which often ends up on the shelves of USA supermarkets.

In the same building as ArtWorksProjects, there’s a small group of people who are trying to spread the word of socially benefitting thinking, in a bid to shape the next generation of designers and architects. I met up with Hilary Gabel from Archeworks: a design school with a social agenda; where students can take part in a programme of workshops, lectures, seminars and, most interestingly, live projects; all focusing on what they call “public-interest design”.

The school runs a part-time post-graduate programme, meaning that students can attend outside of their full time jobs. For their live projects, they have worked with a wide range of organisations and individuals around the city, from small community gardens to the Chicago Regional Transportation Agency.

Aside from being GREEN with envy at the experience these students are gaining so early on in their professional lives, I left Archeworks feeling excited: here is an organisation, which strongly believes that socially-led, creative thinking isn’t a “blue sky” aspiration, its a teachable skill; and that a key aspect of this is simply learning to collaborate with people from different backgrounds to our own.


Pilsen street art


The Public Realm

My next stop was an organisation with whom Archeworks have worked closely in the past: a small group of people who play a huge role in changing the city’s urban landscape, and are gradually helping many of Chicago’s neighbourhoods take back the ownership of their lost, communal land.

Famous for its wide boulevards, large parks and public plazas, Chicago is the site of one of the most celebrated urban plans in modern history: the Burnham Plan of 1909. Unfortunately its vision was never fully realised in the neighbourhoods outside of the city centre. Lack of future planning, constantly shifting city wards, heavy re-development and failed public housing projects have resulted in an abundance of vacant sites in the city’s high-density residential neighbourhoods.

Neighborspace was created in 1996 as part of a city-wide plan to expand open, green space in Chicago. They are essentially a nonprofit land trust, leading in the acquisition and management of new sites, working closely with local community leaders and city authorities, helping them take ownership of their communal spaces.

Ben Helphand is the executive director of Neighborspace, but is also a key member of Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail, the group responsible for opening up a disused, elevated railroad, which has now been transformed into a public foot/cycle path (also known as The 606).

He explained to me that unlike the NYC High Line, the Bloomingdale Trail was already accessible, and so in order to win funding and citywide support for the project, they had to “look for excuses to go back to the land and let residents and authorities connect with the need for this type of public space”.

And it appears to have worked. When I visited the trail early one Saturday evening, it was buzzing with people of all ages: cycling, running, roller skating and walking their dogs.

Neighbourspace have opened up parks across the city, but they don’t have a one-size-fits-all method for approaching each project. They not only work with the local residents and city authorities, but also with artists and cultural organisations; ensuring that they create communal spaces, which are meaningful to the people who use them.


South Side perspective of The Loop


The Chicagoan Way

Before my trip I schooled up (to the point of obsession). I wanted to try and get a sense of how things work in Chicago, but the thing that struck me most, as an outsider, was the drastic contrast between narratives around the city. Famed for its crime as much as for its architecture and musical legacy; from a distance, the city itself seems to be unsure of how it wants to be seen by the rest of the world.

And yet the minute I touched down and started exploring, I was blown away by the distinctly Chicagoan way. The centre of town is beautiful, but within a few days I had tired of constantly having to travel into the “Loop” in order to get anywhere. In the sprawling neighbourhoods circling downtown, that’s where you really learn about how the city works.

There is an overwhelming sense of pride and community ownership, even in the parts of town where, based on the media rhetoric, you might expect to notice it the least. Before my trip I read about so many inspirational people doing their bit to make change in their communities; and when I got there, it was incredibly refreshing to meet residents from all over the city who were not only aware of this type of work being done, but were actively championing it.

I repeatedly heard about groups such as: Ceasefire, (now Cure Violence) the violence intervention initiative made famous by the 2011 documentary The Interruptors; RAGE (the Resident’s Association of Greater Englewood) and their founder Asiaha Butler, working closely with local leaders to promote a positive narrative around their often stigmatised neighbourhood; and Sweet Beginnings, who offer full-time transitional jobs in a green industry, for formerly incarcerated individuals.

With many of these projects happening on Chicago’s South Side, I was desperate to get down there and learn more.


Stony Island Arts Bank, by Rebuild Foundation



The South Side

Chicago is talked about as one of the most segregated cities in the US, and the South Side is where this is most visible. Here the neighbourhoods grew with the influxes of foreign immigrants in the late 19th Century, followed by black southerners during the Great Migration.

After the Civil Rights Movement and the closure of many of the South Side’s largest industrial sites, many of the educated and middle-class black residents left the city, or moved to different neighbourhoods. The South Side lost population, leaving a concentration of poor, black families, and few businesses and cultural organisations, not to mention struggling schools and public services.

The South Side is famous for its musicians, artists and politicians (one in particular).

At the time of my visit, the MCA was hosting an exhibition called The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now, which told the story of the 1960’s African American avant-garde artists and musicians, mostly based on Chicago’s South Side; and the impact they continue to have on American artists of today.

I was blown away by the collection of sculptural installations, prints, performance pieces, music, paintings and publications; all telling a story of thriving communities of bold, empowered artists. This was not the same South Side I’d come to recognise from the anecdotal horror stories and the grim statistics, constantly thrown up by the media.

The exhibition focused on the work of two important groups from the 1960s: the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AfriCobra).

Their work was surprisingly accessible for an avant-garde movement. Partly because the art seemed to always serve a purpose: Many pieces I saw were depicted in simple print or pattern, meaning that they could be easily reproduced as posters; held up at rallies or displayed in local community centres. Both groups also had bases located on the South Side, which were not only used as galleries and performance venues, but also as community spaces for local residents- the AACM’s headquarters even doubled up as a free school.

