Posts by Author: Audrey F. Henderson

The Future of Power Distribution Arrives on the South Side

This model of the Bronzeville Microgrid district is on display at the Robert W. Galvin Center for Electricity Innovation at the Illinois Institute of Technology. (Photo by Audrey Henderson)

On Chicago’s South Side, one outgrowth of the Great Migration of African Americans from the Jim Crow South during the early and mid-20th century was an outpouring of scientific and business innovation. Daniel Hale Williams, an African American surgeon based in Chicago, was one of the first to perform successful open heart surgery. Supreme Life Insurance, the first black-owned insurance company in the northern United States was founded in the area that has become known as Bronzeville.

Cultural riches also flourished in Bronzeville. Thomas Dorsey drew inspiration from grief to become known as the Father of Gospel music. Literary figures like Lorraine Hansberry and poet Gwendolyn Brooks made their homes there. Influential black-owned newspapers such as the Chicago Bee, and the Chicago Defender(still in publication today), along with Johnson Publications, home of Ebonyand Jet, were all established in Bronzeville.

Therefore, it seems fitting that Bronzeville emerged as the optimal location for a 10-year pilot microgrid project by Commonwealth Edison — Chicago’s electricity utility, also known as ComEd. The project will be on showcase this week during the 2018 Greenbuild Conference in Chicago.

A microgrid is defined as a local energy grid connected to the main grid, but which can also operate autonomously during an emergency. The Bronzeville microgrid is included as part of ComEd’s Community of the Future in Bronzeville initiative. A comprehensive study of locations within ComEd’s service area within northern Illinois revealed that locating the microgrid in Bronzeville provided the optimal potential for security, resiliency and “an ability to promote public good.”

The boundaries for the Bronzeville microgrid footprint are 33rd Street to the North, 38th Street to the South, State Street to the West, and South Dr. Martin L. King Jr. Drive to the East. The completed project will serve approximately 1,060 residential commercial and industrial customers.

Construction began on June 26, 2018. Ten facilities will benefit, including the City of Chicago Public Safety Headquarters; De La Salle Institute, a Catholic high school located adjacent to campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology; Perspectives/IIT Math & Science Academy; a library, public works buildings, restaurants, health clinics, public transportation, educational facilities, and churches, according to ComEd.

“It’s really a major learning experience and opportunity to gain information relative to the integration of renewable energy into our system,” says David O’Dowd, corporate communications and reputation management for ComEd. “It is a great way to be able to do that and at the same time provide increased resiliency for the Bronzeville community.”

ComEd developed the microgrid project in close cooperation with both the Bronzeville Community Development Partnership and the Illinois Institute of Technology. The Partnership is a grassroots economic development organization focused on information technology, heritage tourism, hospitality, workforce development, preservation and sustainability. Showcasing the microgrid at Greenbuild, one of the world’s most prominent sustainability conferences, was a logical choice for the Partnership, according to founder Paula Robinson.

“We see preservation as the highest form of sustainability. We’ve been saving and restoring some of the city’s most important historical landmarks for years. The Bronzeville community’s movement into environmental and energy sustainability is vital to preserving our history and our community going forward,” Robinson says.

Paula Robinson speaks during the Illinois Institute of Technology Smart Cities Workshop on Oct. 24, 2018. The workshop was organized by the Illinois Institute of Technology Sustainable Business Innovation Clinic and Commonwealth Edison. (Photo by Audrey Henderson)

ComEd encountered numerous challenges in launching the microgrid. In 2016, the utility was unsuccessful in its bid to impose the cost for five microgrids to ratepayers in a comprehensive energy bill passed by the state. Controversy also surrounded whether a single microgrid should be defined as a power plant or a distribution plant — the ultimate designation would determine whether the utility could retain ownership of the microgrid and require ratepayers to cover its costs.

ComEd finally received approval from the Illinois Commerce Commission in February 2018. A $5 million grant from the Department of Energy will cover a fraction of the total projected costs of $30 million. The remainder will be covered by $25 million charged to ComEd’s ratepayers. ComEd, however, will not retain microgrid generation ownership. Instead, the utility will issue requests for proposals to buy or lease microgrid generation from private electricity generation providers.

Once the microgrid is completed, there will be a 10-year pilot period during which the microgrid will be tested and measured on a series of metrics. These metrics include grid security and reliability, optimal microgrid site locations, energy resource coordination with the larger energy grid, operation within and independent from the larger grid, adaptability to emerging technologies, and possible economic development benefits for the area surrounding the microgrid, according to O’Dowd.

ComEd has planned initiatives related to the microgrid designed to benefit the larger Bronzeville community. Projects either in the planning stages or already underway include an electric vehicle transportation service, sensor-based technologies, off-grid wind and solar-powered LED streetlights, an outdoor interactive digital display technology providing community news, and free Wi-Fi throughout the area.

ComEd also hosted an Ideathon in December 2017 for high school students in Bronzeville to provide young people with opportunities to apply STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) skills to design smart city and smart grid technologies. Finalists advanced to a “Spark Tank” event in May 2018 where cash prizes were awarded.

Projects like these, along with the microgrid, fall precisely in line with the vision that Robinson has for the area.

“It has been our ability to develop partnerships and marshal local resources from tech and energy section leaders like ComEd, Illinois Institute of Technology and the Illinois Green Alliance that will enable us to retrofit and repurpose our historical landmarks into tech and data centers. It is why the nation’s first clustered microgrid is now being installed in Bronzeville,” Robinson says.

