Moments after arriving at the Creative Reuse Warehouse on the city’s Far South Side, we realize that the title of this feature, “Store explorer,” has never been so apt. Paradoxically, it’s also completely wrong: This nonprofit operation that resells salvaged goods is no conventional store. But, we clearly need to don our explorer’s hats to properly survey the two enormous warehouses here—not to mention the piles of lumber, sticks, old tires and a few junked cars on the pavement outside, amid the trees and overgrown weeds. Overhead in the bright sunny sky, gulls circle; this location occupies about three acres adjacent to the Calumet River.
Leading the charge as we delve inside the dark, musky interior is Tom Slazinski, 31, whose urban-pioneer spirit and artist’s eye was made for sorting through the incredible mix of treasure and junk. Past a dozen sewing machines and sergers, beyond a stack of custom-designed shipping crates, we dodge two piles of cat litter on the floor. Its presence suggests that a few felines keep a nighttime watch on the huge space.
“I get really excited, actually, about the places that are the least manicured, because those are where something really amazing is going to be buried,” Slazinski says. “When it’s this layered and this dark and there’s kitty litter on the ground, you know there’s something good here—because other people aren’t willing to dig through that.”
Every ecosystem needs its scavengers, and Slazinski is one of the guys who knows where Chicago’s best scavenger haunts lie. He got his degree in architecture from the University of Michigan but altered his career trajectory in New York. “The practice of architecture is really removed from the final project, and I wanted something more tactile, more immediate,” he says. He began doing freelance set and prop design for film and theater, then moved to Chicago six years ago to work for Anthropologie. Now a Midwest senior display coordinator for the luxe chain, he also moonlights as a freelance interior artist.
Slazinski’s made the sojourn down to the Creative Reuse Warehouse twice before, having first heard about CRW “from the Art Institute crowd. Art students come here looking for really cheap materials for their work.” That’s exactly the scenario for a trio of artists we encounter. Katie Pichette makes jewelry from found objects, “so this place is golden,” she says as she picks through crates of old metal pieces. (Pichette and friends document their field trip on their blog.)
There aren’t any price tags; you work out a price with the staff. In today’s case, that means negotiating with Bill Hurd, a friendly volunteer who discovered CRW about 20 years ago, looking for materials to use in his job as a Chicago Park District arts-and-crafts instructor. Hurd mentions that school teachers also traditionally find paper and other supplies on the cheap at CRW—but that happened more regularly a decade ago, when the business was located on Halsted Street in University Park. It moved here after being pushed out by the UIC expansion.
The far-away location is something of a deterrent, acknowledges Ken Dunn, president of the Resource Center, the nonprofit umbrella organization under which CRW functions. The current space is smaller and more cluttered than the old one, Dunn adds: “It’s sort of intimidating. Most people can’t climb in and find things. They almost have to have someone with a forklift.”
“We’re actually in conversations with the city to get a much bigger building, closer in,” Dunn says. “We’re considering a building in Grand Crossing [about 10 miles south of the Loop].”
In the meantime, urban explorers can dig through and climb around this junkyard playground. While poking around the items outside, Slazinski peers through the window of a broken-down car. A stack of boxes on the seat beckons to him; he crawls in through the front door and finds a treasure trove of old keys in one box, which he gleefully claims.
“A couple keys, I wouldn’t think anything of it,” he says. “But a box of 400 keys? There’s so much possibility!”
Creative Reuse Warehouse, 222 E 135th Pl (773-821-1351.)