NORTH LAWNDALE — Neighbors are seeking donations and volunteers to transform a troubled street on the West Side into a holiday light display that rivals that of Michigan Avenue.
The Light Up Lawndale project aims to decorate at least 225 trees along the trails of Douglas Boulevard between Independence Boulevard and Douglass Park. Organizers have launched a GoFundMe, looking to raise about $8,500 to buy solar-powered lights and decorations. They also are recruiting volunteers to decorate the trees.
The holiday decorations that will illuminate Douglas Boulevard are a way of using the greenway to inspire hope and build kinship between neighbors to make the corridor safer, community leaders said.
“I’m trying to change the narrative that’s already been placed upon Lawndale and try to do something different. When you go Downtown … you see the Christmas lights, the Christmas trees. You know you have a whole different like attitude,” said Princess Shaw, one of the project’s organizers.
The ambitious light show is inspired by a nearby block club that last year revived a generations-old tradition of creating the most extravagant holiday lights display on the West Side. Residents of the Flournoy Street block club brought back the lights and the annual holiday block party to give kids a safe way to celebrate their community.
The lights along Douglas Boulevard aim to spread that sense of safety and joy all throughout Lawndale, especially in places that need it the most, Shaw said.
“We’re going to do it in this area because this is where we hear the shots,” Shaw said.
The Light Up Lawndale project takes a page from the Light in the Night summer series hosted by violence prevention groups to empower residents to reclaim their neighborhoods. Like the summer events, the holiday lights will create a visible presence on the streets to show the neighborhood is still a place where joy and beauty lives, organizers said.
“People like to do negative things in places where it looks like you can get away with it. Where nobody’s watching,” said Reshorna Fitzpatrick of the Stone Temple Missionary Baptist Church.
“With all this beautification, people are watching. Passersby will be actually looking at the park instead of just trying to get out of the area as fast as they can.”
Lawndale residents deserve to feel worthy of beauty because it gives them a sense of ownership over the neighborhood, and it can cultivate a feeling of pride “for the community itself, and even in themselves, as well,” Shaw said.
“What better way to bring about change than to go ahead and see something different than what they usually see … and see something as great. To have them strive to do better than what their actual community is portrayed as,” Shaw said.
Organizers and volunteers are knocking on doors in the area to get residents involved so people “know that this is for the community. This is for them,” Shaw said.
A team of community partners including UCAN, Chicago CARES, I Am Able, the 10th Police District and the New Covenant Community Development Corporation are helping the Light Up Lawndale project.
My Block, My Hood, My City has organized a similar light display along Martin Luther King Drive on the South Side for the past few years, and it has been a major supporter of Light Up Lawndale.
“When people are hanging lights up, it’s going to inspire hope and interrupt the trauma that exists,” said Jahmal Cole, founder of the organization.
“You don’t have to be a politician to be out here making change. You can start on the block with something simple. You can’t get any more simple than hanging holiday lights. When you do stuff like that, you create a ripple of hope.”
St. Agatha Church, 3147 W. Douglas Blvd., will join in by playing holiday music through the neighborhood from the church’s bell tower.
The pandemic has made it tough to coordinate such a large project. But organizers hope Light Up Lawndale continues to grow as residents “turn the tide” on the issues that the neighborhood has struggled with for decades.
“We want to make sure we keep doing it year after year,” Shaw said. “It’s time for us to start changing the narrative.”
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.