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New skating rink could help get things rolling at decaying West Side retail strip

The rink and significant reinvestment are needed to rebuild this once-mighty West Garfield Park neighborhood intersection.

Mercedes Pickett, 29, skates at the outdoor roller rink in West Garfield Park on Friday, July 23, 2021.
Mercedes Pickett, 29, skates at the new outdoor roller rink in West Garfield Park.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Though it’s been in distress since the 1960s, you can still tell the Madison and Pulaski shopping district on Chicago’s West Side was once a bustling mini-downtown with department stores, movie theaters and a big hotel, all doing business out of a stylish array of multistory buildings, many of which are faded but still standing.

The retail intersection still makes money, but the once wide range of businesses has thinned considerably since its heyday. There is also a crime issue that frightens off many potential shoppers and remains a barrier to significant redevelopment of the area.

Here’s hoping a temporary outdoor roller skating rink that opened recently on an empty lot at 4008 W. Madison St. is the first step on the long road of bringing much-needed new and varied uses back to Madison and Pulaski.

“Allowing youth to utilize this facility is going to give them the voice to say, ‘We are here and we are taking back our empty lots,’” skater Mercedes Pickett told the Sun-Times.

That sentiment — as a prelude to significant reinvestment — is just the thing needed to rebuild this once-mighty West Garfield Park neighborhood intersection.

‘Doing nothing won’t solve anything’

The Garfield Park Community Plaza and Outdoor Roller Rink, which opened in late July, was built with cash from the state’s Cannabis Regulation Fund.

It’s a bright, colorful place on the otherwise gray street, with a white tent, green and orange umbrellas, and a rest area with benches.

Patrons can bring their own roller skates or borrow skates for free. Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) said the rink was built at the request of residents in the neighborhood. The facility also screens movies in the rest area.

The roller rink and plaza are the latest in a new spate of modest projects and initiatives aimed at bringing either social activity or commerce — and both, if possible — to vacant lots and underperforming spots on South and West side retail streets.

In the Washington Park neighborhood, for instance, a large and long-vacant lot on 51st Street between Calumet Avenue and the CTA Green Line tracks has been turned into Boxville, a retail market operating out of shipping containers.

The previously commercial dead zone is now home to merchants offering groceries, bike repair, haircuts, athletic wear and more.

Boxville, started by Bronzeville resident Bernard Loyd, has been in operation since 2014.

“The idea was always to have a community plaza with vending opportunities, something informal,” Loyd told Chicago magazine in 2017. “We’re trying to create a progression of spaces.”

Spaces like these can be transformative on business strips by bringing activity and use to vacant lots and storefronts.

“The jury is still out to see if this will work out,” Ervin said of the Garfield Park community plaza and outdoor roller rink. “If we have to regroup in a few weeks, that’s OK. But we know doing nothing won’t solve anything.”

New possibilities on West Side

The city says construction will start in the fall on a permanent rink on the West Garfield Park site. The facility could be completed by June of next year.

And that would be good news for the West Side, a section of the city that too often is shut out when the spoils are dealt. (We’re still troubled that Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Invest South/West program — which promises $750 million to rebuild South and West side commercial areas — somehow left out the Madison and Pulaski intersection).

The rink, followed by targeted city investment, would be a good way to begin repairing that slight — and bring new life to this important retail corner.

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