All photos of the Stony Island Arts Bank in this post are taken by Johnny Loi Photography.
If you’re a history lover and an enthusiast of cultures, you must visit the Stony Island Arts Bank in the South Side of Chicago. It’s a community, cultural, and arts center, housed in a reclaimed building that was initially going to be torn down. The beautiful structure was a bank from the 1920s that had been abandoned for a long time, until the Rebuild Foundation came, renovated, and gave it a new life as a center that fosters community engagement with the history and culture of Chicago’s South Side. See the beautiful images of the bank in the image gallery below.
I came primarily to see its marvelous reading room and I dragged my photographer husband with his gears. The reading room is actually the Johnson Publishing Library, with books up to the ceiling on Black history and cultures. You’re allowed to browse and flip through the books, but not check them out. Wash your hands first before you touch the books, since some of them are very old. They also have drawers of old picture slides dating all the way back from the 1800s (wear gloves if you want to check them out and notify the staffs).
The top floor features two private collections that had been donated to the arts bank. One is the Frankie Knuckles records collection and the other one is the private collection of Edward J. Williams, who had amassed hundreds of racist artifacts of Black Americans from the Civil War era to the present. He had purchased many of these objects to take them out of circulation. Among these were segregated bathroom signage, old postcards with very disturbing images and sayings, and many others that reflect a way of thinking that is part of American history.
The staffs are very helpful and eager to tell the many interesting stories associated with the arts bank and its exhibits. Since its opening in October 2015, this center has been an active and ongoing project, with volunteers from the community helping with efforts such as cataloging the books in the library.
I enjoyed the few hours I spent there tremendously. They also host events and musical performances by local artists, which are more reasons to come back and visit. If you plan to visit Chicago, be sure to stop by and spend some time there (free admissions!).