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Theaster Gates Real Estate Investing: From Clunch to Artful Community

Theaster Gates, and his Rebuild Foundation pioneer community development through real estate investing, vacant space acquisition, and integration of the arts. This community led development has brought together artists, designers, urban planners and Chicago residents in a manner that's showing the potential of neglected spaces and neighborhoods. Gates, an urban planner and arts administrator, has set a stage for these neighborhoods to be recognized as centers of potential, of hope, and of a brighter future. Gates explains his motives best, "What I have tried to do is leverage my understanding of art and how people view art to help them re-imagine what can happen in poor neighborhoods."

Founded by Theaster Gates, Jr, Wall Street Journal 2012 Innovator of the Year, Rebuild began implementing the collaboration of real estate investing and creative programs to give meaning and fulfilled purpose to rundown, underutilized, and forgotten buildings.  Gates renovated and re-purposed buildings on Chicago's South side driven by programs designed to inspire cultural based artist and neighborhood led community revitalization. The Rebuild Foundation puts life back into underinvested communities and underserved individuals. We are reminded that all talent plays a very important role in redefining communities. Starting from dirt, clunch, brick or board, investment takes on form with limits only defined by the innovators involved. Rebuild's investments in real estate impel neighborhood rejuvenation through empowering individuals, artistic practices and community engagement.  Their model for success is outlined by:Theaster Gates real estate investing

  • Activating underutilized spaces in the community with arts and cultural programming.
  • Providing opportunities and spaces for neighbors to come together and engage in meaningful exchanges that spark collaborative action.
  • Empowering artists and creative individuals to realize their potential as community change agents.
  • Investing in the development of the skills and talents of local residents to catalyze entrepreneurial efforts.

Related: Chicago’s South Side a Hotbed for House Flipping


The Real Estate Investing Begins

In 2007, when Theaster Gates could barely afford his house and car payments, the innovator self-financed his first art exhibit. He used proceeds to fund the revitalization of one home after another. The rest is now history, and the 9th son of a roofer continues to invest in real estate, and in his community. The Rebuild Foundation received their official 501c3 status in Dec. 2010, utilizing the creative community-based resources to build neighborhoods and insure that they continue to thrive. Funded by investors whose own lives have been touched by the benefits of real estate investing, the amelioration of destitute communities, continues to sustain and act as vital resources to these active communities today.


How Do They Do It?

Theaster Gates real estate investingRebuild Foundation's Funding parties include: Creative Capital Foundation (Empowered nearly 10,000 artists/creative minds to strengthen their careers and enrich their communities,  Leveraging Investments in creativity), JB and MK Pritzker Foundation (The Pritzker Group, a private investment firm comprised of middle market, acquisitions, technology investment and asset management. Mr. Pritzler led the campaign to build the Illinois Hollocast Museum & Education Center), Kanter Family Foundation (backing health care research, educational institutions & variety of other endeavors. After WWII, Mr. Kanter returned to run his father's country store, and began buying land for apartment development. He went on to father one of the largest apartment construction and community development companies in the nation.), Surdna Foundation (Promoting social justice, healthy environments, strong local economies & thriving cultures. Founder, John Andrus,of Arlington Chemical Co., the manufacturer of medicines of the time, was fueled by Mr. Ardus' accumulation of land holdings as far away as Alaska). All of these groups, young to over a 100 years old, stem from one person, or a small group of people who found their fortune while investing in real estate.   The profits continue to fuel those who set out to do well while doing good. Chicago communities are the direct recipients, while those of us in farther away places benefit from the far reaching advantage of communities and cultural arts empowered.  "Theaster is creating a culture zone. A cultural Center point in the South side," explains Mayor Emanuel.

Related: Doing Well While Doing Good


What are they Doing?

Dorchester Art & Housing Collaborative (DA + HC)

Theaster Gates real estate investingA mere thought in 2011, the concept came to life in August 2014 through Rebuild Foundation's partnership with the Chicago Housing Authority, Brinshore Development and Landon Bone Baker Architects. The rebuilt block of 32 town homes serves as the incubator for collaboration between artist and community member residents. A source of Mixed-income housing, this effect of collaboration effect houses an even distribution of artists, low-income, and market rate units. (DA + HC) became a sustaining reality. Still serving an ever increasingly vibrant community today, it has become a spirited hub for community collaboration. Residents from neighboring communities, hold weekly meetings to discuss ways to further improve the Greater Grand Crossing area. This is one large goal reached, and  continues to grow larger.

The Dorchester Art and Housing Collaborative grew from one dilapidated block turned town home community. Now housing artists and community members in an effort to foster dialogue and collaboration between both. The two &  three bedroom apartments rent from $722 to $1150 per month. The apartments encircle an art center that includes a dance room and work center inspiring creation and collaboration. 9 of the 32 units include grand rooms the height of 2-story spaces. Housing priority of these spaces is given to income producing artists, dancers, and musicians who may require studio work spaces. 11 of the units are dedicated to affordable housing for struggling artists. The remaining 12 spaces are dedicated to public housing (including section 8) for families interested in a lively, creative life influence. This is truly a unique combination of real estate and performing arts. Two areas that have proven to enrich lives, or with a lack, darken them. The once desperately struggling Chicago Grand Crossing neighborhood provided the perfect canvas, yet it doesn't end here.

