Grassroots reuse of vacant space on Chicago's south side as an emerging form of urbanism

This design-research project explores issues of race and vacancy in Chicago, particularly within the historically important African American neighbourhood of Bronzeville. Deindustrialisation in the late 20th century saw Chicago’s self-sufficient black ghetto slump into a state of redundancy. Could a cultural plant in Bronzeville weaken persistent White aversion to 'Blackness' (Anderson and Sternberg, 2012) resulting in greater municipal attention to the socioeconomic problems blighting the ghetto?

Bronzeville was the black cultural centre of Chicago in the mid-20th century, but deindustrialisation, suburbanisation and a history of deliberate ethnoracial exclusion have left a legacy of unemployment, vacant land, and limited access to fresh food as businesses became unviable. In a city that has been called ‘windy’ since the 1890s on account of the hot air ostensibly blowing around its political system, it is difficult to envisage immediate resolutions to these problems originating from the City government, which now boasts a half-century track record of using ineffective value capture mechanisms to support economic growth in budding commercial corridors at the expense of blighted areas. The research component to this project explores how remaining Bronzeville residents are improving the urban realm from the grassroots level without waiting for legislative change - unintentionally performing the role of traditional urbanists, in their absence. This includes but is not limited to: street beautification and the reuse of vacant land for community gardens, additional parking, farms, unofficial parks, and workshops.

The resulting design project accommodates the renewable energy scheme proposed by one of Chicago's unsung urbanists - Danielle Kizaire, co-founder of non-profit organisation Bronzeville Urban Development - whilst adding a layer of cultural programming to showcase African American soul food, music and film to visitors from across the city, in an effort to undermine residual prejudice. The design comprises of large fin walls of reclaimed local brick separating lightweight structures made up of shipping pallet wood and dried sunflower stems. A workstation for painting bricks allows all users to contribute to the structure, creating interest in revisiting the site to ensure project longevity. On certain market days, the space will open up to the rest of the city as a point of cultural exchange, completing a 'cultural triangle' formed with the Pilsen (Hispanic) and Chinatown (Asian) neighbourhoods.

The project site: an overgrown disused railroad embankment bisecting Bronzeville, and the vacant plots that adjoin it.