Jackie Samuel

Using the Arts to Strengthen Neighborhoods

Last week, I was contacted by one of our art partners from the South Chicago community who had noticed a fallen tree in a vacant lot near the 92nd Street Bridge, the site of the earliest European settlement (established in 1813). This person sent me an email suggesting or asking about the possibility of preserving a fallen tree limb because it looked like South Chicago emerging from the earth, revitalizing itself.

Imagine me trying to explain this to my boss, an affordable housing developer, or the City's Department of Streets and Sanitation: “Uh, excuse me, uh, Could you please save the broken tree limb in the vacant lot next to route US 41? It looks like South Chicago emerging from the earth, revitalizing itself.”

It made me think about this book I read recently called New Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development by Arlene Goldbard. In the book she posed a question: What would life be like if cultural considerations, broadly defined, were as much a part of local and regional planning as are economic concerns? Could you imagine what South Chicago, let alone the City of Chicago, would be like if that was the case?


All the Chicago Public Schools would be educational institutions in the day and cultural centers at night. My boss would have said, “Sure, I’ll get on saving that tree limb right away. Maybe we could put some mosaic benches around that tree so the seniors can tell children stories about the old Steel Mill days.”

Three Communities

In 2005, I was introduced to a great opportunity at LISC/Chicago when I became consultant for a pilot program called Building Community through the Arts (BCA) funded by the Joyce Foundation. The purpose of this innovative program was to integrate the arts into neighborhood development strategies as a catalyst for positive economic, physical, or social change.  I embraced three different communities: Albany Park, Humboldt Park and South Chicago, all very culturally rich and diverse.

Albany Park is a cultural mecca, a virtual trip around the world in one visit and a place where at least 50 different languages are spoken in one school. One trip to Albany Park Theater Project, and you will feel like you know the community like your know the back of your hand. Their critically acclaimed plays tell the soulful journeys about the people who live in the neighborhood. The hardest thing to do is decide where to eat from the variety of multi-ethnic restaurants.

Humboldt Park is artists and activism at its best—a community in which grassroots arts survives just as well as its cultural non-profits counterparts. Neighborhood residents are masters at celebrating their culture and using the arts to explore issues that affect them, from gentrification to immigration to the effects of diabetes. It's a cultural goldmine of information creatively expressed throughout the community. I could never figure which was my favorite hangout—the beauty of the Humboldt Park lagoon or the Puerto Rican Cultural Center filled with rare books that discussed the African presences in Latin America.

Then there was South Chicago, my current focus. South Chicago is a hard-working, proud industrial community, an old steel mill town hidden under the skyway toll bridge. If you venture into a community event like the 10th Ward Green Summit or Cinco De Mayo, you will find that everyone is no more than one person removed from knowing someone who once worked at the now-defunct South Works Steel Mill.

It has only one visual arts organization, the South Chicago Art Center, which is tucked away in a quaint little storefront, in addition to a historical society that focuses on South Chicago History, located in the Calumet Park fieldhouse. There is also an abundance of individual artists living throughout the community, a talent pool whose artwork can be seen throughout the City of Chicago in parks, schools, museums, and other cultural institutions. As a matter of fact, the next time you visit the Cultural Center in the Loop, head to the Chicago Authors section and read a detective mystery by South Chicago’s very own Kevin Murphy while sitting in one of the comfortable sofa chairs near the elevators on the first floor.

Over the years all three of these arts communities have survived through recessions and the foreclosure crisis through the grace of LISC/Chicago and its leveraging talents. I love each neighborhood, but I feel a special connection to South Chicago.  

Not a Simple Task

South Chicago was my downtown during the days of Goldblatts, Woolworths, and Gaiety Ice Cream. It was a community that I was fond of because it always brought back cherished memories of my family when we shopped there as I was growing up. So after the BCA partners completed their task of writing an arts plan, I stayed with South Chicago to help the artists acquire a shared arts space that could one day lead to a cultural arts facility for the community.   

Blending arts/culture and bricks/mortar is not a simple task. The layers of both cultures are very thick, and they see their worlds in very different ways. Both views are valid, but you have to have someone who understands each world in order to bring them together. Start with small events to build relationships, and you are on your way.

