By the time Theaster Gates received an interdisciplinary master’s degree in urban planning, religious studies and ceramics in 2006, he already knew it would be difficult to find the perfect job combining all three of his passions.
About a decade ago, he worked in Seattle as an urban planner for a Christian mission that had a housing program in a struggling community. But he said he ran into roadblocks when he tried to place residents who weren’t “born again” into the church’s housing units.
From 2001 to 2005, he worked for the Chicago Transit Authority as an arts planner and had some success creating opportunities for artists to show their work on the trains.
“But there were assignments given to me that I had no control over, like stopping a bus route to a certain neighborhood,” said Gates, 37. “There was only so much fighting that I could do, and it became a bad fit.”
Now he believes he’s found a much better fit in Dorchester Projects, which he conceived as a way to revitalize his blighted South Dorchester Avenue block in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood. Over the last five years, he has been purchasing and rehabbing abandoned buildings with the help of a small group of artists and architects. So far, he has redeveloped four buildings.
And, with his nonprofit Rebuild Foundation, he has turned the buildings into affordable housing for artists, or artists’ colonies.
But the buildings’ uses don’t stop there. Gates harvests items that he uncovers during the rehab process — such as molding, cabinetry, floor joists and old windows — to create his own art, some of which will be on exhibit beginning April 30 at the Kavi Gupta Gallery in the West Loop.
So, how does his religious training come into play? Gates said Dorchester Projects allows him to make a difference in communities that on the surface appear to have little to offer.
“It’s the idea of thinking of things that have been abandoned as sacred space and objects, and using art to reimagine what’s been desacralized,” said Gates, who grew up on the West Side. “I would call it harnessing the life of the place, and I think that’s transformative. I’m always asking, what can you do with the building’s guts that would help redeem it to some higher use than demolition?”
Gates works for the University of Chicago as the director of arts program development in the provost’s office. He’s finishing up a yearlong fellowship at Harvard University‘s Graduate School of Design.
Dorchester Projects began about five years ago when Gates moved to Grand Crossing to be closer to the university and to have a space where he could create art. He made his home in a 1,200-square-foot former deli/candy store, which he rehabbed using salvaged wood and recycled stone.
As the economy and housing market began to tank in 2008, one building after another on his block was foreclosed on and abandoned. He said the depressed prices made it easier for him to purchase the properties.
“When I first moved to 69th and Dorchester, people were like, ‘You need a dog and a gun,'” Gates said. “There was such stigma, and hardly anybody could see the value in being here. But I’d never felt so safe. I began to wonder, ‘What can I do to destigmatize the place?'”
In two of Gates’ buildings, he has archived a collection of classic books, record albums from the now-closed Dr. Wax music store and glass-lantern slides from the U. of C. He said he’s hoping to find artists who will be inspired to create something using the material.
He also hopes to encourage more neighbors to see the neighborhood’s potential.
“I want to be able to say, ‘Can we plant some trees? Can we start a block club? Can we start talking to the young brothers who may need our wisdom?'” he said. “I go to places like Wicker Park, and it has amenities. I’m saying Grand Crossing has cultural assets that others can benefit from as well.”
Gates is pursuing a project with the Chicago Housing Authority in which he would help convert a group of abandoned low-rises near 70th Street and Stony Island Avenue into an artist community for CHA residents who have an interest in the arts.
He said, ultimately, he believes an artist can play a major role in neighborhood redevelopment.
“Most of the time, artists come into communities and create these trendy places that help with gentrification,” he said. “But as an artist and urban planner, I truly believe, ‘Why not build something beautiful in a blighted place?’ It may have a ways to go. But eventually, it’ll get there.”