The fine art of redevelopment


The lights dimmed in the small room off the Hyde Park Art Center's lobby, and a black-and-white photograph of a glowing amusement park appeared on the wall. The park, built in 1899 at 60th and Cottage Grove, is an example of the huge-scale commerce and recreation that have all but disappeared from Woodlawn. The purpose of the program, presented on Tuesday evening by HPAC and the Terra Foundation’s American Art American City series, was to discuss the history and future of 63rd Street, and how its redevelopment relates to Chicago's creative community.

Architectural historian Lee Bey opened a brief description of 63rd Street’s history using the amusement-park image, and throughout the evening both he and Woodlawn-based artist Theaster Gates, who teaches in the U of C's department of visual arts, pondered the factors, such as economic downturns and shifting demographics, that “caused change” on the once-prosperous commercial strip. Citing air-conditioned stores and huge, glamorous theaters, Bey said that at one time 63rd was “the most profitable business district between downtown and Denver.”

Bey grew up around 20 blocks south of 63rd, which "felt like a main street" when he was a kid. He recalled going with his father to pick up work boots at one of the many stores that lined the sidewalk. Now an architectural critic and urban planner, Bey recounted 63rd Street’s history, from its commercial heyday to its current state—mostly residential homes and empty lots, “a double-sided boulevard of housing and not much else.”

The room was overflowing by the time Bey finished his presentation, and conversation turned both to memories of the street and what could be done to restore and advance its legacy. Audience members remembered restaurants, theaters, “wall-to-wall nightclubs” with lavish bars, and “beautiful old buildings,” now torn down. Some hopes were buoyed by recent developments such as the restoration of the Grand Ballroom at 63rd and Cottage Grove, and an upcoming project involving the Hotel Strand.

Gates thought the South Side’s artistic community could be well-equipped to help revitalize 63rd Street and its empty spaces—battling a commercial force that often “assumes heaven to be outside the South Side.” After the talk a group of U of C undergraduates gathered in the back of the room to discuss the presentation. Some had taken Gates’s spring-quarter visual-arts class, Intervention and Public Practice. For their final project they installed an apartment floor plan and furniture in an empty lot on 63rd. Others, like Luke Joyner, ’09, attended because of an interest in urban design and planning. After hearing about the recent redevelopments, he noted the importance of “how community can be created and imagined.”

Rose Schapiro, '09

Images, top: Theaster Gates (in pink shirt) after the presentation at HPAC. Bottom: The Tivoli Theater (located at 6325 S. Cottage Grove, demolished 1963) in its prime.

Tivoli Theater image courtesy of Jazz Age Chicago. Source: "Main Foyer, Balaban & Katz Tivoli Theatre, Chicago," postcard, Max Rigot Selling Co.: #428 (n.d.), cropped.

August 25, 2008