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Thursday, October 12, 2006

Timeout Chicago article


Lattes vs. landscapes
Can a neighborhood prosper without brushing artists aside? We look at two landlords’ struggles to strike a balance.
By Lauren Weinberg Photograph by Thomas Chadwick from Timeout Chicago

In 1993, it was like there were tumbleweeds rolling down the avenue. But it was fine for the artists," says painter and sculptor Baltazar Castillo. The story is familiar: Artists move into a "dangerous" area, in this case Wicker Park. Later, the New York Times (or MTV) notices the ’hood exists, and rising rents force them to flee.

Two landlords—Bob Berger, who owns the Flat Iron Building at Damen, North and Milwaukee Avenues in Wicker Park; and the Podmajersky family, which manages the Chicago Arts District on Pilsen’s east end—pledged to protect art in their communities. But while some artists are grateful for the efforts, others question whether they offer real alternatives to the displacement and conflicts that come with urban "renewal."

Berger purchased the 88,000-square-foot Flat Iron Building in 1993, promising to rent its studios to artists. Castillo is one of his tenants. "I think this building has remained an enclave for artists because of [Berger’s] vision and generosity," he says. But longtime tenant Charles Rees notes the studio rents (which range from $300–$700 for 300- to 1,000-square-foot spaces), are likely out of reach for many artists, particularly those starting their careers. Allison Stites, who became director of Wicker Park’s 17-year-old Around the Coyote festival in 2005, says Berger’s enthusiasm for the arts is genuine. "People forget that the Flat Iron is a business, and he has to think of his bottom line," she says. She has been meeting with Alderman Manny Flores to discuss creating a Wicker Park Arts Center (a space for exhibitions and classes) and other measures to keep artists and galleries in the community. Otherwise, she warns, "Capitalism will take over."

Some observers, including Miguel Cortez, Jesus Macarena-Avila and Elvia Rodriguez-Ochoa, cofounders of Pilsen art collective Polvo, believe capitalism has already overtaken Wicker Park. Rodriguez-Ochoa says Pilsen artists "are no longer oblivious or complacent" after seeing what happened in Wicker Park. Instead, they’re becoming politically involved and demanding alternatives to development that would threaten their neighborhood’s identity. The Chicago Arts District seems disconnected from Pilsen’s Latino heritage, but the group is drawing attention to the area. John Podmajersky Jr., a former building inspector, began rehabbing property along Halsted Street decades ago, turning it into condos, offices and live/work spaces for artists. Podmajersky, Inc., now headed by his son—also named John—founded the CAD in late 2001. According to director Cynthia West, the CAD includes 14 galleries that participate in monthly "2nd Friday" open houses, attracting about 1,000 visitors.

Tenant Dubhe Carreño says the CAD’s unique live/work arrangement enabled her to found a gallery soon after graduate school. But she wishes the area served as the home for more galleries: Many of the Podmajerskys’ storefronts stand empty. Artist Marcos Raya, who has lived in Pilsen since 1971 (and was a POD tenant for four years), says that’s because the Podmajerskys charge too much for rent. "It used to be an affordable space for artists, but no longer," he says. West says the developer is seeking to bring other "creative entrepreneurs," like cafés and boutiques, to Pilsen.

The evolution of Wicker Park and Pilsen shows that artists and developers may have different visions of how art and commerce can coexist. But everyone agrees that we shouldn’t consign art to an "ivory tower," but rather make it part of everyday life. That means demanding a place for it in our neighborhoods—even as the city fills with more Starbucks.

Eric W. Stephenson at Underscene Warehouse
Underscene WarehouseFrom an open window on one of the upper floors of the Underscene Warehouse, it would be possible to spit on northbound traffic on the Dan Ryan. The remote and hectic location makes it a bit intimidating on approach, but inside it’s a different story: Behind the various studio doors are some of the city’s friendliest and hardest-working artists and designers.

According to seven-year tenant Peter Buczynski, a photographer and president of printing company, Colorphonic, Inc., one of the building’s newer tenants, Katherine Perryman, has been active in getting people in the building to hang out together and become involved in the local arts community. A painter, Perryman shares a studio on the third floor with two other artists and has been there a little more than a year.

"It’s a great building. Our landlord [Eric Neville of Swisher Hygiene Services on the first floor] gives us freedom to do whatever we want," Perryman says. "He really supports the arts, and the space is really reasonable." That freedom and support includes allowing Eric W. Stephenson of Lunarburn Studio to do metal pours outside—something that can draw quite a crowd from inside the building and elsewhere.

2215 S Union Ave (773-787-5585,
www.theunderscene.com). Open house: Oct 13, 7–11pm; Oct 14, 2–6pm.

Cornelia Arts Building
Fine Arts BuildingThe Fine Arts Building was originally owned by the Studebaker Brothers, who kept it as a carriage show room. A music publisher named Charles C. Curtiss, who later became the building manager, persuaded the brothers to turn it into an arts complex with studios and theaters; the success of the nearby Tree Studios (see page 22) proved that such a concept could thrive.

Old as it is, and as many times as it’s changed hands, the Fine Arts Building (now owned by Bob Berger, the real-estate mogul who also owns the Flat Iron Building) remains largely the same as when it opened in 1898. It is home to more than 75 artists, design professionals, musicians, galleries and cultural organizations.

Tree Studios
"Arts always flourish in a group, even if it’s just two people," says Deborah Adams Doering, a visual artist and art teacher who’s been a tenant since 1999 and also runs the gallery Finestra adjacent to her studio on the fifth floor. "I like that there are musicians, dancers, architects...because I feel that the visual arts are fed by other artistic disciplines."

Over the years, the list of famous tenants has included Frank Lloyd Wright, Harriet Monroe and Lorado Taft. The fact that the building still has elevator operators on staff only adds to the effect of time unmoved. Unlike some of these other studio buildings, the Fine Arts Building is open to the public year-round. 410 S Michigan Ave (708-822-0063,
www.fineartsbuildingchicago.com). Open house: Oct 12 and 13, noon–5pm.

Cornelia Arts BuildingFormerly an ice factory, this building was turned into studio space by several artists who left the Lillstreet Art Center before it moved to Ravenswood and Montrose Avenues.

The occupants on two floors include painters, sculptors, clothing designers and the improv theater "lab" Work(shop) in Progress, an outfit that holds open sessions Sunday afternoons.
"I need other people around me doing work," says Greg Milne, a conceptual artist and sculptor who has been at Cornelia for 20 years. Milne shares a studio with two other artists on the first floor, where he does raku ceramics, occasionally giving demonstrations in the ancient Japanese technique, which involves letting carbon soak into cracks in the glaze.

"The thing I didn’t care for at Lillstreet was that it was too open," he says. "Cornelia has a nice balance between privacy and community."
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