Every morning, Raji Vela rolls out of bed, then heads down the block to water a newly planted garden. It’s a therapeutic job, one that gives him time to meditate and reflect on the day ahead.
Vela started watering the garden in the mornings and evenings three weeks ago, after artist Theaster Gates reached out and asked for his help. Vela’s garden is part of a much larger project Gates has been working on for years: Kenwood Gardens.
Over the course of six years, Gates and his teams at his art studio and at the Rebuild Foundation bought 13 contiguous vacant lots in the 6900 block of South Kenwood Avenue. Gates said he wanted to create “an opportunity to produce additional beauty” in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood.
The gardens, which run along the Metra Electric tracks just east of Oak Woods Cemetery, create the illusion of being on a prairie in the middle of the city.
Artist and Rebuild Foundation’s founder Theaster Gates at Kenwood Gardens, 6929 S. Kenwood Ave., on Wednesday. The vacant lot is being turned into a space intended for food, art, music and performance.Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
“It looks like it’s in some other kind of time zone and it feels quite rural,” Gates said.
On Thursday, Kenwood Gardens is scheduled to officially open to the public.
The gardens are intended to serve as an oasis and meeting space for artists and residents from all over the South Side. In addition to the gardens, Gates and his teams have established a new arts incubator at the formerly abandoned St. Laurence School, 1353 E. 72nd St.
Residencies with a monthly stipend will be offered to eight to 10 South Side artists. Alongside those artists-in-residence, there’s room for up to 150 other people to work on their own creative endeavors in the building.
Artist workshops, tutorials, and critiques will be held at the incubator. Gates called it “grad school for emerging artists.”
The seemingly different projects both highlight “the ability that Black and Brown people have to help determine the futures of the neighborhoods and the spaces where they live,” Gates explained.
“The first goal is to demonstrate that Black space is not vacant. It is not abandoned,” he continued. “It may need care, but, once cared for, Black space is the hottest space in the city.”
The former St. Laurence School, 1353 E. 72nd St. in Greater Grand Crossing, is being turned into an arts incubator.Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
And, he added, the projects remove the stigma of vacancy. The gardens are across from the Dorchester Community Gardens.
“You don’t have to go up north to find beauty when it’s right here in your backyard,” Vela said.
He added that the repurposed spaces offer relief from the vacantness that has plagued his neighborhood for so long.
“For the last 20 years … there have been vacant lots, with rules and restrictions and that’s why Black and Brown individuals aren’t able to obtain (lots) easily,” he said.
Community transformations like Kenwood Gardens can spread hope throughout the neighborhood for the next decade, Vela said.
“It will provide what the community needs, which is space, opportunity, cultivation and therapy,” he said.
Gates plans to have the gardens open year-round, with winter activities soon available. The incubator’s first class of artists-in-residence is invitation-only, and will start next fall.
Cheyanne M. Daniels is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South and West sides.