Ken Stewart is the Chief Operating Officer at Rebuild Foundation and Associate Director of Strategic Planning, Arts + Public Life at The University of Chicago. Ken manages operations and planning across both Arts + Public Life at the University of Chicago and Rebuild Foundation, a non-profit founded by the artist Theaster Gates in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood in 2010. Currently he is also finishing his MBA at the Booth School of Business, where he is studying entrepreneurship, marketing strategy, and finance, and he holds an MA in the Humanities from the University of Chicago. Prior to this he worked in strategic communications at the University of Chicago and was a University Fellow in the Department of English Studies at the University of Illinois—Chicago. Read more about Ken here.
Ken Stewart on Arrival City Chapter 5: The first great migration: How the west arrived
Near the end of chapter five of his fascinating book Arrival City, author Doug Sanders makes a parenthetical reference to the Great Migration in the United States, a period of roughly 60 years during which time millions of African Americans migrated from their rural homes in the South to industrial cities in Northern, Midwestern, and Western states. Approximately half a million of these migrants relocated to Chicago’s South Side—a chain of neighborhoods known as the Black Belt that formed what St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton (authors of the landmark study Black Metropolis) called a “city within a city.” For African Americans migrating to Chicago from the South during this period, the South Side was very much an “arrival city.”
Several factors caused this massive exodus from Southern states into cities like Chicago. Violently cruel and legally sanctioned racism raged in the South, and, in cities like Chicago, World War I (and then World War II) created enormous demands for manufacturing capacity, and with that demand came greater opportunity for employment. Chicago, to be clear, perpetrated its own forms of segregation throughout these years. In Native Son, Richard Wright famously chronicled the ferociousness with which the “color line” circumscribing the Black Belt was enforced. The legacy of the color line can be observed today simply by riding the full distance of the Red Line north to south. The promise of economic opportunity, however, nonetheless attracted hundreds of thousands African Americans to Chicago over the course of several decades.
The Great Migration and the economic opportunity helping to drive it had reached its twilight by 1970. Since then, the South Side of Chicago has experienced steep declines in investment, employment, and population. Vacant homes, abandoned manufacturing plants, unused rail lines, closed schools, neglected municipal infrastructure, and empty land are not unusual sights. It is a common story across many rust belt cities, and it is in this context that Rebuild Foundation focuses its work.
Rebuild Foundation is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization founded by the artist Theaster Gates Jr. in 2010. The work that Rebuild does grew organically out of Gates’s art practice and his vision of the possibility and power of art and culture to transform and give lift to underinvested neighborhoods. Not necessarily imagining that his individual efforts one day would flourish into a full-fledged, mission-driven non-profit organization, Gates began renovating dilapidated homes in Chicago’s Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood into beautiful spaces where small screenings, informal performances, casual readings, and great parties were held. He wanted to bring to Greater Grand Crossing the kind of cultural amenities South Siders would travel downtown—outside their neighborhoods—to find.
In 2010, these efforts at neighborhood transformation were formally organized into Rebuild Foundation. Our official mission is to rebuild the cultural foundations of underinvested neighborhoods and incite movements of community revitalization that are culture based, artist led, and neighborhood driven.
To date, we operate across four sites, including the first two residential houses that were reimagined into beautiful, informal community and event spaces. They are the Archive House and the Listening House, named respectively for the collections of architectural and design books, glass lantern slides, and vinyl LPs that they house (collections rescued from the shuttered Dr. Wax record store, the University of Chicago, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the closed Prairie Avenue Bookshop). Since Rebuild’s founding, we also have operated a program known as Black Cinema House, which focuses on films related to the African Diaspora and hosts screenings two to three times per week in a former Anheuser Busch distribution plant. Last November, Rebuild also was one of three partners that opened the Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative, a 32-unit mixed income housing development aimed at providing affordable housing for artists that is anchored by a new art center. The DA+HC is located on the site of a former Chicago public housing development—the Dante Harper homes—which Rebuild and its partners redesigned and reopened into the new complex.
By far our most ambitious redevelopment and repurposing project to date is the Stony Island Arts Bank, which will make its public debut this October as one of the three official sites of the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial. The Bank is a 17,000 square foot, three-story neoclassical bank built just after the turn of the twentieth century. Prior to construction, it had been vacant since at least 1978, and it was purchased from the City of Chicago just before its scheduled demolition. The Bank will serve as a platform for a broad extension of Rebuild’s programs into art commissions and exhibitions; artist and scholar residencies; and the preservation of and access to archives and collections of material objects that are vital artifacts in the history of art, architecture, music, and Black culture. The Bank, we strongly believe, has the potential not only to become Chicago’s and one of the country’s most important supporters and venues for the exhibition and study of contemporary art, architecture, and Black culture, but also stands to put Chicago’s South Side and the Unites States at the forefront of the growing movement of site-specific, concept-driven alternative art institutions thriving around the world.
In this way, Rebuild’s work responds to what has happened in the decades-long wake of the Black Belt as arrival city. We deal in the reversal of that surge, and all of the complex political relations and justified sensitivities that are rooted in it. One could say that our long-term goal is to restore the Black Belt’s momentum as an arrival city, using art as our primary means not only to rebuild a cultural infrastructure that residents choose to stay close to and participate in, but also to attract and intelligently manage the kinds of investment necessary to stabilize a set of communities that deserve it. Over the short term, however, our goal is more modest. One cannot drive around Chicago today and help but see and experience a set of very deeply entrenched forces that perpetuate what, on the surface, appear as lingering vestiges of the Black Belt’s color line and all of the material consequences that go with it, vestiges that generations of city leaders have not been able to stave. Our short term goal, then, is to counter those lingering vestiges, to the extent that we can, simply by rebuilding.
By Ken Stewart