WOODLAWN — A Parkway Gardens mural in honor of a slain rapper who grew up there is bitterly dividing Woodlawn neighbors who have decided to vote on whether to keep it.
The mural of King Von was created earlier this month by artist Chris Devins and painted on the side of Parkway Supermarket, 6435 S. King Drive, across from the apartments. It depicts King Von posing in a chair wearing an O Block chain — a reference to a popular nickname for Parkway Gardens.
King Von, whose birth name was Dayvon Bennett, was killed in Atlanta in November 2020, one week after he released his debut album, “Welcome to O’Block.”
The mural has been polarizing. Some say it glorifies gang culture, and critics worry it will attract violent crime. Others say it is an inspiring tribute to the community that raised the rapper.
Organizers who helped bring the mural to fruition have been threatened and harassed, they said.
People who live at Parkway Gardens and the blocks of King Drive and Vernon Avenue directly neighboring the complex have until Aug. 24 to weigh in on the future of the mural.
King Von’s estate initially supported the mural but is now “amenable to taking it down,” representative Michael Bennett said. The estate wants to “uplift Parkway Gardens, not to cause any further angst or anxiety” for residents, he said.
More than 50 residents and community leaders met Tuesday evening to discuss the mural, which was completed Aug. 5, a few days before what would have been King Von’s 27th birthday.
Parkway Supermarket’s owner has been harassed since the mural’s unveiling, said Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th). Delilah Martinez, owner of Vault Gallerie in Pilsen and founder of the Mural Movement, also has received violent threats over the mural she helped organize, Taylor said.
Martinez is planning complementary murals for Parkway Gardens’ courtyard, as well as a community barbecue with resources, groceries and coronavirus tests, she said. The efforts underscore the mural’s purpose as a community gathering place and source of inspiration, not a celebration of violence or gang culture, Martinez said.
“When I was growing up, I didn’t really get to see models or artwork or murals of people that look like me,” Martinez said. “I have a special place in my heart for things like this to be in specific areas because I know that it empowers people; it makes people feel beautiful.”
Resident Tara Madison agreed, saying she doesn’t interpret King Von’s O Block chain as a gang reference, but rather as an homage to the complex sandwiched between King Drive and the Norfolk Southern rail yard between 63rd and 66th streets. Madison said the community should not use the mural as a scapegoat for its “dirty laundry” and incidents of violence.
“If you have an eye for art, a human understanding, then you know it’s not the gang culture or the violence culture that is being exhibited in that picture,” Madison said. “The youth in that area understand probably more than some of us — what is depicted is where he got his education and his life skills training at.”
Others don’t agree, saying they worry about the possibility of drive-by shootings at mural viewers or admirers of the late rapper.
The mural reflects poorly on Woodlawn residents living nearby and should be moved inside Parkway Gardens, a resident who asked to remain anonymous said. Taylor encouraged attendees to comment regardless of whether they were comfortable sharing their name or affiliation.
“This isn’t O Block. This is the Woodlawn community,” the resident said.
Police officers also suggested relocating the mural, saying someone fired shots nearby during a celebration of King Von’s birthday last week. Police “don’t think the art is dangerous; we think people’s behavior around that art can be dangerous,” said Glen Brooks, director of public engagement.
“Our concern is really boiled down to the safety of the community and the acts of violence which have occurred [over] much less than pieces of art,” Brooks said. “Saying that, we want to look at how we can ensure the safety of the community while people exercise their First Amendment [rights]. Both things are things we are working to protect.”
Comparing the mural and King Von’s music to the songs of N.W.A., Taylor said art reflects one’s lived experiences. The community’s troubles go much deeper than any former resident’s music, and it won’t be resolved by removing the mural, she said.
“Whether you like that lifestyle or not, it’s real,” Taylor said. “Young folks are singing about their lived experience, and don’t act like we didn’t do this back in the day. … I don’t want us to act like, ‘Oh, woe is me, [Parkway Gardens’ problems are] because of the mural.'”
Residents and neighborhood leaders have long questioned why violence and poor living conditions are so prevalent at a complex owned by one of Chicago’s most high-profile developers, Related Midwest. The company does not have an official position on the mural, Senior Vice President Joe LaMantia said.
“The concerns that CPD has raised about neighborhood safety have certainly been discussed in our offices, as well, as have topics of free speech and a number of issues that the mural has created,” LaMantia said.
Neighbors can text “yes” or “no” to 312-981-9901 before Tuesday to cast their vote. Proof of residence, like a piece of mail or voter registration, is required.
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