There’s been a lot of blood under the bridge since 2006 when Chicago Architecture Biennial artistic director David Brown curated the landmark exhibition, “Learning from North Lawndale,” at the former Michigan Avenue location of the Chicago Architecture Foundation (since renamed Chicago Architecture Center).
The exhibition, which told the story of an architecturally and historically significant neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side that had suffered devastating economic disinvestment since the 1960s, was the brainchild of the late Charles Leeks, a community advocate and activist, and longtime resident of North Lawndale. It took some chutzpah for Leeks to approach the internationally oriented organization, whose previous exhibitions focused primarily on styles of design, architecture trends and starchitects, to propose an exhibition that told little-known stories of a neighborhood that boasted thousands of vacant lots, the highest rate of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated citizens in the state, and was in the spotlight in “The Millstone of America” series published by the Chicago Tribune in the 1980s.
During early meetings about the project, which I attended as staff, Leeks seemed as goaded by the gross misrepresentation and undeserved shame layered over a community already suffering under the crushing weight of decades of institutional racism and economic injustice, as he was inspired by its possibilities. North Lawndale’s transformation will be powered, Leeks suggested, by the neighborhood’s largest stock of greystones in the city, a cultural legacy as home of the Chicago blues and headquarters for the Chicago Chapter of the Black Panther Party, and abundance of vacant land, just a few minutes from the Loop on Ogden Avenue, and the starting point for Route 66.
The project also told the story of the original Sears Tower and surrounding complex, which was once world headquarters for the global distribution giant, and of the third-largest Jewish community in the world, after Warsaw and New York, in the years leading up to World War II. The excitement generated by the project brought record numbers of people to CAF for an exhibition and related public programs—new audiences not usually engaged by celebrations of architectural design, who came for stories about a place that mattered to them.
Anton Seals, executive director of Grow Greater Englewood, the lead agency for the Englewood Nature Trail, one of the Biennial’s community sites, is a third-generation Chicagoan. Seals grew up in South Shore, but his father’s family—who included members of the Troop Squads, activists in Woodlawn who fought to integrate Chicago’s public schools—lived in Englewood, where he now lives and works as an organizer, entrepreneur and filmmaker. Seals got his start in the field working for Representative Bobby Rush’s Green Energy Committee, addressing food insecurity in South Side communities like Englewood that lack full-service grocery stores and access to fresh food.
The trail, on an abandoned rail line parallel to 59th Street, extending from Wallace Street on the east end for 1.7 miles to Hoyne Avenue, was conceived as part of a Quality of Life Plan for Englewood, a response to community consensus around the need for more green space to enjoy nature, for health and wellness activities, for growing local foods—a hub and catalyst to attract brick-and-mortar businesses that will provide community members with living-wage jobs. The project is expected to remediate land, provide tree canopy to reduce the urban heat index and improve air quality, as well as anchor a network of green infrastructure for stormwater management. Englewood Village Farms, with raised produce beds, incubator spaces for new growers, and learning areas, occupies land to the east of the elevated trail; to the west, next to Halsted Street, is the site for a public gathering space.
Over the past year, Grow Greater Englewood has collaborated, remotely, with Tokyo-based Atelier Bow-Wow to design the gathering space, tentatively called Englewood Village Plaza. The team from Atelier Bow-Wow, renowned for Pet Architecture, small adaptive projects that fit into dense spaces in urban neighborhoods, has designed the plaza with a deck, a table that can seat up to fifty for communal meals, a canopy to provide shade from the sun and shelter from rain, and an outdoor grill and oven. A seating area with a stage, built into the space like an amphitheater, to host performances, is planned.
The proposed project is an ambitious one. Estimated to cost $25-$30 million, the Englewood Nature Trail, along with Englewood Village Farms and Plaza, will require extensive fundraising over several years, and protracted negotiations regarding ownership and use of land. But there is a larger ambition, fueled by an imperative around space that is defined and managed by community residents. The larger arc of Seals’ discussion of the stakes in this project is about the urgency to create, to allow Black space.
One of the critical lessons of the pandemic, especially in communities of color disproportionately at risk for contracting the virus because of overcrowding and health factors such as obesity and diabetes, is the need for safe outdoor public spaces for people to gather with their neighbors, enjoy healthy physical activity, exchange information and share resources. More than fifty years after the publication of the Kerner Commission Report, as Jelani Cobb cited in his recent piece, “A Warning Ignored,” in the New York Review of Books, we have yet to heed its findings: that “ghetto” conditions in communities like Englewood and North Lawndale, across the United States, are created and maintained by institutions of white authority and power. Through practices and policies that restrict property ownership and access to public space, these institutions have circumscribed the freedom to move, to congregate, to be, for Black Americans since the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.
When Seals talks about the history of his community, he talks about the dreams attained by people who came to Chicago during the Great Migration, fleeing the Jim Crow South, who worked two and three jobs to buy their own home and create blocks of families, with a strong sense of community identity and pride, who shared and celebrated origin stories and cultural traditions. The space envisioned by the Englewood Nature Trail site, and the larger, citywide space accorded the project by its visibility through the Biennial’s “Available City” platform, is about acknowledging the harm done and recognizing the responsibility to interrupt systems of injustice by changing the rules and allocating resources to communities that have been starved of them.
