As a kid on Chicago's gritty West Side, Germane Barnes spent a lot of time with friends in a neighborhood park across the street from a striking home. Barnes was way too young to know much about the brilliant designer behind the sprawling, geometrically intricate estate — the genius Frank Lloyd Wright — but he credits the structure with sparking his lifelong passion.
"Honestly, I've wanted to be an architect since I was 4 or 5 years old," Barnes says.
It's a dream that took a detour through South Africa and California, but these days Barnes plies his trade in one of the most truly unique neighborhoods in America: Opa-locka. As designer-in-residence, the 30-year-old is helping to spearhead a remarkable cultural renaissance in the notoriously downtrodden city studded with stunning Moorish-revival architecture.
In just two years, the young architect and artist has helped create a thriving community arts space, reinvigorated a blighted park, and sparked work on a new urban farm. "There's been a lot of highs and lows, but I'm really proud of what we've accomplished so far," he says.
Leaving Chicago after high school, Barnes earned an architecture degree from the University of Illinois in 2008. At the height of the recession, though, he couldn't find a job. When he asked administrators for help, they said, "How would you feel about working abroad?"
That's how Barnes ended up in Cape Town, working for a local architecture firm on both high-end residences and pro bono projects to improve conditions in impoverished slums. "I remember watching a 4-year-old lead a 2-year-old to the shipping container that served as the only market in the area," he says. "It was an eye-opening experience."
It hardened his resolve to combine his passion with community development work. In 2013, he moved to Opa-locka's Magnolia North — an infamously violent area once called the Triangle. Barnes wasn't intimidated. "You guys haven't been to the West or South Side of Chicago," he says. "There are areas there I wouldn't walk down the street. This is nothing."
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That's not to say he didn't see how much help the neighborhood needed. In partnership with the Opa-locka Community Development Corporation, he helped create the Arts and Recreation Center (ARC), a cavernous arts and community event space that hosts international shows. He's helped transform a weed-choked lot into the bright Magnolia North Community Park.
Best of all, Barnes is hell-bent on sparking a revival that doesn't boot out Opa-locka's residents. "We don't do anything without community meetings," he says. "We had the children of the neighborhood make the whole design for the new Magnolia North Park."
He adds, "We believe we can do this while battling gentrification head-on."