By Krisann Rehbein
I’m proud to say that the paper snowflakes were my idea. When my cab pulled up in front of The Quarry at the intersection of 75th and Phillips, my heart sank a little. Excited for the opportunity to write about an arts and artisan holiday pop-up market in South Shore, I was expecting things to look a little more festive. My cab driver was confused. There were bars on the windows and a combination of butcher paper and foam sheets slipped between the glass and the security bars.
A team of volunteer market decorators were assembled inside, staring at the bars. There was a general sense of anxiety. The owner of the space, Suzanne Armstrong, said the paper and foam could be removed as long as something went up that prevented people from looking inside. While worried a bit about crime, she was more concerned that curious passersby would walk in all day. The Quarry isn’t yet ready to operate outside of scheduled rental events.
My mind was spinning with this unfortunate design problem. I know! Paper snowflakes! I grabbed a pair of scissors and some scrap paper, whipped out a paper snowflake and stuck it on the foam outside of the bars. Somehow, it looked like snow. We could do this. Everyone started making snowflakes like crazy. In about an hour, it actually looked festive.
This is a story about women who are trying to make positive change in their community, against some unexpected odds. The holiday market was created by Veronica Kyle and Natalie Perkins with input and support from countless others. Collectively, they believe that artists can change communities for the better. Veronica got the idea while working with friends Mary Steenson and Sharon Louis Harris on an effort called the South Shore Sustainability Collaborative. That was four years ago. In the interim, they created a community garden, took over an adjacent vacant lot and constructed a community “hospitality table” and developed architectural tours with the Chicago Architecture Foundation (which I ran while I was on staff). No one had time to execute the pop-up vision. When Veronica met Natalie in August, the idea reemerged. “I don’t think people ever have time to execute the vision. Ultimately, you just step out and start doing the damn thing. I am just as busy now as I was four years ago. The thing is, I’ve learned a lot about the neighborhood in that time.”
The entire operation runs on a very small budget, with some financial support from the South Shore Chamber and SSA 49, with marketing support from The Planning Coalition. The hope is that it continues to grow each weekend until Christmas, through the use of social media, radio spots on WVON and word of mouth—a tool that can’t be discounted in a community with powerful social networks.
The market is a small celebration of the South Shore artist and maker community. You can buy tins of delicate yet indulgent butter cookies from Barbara Jones. Each bite is full of buttery salty goodness. For stocking stuffers, Lessie Dixon of Gallery Opera D’Arte has mugs with artwork on them. There is a wide range of jewelry: beaded necklaces from Carol Metzger; novelty designs by Melanie Spencer-Davis; creations from repurposed gems, leather and glass by Cynthia Bowman; pieces made with resin, copper and cast concrete by DYi Kinney; and sterling silver pieces by Cozette’s Fine Jewelry. Melanie Campbell of Show It Off Designs has handmade scarves and hats. Joslyn Slaughter of Jordan’s Closet has funky resale clothes for kids. Mary Steenson has prints on canvas and cards by mid-century artists Zora and Hughbert Steenson, and Jeffery Poole’s Button Down Shop has vintage fashion for stylish gents. Teens working with artist Dorian Sylvain will host workshops to show kids how to decorate their tennis shoes and t-shirts. In short, they compiled lots of good stuff under one roof.
It opened on Black Friday and is off to a good start, receiving nothing but positive feedback. Veronica says, “We were the first ones to take the foam and paper off the windows. So to have it off now with lights and ornaments and people looking in and walking in, there have been nothing but community accolades. People are walking in and saying, ‘This is so good’; ‘I didn’t know this was here’; ‘I could have my wedding here’.” Several artists have visited and mentioned that they’d like a place to show their work in the neighborhood. Finding available rental space in South Shore just isn’t as easy as it should be.
In many other communities, one holiday pop-up wouldn’t be a big story. They have been praised in urban-planning circles for years as a great way to jumpstart commercial activity. Even Natalie admits South Shore is late to the game. Pop-ups as a development tool are old news. Asking someone to shop local shouldn’t be a feat, especially in a neighborhood like South Shore with a wealth of artists and makers. But things don’t always add up in city life. We aren’t comparing apples to apples when we look at tools that have been successful in revitalizing one place and apply them to another. The entrepreneurial spirit operates under different rules from the North Side to the South. We might think we know the story, but then things get more complex. Besides, South Shore isn’t just any community.
Located eleven miles southeast of downtown, South Shore is one of the most architecturally beautiful places in the city. When you drive south of Hyde Park and continue heading south and east on Lake Shore Drive, you’ll find two public golf courses, mansions, prewar co-operative apartment buildings and terra cotta clad high rises that were once residential hotels for the rich. You’ll find more than a mile of lakefront and beaches, fancy homes with views, and the most gorgeous Park District building in the city—the South Shore Cultural Center, designed by Gold Coast architects Marshall and Fox as a country club for the wealthy. The neighborhood is home to retired teachers, artists, University of Chicago professors, real estate professionals, famous media personalities, former NFL players and some of the city’s political and cultural elite.
