WEST GARFIELD PARK — Children and families laced up their skates to celebrate Friday’s grand opening of the West Side roller rink and community plaza, which was built on a vacant lot that had been unused for decades.
The plaza at 4008 W. Madison St. is the brainchild of the Garfield Park Rite to Wellness Collaborative, a coalition of West Side residents and neighborhood groups focused on building a culture of physical, mental, spiritual and economic wellness in the neighborhood.
“Here we have a place where we can come, we can rest, we can reset, we can move, we can groove, we can roll all the way back to the best of who we are and who we are destined to be,” said TJ Crawford, director of the Rite to Wellness Collaborative.
In addition to the roller rink, the plaza will host activities and programs for young people, like chess, pickleball, dance, fitness classes and volleyball, organizers said. The plaza will also host events like farmers markets, movie nights, art workshops and open mics.
The Park District will provide roller skates and other equipment for free.
“This is a day many people thought that was not possible. Thought it was not possible for us to place something of this magnitude on Madison,” Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) said.
The idea for the roller rink was born from efforts to let residents decide what investments and amenities their neighborhood needs, Crawford said.
Rite to Wellness partnered with the Park District and the Mayor’s Office to transform the vacant lot.
“Why a roller rink? The reason is, back in the day … there was a roller rink that was the center of the community. It was a gathering place, and people felt safe,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said at the plaza’s ribbon-cutting Friday.
The plaza at Madison Street and Pulaski Road is at the center of a floundering business district that was once an economic backbone for the West Side. The corner has long been a trouble spot, notorious for violent crime and open-air drug markets.
The community plaza will be an anchor to reclaim the area from the drugs and violence by bringing positive attention, more public engagement and by attracting investment, organizers said.
Some worried the location was too dangerous for kids, but Ervin said partnerships with street outreach and violence interruption workers, police and private security are “making sure it’s safe out here for our children and our seniors.”
“We’ve had this lot just sitting here. And given the nature of what’s happened in Garfield Park, the nature of disinvestment in West Garfield Park, we thought it’d be fitting to come back to the mainstay of the West Side … to bring this great amenity to the community,” Ervin said.
The area’s economic challenges and safety issues have their roots in the history of redlining and racist policies toward Black neighborhoods, Crawford said. Though Garfield Park is 6 miles from Downtown, had a thriving business district along Madison and a beautiful park, the neighborhood was neglected as Black residents moved in, he said.
“In the 1950s, when Black folks started coming out here, they abandoned their golden dome, they abandoned their oasis … and they ran as far away from Black folks as they possibly could,” Crawford said.
The roller rink will be funded with $1.5 million in tax revenue from the sale of recreational cannabis. A portion of state tax revenues from the sale of weed is set aside to community projects.
The city will continue to develop the roller rink and plaza to make the outdoor area a more permanent fixture in the neighborhood, said Alonso Williams, Park District chief program officer.
The roller rink will be a powerful foothold for spurring positive change for legacy West Garfield Park residents, Crawford said, but it will take continued support from the city and private partners to fully realize the vision of a safe and prosperous neighborhood.
“We intend for this investment to just be the building block. What it takes to secure this plaza times 1,000 is what it takes to secure this neighborhood … to heal the whole of every family,” Crawford said.
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