Purpose-driven development: St. Laurence project

Former St. Laurence Elementary School in Grand Crossing. Photo: Place Lab.

What spaces exist for people to get involved in the development processes occurring around them? Who has a say in choosing what buildings will be demolished and which are allowed to remain? What happens to a community when it loses a school, and what can we collectively imagine will happen inside these unique and valuable community assets?

Inside the now abandoned St. Laurence. Photo: Place Lab.

Schools, and school buildings, are important loci of community, learning, and shared belief in the future. When school buildings and other community centers are closed, they are often simply abandoned, creating not only a visual eyesore, but a striking representation of public disinvestment and relegation of those communities. As Patrick Kerkstra observes in this Next City article on school closures: "...it’s not surprising that many shuttered schools are often simply left to rot for years by cash-stripped districts loathe to spend money on maintenance for empty buildings. It’s a state of affairs that can generate blight and, in time, pose genuine safety hazards." And it isn't just the building closure itself that impacts the neighborhood; the loss of a school sends myriad ripples throughout a community. The article goes on to note that "closing schools is almost always traumatic. Some consider the selection process arbitrary and open to political influence. And once the final decisions are made, students and families must scramble to find alternatives. Teachers are reassigned or laid off."

Because of their symbolic and practical importance to communities, renovating and re-activating these buildings presents unique opportunities for public conversation around the patterns of urban development, neglect, and reinvention, among local residents who are directly effected by these trends.

Place Lab team members Carson Poole and Nootan Bharani working on site clean-up at St. Laurence. Photo: Place Lab.

Place Lab is currently working on a demonstration project called Board Up, a community engagement series that involves communities in reimagining the possibilities of disused spaces. The first Board Up involves the vacant St. Laurence Elementary School in Greater Grand Crossing, Chicago. Concepts for the future of St. Laurence may include makerspace that provides education and job training in industrial design and fabrication that will augment neighbors’ skills and expand employment prospects.

The windows at St. Laurence prior to boarding. Photo: Place Lab.

This summer, young people in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood will engage with the reimagining of St. Laurence through artistic intervention, using the windows in the building as a canvas that will provide comment on the possibilities of St. Laurence. Drawing from the history of the community and the collections at the Stony Island Arts Bank, Chicago artist Ruben Aguirre will lead a group of youth and explore pattern-making as a lens through which we can view culture and identity.  

The project will create murals for the boards that now cover the windows in the building, beginning the building’s transformation from abandoned to activated space. St. Laurence is rich with opportunities to tap into the latent capacity for change and artistry that exists among the community’s networks. These opportunities are what we call pedagogical moments, and can serve as a foundation on which a project is built. They are moments of exchange— simultaneous teaching and learning— that scale the impact of our work and move us forward. The third of our 9 Principles of Ethical Redevelopment, pedagogical moments are intentionally woven throughout the St. Laurence project and other Place Lab projects to maximize the scale and scope of impact

We'll provide updates this summer on progress at St. Laurence here on the SITE blog. Check back, and look out for an announcement for the public unveiling of the murals in August.

Windows lining a hall at St. Laurence. Photo: Place Lab.

Update: An earlier version of this blog entry referred to Place Lab's work at St. Laurence as redevelopment. The blog has been revised to clarify that Place Lab is involved in a community engagement project at the site.