By Krisann Rehbein
Summer Coleman should be the leader of a tiny homes movement. She’s crazy about “these little compact situations that people are making up.” With tons of style and no fear of defying convention, she’s the perfect model for a movement that promises to take us down to size. She lives in a studio apartment in South Shore but knows that other options are lacking. “If the city let you build more creatively, ” she says, “I bet we wouldn’t have so many vacant lots on the South Side.”
Coleman knows exactly what’s needed: spaces for collaboration. A neighborhood grocery store. Pedestrian-oriented development. What she doesn’t need is more stuff in her home. “I would love a small home on a lot, with a foundation. A porch, maybe a garden. Or a tree house. I’m keeping it eclectic in the city.” Her daughter lives a more traditional life, with her own bedroom, at dad’s house. Mom is the bohemian.
While an undergraduate at UIC, Coleman and two other African-American women founded the 3 Dots collective because “we were the three dots in the program.” They sought dialogue and mentorship from other African-American artists like Theaster Gates and Faheem Majeed. In the years since, she’s remained part of that creative community.
We have much to talk about, she and I. I am looking for schools for my daughter; Coleman is too. I talked about city biking; she shared stories of her days as a “Copenhagen mom.” She had me cracking up with the design solution she rigged up to board a bus with a child and an umbrella stroller. Why, she asked, can’t you get an umbrella stroller with a shoulder strap? “Until you have a child,” Coleman remarked, “you don’t realize what it involves. Day care alone is a whole house note or car note. If you don’t got it, you’ve got to go straight to Day Care Action Council [now Illinois Action for Children].”
Wait. I don’t even know what that is.
“Right, because you have a job!” Coleman explained that Day Care Action Council is where low-income families get help paying for childcare while they work or look for work. Talk about design: “Now, I’m coming with a child to the Day Care Action Council office. Why would you not put it near a bus stop or a train? You have black families that have no cars trying to find this place. It was dumb. I kept wondering, ‘Why do I keep getting thrown into these situations that make no sense?’
“It baffled me. You have people coming [to the DAC office] with kids, strollers, and you have no playroom in the office. No toys. You have an office full of people with kids on their laps because there is nowhere for the kids to run around.”
“They say not to bring your kids without a supervisor. Well, everyone is bringing kids, this being the Day Care Action Council. Common sense will not prevail.
“Being a lower-income person traversing the city gets difficult. Sometimes, the way the city is set up thwarts your efforts to do certain things. A lot of lower-income women don’t have a car, they are all ‘ridered-out.’ The chip on their shoulder is there for a reason. This is hard.”
Coleman lived with her daughter’s father until her daughter turned seven. During that time, Coleman had to drop out of college because the family needed a second income. But getting a job was a job itself. “There is not one office you go to take care of every problem. WIC is one office. Day Care Action Council is a different office. Your LINK card and your medical card is a different office. If you need any of the things to get those—like a Social Security card—those are different offices in different places in the city. You’re trying to get a job, but it is a job just taking care of things.”
That phase of her life is over, but without a car, the shortcomings of urban design are still blatant. “On the South Side, parking lots are huge and you have to walk across them to get to the store. If you’re in the neighborhood, you shouldn’t have this big lot. For what? Who is parking here?”
“The vacancies on the South Side are an issue, too: like having to cross vast spans of land to find one thing. Or having two gas stations: one on this corner and one on the opposite, but no stores. We can’t do it like this anymore. We need stores and homes closer together.
“Living on the South Side, if you don’t have a car or money, it makes you not want to leave the house. Period. Yet I want a tiny house because I don’t want to stay inside. I need my inspiration from the city.”