 

Making Space for Bravery in the Struggle for Human Rights

(Photo courtesy of Brave Space Alliance)

One of the first moves of the Trump Administration was to remove the LGBT Rights webpage on whitehouse.gov that had been created by the Obama Administration. While it’s true that archiving the material of a prior administration is standard operating procedure, over the past two years the Trump administration has systematically acted to eliminate or roll back references and materials and policies pertaining to the LGBTQ community from official government websites.

The Trump Administration has also attempted to bar transgender individuals from serving in the military, and has rolled back protections for incarcerated transgender individuals. More recently, the administration has proposed a requirement for individuals to be identified based on their assigned gender at birth, which would reverse policy set by the Obama Administration that allowed transgender and nonconforming individuals to determine their own gender identity.

The Trump Administration has even pushed to remove references to “gender” from United Nations human rights documents, replacing with the word “woman” in most instances.

“I hate to say this but a lot of people don’t see trans people as humans, right? Trans people [aren’t allowed] to do their own thing or have their own power. When people see that, they feel uncomfortable,” says LaSaia Wade, founder and executive director of Brave Space Alliance, based in Chicago.

Brave Space Alliance has made it its mission to resist the policies and actions of the Trump Administration against transgendered and gender nonconforming individuals, and to empower these individuals space to express their authentic selves.

“We needed something to hold other organizations accountable especially around transgender and nonconforming issues. And Brace Space Alliance has been that wheel throughout Chicago and pushing politics around the life and protection of transgender nonconforming (people),” Wade says.

Wade, a native of Chicago Heights, identifies as an openly queer trans woman of African and Puerto Rican heritage. She left Chicago at age 16 to attend high school and college in Tennessee, and then relocated for a time to California where she received training and experience in activism and politics. She has been back in the Chicago area for the past six years. She never had any doubt that she would return.

“You never go too far from Chicago,” she says.

Brave Space Alliance is the result of an two existing organizations with similar political goals coming together: the Black Gender Trans Nonconforming Collective and Trans Liberation Collective.

In its charitable and political work, Brave Space Alliance provides a platform for the voices of transgender individuals, especially those of color. The organization works toward gaining and maintaining a seat at the table in shaping issues affecting the LGTBQ community in Chicago. The Alliance focuses its efforts on three areas: health and wellness, leadership development, and visibility. Among its ongoing efforts are monthly job preparedness and campaign organizing workshops. Above all, Brave Space Alliance strives to allow trans people tell their own stories on their own terms, according to Wade.

“Having conversations around transphobia is a different conversation than having a conversation around homophobia. A lot of people use ‘queer’ and (talk about) queer politics but don’t understand about allowing trans people to take their own power,” Wade says.

Being true to itself as an organization has led to some hard choices. Previously, Brave Space Alliance was housed in a space that included a recording studio and other facilities, which provided a key space for its clients to exercise their right to self-expression. The space, however, ultimately proved to be unwelcoming to the Alliance’s transgender clientele, despite being very welcoming to gay people and lesbians, according to Wade. As a result, Brave Space Alliance recently moved out, and is seeking another space.

“It’s okay in a lot of these places to be gay or bisexual or lesbian but never a trans woman or trans person,” Wade explains. “So we moved out of that space and we are not able to go back to that particular space for the recording aspect. But hopefully within the next few months we will be able to have our own space that we’ll be able to design and do things like that.”

In the meantime, Brave Space Alliance has continued to provide services and offer culturally-oriented activities through cooperation with other organizations, Wade says.

“We still connect with other collective organizations that have spaces and ask them if we can use (their) space for an hour or two. We have a couple of organizations that we talk to and ask if it’s okay to use their space for a few hours every other week,” Wade says.

Brave Space Alliance continues to plan such events as “TRANScending the Binary with Wellness: Day of Care and Community.” Planned activities and services include hair touch ups, manicures, arts and crafts, body work, music, food and tea.

Later this month, Hydrate nightclub has scheduled “Hydrate Won’t Erase You,” a benefit on behalf of Brave Space Alliance. Hosted by Mimi Marks, the benefit also features scheduled performances by Kelly Lauren, Sara Andrews, Monica Dejesus Anaya, Sasha Love, Sorraya Dash Lopez and others.

Wade prefers local initiatives such as these, rather than attempting to act on a national level. Politically, Brave Space Alliance has engaged politicians such as Illinois governor-elect J.B. Pritzker. Brave Space Alliance has been in communication with Pritzker for about eight to ten months, with positive interactions, Wade says. There were no such attempts to reach out to outgoing Republican Governor Bruce Rauner, according to Wade. (“I already knew that was a closed and shut case. No ma’am. I’m black, I’m trans and I’m queer? No,” Wade says about contacting Rauner.)

Interactions with other politicians have had mixed results, mainly because of requests for photo-ops, according to Wade. “Because I’m a figurehead I try hard not to take pictures with a lot of people. And the first thing [candidates] want to do is take photos,” she says.

Wade made an exception for a photo-op in Oct. 2018, when Brave Space Alliance and the Legacy Project unveiled a plaque of trans activist Marsha P. Johnson on Halsted Street in Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood on the North Side. She posed with Legacy Walk Executive director Victor Salvo and Gloria Allen, a trans woman who led a charm school for trans girls and women for a photo beside the plaque of Johnson at the conclusion of the ceremony.

The unveiling was a celebration of Johnson’s extraordinary life, in keeping with a shift in philosophy of Brave Space Alliance from an emphasis on safety to promoting bravery.