You’ll also find miles of vacant commercial properties.
Natalie is confused. “We look around and say, ‘What is going on here?’” In South Shore, an artist or community organizer can live affordably in a sprawling three bedroom apartment with en suite baths, but you can’t shop for groceries. Or stop at the bank. Or see a movie, or have a glass of wine served to you with dinner.
It has been a dismal few years for commercial activity in the neighborhood. Wonderful businesses exist like Chef Sara’s Café on 72nd and Exchange and Give Me Some Sugah on 71st. Both serve fresh, wonderful food and double as community hubs for political dialogue and arts engagement. If you explore the neighborhood, you spend money there. But they serve as beacons on the 71st, 75th and 79th street commercial corridors in a sea of some ninety-five vacant storefronts, give or take. It wasn’t always this way. Longtime residents reminisce about the upscale Joseph Salon Shoes where you could buy a pair of Yves Saint Laurent heels, photographers like black-owned Bonner & Bonner Studios, as well as florists, grocers and toy stores. At 71st and Jeffery, the iconic Jeffrey Theater anchored Main Street and holiday shopping in the neighborhood was easy. Not anymore.
The Dominick’s Store in Jeffrey Plaza is still vacant. The city is in the process of taking it over in an act of eminent domain. When it was built with planning and financing from ShoreBank in the nineties, the shopping complex was celebrated as a sign of commercial revitalization. Across the street, the former headquarters of Urban Partnership Bank—originally South Shore Bank—is also boarded up. In a neighborhood that boasts some of the highest incomes on the South Side, South Shore has amazingly few amenities. So far, no big institution, no university or organization has stepped up to spearhead development efforts. No national retailers or chain store. No deep pockets that have a vision for improving the lives of the residents who live there now.
Veronica can see the beauty through the blight. The way she tells it, “South Shore is pregnant with possibilities.” She is one of those dynamic people who can bring you to your feet and give you a sense of urgency. She lays it out for me: “There is a lot of good in our ‘hood. We’re the ones that have to extract that good and bring it to the surface. We can’t be mad if the media doesn’t talk about the good if we don’t bring it to the media. The only way people hear about us is if someone gets shot or there is some sort of crime. That is not the majority of people in South Shore—you know that—but if that gets shown, day in and day out, and we stay silent, or we don’t create, the bad rep will stifle all the creativity.”
She was a maker before it was a “movement.” She’s following a long family tradition of arts and crafts inspired by her grandmother, Ella Maude Campbell, a seamstress, interior designer and champion of making old things new again. When she was a little girl, she told her grandmother she wanted the fancy coat and muff she’d seen in a high-end department store, not realizing at the time that her grandmother probably wouldn’t be allowed to shop there, let alone afford the luxuries displayed in its windows. A week later, Ella gave Veronica a replica of the ensemble she’d created from repurposed velvet draperies. The seeds of inspiration were planted.
Both Natalie and Veronica have looked for storefront space in South Shore. Photographer Natalie believes that positive images have transformative power and is currently photographing African-American women in the neighborhood to show their strength and beauty. A street presence for this work would also be impactful, she thinks. In partnership with photographer Jon Lowenstein, she’s been looking for a space to host a documentary center where photography would be used as a tool to create social change, hosting inclusive conversations about the neighborhood and giving young people tools to tell their own story about the community.
For the little guy trying to make a go of it, the journey is particularly challenging. For example, the original vision of the pop-up divas was to activate the vacant flatiron building that was the office of former Alderman Sandi Jackson. Presiding over the intersection of 71st Street, Yates and Exchange with large, floor-to-ceiling windows, it is visible to thousands of Metra and bus riders. However, the building is in foreclosure and Seaway Bank holds the keys. They aren’t letting anyone in. In the search for a new home for their pop-up, the Divas approached Suzanne Armstrong, the owner of a new community space on 75th Street called The Quarry, and she said yes. Lately, she gets a lot of these requests.
Located on an inconspicuous corner on east 75th Street, The Quarry is something the community needs: available and affordable space. A place to gather, eat, drink and hang out. It hosts the year-round farmer’s market that the Planning Coalition runs on the corner of 73rd and Jeffrey in the warmer months. After buying fresh produce, patrons can eat home-cooked breakfast from The Quarry’s kitchen. They host the popular Friday night Mo Better Jazz event where you can drink a glass of wine and listen to live music. A fitness trainer with D’Sweat Box has daily exercise class. A non-denominational church has weekly services. They rent their space for parties and weddings. In spring, they will remove the bars from the windows and open a sit-down restaurant that offers a healthy and innovative menu.
The space was a dream of the Armstrongs.They saved their money and had the resources to buy a building and fix it up, yet it was an incredibly difficult five-year battle to make it happen. It took three years just to find a building. Wanting to stay in the Seventh Ward where she lives, Suzanne methodically looked for a property to purchase. She started on 79th and South Shore Drive and worked west, researching every single vacant building on the Recorder of Deeds website to find the owner.
