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Austin, Garfield Park, North Lawndale

A Redesign Of Chicago Avenue In Austin Will Use Art To Represent The Neighborhood’s History And Heritage

The corridor improvement plan will improve sidewalks, streets and landscaping while also creating public art that will contribute to a unified look and feel for Chicago Avenue.

Chicago Avenue in the Austin neighborhood looking toward the downtown skyline on May 24, 2021.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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AUSTIN — Soul City Corridor in Austin is getting a makeover that will incorporate streetscape improvements as well as public art that will reflect the cultural heritage of Austin.

The Chicago Avenue Corridor Improvement Plan will revamp all aspects of the road from Austin Boulevard to Cicero Avenue, including the streets, bike lanes, sidewalks, landscaping and crossings. The specific design improvements will be determined through feedback from residents, and may include sculptures, tree plantings, curb extensions, pole banners, and widened sidewalks.

The initiative is led by the Chicago Department of Transportation as part of the mayor’s Invest South/West strategy for driving the economic revitalization of historically disinvested Black and Latino neighborhoods.

The project builds upon previous community-led planning efforts, like the Soul City Corridor Development Framework Plan and the Austin Quality of Life plan. Those previous efforts identified specific needs residents had been asking the city to invest in to make Austin safe, walkable and economically strong with a look and feel that reflects the cultural identity of the people who live there.

“We are looking at different gateway and community identifier pieces … that kind of get to the nature of this corridor or get to the theme of the corridor,” said Eli Lechter, a designer with the Lamar Johnson Collaborative working with the city on the project.

There are currently five sections of the targeted corridor that each has a different design, with some segments having wider or narrower streets and varying types of pedestrian infrastructure. The redesign will “make it more consistent but really make it safer throughout to support pedestrians and bikes as well as the cars already traveling there,” Lechter said.

The tightest part of the corridor between Menard and Central will have street lanes and parking spaces narrowed to slow traffic down and make more room on the sidewalk to activate foot traffic, shopping and public space, Lechter said. The wider sidewalks will create more opportunities for businesses to host outdoor music and dining, Lechter said.

A section of Chicago Avenue between Leclair and Cicero will be getting a bike lane protected from car traffic by a row of trees to encourage cycling.

Aesthetic improvements to the road have been highly anticipated as a way to boost the Soul City Corridor rebrand of Chicago Avenue as the hub for Black culture in Chicago, residents said. The new look of the corridor can incorporate themes and colors that emphasize the Black history of the neighborhood, said Corey Dooley, a coordinator for the Austin African American Business Network Association.

“When I go to Chinatown and I see that big gate, I know where I’m at … by the certain design elements. For African American culture, red, black and green are colors that… are tied to a pan-African [identity],” Dooley said.

An Austin-based art organization, alt_, is working with the city to design gateway sculptures along Chicago Avenue based on feedback offered by residents at a series of community workshops. Early designs for the project incorporate cultural symbols like the acacia tree, which is native to the African savannah, said alt_ cofounder Jordan Campbell.

“This is one of the trees that actually produces many seeds. We thought of … how this represents Austin, how this represents the migration of brothers and sisters moving up to Chicago,” Campbell said.

alt_ co-founders Jon Veal (left) and Jordan Campbell (right).

The gateways designed by alt_ will also reflect how tight-knit people on the West Side are due to the shared history and the roots many families have in the South, said co-counder Jon Veal.

“Our business is so interconnected. And so for us, we think about our family tree, like how we all kind of are connected within this tree,” Veal said.

The West Side became home for many Black families fled the South in the era of Jim Crow during the Great Migration, and residents want that history to be incorporated into the redesign.

“My parents were born and raised on the West Side as well, too. That makes me think about the Great Migration and the footprint that the West Side served for the city of Chicago. I think that is a huge component of the West Side’s history and story,” said resident Jackie Williams.

The public art will also reference the Ojibwe, Odawa, Potawatomi and Miami nations indigenous to the land before it was colonized, Campbell said.

“A lot of times there’s this huge erasure of these types of histories. And we want those things to actually be at the forefront,” Campbell said. “We’re looking at, like, how can we create something that’s tapping into the past but also leaning in towards the future.”

Residents also requested for the artists to create visual references to West African music and the West Side’s contributions to Chicago’s music history. Sidewalk planters could be designed to resemble African drums, like the djembe, said Malcolm Crawford, executive director of the Austin African American Business Network Association.

The gateways and street banners could also honor music and dance subcultures like the Chicago blues, stepping, bopping, and hip hop. Rap artists like Twista and Da Brat hail from the West Side, and their legacies can be a reminder that residents of Austin can aspire to greatness, said Keli Stewart, founder of the Front Porch Art Center.

“West Side culture has really developed and added to rap culture and hip hop,” said Stewart said. “That would be great to call out the greats who have come from this space that really need to be celebrated.”

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