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Feature Mon Oct 25 2010
Everyone knows the story of gentrification. Artists and other progressive people move to low-income neighborhoods looking for a good deal on a big space in the city. This attracts investors and developers, and the next thing you know, the original occupants of the neighborhood — including small businesses, families and even the artists themselves — are priced out of their homes to make room for culturally bankrupt replacements. The charm of the neighborhood is beaten out of it.
Because of the housing market crash, along with foreclosures, the gentrification process has pretty much come to a halt in many parts of the city. A classic case of this in Chicago, for better of worse, is Garfield Park. Real estate in the neighborhood was highly sought after during the real estate boom because of its proximity to downtown and to the CTA and Metra trains, as well as the beloved Garfield Park Conservatory and the sprawling park itself, but has since been given up on by many developers. Now it is home to clusters of vacant lots and buildings, but what a lot of people don't realize is that a surprising number of the buildings that are occupied are occupied by artists. Not just any artists, either. Artists who aren't afraid to take risks, who dance to the beat of their own drums, who make some of the most engaging work and eclectic work around.
Many of the artists who live and/or work in Garfield Park are part of close-knit networks, especially the ones with studios in one of the large, industrial buildings (mostly) in the Southeast corner of the neighborhood. Even more, it seems, keep to themselves. There is not much awareness of their activities outside of their studios. Many who live there only suspect other artists live on their block, tipped off by the sounds of band practices and the scent of turpentine occasionally wafting out of basement windows. Part of the reason for this may be that there are almost no businesses within walking distance, so when a resident needs, say, some half-n-half for their coffee, they have to get on their bikes or in their cars and travel to the closest grocery store, which is most likely in Ukrainian Village — a mile or two away. This, by the way, seems to be the most pressing issue among residents. The starving artists in Garfield Park would like to see some decent grocery stores open up in their food desert.
Artists and other residents of Garfield Park seem to share a sense of pride and social responsibility that is not as apparent in other parts of the city. Again, the sorry state of our housing market may have something to do with it. Garfield Park and parts of Humboldt Park are the least expensive neighborhoods within a five mile radius of the Loop to buy a house, and so with the housing market being how it is, it can be substantially cheaper for people with a little savings to buy in those areas than to rent elsewhere. Got $30,000? Congratulations, you can buy a brick two-flat on the West Side for cash. That's exactly what a lot of artists are doing, and why they're there. In turn, because they're property owners with a tangible investment in the neighborhood, they are intent on seeing the neighborhood improve in a healthy, subtle, conservative way.
Many of the artists living and working in Garfield Park have expressed interest in the community at large, finding solutions to vacancy and helping the neighborhood flourish. Here are a few of them.
Nick Bastis doesn't live in Garfield Park but he has been working with schools and city officials in the area to bring in more art. The most recent project of his was in collaboration with a group of eighth-grade students from East Garfield's Beidler Elementary school — they built a 1:1-scaled cardboard replica of a Frank Gehry structure, and it was installed in an empty lot at 3100 W. Washington Blvd., with an elaborate unveiling ceremony on October 9. The ceremony, which was well-attended by a diverse crowd, began with a string ensemble and a few songs by a children's choir, was punctuated by a car show and a modern dance number by the students who built the structure, and ended with speeches by Bastis and Alderman Burnett, among others, right before a pizza party.
The ever-so-slightly tongue-in-cheek installation, titled "Forms of Spectacle and Solutions to Vacancy", is Bastis' attempt to demystify "high architecture."
"Historically, when particular places have wished to bring new life into their public domain from a standpoint of the built environment," wrote Bastis in a mission statement, "they have often commissioned an architect that can create a destination object strong enough to lure international attention. The 'Bilbao Effect' alludes to this phenomenon of high architecture as a means of social and economic stimulus. I am currently engaged in a project with a group of 8th grade students that explores this urban trend, tests its effectiveness as a solution for vacancy, and redistributes destination object architecture by building a temporary replica of a Frank Gehry structure in an empty lot in the West Side of Chicago."
sound clip of Nick Bastis giving a comically ceremonious presentation at the opening ceremony
Andrea Jablonski does everything, from costume and chandelier design to playing bass in Rabid Rabbit. Driven out of Ukranian Village seven years ago due to high rent, Jablonski and her husband/drummer Mike Tsoulos bought a bungalo on Carroll Avenue and have been active members of the community ever since. Jablonski is currently on what she refers to as a "Neighborhood Pride" kick — last week she guest DJed on WLUW, featuring bands from the neighborhood.