Being Strategic

Don’t get me wrong. In South Chicago we have made great strides in integrating the arts into community development, but you have to be very strategic in how you do it. We started off with “Art Attacks”—little art activities to let the community know that we have artists working in the area. Then, in 2007, we were able to acquire a storefront on Commercial Avenue over the Christmas holidays to do various arts projects. Unfortunately, we were a little too successful. The owner was able to rent the space out by the New Year because the future tenant could see the vitality of the location while it was in use. The tenant is still there to this day. 

Lesson #1: Artists, don’t become too attached to donated space. Lesson #2: Developers and planners, the arts can help you sell space.

"No Holes in the Wall"

In 2008, I asked my boss if we could transform the main lobby into an art gallery featuring local artists for Artist Month. She said, “Sure, but no holes in the wall.” I said, “No problem,” with my fingers crossed behind my back.

Well, the lobby was just beautiful. My boss loved it too. (For lack of time, I will cut out of the haggling stories. It was not easy to convince a housing developer to not only transform the lobby into a gallery and host the opening night party including wine, but she did.) 

I must say, this one event had a profound effect on everyone. My boss brought clients and partners, such as bankers and stakeholders, to see the art work after meetings. Artists were able to sell some of their work. I was also grateful my boss left the party early before Flo Mills did her African dance to the conga drummer and ended with a somersault right where the reception desk usually is!

Flo is a resident of South Chicago and community performing artist. She has been with BCA from the very beginning and functions as my community foot soldier. In work like this, I highly recommend finding your foot soldiers. They are the people in the community who come to everything and know everyone. They are valuable because they help you dig out the hidden treasures in the neighborhood.

Organizing Artists

The real epiphany moment was later on when we were sitting around sipping wine discussing how to validate the artists in the community, the need for art space, and the need to form a coalition to strengthen the voice of artists. The gathering was the catalyst to a series of meetings and activities to organize the artists. 

We had a shooting in the community that literally ripped our hearts out. Four youth were shot and killed in broad daylight after school. Flo and our local drummers took over a street corner to leave a message to the community that we must take back our streets. Other notable things we've done over the years:

  • The Harlem Theater Compan,y a new partner at the time, performed scenes from a play about gang violence at the local public library to generate a discussion with community about gangs. It helped to encourage a public conversation that needed to happen.
  • Brenda Woods started a tap dance class for seniors called the “Hoofers Club.” They currently perform for our local events and around the city. My 86-year-old mother even joined the group.
  • The South Chicago Art Center acquired a plot of land to plant a garden. Not only is the garden decorated by beautiful mosaics created by the local artist and youth, but the vegetables from the garden are donated to a local food depository.

I could go on with more stories, but I will only add that we just completed our feasibility study for a cooperative art space. Our task is not done, but we are getting closer to our goal.

The Arts Can Make Neighborhoods Stronger

I hope this motivates someone out there to just get started. Don’t worry about the how others do it. Just create a plan that you think will work for your community. There are no wrong answers and plenty of resources out there. Every community I have worked with has a different arts culture within each community, and each approach has been different.

What is important is that you plan what works for you, give arts organizing time, and reach out to build relationships with any and everybody. (You will be surprised how many closet artists are out there. Chicago's Mayor Rahm Emmanuel danced ballet, and Pope John Paul II was a thespian.) And celebrate your accomplishments because it will encourage others to participate.

The arts can be used to strengthen and empower communities. What is important is for you to ask the question: How are the arts being used and supported in my community? By continuing this conversation, we educate those that are curious about what they can do, we motivate others to get started, and we learn from each other. 

This Artist Story first appeared as an article on The Institute of Comprehensive Community Development website. Reposted with permission.

Jackie Samuel is the director of the LISC/Chicago-sponsored New Communities Program in South Chicago for Claretian Associates. She has an extensive history in the performing arts, arts education and administration. Jackie previously served as the lead arts consultant for LISC/Chicago’s Building Communities through the Arts (BCA) program, part of their New Communities Program. Jackie has provided and coordinated professional development programs for the Bureau of Cultural Arts, Chicago Board of Education. She has served as an arts consultant and teaching artist for Chicago Arts Partnership in Education since its inception. For four years, she was the Director of Bethel Cultural Arts Center for the parent community development corporation, Bethel New Life.

Published by CAR_Laura on Thu, 07/21/2011 - 10:20am
Updated on Wed, 02/24/2016 - 10:55am