by Christen Gall
Ten minutes south of Hyde Park, the South Side’s intellectual haven, sits a neoclassic building on the unlikely corner of Stony Island Ave. and 68th St. in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood. Theaster Gates, a renowned Chicago artist, urban planner and University of Chicago professor, bought the building in 2013 for a mere $1 from the city of Chicago just before the abandoned building was set to be demolished. Gates renovated the former bank — which once stood 6-feet deep in water — into a cultural center for African American history and art. The Stony Island Arts Bank opened in Oct. 2015, aligning directly with Gates’ non-profit organization, Rebuild Foundation, and its mission to revive the city’s South Side.
The Stony Island Arts Bank houses 15, 000 books and collections of Ebony and Jet magazines. It also hosts artists in residence from around the world and often is the location for Black Cinema House, another Gates’ project, to highlight African American film. President Barack Obama was a recent guest during his last visit to Chicago in October. For a community with a median household income of $23, 333, according to the Census Bureau, and the 8th-highest rate of violent crime in Chicago over the last month, according to the Chicago Tribune’s database, the proximity to world-renowned artists and presidents might seem like a stark dichotomy to the poverty and violence in the neighborhood.
Blair Kamin, architecture critic of the Chicago Tribune wrote that the building was, “a small miracle: once-decrepit, neoclassical bank temple that’s been transformed into a venue where the coin of the realm is culture, not currency; soft power, not hard cash.” The New Yorker called it, “his [Gates’] most ambitious project” back in 2014.
Mejay Gula, building strategist and construction manager for the University of Chicago Place Lab, worked on the bank with Gates halfway through the project. Gula said she appreciated the early praise the project has garnered from critics and journalists, but she is more interested in knowing what the long-term impact of the building will be on the community.
“I was more curious about how the space was going to be used,” said Gula. “Are people really benefiting? You design these things and all you can do is just wait. Wait and see if it works. And if it doesn’t work, how can you change things to make it better.”