He has been called an artiste, a developer, a civic treasure, and a “cultural center point”—that coming from the mouth of the No. 1 most powerful guy in town. But to those who know him, the South Side–raised Gates is a classic operator who has seized upon the art world’s desire to latch onto meaning.
He provides meaning, all right: With his sculptures and ceramics selling for upward of $150,000 apiece, Gates has created a circular economy in which urban renewal projects are financed by collectors’ checkbooks. So far, he has bought a dozen properties in and around his South Side neighborhood of Grand Crossing (including a bank the city sold him for $1 in August) and helped raise $20 million for revitalization projects there. But most impressive is Gates’s ability to do what few politicians can: spin the city’s most intractable problems into a sales pitch for change—one that captures the imagination of everyone, even his neighbors.