In the 1970s, a group of active Oak Parkers were called together by village government to form the East Village Marketing Task Force. Our mission was to create ways to stabilize and improve the neighborhood for prospective residents.
I had just read an article in the NY Times about attracting artists to a neighborhood as a way of changing the image from a deteriorating area to an upscale one. So I suggested to the committee that we create an arts district on Harrison Street. We convinced the Oak Park Residence Corporation to offer reduced rent on a gallery/apartment deal in the first block on Harrison, west of Austin Boulevard, and attracted talented and community-minded artist Tia Jones to the space, where she created puppet shows and other children's activities, thereby attracting folks to an area they were previously staying away from. Her gallery is now located half a block away from her original space.
Today, we have only one Arts District in Oak Park, and it is on Harrison Street between Austin and Ridgeland. We have a core group of artists and arts-related businesses. We have a few restaurants and promises of more in the future.
However, when a space becomes available, there is no pool of artists ready to rent. There has been no significant outreach to Chicago-area artists to create that pool. Often the rents offered to artists are too high for them to afford in comparison to spaces in Chicago. Artists seeking work/gallery space find the rents discourage them from even looking for space along Harrison Street.
Other parts of the country have recognized that artists may need rent subsidies to afford existing rents in arts districts. Based on the artist's income and level of professionalism, they are subsidized to add their talents to arts districts.
Some artists along Harrison Street are offered "incentive" rents to occupy ground-level spaces, but there is no consistent policy and no fund for which an artist could apply.
Thanks to our trustees not approving a contract for $57,100 for yet another consultant and another study to occupy shelf space at village hall, we could now spend the money in a more meaningful way.
Laura Maychruk of Buzz Cafe is suggesting some ways we could use the money — for example, permanent sculptures on Harrison Street. Another way we could spend it would be:
1) outreach to attract more artists,
2) subsidies for the first year's rent, and
3) a part-time staff person to make contact with all property owners along the street so we would know when rentals are available.
How important are the arts to Harrison Street? They create an image that helps to attract diverse residents to the area, whether rentals or purchase of houses. They also attract businesses who see the area as charming and with a solid customer base.
We do not need more hair or nail salons. We already have more than our fair share of those. We need more artists with exciting galleries, and we can get them if we spend some of that $57,100 on advertising and outreach.
All property owners need to buy into our plan and make their retail spaces welcoming to artists. Most importantly, the pride of being in the Arts District can be contagious if the district is perceived as the place to visit galleries, purchase artwork, enjoy neighborhood festivities and eat great food. That is already happening, so let's find more artists for Harrison Street.
Bobbie Raymond served on the East Village Marketing Task Force which created the concept of an arts district on Harrison Street in the mid-'70s along with other community leaders, including Vernette Schultz, John Cain, Phil Hickman and others. Her exhibit "Dogs, Dogs, Dogs," an exhibit of 25 dog monoprints, will open on July 1 at Expressions Graphics at 29 Harrison St. with a reception from 4 to 6 p.m., open to all. It will run through August.