“We’re doing multiple things. We’re creating toolkits around how to survive Trump. We’re still humans; we’re still people. They cannot erase us,” Wade says.

This article is part of “For Whom, By Whom,” a series of articles about how creative placemaking can expand opportunities for low-income people living in disinvested communities. This series is generously underwritten by the Kresge Foundation.

 

What If Hip Hop Can Make Architecture and Planning Better?

Participants of an Aug. 2018 Hip-Hop Architecture Camp in Chicago. (Credit: M.O.D. Photography, courtesy of Michael Ford)

In Feb. 2017, the city of Madison, Wis., was developing its comprehensive plan. Michael Ford noticed that the plan, which projects 20 years into the future, had no input from young people.

“You have these planning meetings and it’s the same people in the room,” says Ford. “We were looking 20 years into the future, we have young people who are going to inherit that plan while they are in their prime. They should be at the table talking about it.”

So he pitched the office of Mayor Paul Soglin. The way that the meetings were set up right now, he told the mayor’s office, it’s not interesting to young people. But he had a “crazy idea to do something with hip-hop.”

As a student pursuing a master’s degree in architecture at the University of Detroit, Michael Ford observed cross-pollination between hip-hop culture and architecture. For Ford, a Detroit native, hip-hop tracks such as “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five represented observations on the ground about how failures in architecture and design often disproportionally adversely impact low-income black and brown communities.

Ford detailed his observations in his master’s thesis, entitled “Hip-Hop Inspired Architecture and Design.” Since then, Ford has shared his insights in a series of presentations, including a TedX Madison talk titled “Hip-Hop Architecture: the Post Occupancy Report of Modernism,” a multi-media presentation at the national convention for the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) in Chicago, and, most recently, a Super Soul Short film produced by Oprah.com.

In Madison, those observations culminated in what became the first Hip Hop Architecture Camp. Hosted by the Madison Public Library system over a series of four Saturdays, the camp invited young people from underserved areas of Madison to plan and build models of their neighborhoods. Participants also had a chance to work with local hip-hop aficionado Rob Franklin, aka “Rob Dz” at the library’s recording studio. The camp earned the Madison Public Library system a “Top Innovators” Award from the Urban Libraries Council in 2017.

“Madison Public Library provided us with space; the planning department provided the funds. I paid for a lot of the stuff myself as well just hoping it would grow afterward. It was much more successful than even we imagined,” Ford says.

For Ford, the Hip-Hop Architecture Camps have become a way to introduce young people to architecture and design who otherwise would have likely never had exposure to the fields. He has since conducted additional Hip Hop Architecture Camps in Tempe, Ariz.; Chicago, Ill.; Evansville, Ind.; Prince George’s County Md.; Boston, Mass.; Detroit, Mich.; Kansas City and St. Louis, Mo.; The Bronx, N.Y.; Toledo, Ohio; Portland, Ore.; Lake City, S.C.; Austin, Texas; Milwaukee, Wis; and also Toronto and Vancouver, Canada. Ford plans to have the camps become an annual event for each city that has previously hosted them.

Autodesk sponsors the camps, nationally. Ford had been working with the engineering and design software company on the Universal Hip-Hop Museum in the Bronx. “I shared what’s happening with the camps with Autodesk and I think it was a natural fit for them as well,” he says. “The camp allowed people to use their software in ways that they may not originally have intended but it also allowed us to introduce architecture and design [to young people]. So Autodesk provided us with some funding to take this program and make it national.”

Each camp addresses issues that related to a particular community. For instance, in Detroit, the Black Bottom neighborhood had been destroyed years earlier by an expressway. Today, however, the sunken expressway is being backfilled and reconstructed as a surface street. Camp participants addressed possible ways to mitigate the damage.

In Chicago, camp participants addressed gun violence, writing and performing a video titled “Build the Hood Up.”

“So, like hip-hop, every region or city or state is going to have a different sound but also different things that they’re addressing in the music, and I think the camps should be the same way,” Ford explains. “So I listen to the music, listen to the young people in that region and that’s where the program is derived from for the camp. The process of how we generate our architecture is always the same but the exact (product) that we’re generating is unique.”

Along with conducting Hip Hop Architecture Camps for young people, Ford and hip-hop recording artist Lupe Fiasco developed the idea of conducting sessions of cross-disciplinary groups of designers and architects, including NOMA members invited by Ford and rappers from a group called the Society of Spoken Art, invited by Lupe Fiasco (who co-founded the group). That concept evolved into a series of what Ford calls “Hip-Hop Architecture Design Cyphers,” so far conducting two in New York City along with one each in Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Detroit.

“The Cyphers are all about exchanging information but it’s also a challenge,” says Ford. “You better come correct or you’re going to get pushed out of the circle. But it’s (also) very supportive, we really challenge each other, we really push the boundaries of the culture but also of design as well.”

The Cyphers have helped Ford generate ideas and themes for real projects in an inclusive way. “I used this process to generate ideas for the Universal Hip-Hop Museum which ultimately helped them create their capital campaign,” Ford says.

The Cyphers included input from hip-hop rappers and artists, deejays, and graffiti artists as well as urban planners and architects, contributing insights in an equal exchange. One exercise involved highlighting different rhyme schemes with the guidance of the rappers. Those structures were then transformed into architectural patterns and structures with the guidance of the architects and urban designers. The Cyphers have also produced concepts and videos used part of the Hip Hop Architecture Camp curriculum.

