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Plans for outdoor roller rink in West Garfield Park get mixed reaction in community

While residents and aldermen voice support for an outdoor roller rink in West Garfield Park, members of the Cook County Black Chamber started a petition to stop the project, citing crime in the area.

West Garfield Park will soon have a new outdoor roller rink, even though some community leaders express safety concerns.
West Garfield Park will soon have a new outdoor roller rink, even though some community leaders express safety concerns.
Cheyanne M. Daniels/Sun-Times

Hair salons, clothing stores and restaurants line Madison Street in West Garfield Park, the community’s main commercial corridor. But between those businesses are scattered empty lots, where grass and weeds grow through gravel and cracked concrete.

One of those empty lots will soon be a new outdoor roller rink and community plaza.

Some in the community are excited about the project. But it’s the area’s other trade that has some concerned. The Garfield Park Chamber of Commerce and Cook County Black Chamber started petitions, trying unsuccessfully to block the city’s plans for what the groups called “a drug infested, crime ridden area.”

The Madison Street-Pulaski Road intersection is an open-air drug market, where drug deals go down in broad daylight, residents and officials say. And last Tuesday, about three blocks from the site of the project, the community saw five people hurt in the city’s second mass shooting of the day.

Earlier this month, the mayor’s office said West Garfield Park is within the top five communities experiencing narcotics sales and opioid addiction and ranks seventh out of the top 15 neighborhoods experiencing gun violence.

The community plaza and roller rink are intended to offer some relief.

“Bringing positive traffic to the area cannot hurt in any way,” said Ald. Jason Ervin (28th). “What it also would do is put the onus on the community and also Chicago Police Department to provide a safer environment for people that wish to come participate in activities at the park facility.”

The lot has been vacant since 2002, according to the Chicago Park District. The idea for a roller rink grew out of conversations with residents, who expressed “a shared desire for spaces for intergenerational activities.”

Residents also said a rink would be particularly significant, given that roller skating has a history in the Black community. During the Civil Rights movement, roller rinks were areas of desegregation protests. Many rinks also served as a starting place for Black musicians.

Jackie Winston, 58, said when she was growing up in the neighborhood, children had bowling alleys, movie theaters and roller rinks to spend their time at. She said bringing back positive activity spaces is key to making the community safer.

“We don’t have any recreational things for kids after school. We need positive things,” said Winston.

Burr Ridge’s All-Bry Construction Company will build the temporary roller rink and plaza, which is planned to open on July 23.
Burr Ridge’s All-Bry Construction Company will build the temporary roller rink and plaza, which is planned to open on July 23.
Chicago Park District

The Park District selected All-Bry Construction Company to build a temporary structure, planned to open July 23. All-Bry also will build a permanent structure with lighting, furniture, a stage and outdoor activity spaces; construction on that will begin this fall, with plans to open next June.

The temporary project is estimated to cost $1.5 million; the money will come from the state’s Cannabis Regulation Fund. There is no cost estimate for next year’s permanent structure yet, said Ervin.

La Shone Kelly, director of housing at the Garfield Park Community Council, also is on the board of the Garfield Park Wellness Collective.

While agreeing that some activities occurring along the corridor are not “conducive” to family life, “the new center will be a good way to get kids somewhere safe to play.”

On a sunny Wednesday, just days after the groundbreaking ceremony, Allena Johnson and her mother Charone Talley were walking down Madison Street, shopping bags in hand.

When they heard about the rink, they were shocked: neither knew the city was building the rink.

“I’d be there every day!” said Allena, 14.

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) said the space would become a gathering place for the entire West Side.

“We had a roller rink on the West side some years ago and the only thing everyone always asked for was another roller rink,” Burnett said. “I’m so happy to see that we figured out a way of making it happen.”

It is happening against the wishes of the Garfield Park Chamber of Commerce and Cook County Black Chamber, said Siri Hibbler, CEO and founder of both business groups.

The groups’ online “Save Our Children in Garfield Park” petition, posted in April, had 63 signatures as of Monday. They also are seeking signatures door-to-door, Hibbler said.

“The opposition with us and the business owners in that area and also with the parents is the fact that you put (the outdoor roller rink) right here on the street, where you know you haven’t stopped the crime,” said Hibbler. “Kids would have no protection; bullets have no eyes.”

Residents have acknowledged the dangers an outdoor rink poses but said it offers a distraction from crime and violence — all that’s needed is proper security.

“The young people don’t have nothing to do,” said 74-year-old resident Gregory Lunt. “Give these kids something to do and it will be a much better neighborhood.”

Cheyanne M. Daniels is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South and West sides.