Related: The Ripple Effect of Real Estate Rehab


Dorchester Projects

The 6900 block of Dorchester, A cultural hub.The Listening and Archive Houses making up the Dorchester Projects, began as two adjacent homes on Dorchester Avenue. Once a candy store, then Gates' personal residence, the Listening House was renovated to house the Dr. Wax records and portions of the Johnson and Prairie Avenue collections. Both levels provide adaptive spaces accommodating forums from listening sessions of famous composition to cartoon workshops with Pashfadra Arts & Cultural exchange. The Listening and Archive houses provide a rare glimpse into what it means to have accessible, world-class archives in a once underestimated, underdeveloped and disinvested neighborhood. The Dorchester Projects has become an internationally recognized phenomenon, creating aspiration to include many more houses in the neighborhood. Theaster Gates real estate investing

The Archive House, purchased for $18,000, is located next door to the Listening House, and serves as a mini library and community link. After the purchase, Gates ran out of money, and created an artistic performance piece representing him cleaning the house. "The broom was free and the sweeping was free," explained Gates. It sold, and once again, the revenues were invested back in to the real estate that would serve to further restore a community. In keeping with Rebuild Foundation Founder, Theaster Gates' love of repurposed materials, both houses were rebuilt using deconstructed components, and now preserves a cultural history, and a vibrant future. The building, fitted with wood from a North side bowling alley, shelters the Prairie Avenue Bookshop (now a small public library containing 14,000 volumes of art & architecture books), the University of Chicago glass lantern slide collections, and records acquired from Dr. Wax. These complete bodies of work are fuel for equitable access to knowledge. The artists in residence keep the utilization of these resources alive in the Dorchester Projects community.


Black Cinema House

Theaster Gates real estate investing

Originally located across the street from the Listening House and the Archive House, the Black Cinema house's unpredicted popularity led to a following that could no longer be accommodated in the limited space. Formerly an Anheuser Busch Distribution facility, 7200 S. Kimbark, another abandoned building repurposed, birthed the final home to Gate's vision for movie screenings, discussions and neighborhood film classes. A much larger piece of clay. The Black Cinema House's gifted generation and community, who would otherwise not have had access, will now be able to make their own films, & tell their own stories. "Creating jobs and vitality in spaces given up for lost." W Magazine. Some say that Gates built his own residence in the second floor of the building, while all know that he still openly lives proudly in this neighborhood that he grew up in.


What's Next?

Stony Islands Arts Bank

A 1923  vacant bank building, obtained with 6 feet of standing water, is underway to becoming the permanent home of Johnson H. Johnson's library, a culinary training  institute, soul-food restaurant, rooms for exhibitions, performances, and book club meetings. The 20,000 square foot art decco treasure will house the entire history of Johnsons's production of Ebony and Jet Magazines, as well as his  personal collection encompassing 10,000 books. Gates describes the project as a "Potent symbol, the idea of a bank that doesn’t work. It’s the biggest found object, the biggest Lazarus I’ve tackled.” And, as Gates peered down into the mezzanine while being interviewed for one of many publications, he was said to exclaim “It reminds me of some kind of old-town brothel, you know? It’s this architecture you don’t have access to unless you’re part of this or that arts club."  

The Bank was saved from demolition, and that was just the first of many steps to overcome. While it is true that Gates purchased the building from the city for one dollar (under agreement that he is completely responsible for the renovation), $350K in renovations had already been spent. The city wanted to test Gates capacity to do so, according to the Architectural Record April 30, 2014.  After 30 years of neglect, a very gentle restoration has been planned, while balancing the need for change conducive to modern technology. 14 unemployed community members were hired to help. The completion date is yet unknown, but the process, and end result will benefit the community both socially and economically. The possibility of community reinvestment creating sustainability will effect generations well into the future. Watch Theaster Gate's describe his vision and tangible action toward the careful renovation.


"When you face a neighborhood that’s failed, says Gates, they often still have a pulse. Find it."Theaster Gates Real Estate Investing

Form the possibility, no matter from where it stems. Whether it be brick, or the clay that forms them, there are no limits other than those we impose on ourselves.   Gates is committed to remaining in his neighborhood. As the investments he makes continue to add to the revitalization, he doesn't invest to sell and move to London or New York, he makes investments in the community where he lives and continues to participate. Has he done well for himself, as he has revitalized a community? Most definitely. His art is now well-known, & his income from his continued investments in real estate proliferant.  Watch this great spirit interviewed on the Colbert report's complete interview.

Reserve a public tour of Gates' Rebuild Foundation rebuilt spaces.


Could blocks of dilapidated two-flats become hubs for economic and cultural change? Let us know what you think by leaving a comment.

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