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Program brightens abandoned buildings across Chicago

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Updated: October 6, 2013 6:12AM



The boarded-up windows in Chicago’s oldest neighborhoods are shuttered eyes to American dreams.

They sleep in the past: The Ramova Theatre in Bridgeport. The Muddy Waters House in North Kenwood . The Charles Comiskey House, 5131 S. King.

These buildings dream in colors, thanks to an inspirational program operating here and across the nation.

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It’s mid-August, and on this morning, Isissia Drake is helping paint the outside of a large vacant home at 442 W. Marquette that sits across from Benjamin E. Mays Elementary Academy.

The 24-year-old Washington Heights native is a volunteer artist with Neighborhood Housing Service. NHS is partnered with Chris Toepfer, executive director of the nonprofit Neighborhood Foundation, Mays Academy and the city’s Safe Passage program.

“Colors, shapes and images express something that is already going on inside of you,” Drake says while standing on the front porch of the two-story home in Englewood. Toepfer kneels in the background, painting bright yellow on a boarded-up front window. Drake, who earned a psychology degree from Chicago State University in May, explains why she’s here: “Children go by what they see. They need to be able to see progress and change.”

Toepfer boards up vacant buildings with decoratively painted panels made from conventional plywood. He has installed a giant duct-tape orange ice cream cone in the second-floor window of this home, which was built in 1892. It is a nod to the children who now are back in school. Earlier this year there was a major fire in the house next door and now that home is empty.

Toepfer has improved the looks of many local abandoned structures. He has beautified the Ramova’s exterior with the depiction of a theater lobby, gave the Muddy Waters House pink flamingos. He’s worked on the once-abandoned Charles Comiskey House (since renovated) and many more.

He began working on artistic board-ups in 1995 in Chicago. Since then Toepfer has visited more than 3,000 ghost buildings in 17 U.S. cities . He fully boarded up some 750 buildings, about 25 of which were historically significant. Out of the 750, about 90 percent were saved from demolition; most have been restored to livable condition.

In Chicago, Toepfer estimates he has boarded up 125 buildings, including 25 larger commercial buildings.

NHS picked the Englewood house largely because of its proximity to the school. With CPS school closings, Mays absorbed more students. As Drake says, “It’s depressing to see a vacant home across the street from a school.”

Paula Grantt, NHS neighborhood coordinator, says Englewood is one of 13 Chicago communities earmarked for revitalization through the city’s Micro Market Recovery Program. The initiative targets small geographic areas that are experiencing higher-than-normal foreclosures.

“This house was supposed to be demolished,” she says. “We’re going to try to put it in an NHS receivership program and possibly sell it. You can’t have a community full of vacant lots. There’s only so many gardens you can put in a location.”

Grantt grew up a few blocks south of 442 W. Marquette. Her father was a machinist and mechanic. Grantt once worked at the now-gone Rexall Drug Store, 61st and Halsted.

“It had the orange sign,” she says.

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Tourists from all over the world recognize the Muddy Waters House, 4339 S. Lake Park, by the flamingos Toepfer painted on the boarded-up front door. They replicate the aluminium pink flamingos the blues giant had installed on the home where he lived between 1954 and 1973.

The building has been abandoned twice in recent years. Both times Toepfer has boarded it up. It’s his way of keeping the color of blues alive.

The house went into foreclosure last fall, but went under contract in June (see story, Page 35). But on the day Toepfer was showing off his work, the house sat lifeless. “This is artistic board-up,” he says while standing in front of the house. “‘Aesthetic board-up’ is the new term. It’s a way to make a vacant building not look like it is boarded up. Muddy Waters’ has been the most successful in terms of bringing attention to the building. You try to make it blend into the block.

“Typically if there’s a bay window in the front, we’ll do something, a lot of times with flowers. We may paint someone watching TV. We use animals a lot of times. It depends on what the owner wants.”

Toepfer works independently from the City of Chicago. All vacant properties owned by the city are secured with steel panels that are owned and maintained by contracted property management companies. Peter Strazzabosco, deputy commissioner of the department of housing and economic development, says, “We are aware of a handful of vacant, privately owned properties that have used his services and possibly the services of others. The artistic board-ups softened the impact of temporary security measures while the homes were on the market.”

Artistic board-up has proven to be more secure than conventional board-up.“The Uptown Theater is a success story in how this type of board-up can keep property secure and graffiti-free,” says Toepfer.

The ornate theater at 4816 N. Broadway opened in 1925 and closed on the heels of a J. Geils concert in December 1981.

“About 15 years ago we took images of the original [Uptown] facade and replicated it using mosaic panels and plywood,” he says. “I used little mosaics because it is less likely to get tagged with graffiti and posters.

“There still hasn’t been any graffiti left on the building.”

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Toepfer lives in Bridgeport. He got the idea for artistic board-ups by tooling around the city on his bicycle.

“I saw a lot of buildings that looked like they were in pretty good shape getting torn down,” says the 50-year-old Toepfer. “After talking to residents, I found that a lot of them were being torn down because people didn’t like the way they looked and they felt unsafe. The city was spending millions of dollars tearing down buildings because they didn’t look good.”

A native of Newtown, Conn., Toepfer spent most of his work life in computer science. He came to Chicago in 1990 as a technical sales rep for a Seattle software company.

His first major project was a board-up on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta for the Olympic Games. The street was on the Olympic marathon route. “I’m a big runner,” he says. “I’ve run over 100 marathons.”

Between 2008 and 2010 he was in the graduate program for painting at the School of the Art Institute. “I became a working artist,” Toepfer says.

His art has been working well for urban America.

Toepfer partners with neighborhood organizations, local artists and local labor. He operates off municipal funding and grant funding from banks with high rates of foreclosures. He is the only full-time staff member and is assisted by three part-time workers and about 25 volunteers.

“One of the first requests we get from neighborhoods is how we can get young people involved,” Toepfer says. “We’ve done that in New Orleans, Minneapolis and here. We also work in Milwaukee, which is starting a citywide program as well. I get the Detroit question a lot. I’ve worked a lot in Flint and Grand Rapids, but never in Detroit.

“Abandoned buildings are a big problem in Chicago. What distinguishes Chicago from other cities is that it does have a stronger real estate market,” he says, but “Chicago is much more dangerous as far as theft and crime related to these buildings than other cities.”

Urban revivalists call the abandoned buildings people live in “abandonminiums.”

“On more than one occasion I’ve boarded a building up and there’s someone locked inside,” he says. “I’ve also boarded myself in and couldn’t get out.”

Toepfer offers a humble but omnipresent smile. He is opening eyes to the possibilities that surround us.

Email: dhoekstra@suntimes.com

Twitter: @cstdhoekstra



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