“We did the same exact [process] with these professionals and artists, seeing what could happen when you combined hip-hop and architecture together,” says Ford. “The only difference there was that we were no longer studying and thinking about what the artists intended. We had the artists right there in front of us who can explain their processes for getting rhyme schemes into the structure of a song, and we were able to convert those schemes and structures into architecture right there on the spot.”

Michael Ford delivering a Hip-Hop Architecture presentation at the 2018 Annual Conference of the National Organization of Minority Architects, Oct. 2018. (Photo by Audrey Henderson)

Meanwhile, the Hip Hop Architecture Camps have also gone global. A coincidence resulted in Ford conducting a special Hip Hop Architecture Camp at the Samburu Girls Foundation in Loosuk, Maralal, in Kenya, during June 2018. He was conducting a workshop to design a teen space at a public library in Madison and needed to use a laser cutter. He remembered that there was one at the School of Human Ecology on the University of Wisconsin campus. While he was using the laser cutter the professor who let him use the tool mentioned that she was organizing a trip to help with the Samburu Girls Foundation, which rescues young girls from early marriage and female genital mutilation. Ford decided he wanted to join the trip to the foundation’s campus, which includes a school for 500 girls but not much else — yet.

“We were able to do a camp and allow the young girls to envision the campus,” says Ford. “We also were able to work with Zero Mass Water and give them access to fresh, clean drinking water.”

Through Ford’s ties to hip-hop artists Lupe Fiasco and Nikki Jean, he was able to connect the foundation with Zero Mass Water, which has a technology that extracts water vapor from the air to create clean drinking water on the spot. Where before the foundation had to have all its water delivered, now they can get some of their water from 40 of the company’s solar-powered water panels.

The trip to Kenya, while not originally part of the itinerary for the Hip Hop Architecture Camp, turned out to be an ideal means of putting its principles into action, according to Ford.

“If you had asked me last year was I going to go to Africa and give 500 girls access to water I would have said no. I don’t see how that’s going to happen. But with the mission we have of using design to solve issues it was a natural fit,” Ford says.

 

St. Louis Wants More Artists to Drive Civic Engagement

First-time filmmaker Alana Flowers plans to tell the story of Kinloch, once a thriving black community in the St. Louis metro that has since been hollowed out. (Photo by Oscar Perry Abello)

Established in 1948, Kinloch was Missouri’s first incorporated all-black city. In its heyday, Kinloch had a population of more than 10,000. Today, the population of Kinloch is less than 200. Much of the land where houses, mom and pop shops and other establishments once stood in this once-vibrant enclave is cleared of structures and overgrown with brush, according to Alana Flowers, a St. Louis native presently shooting a documentary called “The Kinloch Doc” to chronicle the history and decimation of Kinloch.

Although Flowers has never lived in Kinloch, Her grandparents lived there until they were bought out. The 28-year-old feels a deep connection to the now largely-abandoned city.

“There are a lot of people my age that don’t know anything about the city or how they may have relatives that came from that city, the importance of it, the historic value of it — so that’s the educational component of it,” says Flowers. “The advocacy component is nationwide. I want people to acknowledge the Kinlochs in their area, to prevent what happened in Kinloch from happening in their communities.”

Flowers received a $3,000 grant from the St. Louis Regional Arts Commission to help fund the project. Flowers was one of approximately 20 recipients of grants ranging from a few hundred dollars up to about $5,000 each, awarded by the commission during one of two grant cycles executed each year. The Kinloch Doc and the $3,000 grant illustrate a shift in what the commission is asking artists to do — and whom it is asking to participate in the arts.

In a comprehensive report called “Arts &: A Creative Vision for St. Louis,” released on Sept. 13, 2018, the Regional Arts Commission lays out a plan that promises to broaden participation in the arts, while also positioning arts and artists as more active forces in civic engagement, particularly around issues of racial equity.

“Today, a chorus of voices awakened by the events of Ferguson seeks to be heard, demanding our community address the inequities that led to the civil unrest and find lasting solutions,” the report’s introduction begins. “More than ever, we are a divided community in need of new bridges and connections to recognize our full potential. Every sector of our community needs to do more and respond differently than it did several years ago.”

The commission, which gets its funding from a slice of the city’s occupancy tax on hotel and motel guests, wants to tap into the convening power of the arts to help build those bridges and connections.

“We traditionally think of the arts as a place where you go and buy a ticket and sit down in front of somebody else doing it — how do we get people to want to pick up that guitar and play with someone else?” says Felicia Shaw, executive director of the Regional Arts Commission. “The reason why tapping into your own creativity is really important to us is … that’s where civic engagement happens. That’s where people get to know their neighbors and they get to activate their neighborhoods. They’re coming out of their neighborhoods and singing together, dancing together, they’re playing musical instruments together and that’s where the coalitions get formed.”

According to Shaw, the “Arts &” report grew out of a community engagement process called EVOKE St. Louis, which the Commission launched in June 2017.

“We wanted to engage in a conversation with the broadest public about the role of the arts in people’s lives and asking one other very important question — how can the arts play a stronger role in making St. Louis a better place to live?” says Shaw. “We engaged over 3,000 St. Louis (area) residents in the city and county, as far east as East St. Louis and as far west as St. Charles, and we used individual artists to help people evoke stories of their lives and talk about ways that they think the arts could be more impactful.”

For Flowers, who earned a bachelors degree in communications from the University of Missouri at Columbia and a master’s degree in social work from Washington University in St. Louis, her family’s story is what ultimately inspired her to become a filmmaker.

