NORTH LAWNDALE — West Siders are overhauling a lot near the Central Park Pink Line station to create a community plaza where residents can relax and host block parties.
Organizers and artists will create a ground mural on a basketball court in a lot at Drake and Ogden avenues. The lot will have a playground, as well as a modular art installation that can be used for seating, tables, performances and other functions, organizers said.
The work is one of the first projects in Under the Grid, an initiative using public art to revitalize 15 blocks near the Pink Line between Pulaski and Kedzie. The project, sponsored by the Chicago Architecture Biennial and the Trust for Public Land, was part of a collective of North Lawndale initiatives that was a finalist for the $10 million Chicago Prize last year.
For the Ogden and Drake lot, the team behind Under the Grid wanted to create a place for residents to host events because of “how instrumental a block party or sitting on the porch is to our community,” said Lawndale-based artist Haman Cross.
“It’s an idea for reusing space that’s been neglected. There’s about a mile and a half of space underneath the Pink Line, huge parcels of land that’s owned by the CTA,” Cross said. “The vision for Under the Grid is to be able to reimagine each of those spaces, and it can be sort of an outdoor lab.”
Architect Germaine Barnes, who is from the West Side, had the idea of designing large wooden blocks that could be a multi-use installation to serve whatever purpose residents need for the space, like game tables or seating.
“The blocks themselves, they’re malleable. It allows people to orient themselves however they want to be oriented,” Barnes said. “I think that’s important to a person who’s trying to create their own legacy because they need flexibility and they need an inherent ability to move things around because we’re so used to static situations.”
The installation will encourage people to imagine how “architecture can be an agent for change,” Barnes said. The structures, created with input from local youth and Lawndale residents, are meant to be a foothold for people to attach their own ideas to so the project can continue to evolve to fit the needs of the people, he said.
During community feedback sessions, local elders expressed a desire for places to play games like checkers, so the design will incorporate those ideas so the lot will be useful to people of all ages.
“You can create whatever you want from these modules. This is just the bare minimum. This is your scaffold. Build something bigger and better,” Barnes said.
The design of the ground mural was inspired by “90s-themed colors,” said Dez Lopez, 20, one of the young participants. The colorful display will “bring life to the eyes” and includes patterns to make it a play space, like a four-square court and hopscotch board, she said.
“If you bring life to the community, there will be a little more color. People won’t be as tired as before,” Lopez said. “It’s an opportunity to revitalize dead space and just make it something new and useful to the community and helpful.”
The Drake and Ogden lot has a long history as a community space. It is owned by the Westside Association for Community Action, a social service agency that has operated it as a basketball court and playlot since the ’70s.
“It started off with just basketball day camps,” said Lola Jenkins, the group’s vice president for operations. “We’ve kept the legacy going in terms of allowing the community to use it as a free space and a safe space to come and play sports.”
Given the struggles Lawndale has faced in recent decades with a declining population and public safety issues, Jenkins wanted to find new ways to activate the lot. The Under the Grid project was a perfect fit, she said.
“The creation of the art on the space will allow community residents to be inquisitive of it to get as the neighborhood is still shifting,” Jenkins said. “It will bring a spice of life. The colors more than anything are completely eye-catching.”
The Pink Link train tracks form a boundary between the Black community in Lawndale and the Latino community in Little Village, said Craig Stevenson, of Open Architecture Chicago, the organization behind Chicago Architecture Biennial. So the art and activities at the site will also “bring both communities together,” he said.
“It’s no way that you can see activity happening, gathering happening, eye-catching designs occurring, and not be inquisitive and not want to bring your best to it,” Stevenson said. “It creates small pockets of the future.”
The project to transform the lot and revitalize the area is a practice of creative placemaking, or when a community uses art to “creatively make that place your own by how it looks, how it feels, how it functions,” Cross said.
“You’re able to bring something into the space that came from you, and bring it alive. Make it functional. Make it practical,” he said. “It’s a way to claim it, to put your mark on it. … But it’s a functional, shared mark that everyone can enjoy.”
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