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Community projects see hope with new city pilot program

The Equitable Transit-Oriented Development Pilot Program has breathed new life into 11 community-based programs, like West Town’s Equality Arts Project and Bronzeville’s Food Matters.

Heaven Gallery, located at 1550 N. Milwaukee Ave. in the West Town neighborhood, is one of 11 community-based projects to earn funds through the new Equitable Transit-Oriented Development Pilot Program announced Oct. 20.
Heaven Gallery, located at 1550 N. Milwaukee Ave. in the West Town neighborhood, is one of 11 community-based projects to earn funds through the new Equitable Transit-Oriented Development Pilot Program announced Oct. 20.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

For 20 years, Heaven Gallery has opened its Wicker Park doors to artists and curators around the city.

Now, using art in a call for social justice, the gallery is highlighting the work of Black Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) artists in its Equity Arts Project.

“We know that creative neighborhoods have artists and they have arts organizations, but they’re constantly being displaced and moved around,” said Alma Wieser, president for Equity Arts and director of Heaven Gallery.

The project looks to end that displacement and provide “wealth building pathways” through mentorships, curating programs and exhibitions.

But the project has been threatened by the owners placing the building at 1550 N. Milwaukee Ave. up for sale. Developers began circling in 2019, and only the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic kept the gallery safe from being sold for a while. Then, this fall, an uptick in crime in the neighborhood once again put a pause on interested developers moving forward.

And now, Equity Arts has been given another chance.

On Oct. 20, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced the Equitable Transit-Oriented Development Pilot Program in partnership with Elevated Chicago and Enterprise Community Partners.

Designed to promote healthy, walkable and affordable neighborhoods, 11 community-driven projects have been selected.

“Our ultimate goal with the ETOD program is to maximize the benefits that high-quality, affordable and reliable transit provides to our communities,” said Lightfoot in a press release. “Each of these 11 projects will help us fulfill this mission in an equitable and community-conscious way, as well as help to improve the overall wellbeing of our residents.”

While the program intends to invest in transit-oriented projects on the South and West sides without displacement, it also looks to promote affordability on the North and Northwest sides.

A total of $160,000 in “micro-grants” and technical assistance was awarded to the community-based projects to help with construction near transit stations across Chicago.

Heaven Gallery plans to eventually create a Center for Cultural Healing and Economic Justice. Sixty percent of tenants at the center would be BIPOC arts leaders as a way of “enriching our community and enriching our neighborhood,” Wieser said.

Artist/curator Shterna Goldbloom, left, and artist SaraNoa Mark, right, prepare their respective art pieces, which they created in collaboration with 12 other artists for a show called “Havruta” at the Heaven Gallery.
Artist/curator Shterna Goldbloom, left, and artist SaraNoa Mark, right, prepare their respective art pieces, which they created in collaboration with 12 other artists for a show called “Havruta” opening Friday at the Heaven Gallery.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

But first, Heaven Gallery needs to purchase the building and begin renovations — and they’ll need $5 million to do that, according to Wieser.

With the funds from ETOD, the gallery hopes to launch a community investment tool in the spring, allowing community members to invest in Heaven Gallery and the Project, which in turn will help raise the money to buy the building.

As the Equity Arts Project looks to remain inside the gallery’s original building, though, other projects are looking to build new structures.

For Bronzeville’s Food Matters, the money will be used to help purchase land on 43rd Street for a greenhouse.

Food Matters was created by Rush University Medical Center nurse Laurie Ouding in 2017. Ouding, who lived on a farm in Michigan with a large garden before moving to North Lawndale in 2008, said the move was a “culture shock.”

“I was surrounded by this agriculture [in Michigan] and really took it for granted that I had access to food all the time,” she said.

As a food desert, many North Lawndale residents lack access to fresh produce, and Ouding saw the effects firsthand on her patients at Rush.

In creating Food Matters, Ouding’s goal was to provide nutrition education, cooking classes and urban agriculture education to show residents how to grow healthy foods at home in a city.

The response has been overwhelmingly positive, she said.

Rendering of the greenhouse Food Matters hopes to build in the Bronzeville neighborhood with the help of funds through the Equitable Transit-Oriented Development Pilot Program.
Rendering of the greenhouse Food Matters hopes to build in the Bronzeville neighborhood with the help of funds through the Equitable Transit-Oriented Development Pilot Program.
Laurie Ouding

“In 2018 … I went to this town hall meeting,” Ouding said, “I’m standing up there and I’m talking about [the greenhouse], and there’s silence. I’m thinking ‘Oh, my God, no!’ And as soon as I finished, [Ald. Pat Dowell, 3rd] said, ‘I’m really excited about this project. I think it’s gonna be great.’ And then a bunch of hands went up in the air, and people were like, ‘When is it going to happen?’”

Ouding has been working with the Department of Planning and Development since 2018 to purchase the land on 43rd Street and complete the necessary pre-development work, including appraisals and environmental testing.

But the pandemic put a pause on that, and the pre-development work expired.

On top of that, the cost of the land doubled.

But with the support of the community behind her, Ouding remains hopeful.

“If we don’t ever address what’s happening in the community, we’re really not going to fix any of the problems,” she said. “I look at food insecurity and what that does and how it impacts health — not only disease-wise but also if kids are not getting the appropriate nutrients, they’re not learning the way they should and that impacts their education. Food is medicine, but food is life.”

Cheyanne M. Daniels is a staff reporter for the 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 Side and West Side.