“Everybody’s not a politician. Everybody’s not an activist. Everybody’s not an educator. So I think the Regional Arts Commission is creating another avenue in supporting people who kind of think outside the box,” says Flowers. “It was very affirming for me for them to see potential in my work. It was affirming to me to know, OK, I am doing the right thing. I am supposed to be doing this.”

When researching the city of Kinloch, the most Flowers knew about it was her family was from there. “I never lived there so I never knew much about it other than what was told to me,” she says. “So me being me … maybe I could find a film on it. And my friend who was getting her PhD from the University of Missouri St. Louis was like, ‘Alana, why don’t you just make one? (a film)’ And I said okay, and that’s literally how that happened.”

Flowers completed a nine-month media production training program beginning in August 2017 conducted by Continuity to learn the technical fundamentals of filmmaking. The training helped her make connections, including one of her instructors, Quinsonta Boyd, who is now working as the videographer for her documentary. They’ve produced a four-minute short film so far, which played at the St. Louis Filmmaker Showcase, and Flowers has since received an invitation to show the film at the St. Louis International Film Festival in November. “I don’t know [yet] if I want it to be episodic or if I want to do a full feature,” Flowers says.

Flowers hopes to be finished with filming by February 2019, and is still seeking additional funding for filming and post production.

This article is part of “For Whom, By Whom,” a series of articles about how creative placemaking can expand opportunities for low-income people living in disinvested communities. This series is generously underwritten by the Kresge Foundation.

 

A Chance to Walk in a Refugee’s Shoes from Overseas to Your City

Cell phones and a makeshift charging apparatus that can be found in refugee camps around the world. (Photo by Audrey Henderson)

Displaced persons often leave their homes with little more than the clothes on their backs; along with whatever they can carry, including cash, food, water — and cell phones.

Although refugees, displaced persons, migrants and asylum-seekers are predominantly poor, the vast majority have cell phones, which are among the most valuable possessions for displaced persons, according to Marcos Leitao, an administrator and training facilitator with Médicines Sans Frontières (MSF), known in the United States as Doctors Without Borders.

Originally from Brazil, Leitao joined MSF in 2010 after a catastrophic earthquake in Haiti. Since then he has worked in some of the world’s most troubled locations, including Niger, Colombia, Afghanistan and South Sudan. He was one of several MSF workers assigned to conduct tours through the Forced from Home exhibition, installed in Chicago from Sept. 23-30 outside Daley Plaza, in the heart of the Loop.

Forced from Home is a three-year project MSF designed to highlight the plight of displaced persons across the globe, giving visitors a chance to walk a few minutes or a few hours in the shoes of some of the newer neighbors they might not realize they have. MSF chose exhibition locations specifically to illustrate the fact that displacement is increasingly an urban phenomenon.

Minneapolis hosted the exhibition at The Commons from Sept. 9-16. After leaving Chicago, the exhibition will be installed at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, N.C. from Oct. 7-14. After that, the exhibition heads south to West Park Plaza in Atlanta from October 21-28. The last stop for the exhibition is the Western Lot of the Main Plaza in San Antonio, Texas, from Nov. 4-11. Exhibitions in each location are free and open to the public.

“The first year we were on the East Coast, last year we were on the West Coast, so this year we’re focusing on the mid-Central region. We wanted to have a distribution across the U.S.,” says Erin Ching, a logistician with MSF. “We wanted to look at major metropolitan cities as well where we could bring awareness of this issue. Chicago actually does have a large refugee population – one of the largest Rohingya populations outside of Bangladesh and Myanmar.”

In fact, an April 2016 Chicago Tribune story reported that presently Chicago has nearly 1,000 Rohingya refugees in approximately 300 families, the majority of whom live in Rogers Park on the city’s far North Side and Albany Park on the city’s Northwest Side. According to the article, Rohingya refugees began arriving in Chicago in 2013. Earlier in 2016, the Zakat Foundation of America, an Islamic nonprofit organization, sponsored the opening of the Rohingya Cultural Center in a storefront in West Rogers Park that includes meeting space and computers.

Displacement as a phenomenon is increasing rapidly due to war, natural disasters and other factors, along with countries enacting ever-tightening refugee and asylum-seeker policies, according to Ching.

In just the last 10 years, displaced persons worldwide went from 33 million, to 42 million, to now 68.5 (million), Ching says.

“Increasingly across the globe you see closed-door migration policies. And we’re trying to show people that seeking safety is not a crime, that people are forced from their homes, and give them an understanding of what that journey actually looks like, and the challenges that they face,” she adds.

As part of the Forced from Home exhibition, MSF workers guide groups of approximately 20 participants through a series of stations designed to demonstrate conditions faced by displaced persons as they attempt to make their way to safety. The entire tour requires approximately one hour. The tours are designed to be accessible to people with mobility issues as well as to those whose native language is not English, according to Ching.

“It was important to us that we open this exhibition to as many people as possible. So that means that every time we set up a site we make sure it’s ADA compliant,” says Ching. Tours are available in different languages. MSF flies guides in from its staff across the world — in Chicago, there was a Hungarian speaker, a Polish speaker, Spanish, French, Italian, and English of course. Each Saturday in Chicago the exhibition offered tours in American Sign Language for the deaf and hard-of-hearing.

Each tour begins with each member receiving an “identity” card that identifies their status as refugee, internally displaced person or asylum seeker, along with their country of origin. The group is then gathered into a 360-degree video dome featuring streaming video of locations where MSF provides assistance to displaced persons.

