In many ways, Homan Square — a multipurpose development in the heart of Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood — is a microcosm of Chicago.
There’s a high-performing charter school, a large community center, and various nonprofit organizations — all in buildings reclaimed from the old headquarters of Sears, Roebuck, and Co. Homan Square also houses a detention center for the Chicago Police Department (CPD), infamous for its brutal interrogation methods that have specifically targeted black men. Last year, investigations by the Guardian newspaper showed that the detention center is the domestic equivalent of a C.I.A. “black site.” A protest against a proposed “Blue Lives Matter” bill recently occupied the lot nearby, setting up camp in July.
It is also, by the way, one of the off-site facilities where the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) has classrooms.
“Our students have a lot of questions about what we are doing here,” said Jaclyn Jacunski, a research associate at SAIC’s Shapiro Center, in an interview with F Newsmagazine. SAIC moved into the tower in February of this year, but had been in talks with neighborhood groups, representatives, and activists for two years prior. Jacunski coordinates all of the programming at SAIC’s Homan Square space, including the artist-in-residence program, classes for SAIC students, and free continuing studies classes for members of the North Lawndale neighborhood. SAIC rents the 10th and 12th floors, and is a part the Foundation for Homan Square’s transformation of the historic tower into “a hub for arts and multimedia education.”
Some SAIC students are befuddled by the new classrooms. “It’s in North Lawndale? What the fuck?” said Margot Hintz, a junior in the BFA program.
Another student, Alyssa Chavarry, expressed concern about the school’s presence in North Lawndale: “Why are we taking up this space that we don’t belong in? Especially if there’s this exclusive art community — why don’t you do that downtown, and not conflate, and take up space that isn’t yours and gentrify the community?”
Jacunski said she knows that some students, like Chavarry and Hintz, have approached SAIC’s new facility with apprehension.
The concern stems from a fear of SAIC acting as “colonizers” or “gentrifiers” in the disinvested neighborhood. Jacunski added that “keeping us honest as an institution” was a concern of hers.
The proximity to the CPD facility has contributed to the skepticism. During the interview, Jacunski showed me the top floor of the Nichol’s tower, and pointed out the facility from one of the windows. She pointed out where the Let Us Breathe Collective — the group occupying space outside in protest of police brutality in the city — set up shop for 48 days, through August 30.
Jacunski went on to say that the school was “frustrated” that some people associate the school with the police station. “We do not, support, obviously, any illegal activities, or taking in prisoners and not giving them lawyers, torturing them killing them — none of that has to do with our art programs,” Jacunski said.
Jacunski added that the activists and police are integral members of the community, and it is important for school officials to be in dialogue with them. “We want activists to feel like they’re a part of our work, as well as the police, and whoever, right? This space is for art and culture, and all that dialogue is really important to making good art, relevant art, and important art,” she said.
The protest Jacunski referenced — dubbed “Freedom Square” — sought to bring awareness to the CPD facility as well a Chicago City Council ordinance. The occupation had initial success in engaging the neighborhood, and illuminated the need for art and community-focused classes in North Lawndale. When occupiers left, however, there was a significant absence.
Edward, a middle-aged man who lives next to the lot (he declined to give his last name), told F News on September 11 that he had no idea what happened to the occupation.
“One day they were here doing good for the community, but then the next, gone,” he said.
After over a month of occupation at the lot, the #LetUsBreathe Collective announced the end of “Freedom Square” in a press release on their website:
On August 31, the sleeping tents at Freedom Square, slowly, sadly came down. The first aid canopy came down. The arts & crafts canopy came down. The free clothing store, free library, and pantry still stand, with some produce ready to throw on the grill. …Across from Homan Square, the tent city occupation was a spontaneous decision born out of a spectacle of civil disobedience on July 20th. We at the #LetUsBreathe Collective had only six small tents, a grill, a will to love Lawndale beyond shutting down traffic for a couple of hours in front of the notorious CPD black site, and a vision for a world without police.
Multiple attempts by F News to reach the #LetUsBreathe for this article were unsuccessful.
Jackson Morsey, an urban planner at the Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), skeptically praised SAIC in an email exchange with F News.
He said it seemed “like a great partnership,” but that his main criticisms were around the benefit of bringing arts education to a neighborhood that had more important economic needs: “Art can be great, but it doesn’t start to solve the problems of a neighborhood without economic development to go along with it. Is it providing jobs for residents? Is it engaging youth in meaningful ways to give them needed skills? What are the larger community benefits of having this program located there?”
Geoff Smith, the executive director of the Institute for Housing Studies at DePaul University, told F News that he didn’t have too much concern about SAIC’s place in North Lawndale. “It could be that in 20 years, 15 years, in some sort of period of time, that neighborhoods in North Lawndale or Garfield Park do change, do improve; where prices go up, values go up, rent goes up, demand for housing goes up,” he said. “At this point, I’m not concerned about a short-term risk of gentrification.”
Cheryl Pope, the current artist-in-residence at the Nichols Tower, said she felt positively about SAIC’s initiative and is empowered to make an artistic impact on North Lawndale. She is collaborating with men, women, and children from the surrounding area, pulling in their wisdom, hopes, and dreams to create a cloud-and-sky-inspired quilt-installation.
“It’s really just about, and kind of representative of, voices from different groups in the community, and [the installation] will stay within the community,” said Pope. “So, even talking with the [students], it was extremely important to them, and to the women that those quotes and those lines of wisdom are from, that the quilt stay in the community. And for me that’s something I really value and respect about the project.”