Chicago has no shortage of vacant storefronts and abandoned lots. Soon, it’ll have even more. Last week, Mayor Emanuel announced the latest strategies to curb the recent upsurge in violence: closing down businesses (particularly liquor stores) that are allegedly conduits for criminal activity and ramping up the demolition of boarded-up buildings that could harbor gangs.
City Hall’s announcements make the “placemaking” concept driving the Metropolitan Planning Council’s “Space in Between” contest especially intriguing. The 78-year-old nonprofit, which researches and advocates for the growth of the region, is seeking the most creative uses of empty space in metropolitan Chicago, Northwest Indiana and southeastern Wisconsin. Each entry, submitted by August 31, must include photos of the lot or building and a short description of the completed temporary transformation.
Why temporary? In a post on the MPC website, project manager Marisa Novara wrote about the value of focusing low-cost effort “in the spaces that exist between the current state and the finished product” of a location. “Certainly some of these vacant and abandoned spaces are hosts to negative activities,” Novara tells me. “Many of these spaces, though, are just complete voids, wasted opportunities that could be places for community, for people to learn and connect.”
We chatted with two placemakers about their more permanent efforts to fill the gaps in Bronzeville and Little Village.
Bernard Loyd, founder of the community development firm Urban Juncture
What is the Bronzeville Cookin’ project all about?
Urban Juncture bought a formerly abandoned building just west of the 51st Green Line station, which will house four restaurants. There are two goals: to provide quality food for people in the neighborhood, and also to make the area an ethnic culinary destination similar to Chinatown or Argyle. We want people to think of Bronzeville when they think about great black cuisine, be it soul, African, Jamaican or black South American food.
Who’s getting involved from the culinary scene?
Tsadakeeyah Emmanuel, a former chef at Soul Vegetarian, as well as Richard Mott, a cofounder of North Pond. We expect to start the 9- to 12-month build-out this fall.
How are you funding the project?
The city just gave Bronzeville Cookin’ the go-ahead for a TIF investment. Banks are generally not willing to invest in commercial activity on the South Side. If there’s no traditional economy, a street economy emerges.
Jaime de Leon, New Communities Program director, Enlace Chicago
What have been Enlace’s placemaking efforts?
Four food-producing community gardens in vacant or abandoned properties in Little Village. We call them our “pocket parks.”
What were these spaces?
An empty residential lot, the site of an abandoned cookie factory, parcels where a grocery store used to be. The old grocery site was the most challenging because people got used to it being a dump. Often the first step in placemaking is changing people’s mind-set of a space.
Do you bump up against the city when coopting abandoned sites?
With city property, we work through NeighborSpace, which helps neighborhood organizations acquire city-owned property.
Have you encountered friction from gangs?
The whole of Little Village is gang territory, but our sites were mostly ignored by everyone—gangs included.