Seals does not talk in terms of equity; he talks about reparations. Enslaved ancestors of Black Americans were brought to this country to work the land, because of their knowledge of how to work the land. Part of the healing, of the repair, in neighborhoods like Englewood and North Lawndale, and other CAB-designated sites, is to provide opportunities to claim and work the “available city” in their communities, to address critical needs for fresh food, and to pass on to new generations a love of the land and a heritage of land stewardship.
“The Available City” is an important step in addressing the imperative to create intentional Black spaces—spaces with beautiful, rich and nuanced cultural narratives that encompass the panoply of Black experience; that incorporate Black aesthetics that are bold and ostentatious; that reflect African-centered values deeply rooted in the land. Spaces and enterprise not for the white gaze and not derivative of tropes of “being from the hood.” The national Monumental Tour, with its “All Power to All People” sculpture designed by Hank Willis Thomas on display at Englewood Village Plaza, embodies this ethos: that objects of architectural significance in public spaces belong to everyone. They change the places people call home.
The Biennial, notes Seals, creates a platform for conversations about how to design communities with streetscapes that reflect the culture of people who live there, that can evolve as communities change. How can we create environments that represent the dynamic experiences and cultures of immigrants and migrants to Chicago? How can we design and build, he asks, so that twenty or thirty years from now, when our children—his own eight-year-old son, for example—have grown up, they will feel invested in, supported by, and drawn back to their home communities?
During my conversation with Seals, I heard echoes of the sermon-like exhortations of Charles Leeks in the CAF conference room in 2005. He speaks with the same forbearance about the way his community has been characterized; emblazoned “in the public imagination as Chiraq.” He talks about the Troubled Buildings Initiative, which, during the Richard M. Daley administration of the 1980s and nineties, fast-tracked demolition of residential and commercial properties on the city’s South and West Sides, devastating the landscape and social fabric of communities. The moniker itself reveals the blithe, or ruthless, willingness of a power structure in the late twentieth century to name, contain, and blame the complex consequences of more than a century of coordinated legal segregation on four walls and a roof. Of the subprime mortgage crisis and resulting tax-scavenger sales two decades later, Seals says, “no one has done a good autopsy of how the foreclosure process deepened disinvestment and shifted the landscape of communities like Englewood.”
On a typical workday, Ben Helphand, executive director of NeighborSpace, shuttles between community gardens, neighborhood farms, and other community-managed sites, located in forty-two of Chicago’s fifty wards, protected by the organization. The only urban land trust in Chicago, founded by a consortium of the Chicago Park District, Forest Preserves of Cook County, the City of Chicago and Openlands, NeighborSpace assists with property ownership, insurance and access to water, fundraising and technical services so that neighborhood groups can focus on pursuing their vision of community-managed space. In full disclosure, NeighborSpace is a client of mine; I work with them on fundraising. Helphand is also on the board of directors of Grow Greater Englewood; Englewood Village Farms is becoming a NeighborSpace site, which will protect the land, in perpetuity, for the use and enjoyment of neighborhood residents.
There is not yet an effective model for community-managed space beyond the circumscribed plots of volunteer-led community gardens, of which there are hundreds in Chicago—120 of them are protected by NBSP. Helphand says there is an enormous desire to have control of space for enterprises where a collective or community can build wealth by circulating resources. But the mechanisms for this type of enterprise do not yet exist. In a capitalist structure, with rigid designations of private and public, it’s difficult to carve these out. The carve-outs that are nonprofit, or social-impact organizations are a significant step in this direction, as shown by the explosive growth of the sector over the past forty years.
But current hybrid public/private enterprises, like community gardens and neighborhood farms, where ownership of land, provision of water, and maintenance services are shared by public and private or nonprofit sectors, are complicated and get messy. Helphand suggests a model with greater shared risk and responsibility; with a more flexible view of and practice around public space that does not depend upon current, onerous permitting requirements. The challenges, he believes, are not a failure of bureaucratic imagination—the will is there, for example, at the Chicago Park District, which is open to new ideas. But the process for allowing community groups to take control of public vacant or underused land is prohibitively complex.
The current structure, he says, “lacking imagination, tragically leaves benefits on the table.” There are many benefits from community governments and agencies that support community building and social cohesion, exemplified by the Englewood Nature Trail, along with other community-directed enterprises, including CAB projects. These are good beginning steps, but their feasibility and sustainability, supported by outdated structures and reified systems, is limited. Organizers and community groups, like Anton Seals and Grow Greater Englewood, operate in a limbo; they exist in a system at the same time that they are trying to change the system.
“The future of shared commons,” Helphand says, “is a future of shared risks.”
As we contemplate and experiment with new landscapes, and new governing and funding structures to support them, we will do well to be clear and honest about the violations and mistakes of the past. We cannot pretend to fix them by tinkering with something else. We need policies and processes that do not require precise and neatly articulated promises to funders, nor predictable guarantees for government officials. It’s time to create community-directed spaces with the freedom to be sites of transformative, iterative processes that are a little messy, a little uncertain; that are allowed to be, and to become sites for communities at risk of disinvestment and displacement to explore and establish, over time, enterprises of community agency that build upon and generate social and economic value, as community residents see and define it. This is the essence of restitution and reparations.