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Crime scene back to social scene: Chatham boardwalk project carries on after shooting

The 75th Street boardwalk won awards and drew a visit from Vice President Kamala Harris. Then a mass shooting brought unwanted attention.

People walk near the 75th Street Boardwalk, which stretches from 203 E. 75th St. to 328 E. 75th St. in the Chatham neighborhood, Friday afternoon, July 23, 2021.
People walk near the 75th Street Boardwalk, which stretches from 203 E. 75th St. to 328 E. 75th St. in the Chatham neighborhood, Friday afternoon, July 23, 2021.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The lime-green benches and mini-parks that line the curbs along East 75th Street drew raves from urban planning groups and helped revive the Chatham neighborhood’s “Restaurant Row” into a South Side social scene.

Installed in September — and made from plywood that had been used to board up businesses on the Magnificent Mile during last summer’s unrest — the 75th Street Boardwalk won national awards for design and planning.

Businesses along the strip reported upticks in sales on days when the boardwalk hosted family-friendly events. Vice President Kamala Harris even dropped by for a slice of cake from the Brown Sugar Bakery in April and commented on the bright green booths outside the shop, owner Stephanie Hart said.

“The boardwalk is special. Kamala Harris is someone who has spent time in Black communities all over the country,” Hart said. “She noticed it was something different.”

But then two months later, the boardwalk made the news as the backdrop of a local tragedy.

On the morning of June 12, a pair of masked gunmen stepped out of an alley near the neighborhood’s most famous establishment, Lem’s Bar-B-Q, and opened fire into a crowd of hundreds that had gathered for an impromptu block party. Kimfier Miles, a 29-year-old mother of three, was killed and nine others were wounded.

In the months that followed, rumors circulated that the boardwalk would be torn down. At the end of the month, the city will remove the plywood “parklets” but only to replace them with more durable, portable units for the seasonal “Boardwalk 2.0,” said Nedra Fears Sims, executive director of the Greater Chatham Initiative

“We are bringing the boardwalk back,” Fears Sims said. “We cannot let it be the case that we say, ‘Too many people are coming to the boardwalk, so the boardwalk needs to go away.’”

Local businesses and the Greater Chatham Initiative hosted weekend events to draw shoppers and allow outdoor gatherings during the pandemic malaise. But this summer, nighttime throngs of hundreds descended on 75th Street, creating a free-form party that included massive portable speakers, outdoor grills, coolers of drinks and a distinct Mardi Gras vibe.

For weeks in the early spring and summer, the gatherings were raucous but safe. A popular Instagram account featured a picture of a crowd clogging the street on June 6 with the caption: “They had 75th St last night looking like Vegas. No shooting, no fighting. #ChicagoIsOpen #SummerTimeChi

Carmen Lemons, whose family has operated Lem’s Bar-B-Q, at 311 E 75th St., since the late 1960s, grew concerned by the crowds. Lem’s always has line of customers during business hours — which used to extend to 3 a.m. — and has never had seating for diners. Allowing massive, late-night gatherings was inviting chaos, Lemons said.

“In this day and time, it’s not safe to have a crowd like that. It’s a chance for something bad to happen,” she said. “Please don’t say I am against the boardwalk. But we’re not the North Side. Very seldom do people eat at the curbside on the South Side.”

Marlon Mitchell, whose family has operated Frances’ Cocktail Lounge next door to Lem’s for more than 50 years, said a more watchful police presence has prevented crowds from forming as they did before the shooting. He believes the gatherings could have been made manageable all along.

“Police are here now, they’re involved,” Mitchell said. “But they were three or four weeks too late.”

The 75th Boardwalk was a pilot of sorts for the city’s Chicago Al Fresco program, which offered funding for restaurants and businesses in working-class neighborhoods on the South and West sides to install or expand outdoor dining and community space, said Robert Fotjick, senior director of neighborhood strategy for Choose Chicago.

The Al Fresco program will bring similar portable parklets to Little Village, South Shore, Belmont-Cragin and other neighborhoods that have higher levels of violent crime, and that’s by design, Fotjick said. The same neighborhoods could benefit from outdoor spaces that foster community, he said.

“[After the shooting], there was never any thought of pulling back on our side,” Fotjick said about the 75th Street Boardwalk. “Unfortunately, gun violence is a reality in Chicago and other major cities … We need to find ways to create vibrancy in those communities.”