A Consideration for a Social Settlement: A Brief Early History of the Stockyard Institute
The Stockyard Institute organized simply and quietly, in the Back of the Yards, Chicago, during the summer of 1995. The dawn of the project was encouraged by a few separate events, namely the separate invitation I received to draft an art curriculum for that school, and the neighborhood’s need for a middle school and a community center, to counter gang options for the youth.
There too was a conversation between artist Michael Piazza and myself, about building projects with community residents based on their questions and needs, not available materials or traditional pedagogies. This was a pursuit to identify the structural necessities to create a Social Settlement – a space that would allow for community residents to join in on all aspects of a creative and utilitarian learning compound built on the specific needs of all involved. It was inspired by the writings of Paulo Friere and John Dewey, the actions of Jane Adams and Myles Horton, and the skills of adults already in the neighborhood, all men and women who built their own institutional parameters based a lifetime of work and an understanding that reasonable solutions are found with simple, inclusive measures of community.
Today the Stockyard Institute is a joint pedagogical collective and artist project. Over the years, we have been located in various spaces around Chicago, from the Back of the Yards to Austin, both Chicago neighborhoods, to the San Miguel Schools at 48th and Damen, the actual place where I invited about 130 artists through to orchestrate some momentum and drastically alter the aesthetic. At Taft High School in the early 1970s, I dreamed of creating an experimental art school, especially when I began reading about early progressive education movements and John Dewey. The social settlement was the prototype for a larger blended model of all I found interest in – the creation of woodshops, sewing rooms, painting studios, media labs, public offices, and practical spaces where people could walk in and make things they needed to use.
This was what I always thought school should strive for: a reasonable space for learning skills and ideas relevant to you throughout your life. The Stockyard Institute is and has been a volunteer amalgam of spaces, groups, and individuals working together generously and skillfully. Today, we continue to design temporary projects and sustainable programs with the arts that consider people in their many capacities as community producers. We use educating and public space as the primary mediums for exploring ways to develop reasonable prototypes for thinking about the kind of city we want to thrive in.
After 15 years, the Stockyard Institute has become an incidental practice as well – one that uses the eyes of many curators and situation organizers to open up experiences with a range of individuals and groups, leveraging the relationships between contemporary artistic practice, progressive education blueprints, and expanding conversations on the sustainable city. Since 1995 we have remained fixed to the shifting, interdisciplinary concerns from pedagogy to cooperative, creative engagement and community support for those most in need. We are always surrounded by artists, writers, composers, producers, friends, and those willing to expand and contract with us in a reasonable extension of growth and focus, while circulating around the city’s less peaceful and often troubled communities.
Low parent interest and the unreasonable expectations from the state regarding academic goals in the middle of extraordinary youth violence were big issues. The community was, in bulk, an immigrant population. Many rural workers and farmers had come from Mexico and settled in this small, confined area between 47th and 51st Streets. The confinement was not only a physical one with major thoroughfares on the east and west, a train line and viaduct to the south, and the sweeping, unused swath of blood-soaked property of the former Chicago Union Stockyards to the north, but also a political and legal confinement. At first, issues of citizenship and resistance to outsiders created palpable tension. Residents were concerned about trust and exposure when we invited outside artists, musicians, and teachers from other neighborhoods throughout the community to participate in this combined effort in imagining the early elements of our social settlement project: a community compound of structures – an experimental school, a community workshop, and an arts center – all equaling each other’s energy and desire to build something that was very new in that neighborhood, but had its origins in those same neighborhoods when I was growing up. Just neighbors helping one another, finding sustained benefit from the wellbeing of those around you.
I had collected a thousand dollars for the acquisition of materials and installation supplies. I was set on organizing a school influenced by Myles Horton and his Highlander Folk School legacy, Paulo Friere’s work as a liberatory educator and pioneer, Joseph Beuys’ ideas of a social sculpture and the prospect of teaching as a creative enterprise, the writings of Samuel Beckett and James Joyce, the vision of Bertolt Brecht, and the order and installations of Alexander Rodchenko. There too was Michael Piazza – friend and steady, quiet consul of the Stockyard Institute. Michael and I met in graduate school at UIC shortly after the demise of the Axe Street Arena, a live/work space he co-founded on the city’s Northside. He helped us build on the works of countless others, drawing together a constellation of people and historical moments that we used as guides and inspiration.
