The University of Chicago discussed its plans for further development of the Garfield Arts Corridor and reaffirmed its commitment to ongoing community dialogue in a town hall meeting at the Arts Incubator on Garfield Boulevard, hosted by Third Ward Alderman Pat Dowell. Topics of the town hall included current and future housing developments as well as the Independent Police Review Authority.
The majority of the town hall served as a public forum to discuss the efforts the University has been making to invest in the neighborhood. The University was represented at the event by Theaster Gates, professor and director of UChicago’s Arts + Public Life initiative, and William Towns, the Office of Civic Engagement’s assistant vice president for Neighborhood Initiatives.
The University has had a long and intertwined relationship with its surrounding neighborhoods over the years. Recently, it has increased its investment and involvement with the communities through the formalized Office of Civic Engagement (OCE). The OCE helped orchestrate the University’s winning bid for the Obama Presidential Library. In January, the University and the city renewed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that defined the relationship between the two parties, as the University anticipates spending $750 million on the mid–South Side over the next three years. The arts and culture in particular have been areas in which the University hopes to grow.
Gates, who was a driving force behind the establishment of the Arts Incubator, described its purpose. “Over the last two and a half years now, I think we’ve been able to not only demonstrate to Washington Park that we believe in black artists and artists of color, but in a way we’ve been able to create a new cultural anchor that I feel, as a person who lives on the South Side, was sorely needed. I think that the Incubator is our attempt at showing what the cultural life of this neighborhood can look like,” Gates said.
He also emphasized the University’s ongoing commitment to local development, and proposed plans for a new community green space on East Garfield Boulevard near the Arts Incubator.
“We’ve been in conversations with aldermen and the city, imagining that space as a kind of arts and music pavilion, and to eliminate some of the vacancy. Right now we don’t really have a backyard, and our hope is that this space would become an outdoor amphitheater, a public place, and the main green space of this area,” Gates said.
Gates and Towns also focused on University-led programs for economic growth, such as the Civic Leadership Academy, which pairs nonprofit leaders with government leaders in a six-month program, and the Community Programs Accelerator at 55th Street and South Cottage Grove Avenue, which gives advice and funding support to smaller nonprofits.
They spoke on the University’s desire to collaborate with local residents, and acknowledged that its active role in development could seem intimidating. “We do not want to feel like an entity pushing through the Washington Park neighborhood,” Towns said. “We want these spaces to feel like they’re your own, and through this process, get the input and feedback of the community which will lead our future plans.”