The Complicated Business of Placemaking in a Place That Already Exists

Artist Theaster Gates has a vision for downtown Gary, Indiana. Now he is learning how it melds with Gary’s vision of itself.

Story by Nina Feldman

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When Hope Mason was growing up, Gary was a good town. It was the 1960s; U.S. Steel, the industrial city’s founding father, was still going strong, and so was downtown.

“I remember when we could take the bus downtown to Woolworths. Me and my girlfriends would go and eat lunch at the counter there,” she recalls. They would eat and shop at stores up and down Broadway, Gary’s main thoroughfare. “Of course, all of those shops are gone now,” Mason says. “And it’s just waiting to come back to life.”

Like many of its Rust Belt neighbors, Gary suffered from a loss of manufacturing jobs and population in the ’70s and ’80s. At its peak in 1960, Gary boasted a population of 180,000. Today, there are 100,000 fewer people spread across a city footprint slightly larger than Boston’s. (By way of comparison, Boston has a population of nearly 700,000.) Mason was one of those who left a shrinking Gary, moving to Chicago with her husband Joni, a Windy City native, in 1988. They stayed in Chicago until 2012 when, after 25 years, they returned to Gary. But they didn’t move back out of a sense of nostalgia, or to retire. The couple came home and got to work.

Just blocks from the Broadway strip where Mason shopped as a young woman, in the shadow of a 13-year-old U.S. Steel Yard baseball stadium (home to independent professional baseball’s Gary SouthShore RailCats), Hope and Joni run Mama Pearl’s Barbecue. The place is named after Joni’s mother and serves up her homemade soul food recipes.

While its Yelp reviews sing its praises, Mama Pearl’s is working against the odds. Aside from RailCats games, there isn’t a lot of foot traffic around the restaurant. Also, the building that houses Mama Pearl’s is enormous — it’s 15,000 square feet — and the barbecue restaurant only takes up a fraction of that; the rest is empty.

“All the restaurants faded out and then nothing but [chain] restaurants came in,” Mason remembers. “So here we are running a mom-and-pop establishment, and doing it from scratch.”

But if Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson and a cadre of prominent partners have their way, Mama Pearl’s won’t be lonely for much longer. Over the course of the next two years, the vacant portion of its building will be transformed into a culinary arts incubator called ArtHouse. Spearheaded by Chicago-based performance artist Theaster Gates and his Place Lab team at the University of Chicago, the space will offer two tracks: first, a culinary training program and second, a business incubator for people who want to start food-based companies. Mayor Freeman-Wilson says the need for restaurants and food retail in Gary is pressing.

“Gary really has less than 20 sit-down restaurants,” she says. “At the same time, we saw residents that would start restaurants and had great product in terms of the food, but they kept closing after six months or a year.”

As a product of this dearth, a recent study found that Gary residents spend approximately $57 million on restaurants outside of Gary, and approximately $46 million on grocery stores and other food and beverage stores outside of the city.

But for a project like the incubator to work, Freeman-Wilson knows it will have to do more than just train workers and jumpstart businesses; it will have to become a place that draws people downtown and helps create the sense of community now missing. That job belongs to Theaster Gates.

Famous for transforming a swatch of vacant homes into cultural and art spaces in the Dorchester neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, Gates has become revered in the art and community development worlds alike. So much so that the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation funded the creation of Place Lab at the University of Chicago, a creative think tank with a mandate to design and test models for reinventing abandoned spaces through community-led arts and cultural programs. (The Knight Foundation has also supported Next City.)

Archive House, pictured here before ( left) and after (right) Theaster Gate’s reactivation into one of the Dorchester Project’s sites of community interaction. (Photo by Sara Pooley.)

In addition to funding Place Lab, Knight chose Gates and his team as a winner of the first Knight Cities Challenge. ArtHouse in Gary received $650,000 — the largest award given among the 32 winning civic innovation projects announced in March. Place Lab also received $1 million from the Bloomberg Foundation to implement the incubator. In Gary, the Place Lab team has partnered with the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, now a fellow at Harris, to develop a program that they hope will become a model for place-based economic development. While the Harris School will be responsible for strategic research and the implementation of the training and incubation tracks, Place Lab will focus more on community engagement and public programming. Isis Ferguson is Place Lab’s program manager. She says they’ll make it a place that people want to go.

