A vision of the West Side that focuses on gangs, guns and poverty is only a part of the picture.
To see the full picture, take a tour of North Lawndale, as we did on a recent Saturday, with some young people who grew up there. Like Amari Bell, a student at Collins Academy High School, who told us, “Most people think negative. We want to show them the positive.”
On Saturday mornings throughout this summer, Chicagoans have an opportunity to learn from Amari and other smart, engaging young people as they guide tours organized by the nonprofit My Block, My Hood, My City.
The goal: To shatter preconceived notions about the dangers of “life in the ’hood” — and in the process, bring people together, across barriers of race and class.
We tagged along on a tour with about two dozen folks, some of whom had never before set foot in North Lawndale. Others had “driven through” on their way to somewhere else, like Little Italy or Pilsen.
But that hot, muggy morning, on a two-hour walk up and down one side street after another, they saw the neighborhood up close and personal, just as Amari and the rest of the guides do every day. There was plenty of enthusiasm and interest.
Enough, in fact, to make us think that transcending barriers might not be a pipe dream after all.
Maybe bridges can be built, one experience at a time.
“It was great to be down here,” Anna Rider Harper, a Lake View resident, told us at the end of the morning. “We live on the North Side, so there’s some stigma about what it’s going to be like down here. So I really enjoyed seeing that there’s a lot of pride here, and that things are changing for the good.”
Anna’s husband, Tom Harper, felt much the same. “I enjoyed visiting the back streets and getting off the main drag,” he said, “hearing the history of the neighborhood and how it’s evolved, seeing some fantastic architecture.”
Here’s some of what we saw.
The neighborhoods’ history is on display at the second tour stop, the Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy Apartments at 16th Street and Hamlin Avenue. They were built in 2011, on the site of the former building where King stayed when he brought his civil rights campaign to Chicago in the summer of 1966.
Stretching back considerably further, we learned about the community’s Jewish roots at Stone Temple Baptist Church. King preached here during his time in Chicago. But Stone Temple originally was a synagogue for Jewish immigrants from Romania, built in the 1920s. Guide Michael Bennet points out to the group the Star of David in the top section of the church’s windows.
The synagogue became a church in the 1950s, as Jewish immigrants moved further north and African Americans, fleeing Jim Crow segregation in the South for the chance at a better life in Chicago, moved in.
There’s evidence of the neighborhood’s proud present, too.
Douglas Park, of course, is one of the jewels in Chicago’s public park system, with its huge, ornate field house and a miniature golf course that, we learned later, is being redesigned by student artists. Then there’s Collins Academy, a once-failing public high school that’s experienced a renaissance in recent years, and the network of community gardens taking over once-vacant lots to beautify the area and provide fresh produce.
The last stop is the Farm on Ogden, a new urban farm that opened last summer and provides job training in urban agriculture and food services. It also features an indoor produce market, a community kitchen and gardening classes.
Folks are getting the message, it seems, about stepping outside their comfort zone. Jahmal Cole, the founder of My Block, My Hood, My City, told us that residents of Andersonville and Rogers Park, North Center and Lake View, even Evanston and other suburbs, have signed up for the tours.
“I love it,” he said. “What better way for people to see the assets of the community, than through the lens of the youth?”
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