What she discovered was an alarming number of absentee landlords with addresses all over the world—most not even in Chicago. She couldn’t get requests returned. She couldn’t find anyone willing to sell her one of the many vacant buildings along 79th Street. The owner of the trashed building on 79th and Essex that was filled with squatters wanted an astounding $450,000. Of the few owners she found who were interested in selling, no one would let a property go for less than half a million dollars. Nearly every single one is still vacant.
After striking out with the absentee landlords, she decided to build from the ground up on a city-owned vacant lot at 79th and Manistee. Suzanne remembered it being vacant since she grew up in the neighborhood in the fifties and sixties, so she approached then-Alderman Sandi Jackson, who was enthusiastic about the plans and assured her it could be purchased from the city for next to nothing. After months of back and forth with the city’s planning department, filling out reams of paperwork and paying hefty lawyer’s fees, she was told the “next to nothing” price was $240,000. The exhaustion and disappointment from that process almost stopped her in her tracks. The lot is still vacant today.
On top of that, she encountered building owners who were registered as religious institutions and allowed to own the buildings without paying property taxes. These buildings line 79th and 75th street and almost none of them actually house religious functions. Once she gave up on 79th and moved to 75th Street and, working west, she found the same problem. When an owner at 2423 East 75th was willing to sell, she jumped at the chance. The fact that it is a bit off-the-beaten path and not a hub of pedestrian activity hasn’t seemed to hurt her business much. The Quarry is an idea that is long overdue in South Shore.
Joyce Gibson, a local realtor and board member of the Dearborn Realtist Association, an organization for African-American professionals in the real estate industry, put Suzanne’s experience in context. When we talk about real estate in that area, the real elephant in the room is the Chicago Lakeside Development. Hailed in architecture and planning circles as a victory of green design, Lakeside is the super-large-scale redevelopment of the US Steel site that runs along the lake from 79th to 91st. Larger than the Chicago Loop and right on the lakefront, it is the mega project of developer McCaffery Interests and promises to redefine the south lakefront and create “the ultimate urban experience” according to the development’s website. Of course, when there is going to be a gleaming city built on the lake, people will look to make money off of it. The land they are grabbing is in South Shore which is just to the north of the site. The gateway to Chicago Lakeside is 79th Street.
According to Joyce, in the five years since the crash of the real estate market, there weren’t many people like the Armstrongs looking to purchase those commercial buildings along corridors like 75th, 79th and 87th east of Yates Boulevard because many of them are in serious disrepair and, even if a buyer was interested, the difficulty in getting a commercial mortgage with twenty-five-percent down is a roadblock. Investors with their eye on the new Lakeside development swooped in and bought low with the plan to sell high. For these investors, there is simply no incentive to let their property go now, when the market isn’t at a high. These large investors buy the buildings, sometimes in multiple, and board them up to wait for the shiny new city on the lakefront.
Until then, South Shore and South Chicago are held hostage.
Joyce says, “If there were commercial properties that were dirt cheap a few years ago, odds are they are now being held by an investor.” If they bought it dirt cheap, they pay taxes based on the value of what they paid. There is no incentive to fix them up and rent them out. Improvements mean property taxes would go up. If they lease, the landlord may have to incur the costs of a pricey buildout. In the investment game, it just isn’t worth it.
“You can drive around and see these beautiful, vacant commercial buildings and say ‘Wow, why can’t something be in there?’” Joyce says. “Because the people that own it don’t want anything to be in there. Period.”
This whole situation frustrates Veronica, who has been trying for two years to find a storefront to house the furniture design business she has started with her husband and daughter. She calls landlord after landlord and gets nowhere. “What are these landlords doing? Waiting on the highest bidder? They could give a hoot about us. I think Chuck Goudie and Channel Seven should be out here investigating why landlords are holding on to these properties. These properties are just sitting empty.”
Urban planning and design circles often glorify the role of artists in revitalizing communities, without considering the myriad of economic and political circumstances that lead to development. In South Shore, they’ve tried the approach: artists have been the focus of neighborhood boosters for years. The South Shore Chamber has hosted a vacant storefront art show called Distinctly South Shore (CAF was a partner). In 2013, the Chamber was able to hire a professional curator and eleven new public murals were commissioned as a result. That same year, the community was featured as part of Chicago Artists Month. When it comes to arts and culture, they know what they have. South Shore has the placemaking ingredients that urban advocates claim are key ingredients for development: artist interventions, farmers markets and pop-ups. The artists are banging at the door, but no one will let them in.
Except the Armstrongs.
Natalie is trying to be hopeful. “I do believe this is the start of something. There are these little things, like the pop-up, or Suzanne, and you just hope they add up to a big thing.”
South Shore Pop-Up Divas Holiday Retail Shop, The Quarry, 2423 East 75th Street, Fridays 3pm-9pm, Saturdays 10am-6pm Sundays noon-4pm, through Christmas.