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South Chicago, East Side

In Need Of Upgrades, Far South Side School Playground, Library And Park Hope To Win $1.5 Million In City Funding

The projects are among 21 finalists in the Chicago Works Community Challenge, which will award up to $10 million to upgrade seven public spaces across the city.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot announces the kickoff of Chicago Works in Auburn Gresham in April.
Jamie Nesbitt Golden/Block Club Chicago
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EAST SIDE — Up to $1.5 million in city funds will be awarded to upgrade an East Side elementary school’s crumbling playground, grow a Washington Heights library that hosts the Midwest’s largest Black history collection or transform a grassy field in Morgan Park into a full park.

The funding comes through the Chicago Works Community Challenge initiative, which will grant up to $10 million to support seven public projects on city-owned properties.

These include improvements to parks, libraries, outdoor public school facilities and vacant residential lots owned by the city.

Supporters of the three project finalists on the Far South Side presented their plans at a community meeting Tuesday. The projects:

  • An overhaul of the common areas, computer lab and maker space at Carter G. Woodson Regional Library, 9525 S. Halsted St. in Washington Heights.
  • Renovations to the decaying playground at Matthew Gallistel Language Academy, 10347 S. Ewing Ave. in East Side.
  • A project to add amenities to Park 581, 11625 S. Oakley Ave. in Morgan Park.

It’s “very exciting to see that there’s a wide array of projects,” Gabriela Jirasek, Department of Planning and Development assistant commissioner, said at a community meeting Tuesday.

The Far South Side projects are among 21 finalists for community challenge awards, which are funded by the Chicago Works infrastructure plan.

Seven projects — one from each of the city’s planning regions — will receive grants of up to $1.5 million each. All awarded projects will be announced by the end of the year and are planned to break ground by late 2022.

Only infrastructure projects like playgrounds, park paths and library modernization work are eligible for community challenge grants. The funds can’t pay for programs, staffing, computers and other equipment.

The 14 other finalists will be placed into a “priority pipeline” for future dollars, though other funding sources to complete those projects have not been determined, city officials said.

Credit: Provided
The Carter G. Woodson Library, which reopened to the public in 2018 after receiving $9 million in upgrades.

The Woodson regional library, named after the man who founded Black History Month at the Wabash Avenue YMCA, reopened in 2018 after receiving $9 million in renovations.

The city grant would help the library upgrade its maker space and common areas and improve internet connectivity, which counts as infrastructure.

With a “lack of a community center in the Washington Heights and greater Roseland area, Woodson serves as that community center,” said Melvin Thompson, executive director of project sponsor Endeleo Institute. “I look at this as a natural progression [from the earlier renovations]. We improved the outer shell — the outside infrastructure — and now we’re looking to improve the human infrastructure within those walls.”

Credit: Provided
A recent photo of Matthew Gallistel Language Academy’s playground.

Gallistel Language Academy’s slides, swings and benches are corroded and worn, and the playground is strewn with weeds and hardened rubber mats, Principal Kimberly Nelson said.

Grant dollars would support a new playground with a focus on improving safety and greenery for the school’s nearly 600 students and nearby residents.

“We often have injuries throughout the day, such as cuts, scrapes [and] bruises, when children fall on this padding,” Nelson said. “In fact, two first-graders have already broken their arms since the start of this school year from falling off our monkey bars onto existing padding. This is just not acceptable for our students and our community members who use our facility.”

Credit: Google Maps
A southwest facing view of Park 581, seen from Bell Avenue.

Park 581 is an open field with no features and no sidewalk access from its south, east or west sides. Its park advisory council aims to improve a “cherished open space in our neighborhood [that’s] never received any substantial investment as a park,” President Mike Doyle said.

The city funds would go toward installing a lit, soft-surface path around the inner perimeter; community gardens at the park’s north and south ends for residents and students of nearby schools; and outdoor exercise equipment.

“We want to be able to accommodate people who live with different abilities in our community — children and adults,” council member Jill Ross said. “… We want to make sure that when people walk, that they’re safe. Walking is a big part of mental health, and we want to continue to encourage people to come out and enjoy these open spaces.”

Residents can share their preferences and thoughts on the three projects through a community survey on the city’s website. A recording of Tuesday’s meeting is available on YouTube.

The Far South Side community meeting was the first of seven virtual meetings, to be held Tuesdays and Thursdays through Nov. 9.

Three West Side finalists will be discussed Thursday, while three North Side projects will be the focus Tuesday. For a full schedule of community meetings, click here.

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