"Garfield Park is convenient and isolated," she explained in an interview with me last week. "It's a good place to not be bothered and get work done but it can be social — it's easy to get around from here, everything's close, and there's a lot going on if you're willing to look. What I worry about when it comes to the future of the neighborhood is that people will continue to move in and rent studio spaces but won't invest real time into the neighborhood — not making an effort to know their neighbors and not walking around. I want to see this neighborhood grow but I don't want the people who are here now to be pushed out. If we form a really strong arts community, we can all work together to mold the way that it grows instead of forfeiting control of the area to developers out of apathy as has happened so many times before."
Mark Solotroff has lived in East Garfield for almost 10 years. He runs a record label called Bloodlust. He plays in a band called Anatomy of Habit, which he refers to as his "more straight band stuff," and another called Bloodyminded, which is a little more experimental. He's also a visual artist — he makes drawings and paintings that he describes as appearing "very biological, or very astronomical, depending on who you ask."
Solotroff's relationship with the neighborhood is a little more complicated than the other artists I spoke with — he has mixed feelings. When I asked Andrea Jablonski what changes she'd like to see in the neighborhood, for example, she said she'd like a grocery store. Solotroff said he just wants everyone to get along. "A lot of people just bike or drive from home to work but I like to go running," he explains, "and when you're really out on the streets you see a different side of things. I've been attacked a few times over the past decade living here." He wrote a song about being mugged called "2 Drops of Blood." (Click here to see a clip of him performing the song live.)
Adds Donna is a relatively new conglomeration of five artists at 4223 W. Lake St. — an "experimental institution committed to mining modes of context and inquiry," taking the forms of a collective, a study and a gallery. They put on art shows and do things like meeting every fourth Sunday to discuss a selective curriculum of early Greek to early Latin literature. Newcity recently published a nice little "portrait" of them, which is worth a read.
In an email interview last week one of the founders of Adds Donna, Xavier Jimenez, explained his thoughts on art in Garfield Park:
"There are three contemporary art galleries I know of in Garfield Park. Julius Caesar and Devening Projects and Editions are on the East Side and Adds Donna is on the West Side. The only contemporary art venue I know of that is any more West of Adds Donna would be The Suburban in Oak Park. I personally feel that galleries such as Caesar's, Devening's, Adds Donna, and the Suburban are the galleries to look out for. I think what makes these galleries some of the most compelling exhibition programs Chicago has to offer is the fact that they are run by artists. What is happening in Garfield Park right now is what I would consider the beginning of a model as apposed to a scene. Integrating a sea change or establishing a scene like Soho or Chelsea is not so much in the cards for GP, but "DIY" and "Glocal" initiatives are. So to lead by example is how I see the current engagement in neighborhoods like Garfield Park.
Garfield Park is an opportunity. The beautiful loft buildings housing a majority of Chicago's West Side Art Scene provide inexpensive rents, large open spaces, and most importantly problems needing solutions. Neglected areas have always been hotspots for emerging artists and today with the popularity of the "artist collective" more and more opportunities are presenting themselves as more people are coming together through shared agendas. What can be expected is simply the basic cultural enrichment any community would undergo if faced with a wave of creative, resourceful, minded transplants."
The Church of T.H.ink
The Church of T.H.ink is a modified congregation space on the wild west end of Chicago Ave. purchased from the New Life Church in 2008 by tattoo artist Aaron VanderHart with the new mission to promote artists around the community by allowing experimentation in order to stimulate growth in the community.
East Garfield Art Walk
An official East Garfield Art Walk will take place this Sunday, Oct. 31 from noon to 6pm. It will be an excellent opportunity for you to see some new art and get a sense of what's going on in the neighborhood. Visit CAR's listing for details. The East Garfield Park Yahoo Group page is also a good place to look if you're interested in exploring the neighborhood. Oh, and there's this, too. Buildings and businesses participating include:
Switching Station Artists Lofts
15 S. Homan Ave.
West Carroll Studios
3200 W. Carroll Ave.
Albany Carroll Studios
319 N. Albany Ave.
3311 Carroll Artist Building (houses the esteemed Julius Caesar Gallery)
3311 W. Carroll Ave.
Arthur Swirgon, Ltd, Antiques and Modern Art
320 S. California Ave.
Other artists/galleries in Garfield Park to check out:
Esther Garcia, tattoo artist
Edra Soto, visual artist
Jeremy Tubbs, multimedia artist
Bill Groot, 3D artist
Michelle Wasson, visual artist
Devening Projects (3039 W. Carroll)
This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information here.