The 6900 block of Dorchester Avenue in Chicago’s Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood easily could have been another casualty of the economic downturn, or another tale of a blighted neighborhood lost to neglect. But when Theaster Gates, Jr. rehabilitated an abandoned house there in 2006, he had a vision.
"I thought if I could just take care of my little house on the block, there might be some residual effect," says Gates, an artist, and urban and cultural planner. "I could share my lawnmower with my neighbors and help create a better place just by being present."
A night of jazz on the Dorchester Projects' reclaimed deck. (Photo: reallyboring on Flickr)
Two years later, as the economy and housing market took a nosedive, he watched one family after another vacate their homes. So he began purchasing and rehabilitating a few of them, slowly transforming his neighborhood into a vibrant cultural haven.
He started with the house next door. After restoring it, using original materials when possible, along with salvaged or recycled materials, he filled it with 14,000 art and architecture books from a shuttered local bookstore, as well as a collection of 60,000 images donated by the University of Chicago art history department’s lantern slide archive.
Down the street, Gates restored another home, creating what he calls his Black Cinema House. His own residence, now filled with thousands of LPs from a local record store that went out of business, doubles as the Listening House. A fourth house in his collection will eventually become an ad hoc soul food joint, a noncommercial space where Gates will host communal meals as a way to encourage conversations about art and culture.
Together, the houses form the Dorchester Projects, a utopian endeavor that Gates hopes will inspire new approaches to urban planning by jumpstarting community revitalization in creative ways.
The exterior of the Dorchester Projects house in Chicago. (Photo: reallyboring on Flickr)
"It’s a way to start instigating the need to reexamine housing policies in distressed neighborhoods," he says. "Instead of building 40,000-square-foot cultural centers or large YMCAs or big new libraries, couldn’t we use some of the existing housing stock and make better, more thoughtful incremental decisions?"
"I sometimes think it’s not enough to be concerned with just the restoration of a building," he says. "I also try to think about what needs it will serve. So I become an advocate for these existing buildings, and instead of just restoring them, I create a program for them that makes them more valuable than they’ve ever been to their community."
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