Nicole McCray admits she had an unconventional job this summer. She thought she would be working in a day care. Instead, her worksite became a string of South Side houses with red “X” marks.
The 16-year-old rounded out her summer job when she arrived to an abandoned home on the 6400 block of South Wood Street in West Englewood. McCray and her peers were there to paint the boarded-up house. They had already painted six condemned homes in the area as part of the city’s One Summer Chicago Plus jobs program, which wraps up on Friday. They finished their workday by eating lunch with Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
“I thought it was pointless because it was abandoned,” McCray said. “But then we put everything together and it does represent our community and helping out the neighborhood because certain stuff stands for [the colors].”
On the same block they had already painted a home green for wealth and another was painted gold for achievement, the students explained. The day’s paint color now was Ventra blue, just like the name of their CTA bus cards.
This specific program comes from artist Amanda Williams’ ongoing project to beautify buildings “at the end of their lives.” Englewood has a large number of abandoned homes. By painting them, Williams hoped the teens’ awareness of them would be heightened, and they would question why there are so many vacant homes in the first place.
“We walk past them a hundred times going to the store or going to the bus stop,” said Williams, who instructed students with the painting. “You know it’s bad, but you don’t know that you have any agency to change that.”
During the past six weeks, One Summer Chicago Plus tried to address the pervasive infrastructure issue. Students used coats of paint to brighten up the city’s eyesores, including painting viaducts white and adding color to condemned houses.
The mayor pitched in as well. When he arrived to McCray’s worksite wearing blue jeans and a Chicago Bears T-shirt, he immediately picked up a paintbrush and joined the young workers in painting the side of the house.
Emanuel explained how the city finds money to expand the summer jobs program despite impending cuts in Chicago Public Schools and other institutions that support students. Last year, One Summer Chicago employed 22,5000 teens. This year, 24,000 kids were accepted.
“It’s a very difficult task,” Emanuel said. “We roll up our sleeves and go line by line through the budget. We make cuts, we make changes, we make reforms and we double down on the future of our children, which is why we consistently increase our budgets for summer jobs and after school.”
One Summer Chicago Plus focuses on employing at-risk teens, some who’ve had run-ins with the law, and teaching them how to save their paychecks. Other jobs students held through the mayor’s program included spreading mulch, repairing bicycles and learning about horticulture.
The students’ work will not stay forever. The abandoned homes are still slated to be torn down, according to the mayor’s office. But Williams said the temporary renewal has sparked the intended dialogue among students and community residents. No one has defaced the newly painted condemned buildings yet. In addition, residents have said they liked the splash of color and fresh scenery, Williams said.
“These, too, are things that make them feel important and that they too are Chicago in a very little way,” Williams said. “It’s not forever. It doesn’t save anything, but it’s nice just right now.”