Urban pioneers create Granite City Art and Design District
Galen Gondolfi is betting that a blighted neighborhood in downtown Granite City can become a cultural hotspot with galleries, artist lofts and venues for music, lectures and performance art.
Some people think he’s crazy, and he wouldn’t necessarily disagree with them.
But Galen, 46, of south St. Louis, has experience to back up his vision. He’s been a mover and shaker in the redevelopment of Cherokee Street for the past 15 years.
“I view Granite City as the consummate land of opportunity,” said Galen, who has bought five buildings and four lots in the 1800 block of State Street.
“It is the urban equivalent of a blank canvas, as trite as that may sound. It’s open to discovery and creation.”
The question is, ‘How can we remake this place? How can we do it unconventionally at a grassroots level? How can we leverage art and design in the process?’
Chris Carl on redevelopment efforts
On this day, Galen was sitting in an orange tulip chair on the shady side of a rundown, ivy covered brick building. The now-idling U.S. Steel plant towered in the distance.
Galen was joined by Chris Carl, a landscape design artist who is helping with the project, known as Granite City Art and Design District.
“At its peak, 200 people lived on this block,” said Chris, 40, of Belleville. “That was 50 or 60 years ago when industry was in full swing. Now, there are probably 15 people.”
Chris had been working on his Slot Lot experimental garden. He used a cement saw to cut slots out of a crumbling parking lot to form planting beds for native trees and flowers.
Unlike some developers, Galen and Chris aren’t out to tear down dilapidated buildings or otherwise start with a clean slate.
“It’s not just a space,” Chris said. “It’s not empty. There’s something here to begin with, and we want to refer to it.
“The question is, ‘How can we remake this place? How can we do it unconventionally at a grassroots level? How can we leverage art and design in the process?’”
In real life, Galen works as chief communications officer for Justine Petersen, a non-profit corporation that helps low-income people buy houses and start businesses in St. Louis. He also is founding president of Fort Gondo Compound for the Arts on Cherokee and former president of Benton Park Neighborhood Association.
“I would say he is an artist, and his medium is urban planning,” Chris said.
Galen bought his first vacant lot on State Street for $178 two years ago. Since that time, he has spent about $75,000 on buildings and land.
Galen, Chris and other believers have turned a couple of storefronts into art galleries and hosted exhibits with well-attended opening receptions.
James Amos, Granite City’s economic development director, calls them “pioneers.”
“They are very creative people, and they surround themselves with creative people,” he said. “And the output is something that is precious to our community.
“We believe that Granite City is a great place for creative people, especially younger people, to come and build relationships and work with people to come up with something new.”
It’s the type of place that art institutions grow out of. It’s grassroots. It’s punk. It’s do-it-yourself. It has that kind of aesthetic and philosophy, which I’m really drawn to.
Jennifer Baker on the district’s vibe
Galleries in Granite City Art and Design District are being named after former businesses, including Insurance for an insurance agency, Grease for a diner and Aspirin for a doctor’s office.
All the buildings need serious rehab. One has a giant hole in its roof, which Chris used to form an atrium, shedding light on a pedestal-like sculpture made of reclaimed wood and ceramic peanuts.
Jennifer Baker, 38, of Brentwood, Mo., just ended her one-year term as the district’s first curatorial fellow. She organized six exhibits with more than 20 artists.
“It’s the type of place that art institutions grow out of,” said Jennifer, who also works for Pulitzer Arts Foundation. “It’s grassroots. It’s punk. It’s do-it-yourself. It has that kind of aesthetic and philosophy, which I’m really drawn to.”
Exhibits have included everything from a sand-and-glitter sculpture patterned off a storm radar map to on-site portraits of people telling stories about their mothers.
One opening featured music by a doom metal band. One performance artist made eye contact with visitors while whispering lyrics of a Spanish folk song.
“When there are no rules, that’s where ideas come from and experimentation can happen,” Jennifer said.
The district expanded into the 1900 block of State Street in March, when owners of Jesus House Mission donated its 1899 building, which originated as a Moose Lodge. The building’s roof has collapsed, but Galen prefers to focus on the positives.
“It has the most glorious ballroom on the third floor,” he said. “It’s jaw-dropping. They had opera up there at the turn of the century.”
Six pews from the mission have been painted bright orange and bolted down in a grassy lot to form Assembly, a space for lectures, music, poetry readings or film screenings.
A few feet away is Launch Pad, a gravel circle where outdoor artwork is displayed for 30 days at a time. Coming soon is Clothesline for fiber art.
Chris has brought over some of his grad-school pieces, including sculptures made of old grocery carts. He’s also converting a Frito-Lay truck into a traveling plant nursery.
“It’s exciting,” he said of being on the project’s ground floor. “When events are happening, this street is filled with people.”