The new school venture would need support in many forms and with some consistency. Pre-service teachers from the School of Education at DePaul University, where I taught, provided support at a key moment and were welcomed by the incoming group of volunteer teachers. These individuals applied to work for the school as volunteers for two years, a position including free room and board across the street in a twenty-two room Bendictine Convent. The ratio of teachers to students was small, which helped all of us with the academic challenges we would face from the incoming 6th grade class. This, our first group of young students, was selected from neighboring schools’ drop out lists. We were trying to start anew with the neediest kids in the neighborhood, kids who found school difficult because their records were based solely on criteria like attendance, tests scores, and attitude. There was no evaluation recognizing they were coming from what was then the most violent community in the city. These students felt selected, specially chosen to be a part of this experiment. Many faculty members had backgrounds outside of traditional education, so the option for experimentation and practical, vocational applications coupled with the arts began with much ease and maintained a natural consideration within the curriculum. The school sat above St. Michael’s Church on the corner of 48th and Damen.
I invited about 130 Chicago artists to create proposals for the San Miguel Arts Project. At the same time, I was working with community members Gene and Sandy Downes in a space we coined “Neutral Ground,” after an early Street Level videopiece from their first block party, a couple of years before I got to the Back of the Yards. Initially, Neutral Ground operated in the basement of the large gymnasium, St. Michael’s Social Center, next door to the school. It was complete with a huge multi-use tool shop for construction and production of community projects and service. Gene and Sandy had a focused social service directive and could effortlessly leverage community like nothing you could imagine.
The San Miguel Arts Project and Neutral Ground comprised a truly contemporary model for the social settlement, as parents entered to support each facility and the school and community realized their reliance on one another. In all cases, I encouraged the development of long, heartfelt conversations about context, subtext, and use around the projects. The school provided high, compassionate expectations of the students, helping them see that these opportunities should not be taken lightly. We secured a group of smaller spaces for the education of the San Miguel students, all circulating around supportive, reasonable pedagogical practices; vocational opportunities; and the creative development of art projects drawn from the young people’s questions and observations. These were the three parallel efforts, each appreciating the other as a source of momentum and matched support, all taking place in three separate buildings on that small intersection that remains remarkably untouched today.
Quickly we took over a three-story abandoned elementary school around the corner from the school. The new building, which was separated from the school, would house the creative and vocational activity almost exclusively. It was located at 4721 S. Damen. The rear of the building faced the rear of the gymnasium where Neutral Ground had begun. The new building, which I wrangled from the parish, was being tagged “The Stockyard Institute.” Its name was pulled from a Stockyard Truck Stop sign just west of the neighborhood, on Halsted, and the building itself served all of us as a center for radical creative enterprise. Many artists and musicians entered the space andbecame involved with young people who came through during the evenings. The forward progress of the school, as well as a host of small, community projects, brought much-needed attention to this small Back of the Yards neighborhood.
We were also hosting summer programs and a homeless education initiative with a local shelter, still working to address the pockets of violence by being outdoors, installing works, and filming. We began a work in response to one of the kids fearing being shot in the back of his head on the way to school. We encouraged the gangbangers to move away from our compound through the same strategies they employed with the students, which was to make our presence felt and clearly present what we were doing as an option. Occasionally there were peace talks and confrontations, but Gene Downes knew the gangbangers well and maintained constant contact with primary members. In 1997, Neutral Ground moved into the new building with the Stockyard Institute. We created rooms for music instruction and reading and informal adult education, We had a sewing room that people used one day a week for making and repairing clothes. There was a wonderful woodshop and sign-making space built, a large classroom, and a community office where we helped residents fill out forms, translate documents and bills, and access goods and services for basic human needs. No one was turned away, and at times the space resembled a school for adults, a kind of Night School for the Dispossessed. We continued to work with the youth in the neighborhood. The Stockyard Institute was open at different times during the day, but especially at night, hosting projects and organizing events that brought in artists, activists, teachers, organizers and community members.
