CHATHAM — A new opportunity to dine, listen to music, play, and bask in the arts opened on the South Side Friday, revitalizing a long-vacant corner and honoring an iconic gospel singer whose work helped transform a nation.
Mahalia Jackson Court, an 8,500-square-foot public plaza named after the famed singer and civil rights activist, opened at 1 E. 79th St., offering daily food trucks, music, art curated by South Shore artist Dorian Sylvain and a natural playscape for children.
Neighbors also can tour an exhibition hall memorializing Jackson in a brightly painted purple container.
The Greater Chatham Initiative received $500,000 in April from the city’s Department of Planning and Development to build the plaza on land owned by the Carter Temple CME Church. The South Side neighborhood group and church leaders collaborated for months to bring the plaza to fruition, they said. The South Side organization also received a $10,000 grant from People’s Gas.
A $50,000 grant from the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events will help local artist Gerald Griffin build a 15-foot bronze statue dedicated to Jackson as she sings to the heavens. Neighbors can see a smaller bronze sample of the piece at the plaza.
It took a “dream team of Black designers and artists,” to bring the Mahalia Jackson Court to Chatham, said Nedra Sims Fears, executive director at the Greater Chatham Initiative. But the community deserves the space and much more to continue to thrive, she said.
Phase two of the court will include a cafe and an entertainment facility with a stage where artists can perform, Fears said.
“It’s our job to give our residents amenities like other neighborhoods,” Fears said. “I hope they appreciate having this place. When they want a food truck, they can come here, have three or four options and have a good time. That’s my intent.”
Originally from New Orleans, Jackson was among thousands of Black people who moved to Chicago during the Great Migration. She came to Chicago in 1927 when she was 16 and lived in various places while she sang at South and West Side churches, according to South Side Weekly.
She settled in Chatham, then a mostly white area, after buying a large, brick ranch house at 8358 S. Indiana Ave. in 1956. She moved to Hyde Park in 1970 and died two years later.
“She was a successful businesswoman, a gospel music pioneer and instrumental in the Civil Rights movement,” Fears previously said of the choice to name the plaza for Jackson. “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 smell of smokey ribs from restaurant I-97 and tunes from past and present floated over the court as local leaders, community organizations, and neighbors gathered Friday afternoon to celebrate the opening. Neighbors also enjoyed a performance from the Carter Temple CME choir.
For neighbors like Sandra Williams, a longtime resident and Carter Temple CME Church member, the plaza will provide a safe space for seniors to gather for food and music after a day of church.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” Williams said. “It feels great to be able to cross the street and this area here. I think a space like this is helpful for seniors. People can get used to seeing these paintings and everything. It’s encouraging.”
Jimmie Williams, co-founder of Urban Roots Inc., a Black-owned landscaping business, received his biggest project to date thanks to the plaza.
The plaza is the first step in the Greater Chatham Initiative’s plan to create the Mahalia Jackson Cultural District along 79th Street, Fears said. Bright banners with Jackson’s face can already be found on street poles.
The district will empower Black businesses and transform 79th Street into a place for culture and growth, Fears said.
“In my heart of hearts, I hope that all of our vacant storefronts are reoccupied by artists and ADA residential housing,” Fears said. “Instead of having vacant storefronts, they’re occupied, and we bring back the vibrancy of 79th Street.”
The court is open 7 a.m.-7 p.m., Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and 12-5 p.m. Sunday.
Neighbors can visit the plaza for “Saturdays At The Mahalia Jackson Court,” a day of music, games, local pop-up vendors and meals from the food truck court 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays until Oct. 9.
The Mahalia Jackson Court is one of 12 spaces supported by the Public Outdoor Plaza program, an initiative that transforms vacant lots into public amenities for neighbors. POPGrove, a plaza on vacant land in Garfield Park, opened in August.
Work will begin on 10 more public plazas supported by $500,000 grants from the Chicago Recovery Plan this summer, including Roseland’s POP! Heights, a 22,000-square-foot outdoor recreational space.
Plazas like the Mahalia Jackson Court are “leaving a positive, long-lasting, and far-reaching impact on our entire city,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said.
“We are now here today changing the narrative once again about what life looks like on the South Side of Chicago; what it looks like in Black Chicago unapologetically,” Lightfoot said. “Reclaiming this space is a tremendous thing.”
The Chatham court is an example of “urban acupuncture,” Maurice Cox, commissioner of the Department of Planning and Development, said.
“You find a stress point in the organ, and you find a pinch point, and you put a targeted intervention right at that spot,” Cox said. “That relieves the pain, and it gets your mind thinking again of what’s possible.”
For the next few years, the Mahalia Jackson Court will offer a place for peace and community building while Carter Temple CME secures funding to begin work on Gateway 79, a mixed-use complex with housing and retail.
The church was one of 11 winners in November of the city’s Equitable Transit-Oriented Development Pilot Program, an initiative that supports developments near transit stations in disinvested communities.
Church leader Rev. Joseph Gordon said the project received $15,000 to gather community feedback through social media, advertise and launch a design contest.
In the next few years, the Mahalia Jackson Court will be dismantled to make way for Gateway 79, Gordon said. Some of the pieces will go with the church while others go with the Chatham neighborhood group, Gordon said.
In the meantime, the church will use the plaza to engage with the community and see what the community wants “not simply at Gateway 79, but in our neighborhood in general,” Gordon said.
“Religious institutions don’t have to simply specialize in faith,” Gordon said. “We’re meant to be community builders. It’s all about making sure that we are mobilizing our communities to build and develop catalytic projects and engagement with the community.
My hope is that this is a safe space for everyone and that people enjoy themselves. When the housing development is finally up, we’ll keep that same energy.”
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