Above: Dorchester Projects, Chicago, IL. Photo: Paul Beaty

Dorchester Projects, Chicago, IL. Photo: Paul Beaty

Imagination is a Magic carpet 
Upon which we may soar
To distant lands and climes
And even go beyond the moon

To any planet in the sky
If we came from
Nowhere here 

Why can’t we go somewhere there?
Sun Ra in Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, by Robin D. G. Kelley

Questionable yet seductive, neglected buildings occupy city blocks like bombastic women chatting at the entry to a house party. Barely audible theme songs saunter from doors hanging on lazy hinges — an enticing mash-up of Roberta Flack’s For All We Know, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit and Nina Simone’s Feeling Good cut through the landmines of trash, arresting passersby as they snap pictures.

Peering at these structures, one grapples with the next course of action. “Should I remain in my car and apply pressure to the gas pedal?” “Should I walk briskly away?” or “Should I get closer, admire and investigate?”

Drawn by possibility – often by need – artists and cultural producers frequently pick the latter. Behaving like distant lovers admiring from afar, this choice, which ultimately brings the two entities together, is at once selfish and communal. Above all, this breed of people envisions an inspired and inventive replacement for the current blight.

In 1961, American literary icon James Baldwin wrote in his book titled Nobody Knows My Name, “[T]he future is like heaven – everyone exalts it but no one wants to go there now.” Going “there now” – acting in the moment – can allow us to visualize and redefine space, therefore sanctioning new ideas to take up residence. The courage and ingenuity to rethink dilapidated environments gives rise to catalytic and creative convergence zones.

Watts Towers Art Center

The Watts Towers in Los Angeles were built over 30 years (1920s– 1950s) by Italian immigrant Sabato “Simon” Rodia. This series of 17 sculptures is composed of steel covered with mortar and embellished with decorative mosaic tiles, glass, clay, shells and rock. Surviving a host of major moments – the Depression, Watts Riots and the Rodney King Verdict – this one-person effort inspired what is now the Watts Tower Arts Center, featuring visual art exhibitions, per- formances, workshops, artist residencies and more. The implications of this revitalization project are generative for the creative sector, tourism and the local residence.

Project Row Houses

Employing art as a vehicle to address the issue of affordable housing, artist Rick Lowe founded Project Row Houses, a neighborhood- based nonprofit art and cultural organization. Located in Houston’s largely African-American Third Ward, the project was born in 1993 when Lowe acquired a block of “shotgun shacks” scheduled for demolition.

Lowe endeavored to enhance and preserve the historical and architectural richness of the neighborhood. He used the arts as a strategy for addressing revitalization and developing practical solutions for low-income housing. Almost two decades later, Project Row Houses includes several dozen homes, a library, a multimedia center, an art gallery and a program that provides young mothers between the ages of 18 and 26 with affordable housing, childcare and workshops in self-management. The original row houses remain intact and serve as the central hub of activity.

Dorchester Project

African American playwright and author of political speeches, letters and essays, Lorraine Hansberry, wrote in her celebrated play A Raisin in the Sun, “Sometimes, I can see the future stretched out in front of me—just as plain as day. The future hanging over there at the edge of my days. Just waiting for me.”

Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates appears to see a future stretched before him as well. His creative practice envelops sculpture, installation, performance and urban interventions that use art as a vehicle to highlight societal issues. His work strives to instigate social, spatial and intellectual irruptions/disruptions that result in beneficial actions for everyday people.

In 2006, he purchased an abandoned building on Chicago’s South Side and called it the “Dorchester Project.” Using a variety of found materials, Gates collaborated with a team of architects and designers to gut and refurbish the space. He has since purchased several other buildings in the same area, creating a nexus for cultural activity — housing a library of books, a slide lantern archive and a vinyl record collection. The original building is also a site for live discussions, performances, readings and dinners or “choreographed occasions” entitled “Plate Convergences.” Gates has described this perpetual project as “real-estate art,” part of a “circular ecological system.”

There are countless examples of artists, creative producers and cultural organizations organically or intentionally setting the stage for renewal and revitalization. These love affairs with place may be manifested as a series of short-lived encounters with recent acquaintances or slow dances with a life partner. Seeing past the peril and acknowledging the promise, creative interventions connect reality and imagination to the intimate care found in human relationships – they are distant lovers on magic carpets.