Back to School
Borderless Studio reimagines a shuttered Chicago public school as a vital community center.
Over the past few years, Chicago-based urban research and design practice Borderless Studio has worked to reimagine Overton Elementary School, a South Side campus shuttered in 2013 as part of a citywide wave of school closures. Collaborating with community members ranging from developers to artists and activists, Borderless principals Paola Aguirre Serrano and Dennis Milam have developed a series of seasonal activations that transform the empty midcentury building into a lively public space, fostering unexpected encounters and strengthening neighborhood ties. Through light design interventions and robust community organizing, Borderless has turned the school into a site for art installations, food distribution, and green stormwater infrastructure, among other functions.
In the past year alone, the project has received several major awards, including the MacArthur Creative Placemaking Award and a $5 million Chicago Recovery Plan grant.
Current plans call for the Overton campus to become a business and technology incubator serving local entrepreneurs, furthering Borderless’s vision of a facility that supports and connects people in the community.
The League’s Rafi Lehmann and Sarah Wesseler spoke with Aguirre Serrano and Milam about the project’s evolution and its lessons for other designers.
Rafi Lehmann: How did this project start? How did you get connected with the Overton site?
Paola Aguirre Serrano: The project started in 2016, which was a moment of decision making. I was leaving a large architectural practice and starting a new practice, thinking “What should I do?”
I found myself researching what was going on in the city. One day I was scrolling through the Chicago Tribune or the Sun-Times and saw an article about 50 schools that the City had closed in 2013. I had to read the headline twice; this wasn’t on my radar. I started reading one article after another about what had happened. For me it was shocking that three years had passed since the schools closed and no one was talking about what was happening to these sites. It’s hard to accept when things go bad in a city like Chicago that I love so much.
So this is a project that started from research. I like to say it’s an actionable research approach: You take information and try to activate it and link it to a narrative storytelling exercise.
Sarah Wesseler: Could you give more background on the school closures? What happened?
Aguirre Serrano: The administration of Rahm Emanuel, a former mayor, had done an assessment of schools. The City had invested for decades in charter schools, splitting public resources; the amount of infrastructure grew, but the pool of money to support it didn’t. Then this assessment comes along and says, “Budget cuts! We don’t have enough money for all these schools.” So they created criteria for determining which schools would close. The criteria were under-enrollment—schools with below 50 percent of enrollment—and academic performance.
Not surprisingly, the assumptions that were built into those criteria corresponded with Black and Brown communities. If you see the map of closed schools, they’re concentrated in the West and the South Sides of Chicago.
The location of Overton, in particular, is very important historically because it was serving Robert Taylor Homes, a public housing project, which had been demolished about a decade before. So 10,000 people had moved away.
Eve Ewing, who’s a sociologist at the University of Chicago, talks about data being utilized as a weapon against Black and Brown communities. This was the case here. These connections between extracting resources, disinvestment . . . all these layers are captured by the closing of schools. I think of it as the tip of the iceberg on decades of inequity. It just happens to be manifested in buildings.
So I started this project by documenting all the closed schools, because that was my instinct: mapping and trying to make sense of something that doesn’t make sense to me.
And I’m also always trying to think of how I can communicate about issues in a way that gathers people around them. So I assembled a group of people that I thought would be interested in talking about this.
But it felt like dialogue wasn’t enough, so I started cold calling the organizations that were buying the schools. The schools were being sold in phases, and it was a typical disposition of public buildings: a call for the highest bidder. I thought that was outrageous; the criteria were so minimal and the process so business-as-usual.
I reached out to Ghian Foreman, who’s one of the owners of Overton. He’s a community developer—he buys buildings, and he had seen something different in this one, although he wasn’t initially sure what to do with it. We had crossed paths before, very tangentially, through my work at the Arts Incubator at the University of Chicago. I asked him, “Hey, what happens if we do things at Overton while you figure out what you want to do with it?” Because at this stage the schools were being bought, but that doesn’t mean they were getting activated; they continued to be boarded up and closed. So when I called Ghian, the idea was simple: “Hey, can we do a design installation on the parking lot? Do you think this is a good idea?” And he’s like, “Oh, yeah.” He always says yes.
Dennis Milam: Paola skipped over the part where she talked to like five other people who had bought schools, and there just wasn’t enough imagination to say yes. Some of them had pro formas already developed to build residential condos in the existing buildings.
Aguirre Serrano: Yeah, I was cold calling the electricians’ union, which bought another school, Drake Elementary, and they were like, “What are you talking about? Activating? What for? No.” They couldn’t imagine what that would look like.
That experience was interesting, trying to explain an idea that wasn’t quite cooked—it was more like, “What if?” It also helped me to grasp the perspective of developers. They’re not interested, necessarily, in creating any community relationships whatsoever.
Milam: Or they weren’t at that time. I think we’ve seen that shift over the past couple of years; there’s more of an interest at the surface level, at least.
Aguirre Serrano: But not by choice. There’s a lot of pressure now, so it’s like, “Oh, let’s talk.”
Milam: Another thing to be said about Ghian is that he allowed ways to use the building while his company, Washington Park Development Group, was deciding what to do with building. There’s a basketball program that brings in 100 people a day during the summer; there has been a boxing coach that utilized the space.
But key to the story of Creative Grounds is that it isn’t just an architectural vision. It’s a collaborative effort involving a lot of different people, including the developer. Even before Paola started talking to Ghian, she teamed up with a photographer to go out and document the 50 schools that were closed. And the first maps of the closed schools were created for an exhibition organized by the Chicago Cultural Center.
Aguirre Serrano: Yeah, that exhibition was one of the first ways that we started to bring this content to a wider audience. We wanted to tell the story of scale.