At the next stop, the group gathers to learn about various “push factors” that force displaced persons from their homes, ranging from fear of persecution to natural disasters. At this station, each person is allowed 30 seconds to gather five plastic cards that represent various necessities to take along for the remainder of the tour, including medicines, money, passports, cell phones, shoes and clothing or family memorabilia and valuables such as photos or jewelry.

The next station is a small inflatable raft with a gas powered motor attached and life jackets lying inside. Each participant must relinquish one of their five cards to enter the raft. Men sit along the edges of the raft, while women and children are placed inside.

“If you are in this raft, you are the lucky ones. There are others who are still waiting,” Leitao explained.

During an actual dislocation journey, many inside the raft are actually not so lucky. They often suffer serious burns on their backs from heat generated by the gas engine. Some are so weak after leaving the raft that they must receive immediate medical attention, Leitao said.

At the next station, participants are required to give up another card. The group is instructed to stand on either side of a chain link a fence, according to their legal status: asylum seekers and refugees on one side, internally displaced persons on the other. This exercise is meant to symbolize the fact that asylum seekers and refugees have some protections under international law — however, internally displaced persons have no rights under international law since they remain under the jurisdiction of their home countries, Leitao explained.

Participants must relinquish another card at the next station, which represents basic needs: food, clothing, clean water and medications, as well as cell phone chargers. At this station, Leitao explains how a stand-up latrine works to the astonished group participants. He also explains how displaced persons carry phones along with lists of contact information. Cell phones provide an essential means of communicating with family members and loved ones. Displacement camps are often equipped with chargers powered by solar panels or gasoline generators. The service is not free, Leitao said.

“Everything has a price,” Leitao explained.

An example of a stand-up latrine that can be found in refugee camps around the world. (Photo by Audrey Henderson)

At the next station, participants relinquish another card. Here, Leitao explained that many displaced persons arrive at the camp malnourished and sick. He also explained that many ailments are caused by poor conditions displaced persons must endure.

At the final station, each participant in the group is only holding a single card. The group observes a series of tents, each containing items from actual displacement camps. The small tents typically house entire families, who may remain in displacement camps for years.

After the conclusion of the tour, participants are invited to visit the virtual reality tent, where one of six immersive documentaries illustrate experiences from displaced persons in six regions: a Honduran family that has fled to Mexico, a Rohingya family from Myanmar located in Bangladesh, a Syrian refugee at Domiz Camp in Iraq, Palestinian and Syrian refugees in Shatila Camp in Lebanon, a 21-year-old refugee from Burundi located in Tanzania and an internally displaced family at Bentiu Camp in South Sudan.

Before exiting the exhibition, visitors pass through the “Take Action” tent, where they can learn more about how they can help displaced persons – either by volunteering for overseas duty with MSF or by working with organizations in their own locations.

“A lot of people come to the exhibition and say ‘I want to get involved but I’m not going to leave my 9 to 5 to go overseas’ or ‘I’m a parent, I have a family here’ so we wanted to highlight ways that people could get involved locally,” Ching says.

 

New Mural Brings Spotlight to Chicago Bike Trail

Bernard Williams designed a Chicago mural that captures the life of champion cyclist Marshall "Major" Taylor. (Photo by Bernard Williams)

Fans of an underused Chicago bike path that’s more than 6 miles long hope a welcoming new mural will encourage more cycle traffic and amplify the green space’s value as an important community asset. They want the artwork, which was created with input from current users, to spur additional investment and boost the larger effort to make Marshall “Major” Taylor Trail a more popular destination.

“[The trail] has brought the community together,” says Peter Taylor, president of Friends of the Major Taylor Trail. He says that back when the path was a defunct rail line, it was a “dividing line, a dumping ground, an eyesore. Now residents use the trail to walk and ride. But many are still unaware and uninvolved.”

The Major Taylor Trail runs north to south through several far south side Chicago neighborhoods. The new 400-foot-long mural is on a bridge that crosses the Little Calumet River in the West Pullman neighborhood. The work documents the life of Marshall “Major” Taylor, for whom the trail was named when it opened in 2007.

Born in rural Indiana in 1878, Taylor grew up in Indianapolis. He got his first bike when he was about 12. A local bike shop hired him to perform stunts outside the shop wearing a soldier’s uniform. That’s where he picked up the “Major.” At age 13, Taylor entered his first bicycle race as a joke — and won. He went on to race regularly and frequently called out racism in the track competition world. By 1899, he held seven world records. He wrote an autobiography called “The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World.”

Despite his talent and accomplishments, at the end of his life, Taylor faced poor health and poverty, and he died in 1932 in the charity ward of Chicago’s Cook County Hospital. In 1948, a group of bicycle enthusiasts, including Frank Schwinn, arranged to have Taylor’s body exhumed and reinterred in a gravesite in Mount Greenwood, Illinois, not far from the bicycle trail that bears his name.

“We should be honoring him the way you hear Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens. That’s how the name Major Taylor should be known as well,” says Brenda Dixon, who founded Community and Neighborhood Improvement Projects (CNIP) to keep the mural project moving forward. Dixon lives eight blocks away from the 115th Street section of the trail.

The muralist, Chicago artist Bernard Williams, designed with that educational goal in mind. The mural panels include dates of Taylor’s championships, names of cities where he raced, and visual representations of the cyclist. Williams, who was born on the far south side, read “The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World” after he got the commission.

“It really situated him as kind of an international individual and a person who traveled the world in a time that very few African-Americans were maybe able to do something like that,” Williams says. “And that’s what I really tried to communicate in the mural. This person who maybe opened up the space for us to think about ourselves as part of an international arena. And that there’s a large world out there in front of us and there’s a potential to kind of experience that in some way, through our talents, our gifts and whatever interests or motivations you might have.”

