In contrast to the excitement of the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial’s opening weekend, artist and Chicago native Theaster Gates addressed the press in a decidedly less enthusiastic tone. “As excited as I am about the history of Chicago architecture,” he said, “we also have an amazing history of racism, segregation, [and] a history of redlining and housing covenants that work against the poor, and against black and brown people.”
Gates’ contribution to the biennial, the transformation of a derelict 1923 neoclassical building into a community cultural center called the Stony Island Arts Bank, embodies the effects of redlining very succinctly. The building formerly known as the Stony Island Trust & Savings Bank occupies a corner on Chicago’s South Side, a predominantly black neighborhood 10 miles from the glossy skyscrapers of the Loop. During the Great Migration, as millions of black Americans moved North to flee the virulent racism of the South, predatory lending and discriminatory zoning segregated them into this corner of the city. And during the dissolution of Chicago’s manufacturing industry, it was these predominantly black neighborhoods that fell into the worst poverty and neglect. By the 1980s, the bank shuttered, and today, with its grand columns and Palladian symmetry, the building is the final remnant of a once-bustling corridor that now consists of vacant lots and strip malls.