National community development initiative selects Chicago for $5 million grant

Grant supports Chicago’s investment in revitalizing and connecting public spaces

Stony Island Arts Bank
Stony Island Arts Bank will serve as the pilot site in an initiative to foster civic engagement, economic opportunity and environmental sustainability.
Photo by
Tom Harris. Copyright Hedrich Blessing. Courtesy of Rebuild Foundation.
Nora Semel
Director of External Relations for UChicago Arts and the Logan CenterUniversity Communications, UChicago Arts

A national effort to counter the growing economic and social fragmentation in cities has awarded a $5 million grant to Chicago and the Chicago Arts + Industry Commons, a collaboration between Prof. Theaster Gates’ Rebuild Foundation, University of Chicago’s Place Lab and the city of Chicago.

The grant is part of Reimagining the Civic Commons, a partnership of four national foundations that seeks to foster civic engagement, economic opportunity and environmental sustainability through revitalizing and connecting parks, libraries, community centers and other public spaces.

Chicago was one of four cities selected for the grant; Chicago, Akron, Detroit and Memphis join Philadelphia, which began a Reimagining the Civic Commons pilot project in 2014. An additional $5.25 million in support from local sources will match the $5 million grant for Chicago.

“It is important to the University of Chicago to support Prof. Gates and Place Lab’s effort to develop collaborative partnerships, engage artists and leverage resources to put innovative urban thinking into practice in our surrounding neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago,” said Sian Beilock, Executive Vice Provost at the University of Chicago. “The Chicago Arts + Industry Commons project is an ambitious next step in Gates’ constellation of neighborhood revitalization initiatives.”

“We have spent the last 10 years developing a network of platforms, skilled people and facilities that would allow us to turn the city's perceived deficits into assets,” said Gates, acknowledging how critical collaboration is to the idea of the commons. “With support from Reimagining the Civic Commons, the CAIC will employ local residents, renovate multiple buildings into new cultural hubs and create new revenue and job opportunities in some of Chicago’s most disinvested communities.”

Economic segregation, where residents live in either primarily low-income neighborhoods or primarily high-income neighborhoods, is on the rise. In fact, the number of high poverty neighborhoods in the core of metropolitan areas has tripled and their population has doubled between 1970 and 2010.

Americans are also less socially connected to their neighbors than they once were—a recent report from City Observatory shows that Americans are spending less time together in social settings, trusting each other less and interacting less regularly with people whose experiences are different from their own.

In addition, most cities are poorly prepared to deal with the harmful impacts of climate change, which fall disproportionately upon people who live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.

Redeveloping civic spaces

The CAIC includes three significant sites on the South Side of Chicago. The flagship of the network, the Stony Island Arts Bank—a former bank turned arts and cultural center—has already been radically renovated through private investment. Two nearby assets, a closed Catholic elementary school and 13 vacant city lots, will be transformed into vibrant civic spaces for public use. A fourth site on the West Side of Chicago includes two unused properties owned by the Chicago Park District: a former horse stable built in 1888 and an adjacent powerhouse built in 1896. These structures will be redeveloped into a center for industrial arts production, skills training and artisan studios.

These assets are representative of difficulties facing many cities: aging infrastructure, forgotten or underused tracts of land, and buildings that no longer meet shifting community needs. The CAIC plans to create spaces for public use while also re-energizing residential and commercial interests in the South Side’s Greater Grand Crossing, South Shore, Woodlawn and Garfield Park neighborhoods.

The collection of civic assets for the Chicago Arts + Industry Commons will not come online at once, but will be phased in as properties are developed. The Stony Island Arts Bank, which opened in October 2015, is the first active asset in the CAIC network and will be the CAIC's headquarters for the additional sites. The space will be a testing ground for wider network implementation, serving as the pilot site for programming, pedagogy and culture. In addition, the bank will be a nexus for network-wide planning and implementation of residential and commercial development intended to demonstrate and test the CAIC's proposed Cultural Reinvestment Model.

“CAIC is truly about the ebb and flow of knowledge between people, between generations and lived experiences,” said Lori Berko, chief operating officer of Place Lab at UChicago and spokesperson for the Chicago project. “It creates spaces for moments of teaching and learning, leveraging the talent in our South and West Side communities to bring a second life to all of these properties. The transformation of these civic assets will provide fresh opportunities for youth and new chances for adults to envision their future.”

Reimagining the Civic Commons is a partnership among four national foundations—The JPB Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation —and Chicago civic leaders including Gates, the Chicago Park District and the city of Chicago.