In the next month—maybe a few weeks more, maybe a few less—Currency Exchange Cafe will open in Washington Park at the site of its namesake, the long-closed Write-on Currency Exchange. The café has high ceilings and beautiful wood floors, and its tables are tiled with white and blue ceramic, Talavera style. Most of its materials are repurposed. A set of doors in the basement were taken from the old Crispus Attucks Elementary building, in Bronzeville, and trim along the basement stairs is taken from the old Currency Exchange itself. This “reuse model,” as café director Eliza Myrie sometimes calls it, is typical of the café’s owner, the artist-planner Theaster Gates. At the Arts Incubator next door, Gates is the director of the University of Chicago’s Arts and Public Life Initiative. Last month, the Incubator celebrated its one-year anniversary, and with the addition of Currency Exchange, the UofC is quietly spearheading a new wave of development along the neighborhood’s Garfield Boulevard corridor.
There’s currently very little commercial activity in the corridor, which runs between King Drive and the train tracks just west of the Dan Ryan. The same is true of Washington Park as a whole. According to a 2012 study by the Illinois Department of Public Health, the neighborhood has a commercial vacancy rate of twenty-six percent, the highest in the city. Going west from King Drive, KPC Discount Muffler, Jackson Hewitt Tax Service, 55th Express Maxwell Polish, Jardan Food & Liquor, and Harold’s Chicken are all closed on the south side of the street. Miss Lee’s, McDonald’s, and Ms. Biscuit, all a few blocks further west, are the only restaurants around.
But records show that in March, the UofC acquired 309-315 Garfield, where Jardan Liquor was located, for $1.1 million. That purchase is the latest in a series of Washington Park acquisitions that began with the purchase of the Incubator’s building, in July 2008. For the last six years, the UofC has steadily purchased properties through a private land trust and Lake Park Associates, a holding company for the University’s Commercial Real Estate Operations (CREO). From King Drive to Prairie Avenue, where the Incubator sits, the UofC now owns almost all of the land on the south side of Garfield. On that strip, the only property not owned by the UofC is a city-owned parcel of vacant lots between the Jackson Hewitt and KPC auto shop, both of which are closed. Across the street, on the northwest corner of King and Garfield, the University owns the Citgo gas station and surrounding lots. It also owns almost all of the lots one block to the north, on the southeast corner of King and 54th. (The city owns one small lot on that block, 5413 South Calumet.)
The University has said little about its plans for development in Washington Park. Currency Exchange, which Gates is running as a for-profit business on a lease from the school, has not been publicized. When requests for comment were made to CREO and the UofC’s Office of Civic Engagement, which oversees University relationships with the greater South Side, a statement from University spokesperson Calmetta Coleman said that the café “will bring new retail activity to Garfield Boulevard” and will “complement” the Incubator. Regarding specific plans for the school’s properties in the corridor, Coleman wrote, “The University hopes to continue to be a partner in the cultural growth of Washington Park and looks forward to working with the alderman and local community to explore options for other University-owned property on Garfield Boulevard.”
Though Coleman did not say what other developments might be in the works, Lee Bey, who manages strategic initiatives at the Incubator, says that Arts and Public Life has plans to “activate” a vacant lot on Garfield and Prairie, just west of the Incubator. Nothing has been confirmed, but Lee says the lot, which is currently owned by the city, may be home to an outdoor pavilion and function as a community space.
The UofC’s purchases, and its work at the Incubator, have not been well received by activists like Cecilia Butler, who serves as the president of the Washington Park Advisory Council, a resident organization that advocates for responsible development in the neighborhood. “They’ll buy everything that’s available,” says Butler, who feels that the UofC has not been transparent about its plans for Washington Park. “We don’t need any conquerors. We need somebody that’s going to work with us. The truth is, every improvement—like to an old house—is a good improvement. But I consider them opportunists.”
Since the Incubator opened, it has been wary of portraying itself as an outpost of the UofC, plopped down one mile west of campus. “This won’t work if it’s superimposed on the community,” says Bey, a former journalist and architectural consultant who left WBEZ in January to join the Incubator. Change, he believes, must be incremental, and community partnerships are key. He sees the Incubator less as a “university space” than as a “community space,” one that’s able to leverage the resources of a large institution to make things happen. Doing so is, he thinks, part of the UofC’s greater mission. “We tend to think of a university as a large entity that might build stuff in neighborhoods,” he says, “but what a university really is, in a classic sense, is a place where people can come together from various disciplines and do their thing, and learn and exchange and have these moments with each other that outside of the university never would have happened.”
“If this is successful, this building becomes a place where people from all walks can come. It can be University students, it can be the guys who have lived in the neighborhood since 1955, it can be young people getting off the ‘L’ who say, ‘You know, I usually get off at 87th, I usually get off downtown, but I’m going to get off early to see what this thing is.’ And it helps to stabilize and improve what comes next. What the university will do here is only fifty percent of what’s exciting about it. You know, how will this shape those buildings across the street, those storefronts across the street?”
Right now, the storefront next door is papered up. Until a “We Are Hiring!” sign was taped up a few days ago, the only evidence that Currency Exchange Cafe was under construction has been a set of new, hanging ceiling lights, barely visible above the storefront’s paper screens when you stand on the other side of Garfield Boulevard. But the café has been moving toward its opening for around a year, says Eliza Myrie, and it’s just a few permits and tweaks away.
Like the Incubator, Currency Exchange is trying to avoid the sense that it is an outsider business, plopped down in the neighborhood. The space decided to take the name of the old Exchange because, Myrie says, it’s already known as the old Currency Exchange building, and “there’s only so many ways that you really need to impose yourself into a neighborhood.” The name, like the physical materials inside the café itself, is repurposed.
Also like the Incubator, Currency Exchange has a strong relationship with the arts. Myrie is an artist herself—from 2011-12 she was one of Arts and Public Life’s inaugural artists-in-residence, and she later began working directly with Theaster Gates. In the basement, a collection of around 150,000 slides of world art and architecture, donated by the Art Institute, will be available for public viewing. A computer terminal will be available for public use as well. And the café’s chef, Nicholas Jirasek, runs a catering company that pairs food with art events. (He prefers the title “food artist.” “Chef,” he says, is “so overused.”) Here, he’s come up with a small menu that will blend soul food, Mexican, and Filipino cuisines, and feature a blue-plate special—priced under $10—with rotating rices, grains, and beans.
Currency Exchange, Myrie reiterates, is designed to fill various needs in the larger community, one that includes Washington Park residents, UofC students, and anyone who steps off the Green Line platform across the street. It’s also a community that includes a long row of University-owned properties—storefronts and lots that are, for now, boarded up and vacant.