“Right now the building looks kind of like a combination between a Blockbuster and a China Buffet,” she says. “That’s not exactly Theaster’s aesthetic.”

Gates’ strategy in the past for reactivating space has been to use innovative and beautiful design as the draw. And while engaging the community is about much more than designing a flashy building, Gates says that’s not a bad place to start.

“If what people notice in Gary is that the thing looks cute and maybe some artists and weirdos were in it, fine,” he says. “But I think that the reality is that a work of art and a deep work in a community will have multiple faces and multiple ways of entering.”

The project is still in its early phases. Place Lab doesn’t know yet exactly how the space will serve the community beyond the incubator, but plans are in motion to figure that out. Gates says they plan to do their research the old-fashioned way. They’ll talk to people and put up fliers. They’ll hold dinners.

Given the project’s funding, he says, they have an “opportunity to be in Gary way in advance of knowing what the project is, [and] ask hard questions of what a community needs to grow.”

Theaster Gates and Carolyn Sexton, President of the Legacy Foundation, talk at Dinner + Dialogue, an event organized by Place Lab in Gary and hosted by Mama Pearl’s Barbecue. (Photo by Sara Pooley.)

Chasing a “Feel,” Not a Silver Bullet

There are a lot of theories about how to keep a city thriving. Gary knows many of them well. Founded by the United States Steel Corporation in 1906, the Indiana city has endured many of the same challenges as Detroit, but with little of the media and philanthropic attention. Over the past 50 years of U.S. Steel layoffs, Gary has experimented with its fair share of economic development elixirs, from urban renewal in the ’60s to casinos in the ’90s. Fifteen years ago, Gary invested more than $20 million into the Steel Yard, the 6,000-seat baseball stadium. “It was supposed to drive economic development,” Freeman-Wilson says. “That didn’t happen.”

Freeman-Wilson was born in Gary in 1960, just as the city was on the cusp of its post-industrial transition. She graduated high school as valedictorian of the city’s storied Theodore Roosevelt High, which was built in 1908 to serve African-American students in the then-segregated city. Fellow alumni include members of the Jackson Five, the city’s most famous export, other than steel. (Michael was not among the Jackson siblings to attend the school.) Freeman-Wilson left Gary to attend Harvard University, where she would earn a B.A. and then a law degree. At 27, she returned to the city to work as an assistant in the county prosecutor’s office. A first hint of her future as a leader was her purchase of a blighted house for $1 from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which she fixed up and made into her first adult home in the city of her youth. Over the next two and a half decades she would go on to work as a judge in the city court and then briefly as the state’s attorney general. In 2012, Freeman-Wilson became the city’s first female mayor, winning 87 percent of the vote on a campaign message that emphasized job creation and “unleashing the economic power of the many great assets” in Gary.

In the nearly four years since coming into city hall, Wilson-Freeman has made impressive strides, securing a spot in President Obama’s Strong Cities, Strong Communities program, which resulted in federal grants and support, leading an expansion of the city’s airport, launching an aggressive blight-fighting campaign, and welcoming two new manufacturers to town, among other small businesses. Yet as she moves toward a likely second term as mayor, Freeman-Wilson knows the work of bringing back her city has really only begun. Ground zero for the next phase of progress is downtown Gary, home to many of the assets she promised voters she would bring back to life and leverage for growth.

“Downtown, you have the ballpark, government buildings, senior housing. But you don’t have essential services that even seniors need, like a good grocery store or pharmacies,” she says. It’s hard to attract businesses to an area with no population density. And it’s hard to attract people to an area with no businesses. “The idea is they will come as a result of activating the space.”