The Creative Grounds project is eternally navigating between the extremes of zooming into one building and zooming out to ask, “What if we can do something similar in the other 40-plus buildings? What does that look like? What does it require?” The level of energy that it takes to do just one is incredible: connecting and partnering and cultivating relationships with everyone who’s able to come to the space. Imagine that nearly 50 times.
But I’m a designer who, if I see something that I don’t think has been done well, I want to do something about it. And I definitely thought the city had not done the school closures well. The process was so unjust, and no one seemed to have been held accountable. So I was like, “Well, we can do two things. We can critique, and that’s what we often do as designers, or we can develop a different model and say, ’If you redevelop these sites, you have to at least consider doing it this way.’”
And this is not to claim that there’s only one way to do this; there are many. But if you just care and think about the sites and pull together enough resources to get something going there, community shows up. I think that’s what the City and Chicago Public Schools didn’t do enough of.
We’re trying to create something that can be translated to policy. We understand that buildings have a lifecycle, and that demographics and neighborhoods change and infrastructure needs to be rehabilitated, but how might we make these processes more inclusive and equitable?
Milam: Going back to the direct question of how does a project like this start: Does it start with research? Does it start with drawings or renderings, the typical tools of the architect and designer?
I think there’s a step before that: It’s about identifying the problem within your own community. It’s a form of empathy. If you’re able to empathize with your own community, you’re able to try to solve a problem from a community level. And so yes, there was research; yes, there were drawings. But there’s a point before that where it’s just understanding the problem and using empathy to try to connect with people and drive the conversation.
Aguirre Serrano: Yeah, and the project has never been linear. It’s more about, how do you establish a framework? Which comes from the practice of planning. It’s not only about establishing milestones in a linear fashion, but also thinking about the elements of the framework you’re trying to work on. And the project has its own seasonal cycles as well. The summer is more about activating the site and the winter is more about researching and documenting and storytelling.
But building a space for community voices has been very important throughout. Creative Grounds has never been about, “Oh, we just want to do this specific design project”—in many ways, it’s an excuse to develop relationships and support other people’s dreams and ideas about experimenting in space. A lot of people come to the site and are like, “Oh, I would like to do this thing, but I’m not sure how to make it happen,” and my brain immediately goes to, “How could you organize it? What resources could you use? Oh, we have a little grant that might be good for this.”
In many ways, our job is creating a space where everyone feels included. And we take a lot of pride in the fact that people have connected through Overton. After meeting there, they go on to do their own collaborations.
In particular, seeing projects implemented and executed by young people is just fascinating. The basketball court project was completely done by a team of young people.
I think providing those opportunities—just even trusting people and creating space for experimentation—is so powerful.
Lehmann: I’m curious what lessons you’ve learned about community engagement and working with the scale of urban space. What information would be helpful for someone to do a similar project on their own?
Aguirre Serrano: I would say we’re still learning. Each of the years that we’ve done community summer activations has looked different from the others. The first year was more about just connecting to the space; it was a very small group, a map installation. The second year we put out an open call asking people to activate the classroom spaces and do their own gallery or workshop. The third year was a different version of that, but this time using indoor and outdoor spaces.
We’ve been transitioning more to using the outdoor space because it creates more visibility. If you’re working outdoors in a garden or painting or hosting an interactive activity, the chances of making a connection with neighbors are higher.
And as I mentioned, I’m very committed to establishing frameworks. For our summer activations, we make a clear commitment of resources and activities so we understand our capacity and are clear with expectations about when the site will be activated and for how long. That’s important: consistency and coherence.
It’s also important to create different levels of access and engagement. A lot of people get excited about what’s going on at Overton but don’t have time to do a project themselves. We still want them to feel part of it, though. So how do you think about tiers of access?
I think of the first tier as supporters. If people don’t have time to do a project themselves, I say, “Just tell others about what’s happening here. Bring your friends, come and hang out.” That’s already building community. People don’t see that as a contribution, but that’s a huge contribution.
The next tier of access is collaboration: Let’s convene and see how we can support each other’s ideas. Our role with a lot of the partners is, “Hey, what do you need? You need access to water? OK, we can help with that.” “You need like a few dollars to do an installation? Okay, we’ll see how we can support that.”
The final tier is partnership. That level of engagement requires more energy, more commitment, so we try to get people compensated in some way for their participation.
Milam: Another lesson we’ve learned, zooming out a bit, is that there’s a need for new ways of funding design-based community development services. There are a lot of grants out there for shovel-ready projects, but there aren’t a lot of funding sources for, say, a community developer that wants to bring on architects, designers, engineers for a project that isn’t shovel-ready.
So we’ve decided that we need to be advocates for different processes of design engagement. Last summer we filed to create a nonprofit organization. The idea is that Borderless Studio becomes the for-profit arm and Borderless Workshop becomes the nonprofit.
One of our goals with this change is to connect communities to design, like we’re doing right now through Overton. We’ve been thinking through, how do we do that elsewhere? And how do we create this organization that brings in varied voices, but position it in a way that we’re able to pay for some of these services, whether it’s Borderless Workshop actually doing some of that work itself or hiring someone else to do that for a community organization?
Aguirre Serrano: Going back to the project level, another thing that we’ve learned is to just show up and be present. We spend a lot of time at Overton, sometimes just cleaning up, setting up space for the murals, planting things. When people in the neighborhood see you invested, the relationship changes and the perspective changes. Sometimes I’m there with a big group helping to organize things, but sometimes I’m on my own and I end up talking to the neighbor across the street. And I think that’s key.
We value our hangout time tremendously. The projects really are kind of an excuse to spend time together, whether it’s around food or paint or plants or installations. They’re a beautiful excuse to keep a space active and ask big, open-ended questions.
Interview edited and condensed.