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Hyde Park, Woodlawn, South Shore

Theaster Gates’ Arts Incubator And Garden Will Prove ‘There Is Life’ In South Side’s Vacant Properties

The artist and developer previewed two Rebuild Foundation projects in South Shore: an incubator at the old St. Laurence School and the Kenwood Gardens community space.

Theaster Gates speaks to members of the press inside the former St. Laurence School, 1353 E. 72nd St., in September 2021. His Rebuild Foundation is developing an arts and business incubator on the site.
Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago
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SOUTH SHORE — As the Rebuild Foundation continues efforts to revive vacant South Side buildings and land, residents gathered Thursday to check out its latest projects.

Artist Theaster Gates previewed two of the foundation’s works in progress: The St. Laurence Arts and Industry arts incubator in a former Catholic school at 1353 E. 72nd St., and the Kenwood Gardens gathering space in the 6900 block of Kenwood Avenue.

St. Laurence Arts and Industry, an entrepreneurship hub for creatives, will have artist residencies and coworking space for artists to grow the business side of their craft.

“The varying parts of the building will try to help make all of us as artists and creatives more fit for work,” Gates said.

Gates also plans to host the Rebuild Foundation’s archives — including the Johnson Publishing Archive and the Edward J. Williams Collection of artifacts featuring racist depictions of Black people — on the building’s third floor.

Construction is set to begin in October. The foundation has applied for Neighborhood Opportunity Fund grants to cover $1.6 million of the project’s estimated $7.5 million price tag.

“We want to be in here, first floor and basement, maybe within a year,” with the project finalized by late 2023, Gates said.

Wood panels with murals on them have been removed to reveal newly installed windows, and interior renovations are ongoing.

Credit: Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago
The exterior of the former St. Laurence School, 1353 E. 72nd St.

Gates bought the school building in 2014, as the neighboring St. Laurence Catholic Church and parish hall were being demolished, and sold it to the Rebuild Foundation in 2016.

“There is life in these old architectural remnants,” Gates said. “The buildings were made to live for hundreds of years, and they can also absorb new uses besides what they formerly were.”

The Rebuild Foundation will “go wide” in its community input process, including the immediate South Shore and Grand Crossing neighborhoods as it develops its programs and seeks partners citywide.

“Not only do we need help thinking through the operations of a building like this, we also need ambassadors who can invite new people to be here with us,” Gates said.

Credit: Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago
Attendees mingle at the unveiling of Kenwood Gardens’ first phase Thursday evening. The gardens repurpose 13 vacant lots in western South Shore as a community gathering space.

The Kenwood Gardens project, a gathering space “closely connected” with St. Laurence Arts and Industry and other Rebuild projects like the Stony Island Arts Bank and the Dorchester Art and Housing Collaborative, was also unveiled Thursday.

With the four projects, “we’re slowly rebuilding the kind of necessary infrastructure so that artists can thrive in Grand Crossing,” Gates said. “It’s not like every artist in the city of Chicago; it’s in one place, over a decade, these are the things that we can do.”

Kenwood Gardens repurposes 13 formerly vacant lots near the train tracks that form South Shore’s western border.

Its first phase includes native plant life, natural walkways and an event space. The gardens hosted a DJ Duane Powell set and speeches by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th), among others.

Future phases for the site include seasonal artist pods and open space for ceramics, yoga and dance classes, according to a 2019 presentation by the city’s planning department.

Projects like Kenwood Gardens demonstrate “there are already ideas within residents … about how spaces can be transformed and” used to meet communities’ needs, said David Brown, artistic director of this year’s Chicago Architecture Biennial.

The biennial’s concept, The Available City, encourages participants to consider what could happen if Chicago’s 10,000-plus vacant lots were transformed into collective space.

Attendees at Thursday’s ceremony said Kenwood Gardens’ programs should be developed with nearby residents. They praised Gates and the Rebuild Foundation for attempting to establish a destination in a lesser-known part of the city.

“I hope we have concerts and movies in the park, jazz events, weddings — it’s a beautiful venue,” said Erin Cloyd, who lives across the train tracks in Greater Grand Crossing.

“As I was approaching, I was like, ‘Oh, OK, we’re up in the cut; I can dig it,” said Erin Shakoor, a South Shore native and interior designer who used to frequent the nearby Leo’s Den. “It’s this very insular kind of environment, and you don’t go there unless it’s on purpose or you grew up there.”

Carmenita Peoples, a South Shore resident and chess instructor who attended with Shakoor, said she’d love to see the space host chess and other community-minded programs.

“We live here,” Peoples said. “These are our spaces, and we need to plant the seeds to be able to take care of our own communities and make the beauty that we see in other spaces.”

Credit: Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago
Carmenita Peoples (left) and Erin Shakoor pose for a picture at Kenwood Gardens Sept. 2.

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