CHATHAM — A public plaza is being built in Chatham as soon as this summer, creating a place to honor a legendary gospel singer and celebrate the arts.
The Greater Chatham Initiative received $500,000 from the city’s Department of Planning and Development to build Mahalia Jackson Court on an 8,500-square-foot site owned by the Carter Temple CME Church, 1-21 E. 79th St. The neighborhood group and church leaders will collaborate to bring the plaza to fruition.
The court named for the gospel singer and civil rights activist will include a cafe, space for food trucks and pop-up businesses, natural playscapes and recreation areas, organizers said. The plaza is scheduled to be complete by June.
“The community deserves beautiful places for families to visit and just be,” said Nedra Sims Fears, executive director at the Greater Chatham Initiative. “We decided that the court was the perfect opportunity to make that vision come alive. We want to honor people who live in the community and make their lives a little better.”
The Mahalia Jackson Court was made possible through the Public Outdoor Plaza program, an initiative that transforms vacant lots into public amenities for neighbors and visitors. The city selected the Mahalia Jackson Court in Chatham and POPGrove in West Garfield Park out of eight proposals submitted in February. The city program will fund 10 plazas across the West and South sides.
Carter Temple CME Church also was among 11 organizations to receive grants in the city’s Equitable Transit-Oriented Development pilot, designed to encourage projects near public transit. The church aims to create the Gateway 79 project, a housing and retail building.
Church leader the Rev. Joseph Gordon said the project received $15,000 to gather community feedback through social media, advertise and launch a design contest.
Once built, Mahalia Jackson Court plaza will stay in place until the church has enough funding to begin work on Gateway 79, Gordon said. Church leaders hope to break ground in 2024 for Gateway 79. Until then, the plaza is “exactly what the community needs,” Gordon said.
“We wanted to use the plaza to garner interest for Gateway 79 and provide the community a space for congregating, fellowshipping, and celebrating the arts,” Gordon said. “It will be a community space to give those in the Chatham community a place for ownership, opportunity and respite from the heaviness of the world.”
Gordon said small concerts, art and exercise classes and spoken word nights are planned for the Mahalia Jackson Court.
“We are excited about this opportunity and phasing out this project,” Gordon said. “We are excited about getting some life, vibrancy and energy on 79th and State before Gateway 79 breaks ground.”
Naming the plaza after Mahalia Jackson was an easy choice, Fears said. A former Chatham resident, Jackson was “important and iconic,” Fears said.
“She was a successful businesswoman, a gospel music pioneer and instrumental in the Civil Rights movement,” Fears said. “I used to walk by her house going to school every day, and she was both a goddess and a real person who lived in our community. Why not honor her?”
The plaza will include a mural dedicated to Jackson and imagery of her music, Fears said. Dorian Sylvain, a local artist and muralist, will spearhead the vision of the plaza. Krueck Sexton Partner, an architecture practice, will construct the space.
The Mahalia Jackson Court will be an ode to the families that live in Chatham and the commuters who use the 79th Street bus line, Fears said. The play area will cater to the early care education centers nearby. The food trucks will be ideal for parents who need a plan for dinner after a stressful day, and the cafe will offer a cup of coffee, a pastry or a magazine to commuters before they begin their day, Fears said.
There’s a “little bit of something” for everyone, Fears said.
In the end, the plaza will make way for a significant project the community has always needed: Gateway 79.
“This is a temporary placeholder,” Fears said. “Seventy-ninth and State is one of the welcome intersections to Chatham. Instead of an empty lot, we get Gateway 79, a beautiful building that signals the rebirth of the corridor. We get that beautiful phoenix.”
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