Our Week 6 excursion took us to a string of sites in Greater Woodlawn that provided a glimpse into the mingling of art, green space, housing, youth, and social enterprise throughout the area. Our first stop was the Archive House, one of the program sites of the Rebuild Foundation, where we met with Kate Hadley Toftness. A gallery, micro-library, community nexus, and former administrative hub for Rebuild, the Archive House sits adjacent to the Listening House. Together, the two buildings are home to part of the remaining collection of the now-closed Prairie Avenue Bookshop, portions of the Johnson Publishing Library, and a wealth of other records and reading materials.
From there, we headed to the Stony Island Arts Bank, a formerly dilapidated white-columned structure that is now almost as grand as the story behind it. Originally built in 1923 as a community savings and loan bank, the building was vacated by the 1980s and slated to be torn down by the city due to the public safety hazard it posed. In what Kate described as a huge leap of faith, Theaster Gates invested thousands of dollars of his personal funds into stabilizing the building to prevent its demolition before buying the property for $1 and proceeding with renovations. Upon entering the voluminous gallery, we are surrounded by the exhibition currently on display: vibrant scenes of Chicago’s South Side captured in oil paint by Noah Davis. Jazz sounds emulate from a cluster of musicians rehearsing in one corner. Upstairs in the library, bookshelves upon bookshelves soar from floor to ceiling, each crammed with the contents of Rebuild’s carefully curated archives and collections.
Our next stop is the office of Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH), an organization dedicated to creating, preserving, and sustaining affordable and healthy communities. Felicia Dawson, the Director of Community Engagement, rattles off statistics of shooting deaths in Woodlawn over the past several years. Each year the number has grown smaller, thanks in large part to the revitalizing efforts of organizations such as POAH.
Squash courts and academic classrooms under the same roof greet us at our next destination: MetroSquash. Program Director Brian Tuttle explained the pathway program through which students, beginning in fifth grade and continuing on through college, can come to the state-of-the-art facility to play squash and receive tutoring, homework help, and one-on-one mentoring. The facility offers an improvement over the program’s previous home, split between the old squash courts in UChicago’s Henry Crown Field House and an office for the tutoring component tucked away in University Church.
Lastly, we found welcome refreshment in the form of smoothies and cappuccinos at Greenline Coffee. Not just a place to satisfy a caffeine craving, Greenline is a social enterprise launched in 2014 by Sunshine Enterprises, a branch of Sunshine Gospel Ministries, whose mission is renewal in the city of Chicago. Customers and employees chatter in the warm, upbeat atmosphere of the coffee shop – one of only a handful of storefronts located in the area. Joel Hamernick, the Executive Director of both Sunshine Gospel Ministries and Sunshine Enterprises, tells us that though his belief in the importance of caring for one’s community is rooted in faith, religion is not a part of the enterprises supported by Sunshine. Rather, much like many of the individuals and organizations we encountered on this excursion through the oft-overlooked neighborhood right in our backyard, the main goal is to uplift the Woodlawn community and see its members thrive.
By: Tamar Honig