Tuesday, August 8, 2017 || By Michael Romain || OPINION || @maywoodnews
When I think of ways that Maywood can transform, my meandering thoughts often settle on two seemingly disparate, yet interconnected, forces: the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, a city of around 345,000 in northern Spain, and the Chicago artist Theaster Gates.
Bilbao’s Guggenheim, designed by superstar architect Frank Gehry, has long been considered the model of seemingly overnight urban transformation. As if by magic, Spain’s fourth-largest city — which according to a 2015 Guardian article, had “lost its former glory as a manufacturing city” — had suddenly garnered some panache and the kind of sex appeal that invites tourists and the hip, cool and beautiful creative types.
Per the Guardian:
Visitor spending in the city jumped, recouping the building cost within three years. Five years after construction, Bilbao estimated that its economic impact on the local economy was worth €168m, and poured an additional €27m into Basque government tax coffers – the equivalent of adding 4,415 jobs. More than one million people annually now visit the museum, which became the centrepiece of the Bilbao Art District: a cluster composed of the maritime museum, the fine arts museum and the Sala Rekalde art centre.
Of course, much of the literature on the so-called “Bilbao Effect” misses (or simply glides over) the cold, hard fact that Spain had come into brand new money by joining the European Union in 1986, a full decade before the Bilbao opened and the year, as the Guardian points out, when “authorities embarked on an ambitious redevelopment programme …”
The moral of this story is that, no, Maywood will not become hip, cool and sexy if only it gets its own equivalent of the Bilbao Guggenheim. And if Maywood does, seemingly overnight, become hip, cool and sexy (a la Wicker Park or even downtown Oak Park to a certain extent), do not attribute the transformation to the bright, shiny buildings or the public art.
The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Bilbao, Basque Country, Spain. | Wikipedia
The power moves will have already happened, likely many years before their ultimate intent is manifest, and almost certainly beneath the level of your awareness. And they almost always involve displacement, a spike in rents and the cost of living, and some degree of spiritual decay. Who knows? Such moves could be happening now to make Maywood like Bilbao.
Which brings me to the Chicago artist Theaster Gates, whose numerous works of urban reclamation, such as his Stony Island Arts Bank on the South Side of Chicago, prove that the transformation of urban spaces, Maywood included, need not necessarily imply expensive, Bilbao-esque cultural projects, or displaced residents or the loss of soul.
The Stony Island Arts Bank on Chicago’s South Side. The building was the abandoned Stony Island State Savings Bank before Theaster Gates, a South Side native, rehabilitated it into a cultural monument that now houses permanent library of Ebony and Jet founder John. H. Johnson. | Stony Island Arts Bank/Facebook
Gates, by sheer will, intense vision and capability, has turned tracts of urban blight on his native South Side of Chicago into beautifully crafted, well-made and soundly constructed symbols of renewal. Per a 2013 New York Times article:
Gates was trained as a potter, but his artistic practice includes, among many things, sculpture, musical performance, installation and something that has been called large-scale urban intervention. Around the corner from the bank, on the 6900 block of South Dorchester Avenue, he bought and restored a half-dozen other vacant properties as part of what has become his Dorchester Projects. He filled one building with 14,000 volumes of art and architecture books from a closed city bookstore and 60,000 19th- and early-20th-century glass lantern slides that the University of Chicago no longer wanted. He refitted the building with wood from a former North Side bowling alley, the varying grains and textures of the exterior boards composing a dramatic tapestry. Inside the house next door, he put all the vinyl LPs from Dr. Wax, a South Side record store that went out of business. Another property became home to the Black Cinema House, a venue Gates dreamed up for movie screenings, discussions and neighborhood film classes. Young, creative people and longtime inhabitants of the area live in other Dorchester Projects housing; Gates lives on the block as well.
Maywood, somewhat like the South Side, has its share of boarded-up stores, empty homes and open lots on which to unleash the creative forces of people and organizations already rooted in the community.
Maywood Fine Arts, for instance, has done this with the corner of 5th Ave. and Lake St. (both with its outdoor arts installations, with its brand new dance studio and with its reclamation of a historically significant building). Imagine the village freeing up some money (and perhaps codes) to allow MFA’s scores of artists the opportunity to breathe life and energy into the village’s boarded-up storefronts and empty lots (i.e., a sculpture park) well beyond 5th and Lake.
What if the village formally, and enthusiastically, partnered with Housing Helpers to help that organization scale up its solid efforts to rehab abandoned homes that are then sold to working-class people. If there is a partnership already, there is vast room for more collaboration between these two entities. What if we could just get Housing Helpers in a room with Theaster Gates? No expectations, just dialogue. That alone would be magic.
What if the village dedicated a portion of its summer abatement money to fund a program that put young, aspiring artists to work over the summers creating murals and other public art installations. Or it could perhaps match a share of its funds with private donations to fund that kind of program.
A fresh mural located on Chicago’s West Side that was created this summer by Oak Park and Austin students. | Alexa Rogals/Wednesday Journal
Such is the case with the Oak Park Area Arts Council, which deploys over 20 young people, ages 16 to 19, across Oak Park and Chicago’s Austin neighborhood. The kids have so far installed at least four large-scale murals in those communities since last summer, transforming once-drab, gray railway retaining walls into unexpected bursts of life and energy.
What if the village of Maywood committed itself to transforming this town into a living museum, a breathing lab of artistic experimentation: paint the public trashcans, fill the sidewalks and vacant lots with permanent sculptures commissioned at affordable prices and created by local artists, plant more outdoor gardens similar to Barbara Cole’s Peace Garden on 17th Ave. and Madison St., invite craftsmen to flood the town and transform a home or two into a Theaster Gates-like gem, collaborate with the West Town Museum of Cultural History to commission public exhibitions, team up with some of the vibrant arts nonprofits in town … the list is exhaustive and can be added to.
All of this is low-hanging fruit and relatively inexpensive. It just takes thought, collaboration, patience and elbow-grease. Not quite Bilbao but it doesn’t have to be. The best urban transformations are always those that have little to do with money. VFP