The artist Miguel Aguilar at work on an outside installation. | Photo by Miguel Aguilar/Facebook

Some West Side artists are speaking out on a controversial subject in the African American community — gentrification. During a panel discussion convened at Jane Addams Hull House Museum in October, a range of artists who live and work on the West Side talked about “claiming” public spaces and how artists contribute to gentrification and the displacement of lower-income residents and businesses that results from the process. 

The panel, called Claiming and Reclaiming Space, was one of several discussions and events held as part of the museum’s Making of the West Side project, which looks to bring together scholars, activists, neighborhood residents and other stakeholders to explore the area’s history and see how the experiences of the past can inform present day issues. 

Jennifer Scott, the museum’s director, said that the major purpose of the project was to bring more attention to “the part of the Chicago that’s been considerably ignored, neglected, misunderstood.” And, given the fact that the museum honors the work of Jane Addams, who worked to help immigrants and lobbied on the behalf of the disenfranchised, the project was a good fit. 

Since 2014, artists Sara Pooley and Paola Aguirre have been working on Creative Grounds, a photo project documenting what happened to closed public schools on the West Side and elsewhere in the city.

“I guess it’s important to choose what histories you want to record,” Pooley said. “And this is something we definitely felt was important,”

Aguirre said that they have tried to reach out to local residents and activists in Austin and elsewhere, and “elevate the issue.”

Danton Floyd, the founder and lead organizer for the West Side-based 360 Nation, said that his organization uses “holistic practices to promote self-determination among black children.” Some of its initiatives include the Laboratory program, which is designed to give youth creative skills that they can use to improve their communities, and Summer Freedom School, which employs restorative practices to help the youth love themselves and equip them with “creative and technical skills” that would lead to “self-sustainability.”

Art therapist Leah Gipson said she uses her art to give voices to the marginalized and examine how art reflects society.

“The work then becomes more than specifics of closed schools and displacement in black and brown neighborhoods, but displacement of children in the broader context of society,” she said.

Alexandria Eregbu an Austin-based artist who grew up in East Garfield Park, explained that her art is inspired by her family history. The house where four generations of her family grew up was lost to foreclosure. This made her think harder about how her family history, and the histories of families that found themselves in similar situations, could be preserved.

Miguel Aguilar, a self-described “graffiti artist, designer and educator — in that order,” talked about the class he teaches as part of the School of the Art Institute’s public arts programs at Homan Square’s Nichols Tower. 

“As we run through the neighborhood, we learn about it, we think critically about what we see and what we aren’t seeing,” he said. 

Aguilar explained that he pushes students, most of whom are white and come from more privileged backgrounds, to examine their own biases.

“It’s really amazing to hear these students be transparent about now knowing a lot, going into communities for the first time, thinking beyond themselves as artists and being sensitive about themselves being visitors in other people’s communities, and thinking about navigating public space,” he said.

One of his major priorities, he said, was to challenge the stigma around graffiti. Aguilar was upfront about the fact that some of his art would be considered illegal by the city. 

“Education can happen in many format and many spaces,” Aguilar reflected. “Sometimes it can happen one-on-one, and sometimes it can happen with no one else’s permission.”

Scott asked panelists and audience members whether artists and people in general need to “claim” public space and, if so, why. Floyd argued that, in Chicago and other cities, African-Americans have been “pushed and shuffled in different communities” — through formal segregation, White Flight, economic barriers and other, less formal obstacles.

“Therefore, it’s been difficult to claim [space], because we’ve never been able to do it,” he mused. “When we think about community, we need to think of spaces that exist within it.”

As a result, Floyd argued, there has been a reluctance to truly claim anything, which he felt needed to change.

Eregbu said that, as an artist, claiming space is tricky, because in some circumstances, it can pave the way to gentrification and cause displacement.

“When an institution does want to enter neighborhood, the first people they place in the neighborhood are the artists,” she said. “I think there’s got to be a spectrum in terms of how we play our part. It’s something that we should, in my opinion, be mindful of, because it’s a slippery slope.”

Aguilar said that, given his art, he had no problem claiming space, no matter what authority figures may think.

“These are things that really allow you to be fully yourself in a world that’s already programmed to tell marginalized people what they can or can’t do in our society,” he said.

When asked about how they felt about their work breaking “rules,” Floyd replied that community improvement should happen, whether aldermen and other officials like it or not.

“I don’t believe in [getting] permission for anything that benefits the community,” he said. “That’s just f— ridiculous.”


Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...