Cultural Evolution

The Experimental Station revitalizes Chicago’s South Side with creativity and cultural change.

By Alex Sabbag

Photo by J. Michael Eugenio

July 30, 2018 6:11 PM

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More than 120 years ago, the Columbian Exposition of 1893, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair, put Chicago’s South Side on the map. The area underwent a huge development boom along the Midway Plaisance, a pedestrian walkway that connected the South Side neighborhoods to the World’s Fair attractions. (The Midway still exists and is the stretch of park between South Stony Island Avenue and South Cottage Grove Avenue.) The World’s Fair ushered in Chicago’s Era of Reconstruction, giving way to a Gilded Age of industrial growth and mass immigration. And by the 1920s, the South Side was a hub for tourist hotels, swanky jazz clubs and specialty shops.

As recently as 50 years ago, Chicago’s South Side was in its prime. According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, more than 81,000 residents called neighborhoods like Hyde Park, Woodlawn and Jackson Park home. Today, Woodlawn has fewer than 25,000 residents and, according to the City of Chicago Data Portal, more than 30 percent of them live below the poverty line. Historically speaking, discriminatory postwar housing practices, white flight and economic disinvestment all played significant roles in turning a thriving community rich with history and culture into one that’s been scarred by economic despair and crime.

Thankfully, many of Chicago’s innovative and impactful organizations are devoted to reviving the South Side, but only one, the Experimental Station, is an incubator for artists, orgs and businesses committed to cultural change. Owners and founders Connie Spreen and her husband, artist Dan Peterman, bought the onetime recycling center building located in Woodlawn, just a few blocks from the original World’s Fair grounds, in 1993 and established it as artist studios. Original tenants included Baffler magazine and custom furniture makers Jay Hayward and Big Fish Furniture. And in a small space on the northeast corner of the building, Blackstone Bicycle Works, a bike shop that provided an earn-a-bike program for neighborhood kids willing to trade in a little sweat equity for a bike of their own.

“Frank Lloyd Wright said, ‘Create an experimental station where art and technology would come together under one roof,’” says Spreen, a Woodlawn resident for 20 years before moving to Kenwood in 2008. “So that’s exactly what we did.”

Unfortunately, tragedy struck in 2001 when a fire burned the building to the ground. Spreen and Peterman spent the next five years rebuilding and, in 2006, reopened—this time as a nonprofit incubator for cultural programming aimed at nurturing a healthy, independent cultural infrastructure on the South Side. And they named it the Experimental Station, natch.

“Today, our Experimental Station fosters a dynamic ecology of innovative educational and cultural programs, small business enterprises and community initiatives to revive, connect and support South Side residents, addressing their ever-changing needs,” says Spreen. In addition to Experimental Station’s six initiatives—61st Street Farmers Market, Arts & Cultural Events, Small Business Incubation, Link Up Illinois, Link Access for Chicago Farmers Markets and Blackstone Bicycle Works, which they revived after the fire—Spreen says there are also five independent businesses and organizations currently under their roof: Build Coffee, a coffee shop and bookstore; Southside Weekly, a hyperlocal news outlet that reports on all things happening on the South Side; the Invisible Institute, a journalism production company working to enhance the capacity of citizens to hold public institutions accountable; City Bureau, a civic journalism lab that brings journalists and community members together in a collaborative spirit to produce equitable media; and Civic Projects, a collaborative architecture practice focused on design, build and engagement for civic-minded projects.

“We like to think of the Experimental Station as an ecosystem,” says Spreen, now Experimental Station’s executive director. “The space invites all different kinds of people to gather all in one place and see what kind of interactions come out of it.” The only requirement to rent? A belief in the singular importance of hospitality and generosity as institutional values.

The output is worth celebrating, in particular the work of Blackstone Bicycle Works, which is now a finely tuned youth education program and community bike shop that teaches an average of 180 South Side youths per year how to work in the bike shop business, refurbish and sell used bicycles, and perform customer bike repairs.

“When we first moved to the neighborhood, we noticed a lot of kids and not quite as many bikes,” remembers Spreen. “If there was one bike, there were six kids on it.” Through Blackstone, after logging 25 work hours, each kid earns his or her first bike, lock and helmet. But as it turned out, the kids liked being there—the camaraderie, the sense of community and having a positive, collaborative environment to hang out—and kept coming back long after they had gotten their bikes. “Over time, Blackstone has evolved into so much more than an after-school job,” says Spreen, noting that one-third of its kids have been involved for more than three years, and some as long as 10. “These kids consider the bike shop home. It’s where they spend most of their out-of-school hours—a safe place to seek guidance and support.”

So while Blackstone Bicycle Works was created to help kids get where they are going in a literal sense, it has transformed into a springboard for youth to achieve future life success. Youths participating successfully (many are from surrounding schools like Carnegie Elementary School and Hyde Park Academy, both in Woodlawn) have opportunities for paid summer and one-year internships in the shop, paid externships in other bike shops, free Kaplan ACT/SAT test prep, college and vocational school advising, college scholarships, and participation in Blackstone’s cyclocross racing team. And in 2018 and 2019, Blackstone also will award two to three paid Mechanic Apprenticeship positions for advanced youth mechanics. Over the course of two years, these apprentices will have the opportunity to take a two-week professionalization course at the United Bicycle Institute in Portland, Oregon.

Because of the amazing work of Blackstone and its other civic-minded tenants, and funds raised during its annual fundraising dinner (read: a five-course meal prepared by One Off Hospitality chefs, led by Pacific Standard Time’s Erling Wu-Bower), the Experimental Station touts a more than 33 percent growth rate year over year, in large part thanks to corporate, government, community and private philanthropic support. In fact, Shinola, the Detroit-based luxury goods brand best known for its American-made watches, bicycles and leather goods, feeling a kinship with Blackstone’s mission, has used its popularity to drive traffic and funding to the bike shop through events, including hosting a barbecue at Experimental Station and a fundraiser in the brand’s Rush Street store. In addition, Shinola also treated eight kids and four staff members from Blackstone to a tour of its Detroit manufacturing headquarters in 2015. The company even outfitted the bike shop’s homework room with laptop computers.

As for the not-so-distant future, the Experimental Station has hopes of acquiring a nearby fire station at 62nd Place and Dorchester Ave. to broaden its footprint. “Having witnessed how Blackstone youths experience the current building—as a safe space and a second home, where everyone knows everyone else, and where they gain a sense of belonging and participation in the civic life of the Experimental Station community—we aim to extend that space of belonging and safety from one to three blocks,” says Spreen. They also hope to add a commercial kitchen to support small food businesses, and office/retail space to rent at discounted rates to startup businesses and nonprofits. “We envision a continuous flow of kids and adults between the current Experimental Station building, Carnegie Elementary School and the fire station—and all of the people and places in between.”

Experimental Station and Blackstone Bicycle Works, 6100 S. Blackstone Ave., 773.241.6044 (office) and 773.241.6044 (bike shop)