Williams got input from people who currently love and use the trail too, including members of the Major Taylor Cycling Club of Chicago.

“We talked about Major Taylor’s personal story, the historical moment, you know, the early 1900s in America and across the globe, because he was kind of an international star,” Williams says. “So I just kind of gathered information from them about their interest in Major Taylor and what they envisioned the mural might accomplish. I asked questions like ‘Who is Major Taylor to you?,’ ‘Why is Major Taylor important for the community?’”

Cyclists celebrate a new mural for Major Taylor Trail. (Photo by Jason Ward/Jayloo Photography)

Much of the trail runs through picturesque preserved forest. Nonetheless, large segments are uninviting, especially on its south end. There are few amenities such as benches and lighting. And before the creation of the mural, the bridge that forms the portion of the trail that crosses the Little Calumet River was covered with graffiti, according to Dixon.

“It’s such a beautiful area but people are afraid because you see the graffiti, and you’re like ‘Oh my God, I don’t want to go there,’” says Dixon.

Dixon was determined to see the graffiti eradicated — especially since future plans are in place to connect Major Taylor Trail to other trails in the city. The future network of trails means a potential increase in ridership. Dixon applied for grant funding, and that eventually led to her forming CNIP, in order to administer the funds that were awarded, along with the Active Transportation Alliance, which served as fiscal agent for the grant.

According to Dixon, now that the mural has been completed and unveiled — there was a ribbon-cutting on July 21 and Taylor’s great-great-grandson held the ceremonial scissors — there’s plenty more to do on Major Taylor Trail. She is especially concerned with making people aware that the trail is a continuous entity through the neighborhoods it connects. One way to do so is by creating consistent signage, according to Dixon.

The trail runs through five different wards and is managed by three different entities: Forest Preserve District of Cook County, the Chicago Park District and the Chicago Department of Transportation. All three use different trail markers.

“One of my dreams and visions for the trail is that we would get all five of those wards [and] all three of those entities to sit at the table together and agree on ‘OK, let’s use this logo as the consistent theme that all three of us will use for the trail.’ So that people know that this trail runs from the Little Calumet River all the way up to the Dan Ryan Woods at the north end, that these aren’t separate entities from each other,” Dixon says.

She won’t stop there when it comes to her mission to bring proper recognition to Major Taylor and enhance his namesake trail.

“I travel all over the country for cycling,” Dixon says. “And it just saddens me when … I come home to my neighborhood and I see that I have a trail but it doesn’t have any of the amenities that the other trails [have] when I go to other cities and ride. [Major Taylor Trail runs] through the heart of our community, named after just a phenomenal athlete, an African-American athlete. Let’s make it something beautiful that’s going to be the pride of our community. … Give me about five years and it’s going to be transformed.”

This article is part of “For Whom, By Whom,” a series of articles about how creative placemaking can expand opportunities for low-income people living in disinvested communities. This series is generously underwritten by the Kresge Foundation.

 

How One Museum Is Tackling Its Diversity and Equity Challenges

From left-to-right: Jovonna Jones, Nanette Yannuzzi, Edi Dai, Claire Schwartz, Key Jo Lee, Oana Sanziana Marian, and Kenturah Davis view works in the Donna and James Reid Gallery at the Cleveland Museum of Art. (Photo by McKinley Wiley, courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art)

Like many cultural institutions across the country, the Cleveland Museum of Art did not truly reflect the demographics of the city in its staffing or in its patronage, according to Cyra Levinson, deputy director and head of public and academic engagement at the museum.

According to the 2015 American Community Survey, approximately 390,584 people lived within the city of Cleveland: 51 percent were African American, 34 percent Caucasian. The remaining 15 percent belonged to other minority groups, including a rapidly increasing Latinx population.

“Our field has been recognizing like many other fields that diversity and equity have been a challenge historically,” Levinson says.

Levinson points out a landmark 2015 report from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that documents how, across the field of cultural institutions, senior leadership is predominantly white. The gap has been closing and there are more women in leadership positions, but not in the largest institutions. “[The report] galvanized many efforts that have already been in place to think about how to address the institutional and staffing issues that have led to less diverse institutions,” Levinson says.

That report, along with feedback from visitors to the museum, provided the inspiration that eventually led to this month’s unveiling of “For the Benefit of all: the CMA’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Plan.” Along with the museum’s comprehensive strategic plan, “Making Art Matter,” the plans encapsulate the museum’s commitment to becoming more representative of its city, according to Levinson.

The two-year process of drafting the museum’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Plan involved several steps and input from a variety of stakeholders. A consultant initially conducted a number of interviews to obtain feedback, which formed the foundation of the initial draft. An advisory committee of staff members and board trustees vetted that draft. The draft was also reviewed by senior staff members and an African American advisory committee before being submitted to the museum’s board of directors for final approval.

One of the major aspects of the plan was developing working definitions for “diversity,” “equity,” and “inclusion.”

“I think that the field is recognizing that the three words, diversity, equity and inclusion all mean different things and they’re not interchangeable,” Levinson says.

The report defines diversity as, “the characteristics that make one individual or group different from another, such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, socioeconomic status, educational status, marital status, language, age, and mental or physical ability. Also, the interactions among individuals that shape ideas, perspectives, and values.”

Equity is defined as, “the outcome of policies and actions that create a more diverse and inclusive institution that reflects its community.”