Lavie Raven and the University of Hip Hop joined in with regular sessions and began spray painting the walls with extraordinary natural works of nature, showing the remaining lingering adults that spray paint isn’t only associated with an area’s demise. Artists were still working in the school next door, artists like Susan Peterson, who was drawing up a plan for a fountain in the middle of the classroom, and Adelheid Mers, who had requested to cut a floral shape through the roof of the building. Riffing off Edgar Allen Poe, Michael Piazza attached school desks to a classroom wall to raise questions with the young students about perspective. Tom McDonald installed the school’s initial work, Archangel, a 350 plus pound found steel plane with a wingspan that pushed the limits of the hallway. The plane was mounted and lifted from the walls, pulled by large steel cables designed to raise boats from docks – this was also a mounting effort to avoid the fragile tin stamped ceilings of the school.
Works flooded in, and artists adjusted proposals when they entered the school space and felt the freedoms regularly encouraged by the students and faculty. It was an important moment at a critical time, moving towards a more radical pedagogy in which the spaces where learning occurs could be aligned with the direct needs of a community. There were no conditions in the Back of the Yards that made it more susceptible to success other than the invitation to come to the school and design an arts curriculum. I found it important to stay in the neighborhood and see the youth move forward for several years. The students soared because for the first time, these artists, musicians and writers were providing tools and thoughtful guidance through our projects. On many levels, the arts were extremely important and necessary to survival. Not only were the students introduced to tools like video and still cameras, design software, writing, graffiti workshops, drawing and radio but also they were shown how to use them in the presence of amazing producers over a long period of time. The artists felt complicit in a space that allowed all involved to exercise their individual capacities to their fullest. Everyone found themselves having something at stake and so could ask some fundamental questions about what a true Social Settlement would look like.
The first few years also saw some 200 DePaul University education students move through the San Miguel School, to work with the teachers and children and to aid in the design of an urban teaching initiative. We provided DePaul University students with direct opportunities to test pedagogical strategies that we designed collaboratively, in small working groups, and these students taught the willing sixth, seventh, and eighth graders with a high level of confidence and competence. Young students came to understand what educating offers up when individuals work together and organize a complete palette of tools allowing each young person a chance to interpret his or her experiences.
Temporary Services, a primary and then fairly new Chicago collective began to move in. Many artists, activists, writers, and college students were organizing midnight raids, building networks, and shaping events from our south side headquarters. Friends like Nato Thompson, Josh MacPhee, and Emily Forman were organizing projects in the building at 4721 S. Damen and exploring interventions with other likeminded individuals through open forums in our space. At other times of the week, sonic artist and documentarian Jeff Kowalkowski activated the space with sound and brought illuminated teaching around music and sound recording, demonstrating a significant sonic energy to the space that drastically impacted how the youth understood themselves as producers. On Saturday mornings, Spanish literacy groups came in, and neighborhood families volunteered in every area. The building at 4741 S. Damen would become a wonderful facility for fringe groups to meet and organize. Michael Piazza and I began meeting regularly with youth, local writing groups, activists, educators, our university students, and friends to set the space up as a center for dialogue, production, and teaching.
In 2001, the same week that Dan Peterman’s premiere multi-use center known now as the Experimental Station was mysteriously burned down, we got evicted for reasons I still frame by how little we as a society worry about the consequences such acts have on the unsuspecting lives of the young or those in need. For me, the space was a reminder of the conditions needed to build a Social Settlement. However, both models work counter to the fiscal pursuits of those who make specific policy decisions and fiscal recommendations with no regard for the devastating results to residents and the struggle it takes to sustain fragile infrastructures.
The Stockyard Institute has capitalized on being in Chicago and has profited by a creative and forward-thinking network of university students, artists, youth, teachers, groups, activists, writers, composers, technicians, and many others. I began by working from the trunk of an old Plymouth collecting cameras and tape recorders, walking into schools, pulling kids off the streets at 48th and Damen to make tapes, figuring things out as we went. The work relied on smart acquisitions, sensitive models of educating, and the time to resolve the socially engaged questions of those we worked with and continue to stay connected to. We continue to build prototypes, design forward-thinking curriculum, and get young people teaching teachers and building work as we cooperatively connect to many groups in a host of capacities. We have and continue to publish, work on free school movements, produce experimental music and public art, and explore even larger situations in Chicago and abroad – all to showcase this city’s cultural production, leverage opportunities for young teachers and artists, and exchange ideas and prototypes with our friends.
by Jim Duignan