New Life Covenant Church SE set to revitalize neighborhood with new center

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In a move likely to bring more competition to the city’s performing arts scene, a 4,000-seat performing arts center, gallery space and new church will rise in place of several blocks of abandoned buildings and defunct factorieson the South Side.

The project, financed by New Life Covenant Church SE, also includes a state of the art, 350-child daycare, to open in March 2015.Once complete, this new church campus and arts center on 74th and Greenwood in the Grand Crossing neighborhood will add layers to the work already done by Eta Creative Arts Foundation and Theaster Gates, both of whom have worked and are working toward revitalizing the southeast corridor with arts opportunities. In particular, though, the church is trying to fill an arts gap for the children.

“Our desire is to bring the arts back to the community,” says John F. Hannah, the senior pastor of New Life Covenant Church SE, which boasts some 20,000 members who split services between an existing building on 78th and Dobson and Sunday rentals of the UIC Forum. The new worship area will double as a performing arts space, and the children’s day care also will serve as a location for weekend arts education, plus parents-day-out drop-offs, for children up to age 12.

“If I can expose our kids to dance, acting, painting, then I can [also] allow the church [campus] to be that safe haven,” Hannah says.

The project, which includes tearing down one old factory and gutting another, will bring off-street parking, kiddie party rental space and performance space for professionals and children.

“Anything that’s bringing more art and creative opportunities to the city, and especially the South Side, is a great thing,” says Heather Robinson, executive director of the Beverly Arts Center on 111th and Western, which is itself undergoing a revitalization and programming enhancement designed to affect the entire region and not just the southwest neighborhoods.

Hannah and his congregation have purchased “every available” piece of vacant, abandoned or foreclosed-upon land or structure along the 7400 to 7800 blocks of South Greenwood, including two old factories.

The pastor, also a former juvenile detention worker, says the plan is to provide the next generation with better opportunities and exposure while giving the area an economic jolt.

“I hated the drug trafficking going on so I started buying all the homes that were abandoned,” he says, adding that church members pretty much paid for everything out of pocket and no city funds were involved. The church is hosting a groundbreaking ceremony Friday morning at the site.

Hannah said he hopes the 100,000-square-foot facility could attract, for example, the Alvin Ailey dancers who regularly stop through church services when they are already in town. The location also will be a possible attraction for the gospel play circuit that runs at the Arie Crown Theater. (Hannah jokes that Beyonce will not be “surfborting” in the new location. It seems that the intended arts offerings will be kept kid appropriate.)

Church services will be held inside a new facility to be named The Temple. The 40,000-square-foot day care building, which will take infants up to 5-year-olds, will host a children’s church on Sundays and arts activities on Saturdays. That center will be jointly operated by the church and the Englewood-based Building Blocks Learning Academy.

“There’s a tremendous need,” says Michelle Redd-Newell, executive director of Building Blocks. “There are 3,000-plus kids in Grand Crossing, and 61 percent of that population is underserved. We will continue our programming in Englewood and work in Grand Crossing on building preschoolers to scholars.”

Eta Creative Arts, which isrenovating its building on 75th and South Chicago, also is in talks with New Life to figure out ways to provide artistic synergy between the two. Eta’s October play, “Two Twenty Seven,” will operate out of a theater at Kennedy King College for the time being.

“What they’ve been doing, very smartly, is reaching out to stakeholders to see what alliances and collaborations could exist,” says Kemati Janice Porter, Eta’s interim executive director. “They reached out to us to understand our programming and how we can find areas of intersection as it relates to art and the theater aspect; how we can share resources in terms of our staff that conduct classes in acting, writing and direction.

Hannah said he had the idea for the “revitalization” after seeing a number of unused buildings being used for drug deals and other crimes. He thought it a good idea to put the land to a more positive use.

“Growing up in Chicago, I knew that if we wanted to see something nice or first-class, our parents would put us in the car and drive us to the suburbs,” says Hannah, 50, who was raised on the West Side. “My desire is that kids don’t have to get into the car; that we provide top-of-the line everything right here in the heart of our community so our kids can see excellence.”

[View the story “New Life Covenant Church SE groundbreaking” on Storify]

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