A Portrait of the Stony Island Arts Bank

 Global Girls perform at the opening of the Stony Island Arts Bank in 2015.

Global Girls perform at the opening of the Stony Island Arts Bank in 2015.

At a recent event at the Stony Island Arts Bank celebrating the paperback edition of Natalie Moore’s The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation, Place Lab’s Isis Ferguson used the text as a point of departure to ruminate on the Arts Bank and its history and role in South Side culture.

Near the end of Moore’s book, she writes, “Black life in Chicago is a place of loveliness, contradictions, and negotiations.”

As a black, mixed-race South Sider, this statement resonates with me for a host of reasons, specifically because I think it’s emblematic of the project we are experimenting with at the Stony Island Arts Bank.

We, too, are a building of loveliness—a stunning piece of architecture built in the early 1920s on a once-thriving South Side commercial thoroughfare that has seen extensive deterioration and neighborhood depopulation over the last half century. The facility was and is visually imposing—a three-story, neo-classical, terra-cotta-clad building. This building, which had operated as a bank on and off for six decades, permanently closed in 1980. And now that you are inside, you may notice the effects of 32 years of vacancy and disuse that were deliberately built into the fabric of its renovation from 2012 to 2015. A former repository for black money, it’s now a repository for black cultural production and archives. To keep the Arts Bank’s legacy clearly visible to visitors, our architects and design teams chose not to restore the building to its pristine condition, but instead leave much of the damaged surfaces untouched. We made a decision to point out that something can be far gone and you can work hard to bring it back by keeping a mixture of old and new and by showing what was lost and what was salvageable. Loveliness is significant because the loudest voices with the biggest traction would have all of us believing nothing good, right, or hopeful exists below Roosevelt Road.

Loveliness exists in South Shore, Englewood, Chatham, and Bronzeville. When Theaster Gates presented a TED Talk in 2015, he ended the Q&A with “Beauty is a basic service.”  At Place Lab, we believe that it’s a service often not extended to “forgotten parts of the city.” It is an amenity considered incongruent with certain places. But in this room, we all know that beautiful objects come from and belong in blighted spaces just as they do in high investment areas of the city.

Natalie called out a second quality of black South Side life—contradictions. Within our three floors, we are filled with contradiction. Take for instance The Johnson Publishing Archive + Collections, on the second floor, which includes over 16,000 volumes of books and periodicals donated by the Johnson Publishing Company, publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines. The content amassed together in floor-to-ceiling shelves commands respect, awe, and reverence. Its size, when seen together, demonstrates just how deeply and widely black cultural production and intellect and politics have influenced American culture. But that only tells one version of blackness in America.

Make an appointment and you can travel up to the third floor and look through the Edward J. Williams Collection: 4,000 objects of “negrobilia”—mass “Americana” cultural objects and artifacts that feature racist caricatures of black folks meticulously collected by an individual determined to get them out of circulation. The objects are a stark contrast from the imagery of “racial uplift” motifs found in the Johnson collection. Between two floors, you can immerse yourself in a world of radical and progressive black thought, black respectability, and black degradation.

And lastly, Natalie pointed out that negotiations are an integral part of black life on Chicago’s South Side. The Stony Island Arts Bank is a constant act of negotiation, of give and take, of concession and democratic public use, and also a place of singular artistic and programmatic vision with a point of view trying to achieve a specific goal. It is a black space for black use and for others to find themselves within those narratives, collections, programs, and performances.

It is for neighbors on 68th, Dante, Dorchester, and it’s for French tourists, architecture nerds, black cinema scholars, 5th graders from South Shore Fine Arts, retired tradespeople, and unemployed painters who come so often that a painting residency is built around them.

It is a space intentionally trying to create conditions for integration while rooting itself in the works and contributions of black people, black objects, and black lives. The Arts Bank is a cultural neighborhood amenity that services many publics, hopefully at the same time. We want to show that being black-led and black focused is not incongruent with integration, social mixing, and inclusivity.

The Stony Island Arts Bank is run by the Rebuild Foundation, a lean staff with artist Theaster Gates at the helm. It is one building in a constellation of collaborative cultural spaces in Greater Grand Crossing, South Shore, and Washington Park working towards the ethical redevelopment of important historically or most recently black neighborhoods. We are optimistic about the blocks where our work is clustered, where we work and live, and we strongly believe that arts and culture matter in the spatial governance of neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago and in other urban settings across the United States.

In October, we will celebrate our two-year anniversary. We are a toddler of an institution with great ambition, trying to finding our way. Stumbling sometimes, other days succeeding. Like Black Life on the South Side, we are filled with loveliness, contradictions, and negotiations.