Gary Mayor Karen Wilson-Freeman (AP Photo/Joe Raymond, File)

Wilson-Freeman and her administration say that after decades of fruitless struggle to bring people and businesses back to Gary, the city needs a fresh draw and a creative culinary scene could be it. Bo Kemp is the executive director of the Economic Development Corp in Gary. Before arriving in the city, he worked in Newark for former Mayor Cory Booker. Kemp says there are a lot of economic factors for companies to consider when deciding whether it’s worth taking the risk to invest in a downtown like Gary’s. They have to think about transportation, safety and the cost of building. But there’s a variable that’s harder to measure too. “There’s also this feel,” Kemp says. “They need something to bring them downtown and see, ‘this is the right time to make this investment.’”

The pursuit of that “feel” guides much of today’s investment in the growing field known as creative placemaking. The National Endowment of the Arts defines the term as what happens when “partners from public, private, nonprofit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, city, or region around arts and cultural activities.” Over the last five years, the NEA has supported this work with $26 million in grants awarded through its Our Town program, including a $100,000 grant for an art and community space in Omaha that Gates helped design.

In the world of placemaking, Gates is a veritable rock star. His pioneering Dorchester Projects in Chicago raised the bar for the field and brought critical questions of race, class and inclusivity to the fore. One of the Dorchester developments, the Black Cinema House, hosts screenings of films made by and about people of African descent. He says the project brings people together and fosters a sense of pride in place.

“People who live next door or down the street come into … Black Cinema House, and they realize, ‘Oh this is just a living room and a dining room and a screen and a projector’ and then they start saying ‘I could do this,’” Gates says. “And it’s actually the, ‘this ain’t all that,’ that makes it super exciting.”

With that sense of accessibility in hand, he explains, people feel a sense of ownership over a cultural asset: “People will say, ‘I didn’t even have to go downtown for that.’”

It’s the combination of an aesthetic draw and an engaged community that Gates says he has seen catch the eye of bigger investors.

“One day there was just a street teardown group and then a new asphalt, you know?” he says of the Dorchester block. “It was these moments that you start to realize your investment is being watched.”

This Is Not Another RailCats Stadium

I sat down with Gates and his team at a summit Knight hosted for its 32 inaugural challenge winners in Detroit in June. The foundation’s $5 million challenge is based on the belief that people want to live in cities that make them feel connected to one another, cities that are vibrant, inviting, diverse. Make a city feel like that, the thinking goes, and the essential building blocks of urban life will follow. Knight’s goal for the competition is to nurture the most innovative and effective strategies for attracting and retaining talented city residents, creating economic opportunity and fostering a culture of civic engagement.

Challenge winners don’t fit neatly into traditional philanthropic program areas. For instance, one St. Paul, Minnesota-based project will ensure that each new resident in town receives a handmade knit cap, delivered personally by the mayor. The idea is to make newcomers feel warm and welcome — and therefore less likely to leave — in a city where project innovator Jun Li-Wang says she and other newcomers have had a hard time making inroads. Another winner, Unbox Akron, will foster stronger connections to Akron with a subscription service offering a monthly selection of local goods and services — a Birchbox for the buy-local set.

The entire premise of these ideas is that they’re risky, that nobody has ever tried something like this before. This is not another RailCats stadium — this is something different.

Carol Coletta is the vice president for community and national initiatives at Knight. She stresses that challenge winners are not going to be typical approaches to community development. “We’re not going to build a lot of affordable housing in high-income areas,” she told a room full of grantees in Detroit at the Knight summit. “That’s not our focus.”

Placemaking, she says, is also not a focus. “The selection of Knight Cities Challenge winners has a different lens than that of placemaking. As important as they are, we’re looking for more than nice, lively places. We’re looking for projects with the potential to connect people of all backgrounds and incomes, invite people into active civic engagement and help keep and attract talented people in communities,” says Coletta.

Yet given the challenge’s focus on connecting people in an urban context, it’s not surprising that in the competition’s first year, a number of its winners are employing placemaking tactics in their projects. For instance, one winner, the Pop-Up Pool Project in Philadelphia, brought new life to the barren concrete deck of a public pool this summer with wood plank seats, plants, and programming like outdoor yoga, Zumba and community concerts. The urban planner who came up with the idea, Ben Bryant, describes deploying the tools of the parklet to encourage Philadelphians to visit the underfunded city rec spot and while they are there, hang out with their neighbors.

