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Rogers Park doubles down on artsy

Updated: July 1, 2014 9:02PM

With fairly affordable housing, good public transportation and proximity to the lake, Rogers Park always has attracted artists. There’s an effort going on now to make sure that tradition continues and maybe brings a boost to one of the area’s commercial districts in the process.

The Rogers Park Business Alliance recently hosted a community meeting to introduce Artspace, which is considered a leader in developing living/work space for creative types. Artspace is checking out vacant buildings in the Far North Side neighborhood, talking to area artists to see what the needs are, asking neighbors what they’d like to see art-wise.

The Minneapolis-based non-profit has been around since 1979. Its mission has been to create permanent, affordable space for artists and also to bring something to the community at large as well.

For a little more than a year, the Rogers Park Arts Alliance (that’s a popular word in RP) has been trying to create a stronger network between the community’s artists. It’s also been connecting artists with neighboring schools. The possibility of Artspace developing a place in Rogers Park dovetails nicely with that.

Artspace has 35 facilities across the country. In Illinois, it has locations in Elgin and in the East Garfield Park neighborhood. (East Garfield Park’s Switching Station Artist Lofts also includes a community garden, community rooms and a secure outdoor play area for children)

I know I’m not the only one who moved to Rogers Park because it was a racially, ethnically and economically diverse community. There may be some Chicago communities clamoring to be a suburb in the city, but Rogers Park hasn’t been one of them.

So my one concern when someone decides to renovate or clean out the riff-raff in a city neighborhood is that prices go up and the good people with modest incomes are forced to move. Wendy Holmes, senior vice president for Artspace, told the audience that to stop that from happening it keeps the rents permanently affordable. I hope that would be enough.

It sounds as if the Artspace developments are good financially for the community, too. The buildings are fully funded through a combination of private and governmental money before opening and pay real estate taxes, according to Holmes.

Artspace looks for buildings with flexible floor plans, good lighting and street-level space than can be transformed to house, for example, galleries, space for arts organizations or art-centric businesses. (Maybe then the Rogers Park artists wouldn’t be forced to spend their dollars in Evanston purchasing supplies, as was mentioned.) Performances or other activities that would draw in the community also could be held there, Holmes said. (I wonder if urban line dancing would qualify as an art — and space?)

There are feasibility and whatnot studies, so this isn’t going to happen overnight. More like a few, maybe several, years.

It all sounds promising. Over the years so many of the cute, independent businesses that made the community special moved out or closed. As has happened in a lot of city neighborhoods, what’s replaced them are low-level retailers.

But Rogers Park has been working on its commercial districts. It has done a good job of making itself a place for dining. The little strip at Birchwood near Ashland was desolate, but with a lot of community work, now it’s home to a several good eating establishments. Morse Avenue looks more promising than it has for a while.

Rogers Park has a good shot at solidifying itself as a haven for artists. I hope it happens.


Twitter: @SueOntiveros

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