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Experimental Station: A Neighborhood Movement Towards Self-Sustainabillity

Laura Schell

The Experimental Station at 6100 South Blackstone Avenue in the Southside’s Woodlawn neighborhood is a hodge-podge of creative enterprises. From the beginning, the location has gone through one transformation after another. In 1969, what was once a parking garage was converted into the Resource Center, a non-profit organization that took on neighborhood environmental projects including an extensive recycling program that promoted local employment and put vacant land to good use. As the Resource Center expanded and moved most of their operations to larger site, artist Dan Peterman stumbled across the original facility where the surplus of recovered materials and failed start-ups were left behind. Peterman saw potential. “The Resource Center was unique,” Peterman recalls. “It was one of the only entities operating across the border. Nothing else was moving across 61st Street other than the postal service.” After finishing his M.F.A. from the University of Chicago in ’86, Peterman approached Resource Center founder, Ken Dunn, and asked him if he could work at the Resource Center and if there was space at the site for his studio. Dunn agreed, but at the time could only offer Peterman less than minimum wage for driving a truck on the collection route.

The dirty work turned into inspiration and since then Peterman’s art has sparked interest in contemporary issues of consumer waste, ecological deconstruction, and poverty. In 1994 Peterman founded 6100 Blackstone Inc. and purchased the Resource Center building along with an adjacent property. His venture brought together the diverse cultural community with ecological and educational activities. Unfortunately, after seven years of hard work in developing the space, a fire damaged the site beyond repair and Peterman and his wife, Connie Spreen, had to rebuild from the ashes. Although the end of 6100 Blackstone was a tragedy, it also gave them a chance to refocus their efforts with a clean slate. By 2002 a non-profit organization was in the works, housed by a new environmentally friendly building made with recycled materials such as two-story tree trunks and a reused bowling alley floor.

The Experimental Station serves as an incubator providing space and resources to nurture the growth of diverse creative initiatives. Those involved spread across a wide-range of enterprises including independent publishing, contemporary art and performance, experimental music, organic gardening and much more. “What I value about the art world is its inclusiveness, the way it allows for multiple frameworks, perspectives, discourses,” Peterman says. “To call 61st Street an art project would just muddle things.” The community is instead centered on the idea of mutualism, meaning “living together”, a business model where the consumer and the business can sustain a long-term relationship that benefits both parties. In this way The Experimental Station can help educate and support the community towards becoming self-sustainable. This effort is rooted in every program the Experimental Station offers.

The Food Culture Program seeks to maintain a local food infrastructure by giving the community access to locally grown, healthy and organic produce. Over 20 vendors crowd the 61st Street Farmers Market every Saturday to sell seasonal fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, eggs, and flowers. Thanks to Experimental Station’s Corey Chapman, EBT machines are provided for those who would like to use government food stamps through the LINK program, which acts like a debit card that the government puts money toward monthly. “Now people can buy fresh food straight from the farm verses buying processed food at the store. It gives people a healthier choice and it’s better value for the money,” says Chapman. Not to mention how it has helped local vendors with sales now soaring past Illinois state records. Since the introduction of EBT machines at 61st Street, LINK has become accepted by several Chicago farmers markets. The Market School features a food preparation or cooking class for adults and children taught by Chicago chefs. The Experimental Station is even equipped with a wood-fired, masonry oven perfect for baking gourmet pizzas and homemade bread. Field trips planned by the program bring community youth to nearby farms where they learn about raising chickens and growing vegetables. The Food Culture Program also offers  the Woodlawn Buying Club, where member’s needs are organized to purchase natural and organic foods in bulk, saving the member’s money and reducing the carbon footprint of local supermarkets.

 

Another project supported by the Experimental Station is the Youth Program’s Blackstone Bicycle Works, a full-service bike repair shop.Kids ages 9-16 can learn how to fix and maintain a bicycle. Through the Earn-a-Bike Program they get their choice of a refurbished bike with a helmet and lock after they have worked 25 hours in the shop. “For our kids it’s a huge level of accomplishment,” says Aaron Swanton, Youth Program Manager. “A big part of it is self-sufficiency, trouble-shooting skills, life lessons, and the confidence you can build from say changing a flat tire.” Blackstone Bicycle Works is also a safe place for local kids to work on homework or ride together. Presented with more safe and fun after-school and summer options keeps them off the streets and away from gang activity. Kevin Applewhite, who started the program as a young teen and is now a Blackstone employee, claims the program saved his life. “I didn’t think I was going to live to see eighteen. I didn’t think I was going to live to graduate high school. But working at the shop changed all that. They helped me realize that I could do something with my life.”