Theaster Gates, Brian Phillips and Abdul-Kaba Abdullah

Art-based developer Theaster Gates (middle) with Brian Phillips, executive director of the Washington University Medical Center Redevelopment Corporation (right) and Abdul-Kaba Abdullah, executive director of the Park Central Development (left)

Kevin Bryant, a St. Louis native and founder of Kingsway Development, LLC, has set sights on resurrecting the shuttered Euclid Elementary School in Fountain Park into a hub of mixed-income artist lofts and creative space called the Fountain Park Arts Block. 

“There’s enough negativity we could say about St. Louis, but it’s better to do something positive,” Bryant, 47, said at Third Degree Glass Factory on August 24. 

To advance this mission, Bryant is attempting to enlist Theaster Gates, an internationally renowned potter who uses neighborhoods and social justice as his clay to mold beauty, culture, and community-informed change. Bryant wooed the Chicago-based Gates back to St. Louis despite the closing of The Pink House, the art-focused development Gates launched in Hyde Park in 2011. 

“There is strong programming interest both in St. Louis and outside the city in new artistic spaces and cultural venues,” said Gates, founder of the Rebuild Foundation. “The return to St. Louis and possible collaboration with the cultural community here is a full-circle moment.”

The Fountain Park Arts Block will consist of a renovation of 32 loft apartments and the construction of 21 new units in a U-shape. It will feature a fully equipped arts center located on the grounds of the Euclid School. The project will also partner with Washington Montessori School across the street to provide students supplementary arts education facilitated by residents of the loft building. 

“Fountain Park’s mix of large, stately brick homes, vacant lots and dilapidated structures are ripe for redefinition and rehabilitation,” Bryant said.

“There are several major projects being planned for Fountain Park, and the ArtsBlock is one that stands to give our area international attention. We have already began construction on the first three homes around the Fountain Park circle, and we are working with one of the local housing organizations to assist existing homeowners with basic repairs this fall so that they keep pace with development.”

18th Ward Alderman Jesse Todd, who said he has felt like “the last one standing” in Fountain Park, said Bryant’s commitment is giving him new hope. 

“He’s very passionate and not just about the money, but about good leadership,” Todd said. 

The Arts Block is in its planning phase, but already there is diverse buy-in from people focused on uniting the lingering racial and economic divide in St. Louis. Nearly 30 of them joined Byrant at Third Degree Glass Factory to kick-off support of the project. 

Attendees included Todd; Mayor Lyda Krewson; 26th Ward Alderwoman Shameem Clark Hubbard; Brian Phillips, executive director of Washington University Medical Center; Emily Rauh Pulitzer, chair of the Pulitzer Arts Foundation; Lisa Small, principal of Washington Montessori; Pamela Lucas, the interim president of Park Place Housing & Economic Development; Jim Dwyer, president of Central West-End Housing Association; Abdul-Kaba Abdullah, executive director of the Park Central Development; Kelly Annis, Urban Land Institute St. Louis District coordinator; architect Chip Crawford of Clayco; Lisa Potts, project director of the Community Mental Health Fund; Tammie Holland; and Derrick Hibbler, president of the Kingsway Merchant Association.

“What’s the opposite of divide? To unite,” said Nick Dunne, the communications director of Third Degree Glass Factory.

“Whereas a bridge would indicate something superficial which connects the two ends, we could just as easily unite Delmar by continuing to do public engagement and community-informed building. We have to address the needs and wants of the community and act upon those.”

Toward that goal, developer Gates wields a proven method to community-informed building at the intersection of arts.

In Chicago, Gates’ art-infused development in the South Side has gained global attention. Along Dorchester Avenue, Gates led the transformation of deteriorating, abandoned buildings into breathtaking cultural assets. His Archive House and Black Cinema House are now frequented by world travelers and residents alike. The key to his approach is engaging neighbors as investors. 

Talking to South Side drug dealers, for example, Gates, 45, said. “If you’re going to be on the corner anyway, can you put on a ‘security’ shirt and help me out in the process? And while you have it on, don’t sell weed.”  

In addition to working closely with all stakeholders, Gates surrounds himself with black women, young and older, to liaison with the community in a way that he cannot. They offer that “maternal touch”  in black neighborhoods, Gates said. 

“While it is still too early to tell how successful we are going to be at pulling together everything we need to move this project forward,” Bryant said, “I am energized with the overwhelming support that I am seeing thus far.”

To learn more about Byrant, this project and the Kingsway Merchant District of the 18th Ward, visit https://www.kingswaydevelopment.net/.

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