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Bronzeville, Near South Side

This Old ‘L’ Station Is Now A Hub For South Side Businesses Thanks To A UChicago Program

L1, set up inside the city's oldest "L" station in Washington Park, hosts South Side entrepreneurs who are considering expanding their businesses to a brick-and-mortar storefront.

L1 fellows Andrea Polk (l), Peter Gaona, and Tiffany Joi.
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WASHINGTON PARK — Two years ago, Peter Gaona was selling his socially conscious clothing line out of a shipping container as one of Boxville Bronzeville’s inaugural tenants. Now, the ReformedSchool founder and CEO is one of three inaugural tenants leasing space at L1, a retail space from University of Chicago’s Arts + Public Life initiative.

L1, 319 E. Garfield Blvd., is part of the university’s Business Accelerator Program, which offers training and support to creative entrepreneurs. Launched in 2020, the program offers selected participants a 20-month fellowship in which they receive discounted rental space and mentoring. Three fellows were selected from 65 applicants.

Gaona and his fellow tenants — Andrea Polk of Solo Noir and Zen Soul Apothecary, and Hemp Heals Body Shop owner Tiffany Joi — moved into L1 this fall and will spend the year building their respective businesses in the building, a 700-square-foot former Green Line station and the city’s first “L” station built in 1892. Their residencies conclude after the 2022 holiday season.

The goal of the University of Chicago program is to give entrepreneurs time to decide whether they want to branch out to their own brick-and-mortar shop or stick to e-commerce, said Erin Venable, assistant director of communications for Arts + Public Life.

The experience has been invaluable for Gaona, a lifelong South Sider, who sees the initiative as a necessary community investment. Also, living in the neighborhood where you work is a plus, he said.

The program also teaches the selected entrepreneurs how to work with each other, each learning when to lead and when to fall back, Gaona said.

“We’re seeing all these bigger box stores like Target and Starbucks come in, and [retail] rents are crazy,” Gaona said. “It’s good that they’re cultivating small businesses to possibly get involved and take up some of that real estate, as well.”

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The Arts + Public Life L1 Retail Store is giving business owners the opportunity to experience running a brick and mortar store before striking out on their own.

L1 is the latest addition to the Arts Block, the university’s name for the converted Green Line station. The university is leasing the building from the CTA.

With the Arts Incubator, the Green Line Performing Arts Center and the friendly relationship with Rebuild Foundation’s Retreat at Currency Exchange, a once-neglected stretch of Garfield Boulevard has become a destination for the city’s creative class.

Silver Room owner Eric Williams serves as a L1 fellowship mentor. Proximity, the Silver Room Foundation’s philanthropic arm, is a fellowship partner.

Other South Side small business owners serve as program jurors, Venable said.

The store is closed to allow the cohort to regroup and restock their inventory, with a scheduled reopening Feb. 1. Gaona said he is taking the downtime to find inspiration for his next designs and work on a coloring book collaboration.

“This definitely makes me want to open a store of my own,” he said.

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