Foreclosed: Thoughts on Cicero and Collaboration with Jeanne Gang

MoMA and The Buell Center invited a series of team participants and observers who attended workshops for The Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream, which opens in February, to reflect on the project. Here are thoughts from Theaster Gates, Jr., a member of the Jeanne Gang’s team.

Roberta Feldman (left) and Theaster Gates (right) with Studio Gang's site plan model at the September 17 Open Studios at MoMA PS1. Photograph by Brett W. Messenger. © 2011 The Museum of Modern Art

What does an artist interested in blight and the reactivation of space in under-resourced neighborhoods offer an architectural team taking on the failures of suburbia? How could my team (Charlie Vinz, Elizabeth MacWillie, and Hallie Chen) and I think hard about complementing an already amazing team of thinkers and doers? In the beginning of this monolith of a project, when all the decisions and turfs were being laid down, it was quite hard to figure out where we fit. The language of architecture and its creative and pragmatic loci were very different from the ways that I worked as an artist, especially as I’m interested in particularities of people as much as places and things. Working with the thoughtful peoples-worker Roberta Feldman, we might offer the stories of people currently living in Cicero, Illinois; stories suggesting that while there is a crisis in America with regard to space, economy, and policy, there are still people in these places we imagine as blighted, foreclosed, and unworthy of investment. We decided that interviews with Cicero’s “present” would be a great way of complementing our team’s design ambition for Cicero’s future. I wanted us to give a face to those who had lost their properties, who in spite of the market, maintained their businesses and familial habits and, above all, were steadfastly focused on what it meant to be in America and have the right to dwell! I quickly realized that this nearest-west suburb held strange memories for me that were very different from the Cicero that I was assigned by MoMA and Jeanne Gang to reflect upon. The Cicero of my youth was a place very much off-limits to me, which made my assignment all the more uncanny.

Train tracks and an abandoned building in Cicero, Illinois. Photograph courtesy of Studio Gang Architects

I came to the table with biases and sensitivities. Why are we looking at Cicero, Illinois? Why not Harvey, Bellwood, or Dalton, suburbs that are also inner ring suburbs, but reflect a much more dire condition of blight and maybe a people who could really benefit from some professional light shining on their challenges? Cicero offered me nothing as a youth accept a first opportunity to learn of racial and spatial bias. All of my life, I was told not to go there because they did not like outsiders (I’m using the term “outsiders” because matters of race and discrimination seem like passé indicators of the climate of a place in the architectural community). “Outsiders tear up things, they’ve messed up the city, they don’t want to learn.” Cicero was an immigrant enclave with proud and strong working-class people who, with opportunity, moved away and were replaced by another proud and strong working-class community of a different ethnicity and cultural need. Some things, however, were common: a desire to have their children receive the best education, to work and become American, to benefit from this strange new gateway.

Studio Gang team member Greg Lindsay (center) discussing Studio Gang's site plan model with visitors at the September 17 Open Studios at MoMA PS1. Photograph by Brett W. Messenger. © 2011 The Museum of Modern Art

It was the stories that really made this project important for me. We asked simple questions, like, How’d you end up here? What kind of home did you come from? How would you like to live? People’s responses were candid and clear. Their thoughts indicate that not only was there a housing problem but a lack of advocacy for the needs of migrant and immigrant communities and the poor. Banks were unwilling to listen to a woman who had paid $60,000 cash on a $120,000 home when she suddenly became ill from working too hard and could not make three payments. It made me think that there were biases against her because she spoke Spanish and didn’t have a green card. Was it easier to simply take her money and building? The picture was growing much more complicated than a design problem. It was a problem of gaps in our design, policy, and social ecologies. It is perhaps impossible to talk about design without thinking about where people come from, how things get financed, ways in which government incentivizes development or discourages investment. I’m realizing that the interventions I might offer as an artist are relevant to the group—interventions that are about rounding out the story of design, investing deeply in the nuance of a place, taking time to walk, and encouraging change.