AUBURN GRESHAM — A celebration of Black love, joy and community is coming to the South Side Saturday.
The 79th Street Renaissance Festival Crawl, back for its 15th year, will take over 79th and Racine in Auburn Gresham Saturday — but this time with a twist. From 10 a.m.-8 p.m., neighbors can stop by the free event for a day of live music, food, drinks and, as a bonus, a tour of the historic neighborhood.
The Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation, a community group that creates development strategies to promote the revitalization of the community, created and continues to host the event.
Carlos Nelson, CEO of the group, said he’s excited to bring a day of laughter and fun to the community after the past tumultuous year.
“This is a community festival done by the community and for the community,” Nelson said. “It represents Black love, love for our city and love our region.”
Fest’s history: ‘Turn a negative into a positive’
The South Side party — then known as the 79th Street Renaissance Festival — kicked off in 2006 after Nelson and Cheryl Johnson, a leader on the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation team, noticed a lack of community recognition, Nelson said. Auburn Gresham was a wonderful place to live, but no one had thought of a sustainable way to celebrate the fact.
“Back in 2005, Cheryl and I came up with this crazy idea to do a street festival on 79th Street with a focus to promote the Auburn Gresham community as a great place to live, work, play and pray,” Nelson said. “The thought was that we would bring out the businesses in the community instead of businesses waiting for people to come to their doors.”
Nelson said the organization located vacant lots along 79th Street and decided to use the deserted land as spaces for the celebration.
“The idea was to turn a negative into a positive,” Nelson said.
In July 2006, on a day that “was like 190 degrees,” Nelson said, the community held its first 79th Street Renaissance Festival.
Live gospel music and jazz carried the festival, Nelson said. Church choirs showed their skills, and local dance troupes danced brilliantly despite the weather.
Nelson said the festival was a success no one expected.
“You could feel the pride from folks in the community and people who have been in the neighborhood for decades,” Nelson said. “It was so awesome.”
It was clear that this was a festival that needed to stay, Nelson said. The first step was moving the festival to a month with cooler weather.
“We decided to make it the first weekend after Labor Day,” Nelson said. “The first week of school, we give postcards to the schools and the schools give the postcards to all the kids in their folders. It’s organic marketing.”
The next step was adding a larger music component. To get locals moving, the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation enlisted the help of Chicago native DJ Farley Jackmaster Funk.
In the years since its inception, Nelson said the festival grew to have more than 25,000 attendees. There was more music, more food and a greater opportunity to connect with the community. There was also no violence, Nelson said.
“I think we should highlight the fact that Black folks on the South Side have been coming together all of these years 25,000 strong, and we come together with love and no issues,” Nelson said. “It’s a beautiful thing. It’s really just grown to be an iconic community-based event.”
Then the pandemic hit.
Like every other local festival, Nelson said the corporation canceled its celebration. It was the first time in 14 years the community would go without the annual party.
When 2021 rolled around, Nelson said the organization was hesitant to bring the festival back. The community’s health concerns were a top priority, Nelson said.
Then neighbors started to reach out to him.
“Residents said we need this event more than ever this year,” Nelson said. “We were coerced to do it.”
Instead of shutting down the entirety of 79th Street, Nelson said the organization is downscaling the event and will only close down 79th and Racine. Masks will be required, and they plan to have a COVID-19 response team maneuvering through the event to distribute personal protective equipment, like masks and sanitizers.
Pop-up tents will host conversations about the vaccine and the virus for young adults and community members as well, Nelson said.
“We’ll maintain safety protocols, but it’ll be great. It’ll be fun,” Nelson said. “We want the same thing that we’ve had since 2006.”
The event is perfect for all ages, Nelson said.
While children can have fun at the Kids Corner — where there will be a petting zoo, small meals created by ChiFresh Kitchen and free backpacks, among other things — seniors can hang out at the Senior Corner, an indoor space with 500 free meals prepped by Real Men Cook.
Carnival rides are available for the entire family, and for the local history buff, a trolley will tour community members around historic destinations in the community.
“The trolley will drive through the community and stop at four senior centers in the area alongside 79th Street and Racine,” Nelson said. “It’s a free trolley ride for anyone that wants to get in and kind of learn a little bit of history about the neighborhood. They can also learn about the historic Bungalow Belt.”
Nelson said the festival will also honor the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and the first COVID-19 related death in the city. A 61-year-old woman from the Auburn Gresham neighborhood died from the virus in March 2020.
“We are going to do a commemorative ceremony for those families that have been impacted by COVID-19,” Nelson said. “We have 500 flags, and we’re going to have everybody raise the flag. We’re hoping to have friends and family out at the main stage.”
With a stacked line-up including the South Shore Drill Team, the Jesse White Tumblers, King Farley and more, Nelson said he’s positive this festival will be one for the books.
But most of all, he’s excited to see the community united again.
“The seniors being able to come out safely and engage with the youth is an intergenerational opportunity that you don’t see very much in our society anymore,” Nelson said. “The pride that you feel when seeing the kids, residents and seniors feel like this is their event is amazing.”
For more information, visit gadgc.org or call 773-723-3557.
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