Urban Designer Paola Aguirre Serrano, part of a collective revamping the former site of Overton Elementary, talks with Black Metro Tours Creator Cheryl Colbert at an Open House event April 8. Credit: Jamie Nesbitt Golden/Block Club Chicago

WASHINGTON PARK — Big things are in store for the Anthony Overton Center for Excellence as they gear up for the summer, and they’re looking to neighbors for input.

Expansion of the Overton Exchange — an open air market where local vendors and entrepreneurs can sell their products — and a community garden will be the focus for the Creative Grounds team, who have been creating programming to keep neighborhood residents engaged since 2017.

There will be an open call for those interested in participating in the Overton Exchange, said Paola Aquirre, an urban designer who heads Borderless Studios, of which Creative Grounds is an offshoot.

“Community Days at Anthony Overton” is part of an initiative led by the design collective to help neighbors discover programming at the former school site, 4927 S. Indiana Ave. The goal is to get more people involved in the site’s transformation.

The community days are planned for May 14, June 25, July 30, Aug. 27 and Sept. 17.

Construction on the main building and annex — formerly Overton’s Child-Parent Center — will begin in the fall, providing incubator space for local creators. The annex will serve as an audio/visual studio, where artists can make music, movies or podcasts.

Black-owned BOWA Construction is in charge, developer Ghian Foreman told Block Club. The main building’s renovation will cost $14 million, and the annex $3 million, with some of the work funded by grants, Foreman said.

The collective will be introducing new projects as well, including a sunflower field and the Overton stage, where visitors can enjoy live music and performances.

“We’re bouncing back. We’re meeting again. Today, we’re asking people what this year’s theme should be, and someone wrote ‘Reunion,'” Aquirre said.

The initiative aims to shape the future of shuttered schools like Overton, repurposing them for community use. Aquirre came aboard sometime after Foreman purchased the school, a DNAInfo article about Foreman’s plans for the school catching her attention.

A map of the Overton site shows current and future projects, including the conversion of the Child Parent Center to a staging area for performances. Credit: Provided.

She messaged the developer and asked to talk, telling him that she wanted to create a design installation in the school parking lot. He went with it, Aquirre recalled .

The community component came as Aquirre began organizing workshops. Students she taught at the School of the Art Institute would attend, which created a network that drew in a variety of others. Using projects as “an excuse to create connections” allowed for the rebuilding of the surrounding community. Nearby residents stopping by the school suddenly found themselves tending to the garden or assisting on an art installation.

A community store was built. Then, a basketball league. Weather-beaten pavement became a canvas upon which maps were drawn. A building once discarded began showing signs of hope.

The school became alive again, Aquirre said.

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