The report defines inclusion as, “the confrontation of historical exclusion based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and economic status by bringing those affected into institutional activities and decision-making to address disparities, increase awareness, and foster understanding.”

While the final plan was enthusiastically received by the board and embraced by the staff, the process of drafting the plan did not involve lockstep consensus, according to Levinson.

“We had very, very healthy and honest conversations along the way of the work that we need to do,” she says.

The final section of the 19-page plan lays out a series of action points that the Cleveland Museum of Art plans to undertake within the next two years. These include items such as adding exhibits by women artists and artists of color; creating a fellowship for graduate students to research and document Cleveland Museum of Art acquisitions; curating a collection of art by African American artists for ArtLens, the museum’s mobile app, as well as creating a dedicated web page for African American artists.

“The intent … is to be very concrete about what we’re committing to doing. And you have for context the reason that there’s an emphasis on African American artists and audience members is the demographics of the city of Cleveland,” Levinson says.

A $368,400 grant, from the Ford Foundation and Walton Family Foundation’s joint initiative on diversifying museum leadership, will fund the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Diversity Leadership Initiative, a program for undergraduate student guides, graduate student fellowships and scholars-in-residence programs at the museum. A $368,520 Cleveland Foundation Grant will fund the Curatorial Arts Mastery Program (CAMP) for high school students. Both grants will also fund two national conferences to be held at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The Cleveland Museum of Art, which has a staff of approximately 500, has also implemented a requirement for developing a diverse candidate pool for every open position, effective immediately. In addition, a board committee was tasked with assessing the contracts and the contractors to ensure that minority and women-owned businesses are included in the museum’s vendor pool.

“We’re trying to create structural change. And so that requires setting [processes] in motion so that we are becoming as inclusive as possible and not simply doing business as usual,” Levinson says.

 

How One Museum Is Tackling Its Diversity and Equity Challenges

From left-to-right: Jovonna Jones, Nanette Yannuzzi, Edi Dai, Claire Schwartz, Key Jo Lee, Oana Sanziana Marian, and Kenturah Davis view works in the Donna and James Reid Gallery at the Cleveland Museum of Art. (Photo by McKinley Wiley, courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art)

Like many cultural institutions across the country, the Cleveland Museum of Art did not truly reflect the demographics of the city in its staffing or in its patronage, according to Cyra Levinson, deputy director and head of public and academic engagement at the museum.

According to the 2015 American Community Survey, approximately 390,584 people lived within the city of Cleveland: 51 percent were African American, 34 percent Caucasian. The remaining 15 percent belonged to other minority groups, including a rapidly increasing Latinx population.

“Our field has been recognizing like many other fields that diversity and equity have been a challenge historically,” Levinson says.

Levinson points out a landmark 2015 report from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that documents how, across the field of cultural institutions, senior leadership is predominantly white. The gap has been closing and there are more women in leadership positions, but not in the largest institutions. “[The report] galvanized many efforts that have already been in place to think about how to address the institutional and staffing issues that have led to less diverse institutions,” Levinson says.

That report, along with feedback from visitors to the museum, provided the inspiration that eventually led to this month’s unveiling of “For the Benefit of all: the CMA’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Plan.” Along with the museum’s comprehensive strategic plan, “Making Art Matter,” the plans encapsulate the museum’s commitment to becoming more representative of its city, according to Levinson.

The two-year process of drafting the museum’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Plan involved several steps and input from a variety of stakeholders. A consultant initially conducted a number of interviews to obtain feedback, which formed the foundation of the initial draft. An advisory committee of staff members and board trustees vetted that draft. The draft was also reviewed by senior staff members and an African American advisory committee before being submitted to the museum’s board of directors for final approval.

One of the major aspects of the plan was developing working definitions for “diversity,” “equity,” and “inclusion.”

“I think that the field is recognizing that the three words, diversity, equity and inclusion all mean different things and they’re not interchangeable,” Levinson says.

The report defines diversity as, “the characteristics that make one individual or group different from another, such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, socioeconomic status, educational status, marital status, language, age, and mental or physical ability. Also, the interactions among individuals that shape ideas, perspectives, and values.”

Equity is defined as, “the outcome of policies and actions that create a more diverse and inclusive institution that reflects its community.”

The report defines inclusion as, “the confrontation of historical exclusion based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and economic status by bringing those affected into institutional activities and decision-making to address disparities, increase awareness, and foster understanding.”

While the final plan was enthusiastically received by the board and embraced by the staff, the process of drafting the plan did not involve lockstep consensus, according to Levinson.

“We had very, very healthy and honest conversations along the way of the work that we need to do,” she says.

The final section of the 19-page plan lays out a series of action points that the Cleveland Museum of Art plans to undertake within the next two years. These include items such as adding exhibits by women artists and artists of color; creating a fellowship for graduate students to research and document Cleveland Museum of Art acquisitions; curating a collection of art by African American artists for ArtLens, the museum’s mobile app, as well as creating a dedicated web page for African American artists.

“The intent … is to be very concrete about what we’re committing to doing. And you have for context the reason that there’s an emphasis on African American artists and audience members is the demographics of the city of Cleveland,” Levinson says.

A $368,400 grant, from the Ford Foundation and Walton Family Foundation’s joint initiative on diversifying museum leadership, will fund the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Diversity Leadership Initiative, a program for undergraduate student guides, graduate student fellowships and scholars-in-residence programs at the museum. A $368,520 Cleveland Foundation Grant will fund the Curatorial Arts Mastery Program (CAMP) for high school students. