SOUTH CHICAGO — On a cloudy day in late May, Roman Villarreal turned on the music in a white garage in South Chicago.
The 69-year-old sculptor was celebrating the first open house at his art studio “Nine 3.” Friends, neighbors and artists crowded the studio. Born and raised in South Chicago, Villarreal witnessed the neighborhood’s decay since the downturn of steel industry in the 1970s. Now the lifelong artist sees art as a catalyst for the devastated neighborhood’s revival.
“Art is the new steel,” he said.
Villarreal is one of a collection of artists trying to pump new life into South Chicago by opening art studios in formerly vacant buildings, holding monthly events, getting neighborhood kids involved and sharing their passion for art in hopes that it can transform the area.
A year ago, Villarreal rented the garage at 9300 S. Chicago Ave. and turned it into an art studio together with several other local artists. Before he took it over, the building was vacant for more than two decades — a thing not uncommon in South Chicago.
Half a century ago, the industrial neighborhood was home to the South Works steel mill, which employed 20,000 men and women at its peak. But as the mill closed down in 1992, the neighborhood lost a major source of jobs and fell into three decades of economic decline.
Stores went out of business due to a shrinking customer base and residents moved out, leaving the struggling community with a 27.7 percent housing vacancy rate in 2014, according to 2014 American Community Survey, while a healthy vacancy rate typically hovers around 7 percent. Meanwhile 44.8 percent of local families earned an annual household income less than $25,000 in 2016.
Seeing streets in South Chicago lined with empty businesses and abandoned houses, Villarreal saw an opportunity, and decided to transform the unoccupied buildings into art spaces.
“We have something totally unique here. We have a very strong art community in South Chicago,” he said, adding that cheap rent can attract artists from all over the city to start their own studios in South Chicago.
“In five years, there’s going to be a huge art community” drawing customers to shop and dine and ultimately boost the local economy, Villarreal said.
Using art as a tool to revitalize a community has proven successful in other cities and also in Chicago — for example in Wicker Park, a neighborhood 15 miles from South Chicago.
Suffering from disinvestment and a steady economic decline since the Great Depression, Wicker Park began to change in the 1980s when local artists were attracted by cheap rental spaces and created an art community that gained national prominence. With the renaissance however came gentrification, a phenomenon that South Chicago artists hope to avoid.
Gentrification still seems a far-off concern in South Chicago, Villarreal said. It is a far more industrial community than Wicker Park and doesn’t share the latter’s proximity to Downtown and easy access to transportation, which means development boosted by art may not come very soon.
“People interested in art want to live where the artists are,” said Curtiss Cohen, the landlord who rented the vacant garage to Villarreal.
In the 1950s, Cohen’s father traded in the property, which used to be a gas station with marbled interior decorations. Currently, Cohen and Villarreal are working together to apply for rebates under the city’s tax-increment financing (TIF) program to make repairs and improvements on the building.
Hubert Morgan, an urban planner with more than 30 years of experience in regional planning of marginalized communities, said that in order to bring back customers to South Chicago, local stores need to be much more service-oriented.
“How people shop today is very different from how they’ve shopped in the past,” Morgan said. “Now retailers in South Chicago need to compete [with] how people shop online and at large stores like Walmart.”
But “art is able to be experiential,” he said, adding that art spaces like Roman’s studio allow people to immerse themselves in art in a cultural way that cannot be duplicated online or elsewhere.
As for South Chicago’s struggling streetscape, Morgan said it is nice to have artists “freshen up” vacant storefronts in South Chicago by painting murals and adding sculptures on the streets. “All of a sudden it looks new,” Morgan said. “When people walk down or drive down streets, it is as if you’re in a gallery as opposed to somewhere that’s economically stressed.”
Two blocks away from Villarreal’s studio on 91st Street, Maria Vargas sat at a paint-splattered wooden table with three children. In front of her were paint boxes, brushes and a tray of beige clay jewelry.
In a gentle voice, Vargas asked the children to color the jewelry and let it dry so that later they can later give it away to local residents. It is part of the “giving tree” project, an art workshop she designed to inspire children to think about giving and sharing.
Vargas, 28, is a teaching artist at SkyART, the only free after-school art program in South Chicago. Fourteen years ago, she was a student at SkyART. She later did chores as an intern and then helped with answering phones as a studio coordinator.
After attending Loyola University and working at different companies, she returned to SkyART as a teaching artist in 2016.
“I’ve worked in a lot of places but none of them felt right,” Vargas said. “Yet teaching [at SkyART] for me feels right.” She said she wants to push children to create artwork that they don’t think is possible and to “think outside the box.”
SkyART was founded in 2001 by art therapist Sarah Ward, originally located in an 800-square-foot storefront on 91st Street. Vargas remembered the first time she walked into the small space.
“It felt so homey,” she recalled. The space was colorful and “full of different, not-perfect paintings.”
Happy kids were everywhere. She always came after school, sat down at a table and created artwork using different materials. “It’s my second home,” she said, “it made me who I am. It made me a caring person.”
In 2014, SkyART moved to a nearby 6,000-square-foot bungalow with a technology lab, a library, a ceramic studio and other experimental studios. Now, it serves more than 3,500 kids a year in the neighborhood and surrounding area.
SkyART takes kids on field trips, for example to the Smart Museum of Art in Hype Park or the Art Institute of Chicago downtown, to “open their world” to opportunities they might not have known existed, as Ward described it. Meanwhile, creating art in South Chicago helps them see such opportunities at home.
“I feel like this neighborhood needs to see more art, more murals and even more sculpture,” Vargas said.
On a sunny day in late May, Matt Rodriguez, 33, and Aaron Cortez, 28, worked on their art in Nine 3. Rodriguez dropped dots of paint in bright colors on an abstract monster-like creature, and Cortez painted a black crow on a red background. Both of them are artists from the East Side, a community just south of South Chicago across the Calumet River, which has also suffered from the shutdown of steel mills.
Rodriguez and Cortez moved into the studio with Villareal a year ago and also believe in the power of art to revitalize South Chicago and the surrounding area. Together with Villarreal and many other local artists, they’ve been trying to organize at least one art event every month in the past few years, drawing more attention to the neighborhood and providing “hang-out space” for local youth.
“This neighborhood literally has nothing for a teenager to go do after school, on a weekend, or even after dark,” Rodriguez said. They are currently preparing for a “Vinyl” art show in late June at Villarreal’s gallery “Under the Bridge,” located at 10052 S. Ewing Ave. in East Side. Meanwhile, they are going to teach in the summer program at SkyART in July and August.
“We’re going to create a good vibe for younger artists,” Cortez said.
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