Children playing basketball at the new WACA Bell Park basketball court. Credit: Courtesy City of Chicago

NORTH LAWNDALE — After years of broken asphalt and disrepair, a neighborhood play lot has been transformed into the new WACA Bell Park that aims to be a cultural hub and safe zone for children in North Lawndale.

The park at 1921 S. Drake Ave., originally known as the IBT Play Lot, was unveiled Saturday morning by Mayor Brandon Johnson, Ald. Monique Scott (24th) and others. 

Improvements include resurfaced basketball courts and hoops, more trees and landscaping, new fencing, a performance stage, picnic tables and painted ground murals. There will also be a designated area for food trucks to park nearby to sell products.

The project was spearheaded by the Westside Association for Community Action, or WACA, the namesake for the renovated park. It was funded by Trust For Public Land, Nike and the Chicago Recovery Grant.

Other partners include Under the Grid, Open Architecture Chicago, Freedom House Studios, New Covenant and The Firehouse Community Arts Center.

Lola Jenkins, vice president of Westside Association for Community Action, said the park is a vital asset to a disinvested community plagued by gun violence. 

“A lot of people who came to the unveiling said they were scared to send their children outside because they felt they would not see them return,” Jenkins said Monday. “To have some of the residents who have been concerned come out to say that they love it lets us know that we’re on the right track.”

Mayor Brandon Johnson (center) and Ald. Monique Scott (left) at the unveiling of the WACA Bell Park June 24, 2023. Credit: Courtesy City of Chicago

The design of the project was conceptualized by Westside Association for Community Action, Lawndale artist Haman Cross and the Trust For Public Land. Jenkins said the organization sought areas in the city to revitalize open land after learning of Chicago’s underuse of open land in Black and Latino neighborhoods.

Caroline O’Boyle, Associate Vice President for Trust For Public Land, said planning for the redevelopment of the park started in 2020, shortly before the pandemic. Construction on the park began in April.

“The neighbors were deeply moved to have a spot in their neighborhood that received this attention, because it brings something more positive to the block,” O’Boyle said.

The project is only in its first phase, O’Boyle said. The second phase will be completed by the fall and will feature solar-powered lights and shade installations. The total cost of the project is $1.5 million, with about half of that budget spent on the improvements unveiled over the weekend.

Peter Strazzabosco, deputy commissioner of the city’s Department of Planning and Development, said the Chicago Recovery Grant has been instrumental in revitalizing underused space in the city as it makes areas far more viable with multifaceted benefits to communities.

He said the project incorporates elements of “15-minute cities,” a concept that prioritizes accessibility to better accommodate groups that historically were excluded from city planning concepts such as women, children, minorities and people with disabilities.

“These are community gatherings that foster walkability, community cohesion, recreation and cultural activities,” Strazzabosco said. “This helps create street vitality and celebrates cultural diversity. These spaces opening up citywide provide space for all sorts of activities.”

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