My favourite story was how in 1967, AFRICobra created the Wall of Respect, a 20 by 60 foot mural, which became a site for poetry readings and musical performances. A celebration of “heroes and sheroes”: to many this was the first time that they were seeing art celebrating black achievements.

This exhibition was an important lesson in art for social justice, however I couldn’t help but feel slightly uncomfortable: walking around the beautiful MCA, with views over Lake Shore Park, in the shadow of the famous John Hancock Centre; I thought back to the free school bus service, bringing kids into the city centre; to learn about the black artists who fought to bring their own version of culture to the South Side neighbourhoods.

Among all the people I met during my week in Chicago; Over and over again, I was asked if I had come across one person in particular. The whole city seems to be talking about Theaster Gates, and the work he’s doing on Chicago’s South Side.

Theaster Gates is a born and bred South Sider. He is an artist, but could be described as an entrepreneur, developer, planner, community leader …. the list goes on.

I was lucky enough to be invited to the newly opened Stony Island Arts Bank, run by Gates’ Rebuild Foundation: a nonprofit organisation, which:

“endeavours to rebuild the cultural foundations of underinvested neighbourhoods and incite movements of community revitalisation that are culture based, artist led, and neighbourhood driven”

They do this by:

  • Activating underutilised spaces in the community with arts and cultural programming.
  • Providing opportunities and spaces for neighbours to come together and engage in meaningful exchanges that spark collaborative action.
  • Empowering artists and creative individuals to realise their potential as community change agents.
  • Investing in the development of the skills and talents of local residents to catalyse entrepreneurial efforts. (Rebuild Foundation)

I sat down with Demecina Beehn, Community Engagement and Program Manager at Rebuild, to ask her how this all works in practice.

Based in a small office space at the Stony Island Arts Bank, a once derelict and flood-damaged building, (a fully functioning local bank before that), the gallery sits on the border between the South Shore and Greater Grand Crossing neighbourhoods. Their team consists of just 16 full-time and part-time members; the hype around them at the moment is by no means a reflection of the scale of their operation.

For the last few years, Gates has been buying plots of land in different neighbourhoods around the South Side, and transforming them into places of culture and collaboration: The Dorchester Projects, which is home to the Listening and Archive Houses; the Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative, a rehabilitated block of 32 townhomes that serves as residences for artists and mixed income community members; the Black Cinema House, where they host film screenings, along with a wide programme of talks and workshops.

The opening of the foundation’s largest building, the Stony Island Arts Bank, coincided with the start of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, and is one of the official expo venues. None of Rebuild’s other sites have attracted visitors from around the city in the way that the Arts Bank already has, and will continue to do so as they expand their programme of exhibitions and events.

I asked how this new “mainstream” attention is being received by the local residents from the neighbourhood, and wasn’t surprised to hear that throughout the history of the foundation, there have continued to be be mixed reactions.

You can understand why many residents are sceptical about the regeneration aspect, what with the current cynicism around the subject of gentrification, especially in the USA. But on the whole people are excited. Beehn explains, “there is nowhere else on the South Side where people can find this stuff for free”. And if anyone should know how people feel about Rebuild, it’s her.

Rebuild’s “community engagement” arm is by no means a token gesture. Rebuild are rapidly growing their network of South Side community leaders and arts organisations, but alongside this, they also work on a far more personal scale. Each site has a committee made up of people from Rebuild, local businesses and community groups, but also neighbours: Literally neighbours. As Beehn so simply puts it, “it’s all about who you bring to the table”.

I have heard some cynical takes on Theaster Gates over the last few months: Some see him as a wolf in sheep skin’s clothing, planting the seeds of gentrification before he can cash in on all his cheaply bought properties; others are dubious of his artistic affiliations with commercially driven establishments (such as the White Cube in London); I have heard some question his political connections within the city; and of course there’s the issue of him bringing white, middle class people back to the South Side, and the effect that will have on existing residents.

But having watched and read everything I can find on the man, I can’t help but feel optimistic.

Yes- he is using the well known method of injecting arts into an underinvested neighbourhood to act as a catalyst for economic growth. But with his foundation, and the people he’s choosing to partner with, he is doing so in a way that improves the South Side of Chicago for the people who already live there, not for those who will move in 5-10 years down the line.

With each project, the Rebuild Foundation encourages dialogue and collaboration between user groups and local residents. While this dialogue is by no means restricted exclusively to South Side residents, it is certainly led by them. These places for culture and conversation, they are about the history and identity of the people they’re built for.

Beehn explained to me that at Rebuild, in some ways, they see their Dorchester Projects as a model for the group’s future growth:

“Creating cultural hubs in every neighbourhood, offering a mix of low income and market rate housing, and working with local leaders and residents to shape the identity and growth of these new communities”. (Rebuild Foundation)

I don’t see why this should be limited to their own organisation.


To go back to my original question: With our escalating housing crisis back home in London, can we learn anything from how things are done across the pond in Chicago?



A huge thank you to all the kind people who offered to talk to me about their city. I was overwhelmed by the hospitality and time given by all these wonderfully kind (and incredibly busy) individuals. I hope I can repay the favour this side of the pond one day….

Special thanks to:

And my Chicago “ears to the ground”: Charlotte Lait, Francesca Baldry, Steven Bridges, Michelle Kanaar, Monica LaBelle, Jorge Herrera and James Morgan. Not forgetting, Lily Sauvage-Cummins.


There is an excellent series on WBEZ focusing on gentrification in Chicago, where I learnt a lot about public attitudes in the different neighbourhoods. Listen here.

Also, a great read on the work of Neighborspace and the city-wide push to open up parks for everyone, here.

Asiaha (Ay-Sha) Butler, founder of RAGE Englewood has a blog, offering a very different perspective on the South Side neighbourhood to what we’re used to hearing. Read more here.