Sunbathers lounge on the Philadelphia Pop-Up Pool Project’s wooden chaises. (Credit: Group Melvin Design and Sikora Wells Appel)

“Placemaking is activating spaces in the public realm, and the city pools are great public assets but they are surrounded by concrete, with nothing to encourage people to sit and interact with the space. Adding the seating, the welcoming signage and even the marketing helped reimagine the pools not just as a body of water, but as a vibrant public space to engage with neighbors and the community,” Bryant says.

Unintended Consequences

Gates describes his entrée into placemaking as a response to growing up on the West Side of Chicago at a time when social problems resulting from decades of racist redlining and disinvestment were tearing the urban fabric apart. “If something bad was happening in a place — whether it was drugs or prostitution or violence or just the potential for violence — the easiest thing to do was to tear down the building,” Gates wrote in a 2014 blog post about the inception of Place Lab. He recalls becoming “invested in the idea that people from neighborhoods like the one where I grew up on the West Side should have some responsibility for those places — because maybe nobody else would.”

“In that sense,” Gates wrote, “the start of my work in creative place-making had everything to do with nostalgia and a sense of duty toward the neighborhood where I grew up. In some ways, I think it started with an urgency to imagine that beautiful things might happen in that neighborhood.”

Theaster Gates (Photo by Lloyd DeGrane)

In the years since Gates first began thinking about how to invest in his neighborhood, the landscape of urban development has shifted considerably. While segregation, poverty and violence continue to scar neighborhoods like the one he grew up in, a smaller yet significant number of urban neighborhoods are being reshaped by influxes of more affluent residents, with property values rising and new amenities catering to the new residents arriving. As gentrification becomes more visible, artists and other creative professionals have become unwitting players in a charged dynamic. The changed context has complicated placemaking initiatives like Gates’ projects, forcing practitioners, funders and others in the field to ask hard questions about the impact of their work.

Mark Stern is the director of the Social Impact of the Arts Project (SIAP) at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. In a recent paper that assessed the way that creative placemaking is measured by prominent national foundations, Stern points to two potential outcomes that advocates often overlook.

The first recalls a phenomenon Jane Jacobs first described as “cataclysmic money.” Stern warns that “a tilt toward the interests of investors could lead to a flood of money … spiraling prices, and massive displacement.”

“At its worst, this approach confuses the arts’ potential for social development and social animation with its role as a hook for upscale consumerism,” he continues.

Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, writes too about what he calls a de-distributional effect that creative placemaking can have when philanthropic dollars are directed toward it. There isn’t some new, magical pot of money devoted to developing arts and culture, but rather those funds are being reallocated from other focus areas. As a foundation shifts its priority to placemaking, it’s inevitably shifting it away from other services, which some may consider to be more essential, like affordable housing and job creation.

Stern and his team at Penn recently developed a tool that they believe successfully measures the impact of placemaking while accounting for unintended consequences such as gentrification and the distributional effects that Florida outlines. Their Cultural Assets Index links cultural data in neighborhoods to other measures of social wellbeing like economic well-being, health, efficacy of schools and diversity in order to study the connection and impact of the arts’ on an area.

Jamie Bennett is the executive director of ArtPlace America, a 10-year collaboration of foundations, federal agencies and financial institutions focused on creative placemaking. Before joining Knight in 2013, Coletta served as ArtPlace’s founding director. Bennett says that placemaking projects absolutely have the potential to inspire investment that displaces people — if they’re done badly.

“Yes that’s true about creative placemaking,” Bennett admits. “It’s also true about every other community development project. If I’m developing a major transportation investment, I can get it right or wrong. I’ve not seen any way in which that’s more true when you bring in artists than when you bring in anything else.”

To that point, ArtPlace measures successful creative placemaking projects not by the number of new arts centers, galleries or cultural districts in a place, but rather by the impact artists, formal and informal arts spaces, and creative interventions have on outcomes in the community as a whole.

