South Side community hub opens for HIV/AIDS outreach

The Center on Cottage Grove in the Woodlawn neighborhood aims to be a space for LGBT communities of color and grassroots organizations.

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The exterior of the Center on Cottage Grove located at 6323 South Cottage Grove Avenue in the Woodlawn neighborhood.

The exterior of the Center on Cottage Grove in the Woodlawn neighborhood.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

At the end of the Green Line in Woodlawn, a community hub for LGBT organizations for people of color has joined the neighborhood.

The Center on Cottage Grove is for organizations doing HIV outreach on the South Side. Five groups have already signed on to use the space at 6323 S. Cottage Grove Ave.

They share a goal of reducing HIV transmission among Black and Latino populations on the South Side, where the greatest number of new HIV diagnoses occurred, according to the city’s 2020 HIV surveillance report.

Aside from the name, there’s little indication of who even rents the space: the Center on Halsted. Modesto “Tico” Valle, the Center’s CEO, said that was intentional. It had been the Center’s goal to open a South Side location for 10 years, but when the time came, they took a hands-off approach.

“It’s important for us that in places where we need to lead, we lead — or we need to follow, we follow,” Valle said.

The strategy is for each group involved to reach a different LGBT population: ALMA Chicago with Latinos, Affinity with Black women, TaskForce with youth and transgender populations, TPAN with older adults, and the Chicago Black Gay Men’s Caucus with Black men.

Betty Akins manager of the Getting to Zero program at Center on Cottage Grove stands inside the new community center in the Woodlawn neighborhood.

Betty Akins manages the Getting to Zero program at the Center on Cottage Grove.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

To that end, how each uses the space will vary, said Betty Akins, who manages the hub. Between the organizations, there will be training on doing outreach to vulnerable HIV populations, HIV testing and mental health counseling, Akins said.

The Black Gay Men’s Caucus began hosting community meetings in June. Chris Balthazar of TaskForce said he and Akins have discussed how to implement community activities such as mini-drag balls.

“It’s about making sure that the program that they offer meets the needs of the folks that live in that community and that it reaches them in a way that fits with their culture,” said Balthazar, the executive director of the West Side organization.

The hub occupies a corner storefront on the ground floor of the historic Strand Hotel. The hub is on the end with French glass at the entrance of the neoclassical brick building.

The interior of the Center on Cottage Grove located at 6323 South Cottage Grove Avenue in the Woodlawn neighborhood.

The interior of the Center on Cottage Grove in the Woodlawn neighborhood.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Inside, the geometric tiles show some wear, but otherwise, the space looks new. A few tables on wheels occupy the main space, and there’s private office space in the rear that has already been used as a monkeypox vaccine clinic.

The Center on Cottage Grove is hosting an open house from 2 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 25.

Valle hopes other grassroots organizations will become involved.

“Our work is to help you continue to grow to build your infrastructure so that you can continue to serve that vulnerable community that no one else is serving,” Valle said.

Michael Loria 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.

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