Little Village Environmental Justice Organization and Delta Institute want to transform a vacant fire station in Little Village into a commercial kitchen and food cart storage space for street vendors. Credit: Provided

LITTLE VILLAGE — What kind of development do Little Village neighbors want to see in their neighborhood?

That’s a question Little Village Environmental Justice Organization and Delta Institute asked neighbors more than two years ago as they mapped empty lots, vacant buildings and brownfield sites across Little Village. When it came to an abandoned fire station at 2358 S. Whipple St., neighbors saw potential, reimagining it as a commercial kitchen that would empower the bustling street vendors on the city’s Southwest Side.

Now, that vision could become a reality. The commercial kitchen project is among six proposals vying for the Pritzker Traubert Foundation’s $10 million Chicago Prize. The grant aims to bring “private capital” to the city’s South and West sides, former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker told Crain’s

Little Village Environmental Justice Organization and Delta Institute aim to turn a vacant fire station into a commercial kitchen and food cart storage space in Little Village. Credit: Provided

“We want them to have the opportunity to say what their neighborhood needs, not [hear it] from some glass tower in the Loop,” she said.

Last week, the foundation narrowed the field of finalists from 80 applicants down to six.

As one of the six finalists, Little Village Environmental Organization, a 25-year-old group fighting for environmental justice in the neighborhood, and Delta Institute, a Chicago-based nonprofit that collaborates to solve complex environmental challenges, will receive a $100,000 grant to fine-tune their pitch over four to six months, developing a business proposal that will be presented to the Chicago Prize committee. That committee will determine a winner of the prize in spring 2020.

As part of the plan, the fire station would be transformed into a community hub equipped with a commercial kitchen, food cart storage and maintenance space. It would also have a small storefront for vendors to sell their products and have community space to host entrepreneurial and educational workshops. Mushrooms, micro-greens and other produce would be farmed in the building’s basement, too.

For years, residents have pushed the city to consider development that would put La Villita residents first, rather than develop logistic centers and warehouses that have inundated the neighborhood with diesel traffic and more pollution, said Kim Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.

After fighting city planners and private industry for years, Wasserman said she is thrilled the foundation recognized the plan as a “great idea.”

“It’s incredibly exciting for us because we have been fighting with the city around how the city plans in our community,” Wasserman said. “They don’t plan [with] our people in mind and this project allows us the opportunity to once again show what our community can do when its empowered to make decisions for itself.”

Although 60 percent of the city’s street-based food vendors come from Little Village and the neighborhood boasts some of the city’s best Mexican restaurants, Wasserman said there are no commercial kitchens in the neighborhood.

The nearest is in North Lawndale, which is difficult for some people to get to from Little Village, she said.

The new commercial kitchen will uplift the entire community, Wasserman said. 

“Philosophically, this is about supporting our community, this is about giving an economic opportunity,” Wasserman said.  

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In addition to redeveloping the building, the groups also plans to build a food-cart cooperative led by the workers themselves. The aim is to create a closed-loop food economy for the neighborhood, said Bill Schleizer, CEO of Delta Institute.

“While this project is focused around a physical space, we see this as being the center of a whole…closed-loop, vibrant ecosystem where we are creating entrepreneurial and economic development opportunities through a food economy that continues to create and build on the identity of Little Village,” Schleizer said.

Schleizer said the groups have been working together with Little Village residents for several years and the Chicago Prize aligned “exactly with what the community wanted.”

Little Village Environmental Justice Organization and Delta Institute aim to turn a vacant fire station in Little Village into a commercial kitchen and food cart storage space. Credit: Provided

Wasserman said the foundation’s selection of their proposal as a finalist is a “blessing.”

She hopes they eventually get to bring home the grand prize to Little Village, a resilient community that is tired of being overlooked.

“We were told we would never shut down a coal power plant. We were told we would never get a park—and we got those things,” Wasserman said. “As a community, we have always been overlooked and left out. Each and every time …we do it. And [we] continue to do it well.”

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Pilsen, Little Village and West Loop reporterrnrnmauricio@blockclubchi.orgnnPilsen, Little Village and West Loop Twitter @MauricioPena

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