GAGE PARK — The Gage Park Latinx Council has transformed a nondescript storefront in the Southwest Side neighborhood into a cultural center and community hub.
For two years, Antonio Santos and twins Samantha and Katia Martinez, founders of the Gage Park Latinx Council, led youth and community programs out of coffee shops, the neighborhood’s tiny public library and nearby parks.
Now, the lifelong Gage Park residents have opened the cultural center at 2711 W. 51st St. to grow their programming and foster community.
“There is a lack of public space in Gage Park, which has been one of the biggest obstacles to our organizing efforts and programming,” Santos said. “Our community deserves a center that is lead and run by Latinx folks in the community who can understand their needs.”
The new center serves as a home to the group’s art free art programs for kids ages 5 to 12 and the Gage Park Mural Project, which aims to give young artists between the ages of 16 and 24 the opportunity to create murals that reflect the neighborhood.
The new space also houses the group’s Fresh Food Within Reach program, a weekly food distribution partnering with Grocery Run Club, to provide healthy food to Gage Park residents. Before moving into the storefront, the group held pop-ups across the neighborhood to provide meals to 200 residents weekly, Santos said.
Throughout the week, families can reserve the space for free to use the group’s children’s library and play space.
With children indoors because of remote learning and the ongoing pandemic, Santos said a number of families that have already taken advantage of the new space.
The Gage Park Latinx Council also has a network mentoring first-generation students pursuing a higher education, and a network for LGBTQIA individuals.
Since opening the new center, the group has held “a few [socially distant] dialogue sessions with young people and organizers, and just that in itself was revolutionary,” Santos said.
It’s a “space for healing and real conversations around all of the issues our communities are facing,” he said.
Earlier this summer, the group launched a mutual aid program to help a 100 undocumented families impacted by the economic downturn from the coronavirus with cash assistance. The new space is now giving them an opportunity to make one-on-one appointments with neighbors to help connect them with resources, Santos said.
With many South and West Side communities that lack community spaces, Santos said the new center is a big win for residents.
“Our community sees what we have been able to do as a grassroots organization in the last two years. This physical space will create hope and change for — and by— people who live in this community,” Santos said.
While coronavirus has prevented the group from holding large gatherings, Santos said they hope to be able to have their doors “wide open” without restrictions after the virus is eradicated.
“We are dreaming of a time when 20 or 25 community members getting to know each other inside and dreaming about what Gage Park needs and making that dream a reality through our grassroots efforts,” he said.
Santos hopes the physical space empowers other young Gage Park residents to bring their ideas to life, too.
“We are here to support them in any way we can positively impact the neighborhoods,” he said.
Learn more about the Gage Park Community Council here.
Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.