BRONZEVILLE — Not even inclement weather could dampen the celebratory mood at the season opening of Boxville, the repurposed shipping container mall that is now the centerpiece of a multi-pronged initiative to restore the Bronzeville neighborhood to its former glory.
What was once a neglected vacant lot in the shadow of the 51st Green Line station, Boxville is now bustling with activity as visitors took in the sights and sounds of the new marketplace.
And the significance of the opening happening on Wednesday — Juneteenth, a day celebrating the freedom of formerly enslaved people — wasn’t lost on Bernard Loyd. It was always a part of his vision.
“Juneteenth is such a central day in our history, and it’s about freedom. And that’s what Boxville is about, freedom. It’s about the ability to express ourselves, the ability to earn our way in this world with minimal barriers,” said Loyd, who is founder and president of Urban Juncture, the for-profit real estate development arm of Build Bronzeville.
While the idea of marrying commerce and community is hardly new, it is vital to a place like this one, where city disinvestment and benign neglect chipped away at a once-vibrant thoroughfare. Now, neighbors have a place to catch up with one another while patronizing local businesses and listening to live music. And yes, something this simple can have an impact on the health and safety of a community, organizers said.
For Boxville vendor and Blank Canvas Collection co-founder William Jameson, the opportunity to help pioneer Bronzeville’s comeback was one of the reasons he signed on. He and his partners had been working with clients across the city, operating their graphic design firm from their basement. When Loyd approached them with the idea of moving to Boxville last summer, they didn’t hesitate.
“Today is like the opening shot at a marathon. It means a lot to me. A lot of preparation and hard work went into this, but I look at this like a marathon. This is just the beginning,” said Jameson, a King High alum. “I can’t wait to spark and inspire the youth.”
Peter Gaona, artist and owner of Reformed School — a socially conscious clothing line — said that one of the biggest draws for him was the opportunity to live and work in his own neighborhood.
“I live down the street and had been doing pop-ups around the city,” said Gaona, a South Side native who attended Columbia College. “I googled Boxville to see what it was about and it seemed like a perfect fit. It lets people know what I do, and it gives me a chance to be involved in my community.”
Cherlnell Lane, an artist and teacher who also lives in the area, learned about Boxville from Jada-Amina Harvey, Build Bronzeville’s artist-in-residence. After attending a recent event, she’s been working with Harvey on ideas for the community garden.
“I had to come out and represent for Juneteenth and see all the vendors,” said Lane, who hopes to join the roster of vendors one day. “It’s really nice. The music, the atmosphere. .. It’s nice to see people like us out, and having a place to celebrate Juneteenth is awesome.”
51 Futures, a collaboration between the Illinois Institute of Technology and Urban Juncture, allows visitors to envision their own futures, using art and design to empower them. Adjunct Professor Christopher Rudd heads the project with one of his students.
“We crafted a statement, ‘The future of _____ has to be to be different from the past,’ and people’s contemplation around the statement has really been interesting,” said Rudd. “People seem to really take their time to think about the issue that’s really important to them.”
Rudd added that they plan to have a different theme each week for the next eight weeks, and looks forward to engaging the people who come through.
“Part of the ethos of the project is that the community will design every piece of it,” said Rudd. “Each week, they’ll decide what we should focus on.”
Boxville is open from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. every Wednesday, and 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. every Sunday now through October. For more information, go to www.boxville.org.