Abandoned buildings in Austin, Grand Crossing become communal marketplaces

“It was very simple to us. We were just putting shelves on an abandoned building and calling it a ‘market.’ But to people, it became a place for them to congregate,” said Jon Veal, co-founder of Alt Space.

SHARE Abandoned buildings in Austin, Grand Crossing become communal marketplaces
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A group of organizers and volunteers pose for a photo at the alt_Market in Grand Crossing, Wednesday, July 15, 2020. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

| Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

A slight drizzle of rain poured over the heads of the eight people standing in front of a vacant corner store. When a couple showed up carrying two boxes, they shouted in celebration.

It was restocking day at “alt_Market” in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood. Inside the box were essentials needed to breathe life back into the emptied shelves of the new communal marketplace.

Everyone grabbed items out the box. A bundle of bananas was hung on a metal bracket. Then, slowly, the rustic shelves were filled with bottled water, melons, fresh peppers, canned food, pasta, diapers, deodorant and toothpaste.

The alt_Marketuses the “take a book, leave a book” idea of the Little Free Library and applies it to food and other essentials. It also expands on the idea by operating out at boarded-up abandoned buildings — giving life and meaning to once-spiritless structures.

This is the second market installment from the Austin-based Alt Space Chicago – a collective of artists working to reframe the narrative of what the West Side looks like outside of the scope of crime. The first marketplace was launched in Austin a month ago.

Jordan Campbell, co-founder of Alt Space Chicago, said the market was created to stimulate a “communal economy” and to spark ways for people to reimagine what can be done in a meaningful way with vacant buildings.

“It’s was very simple to us; we were just putting shelves on an abandoned building and calling it a ‘market.’ But to people, it became a place for them to congregate,” said Jon Veal, co-founder of Alt Space.

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alt_ cofounders, Jon Veal, left, and Jordan Campbell, right, wait for their fellow organizers near the alt_ Market in Grand Crossing, Wednesday, July 15, 2020. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

| Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The work done in Austin caught the attention of Julie Yost, director of public programing with Rebuild Foundation, and she asked if they would be open to creating a market in Greater Grand Crossing. She told them she knew of a vacant corner store that would be perfect.

“When I saw these guys’ project it just made total sense for us to have some sort of resource in the neighborhood that we can contribute food and supplies too but also that it could be a community-based project,” Yost said. “So, it wouldn’t be just about Rebuild or Alt Space, but rather we can set the conditions for this thing to grow with the neighborhood.”

Veal said building the markets could only work if the community bought into it. This means many of their volunteers live or work in the neighborhood.

Lavon Pettis helped drill the shelves into the framed doorway when it was being installed. As someone who lives just a stone’s throw away from alt_Market, she couldn’t be happier.

“To have something like this is very critical where people can just go down to the corner and see what’s down there,” Pettis said. “There was dish washing soap last week, and there is just these really valuable and viable things.”

Pettis said there was a sense of joy from children in the neighborhood who also helped put up shelves.

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Lavon Pettis speaks about what it means for a community to have things that bring communities together near the alt_ Market in Grand Crossing, Wednesday, July 15, 2020. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

| Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Culture Chicago hosts a weekly barbecue for children in the neighborhood as a way of making sure they have something to eat during the summer, and while the kids eat the group teaches them on a plethora of topics.

“To see the young people that were part of this [alt_Market] project are the same children on Wednesdays that come to us to get food really comes full circle,” Aamina Lovie, co-founder of Culture Chicago. “These young people have been out of school, stuck at home so for them to take part in building something they live amongst is wonderful.”

Another alt_Market is being planned to pop up in Englewood sometime in August, but the exact addresses for each market is withheld intentionally. Campbell said the markets are for those who live on the block where they located, so they want to make sure the neighbors are served. But it’s also to prevent blowback from city officials and the spread of displacement.

“We haven’t disclosed the exact locations of each site because we want to keep the integrity of those communities intact,” Campbell said. “We understand that with art can come gentrification and also displacement, so for us it’s been important to maintain the integrity in the neighborhoods you find these markets in.”

Veal said there was a vigorous internal discussion at Alt Space about whether to speak to the media about these markets. But after Chicago garnered nationwide attention over gun violence this summer, they went ahead, hoping “this story takes the place of a story about violence.”

To donate time or resources go to www.altspacechicago.com.

Manny Ramos is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of Chicago’s South and West sides.

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