Bennett says it’s everyone’s responsibility to make sure that projects don’t have unintended consequences. The whole notion of creative placemaking, he says, is to put artists at the table with government officials and community-based organizations, so everyone can be working in the best interest of a neighborhood or city with their own concerns in mind. That way, the idea of “unintended consequences” isn’t really on the table.

“There’s no such thing as a side effect, just effects,” says Bennett. “If you’re experiencing something as a side effect you haven’t conceived of the boundaries of the system you’re working within.”

At Knight, Coletta understands the danger of cataclysmic investment too, but wants to make sure that such threats are kept in perspective. “Only 5 percent of neighborhoods that were high poverty in 1970 are gentrified today,” she says, citing a statistic from research conducted by the City Observatory, an urban policy think tank supported by the Knight Foundation.

“I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t be mindful and anticipate the danger of gentrification, but I think if we let that keep us from working in disinvested neighborhoods, that does a disservice to those neighborhoods,” Coletta says. “In Gary, gentrification is not a concern. The concern is disinvestment. What they want desperately is investment.”

In terms of accurate measurement, she says it’s misguided to look at hard numbers as a gauge of project success. “This is light-touch grant-making,” she says. “We don’t evaluate these the same way we would a multimillion-dollar, multi-year grant.”

Right now, Knight is just trying to use the initiative to source smart ideas and smart people. They want to give their grantees the space to experiment.

“We do specify a set of outcomes, but it’s not about holding a grantee accountable,” Coletta says. That would be like holding a scientist accountable: You can’t put them in the lab and say, “find a cure for cancer next week.”

On Oct. 1, the Knight Cities Challenge will open for its second year. Another $5 million in grants will be awarded.

“We’re looking for insights on how cities can use place to accelerate talent, opportunity and engagement,” Coletta says. “What is a failure is a project that we don’t learn something from.”

Place Lab’s Ferguson admits too that measuring success for ArtHouse won’t be done most effectively by looking at the number of businesses incubated or the number of jobs created. It’s about changing a stigma and setting a precedent. “I think we’ll feel successful when residents of Gary don’t talk about what was, but what is,” she says.

Isis Ferguson speaks to Gary residents at Dinner + Dialogue, an inaugural event at ArtHouse that gathered community stakeholders. (Photo by Sara Pooley.)

An Appetite for Grassroots Change

It is not beyond the Place Lab team that the slope from development to displacement can be a slippery one. That’s why, says Ferguson, it’s important to leverage Gary’s existing assets and work with the existing community.

“We can’t say ‘we’ve done this thing for Gary and it’s so pretty’ when folks are having daily life issues they’re dealing with,” Ferguson says. “It has an economic imperative, not just an artistic imperative.”

Gates also stresses that, perhaps counterintuitively, development catalyzed by art works better if it moves slowly, that grassroots change is more effective in the long run than a more grandiose, sweeping investment.

“We all do things that are of a certain scale and it just feels like we’re floundering,” he says of artistic, place-based work. “But it’s actually the accumulation of those projects over time that is way more interesting than getting the $50 million project and being about to bulldoze shit and do it all at one time.” For Gates, incremental change is more inclusive too.

“That aggregation allows it to have more autonomy. People feel more agency. The hard conversations happen between one development and the next and allow you to build relationships,” he says. “It’s not like, ‘well since all of this is going away, we’re going to replace it with this.’ It feels stitched together and that stitching is more stronger than the sewing machine.”

That’s good news for Gary. After all, it took 50 years for the city to become what it is today. No one believes the next transformation will happen overnight.

Over at Mama Pearl’s, Hope Mason remains patiently optimistic that the city of her youth is on its way back — and that there will be plenty of soul food to keep people happy along the way.

“You can’t really go anyplace but up at this point,” she says.

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

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Nina Feldman is an independent journalist focused on audio production. She worked as a regular contributor to NPR member station WWNO in New Orleans and as editor at American Routes. Her work has also appeared on Marketplace, Morning Edition and PRI's The World.

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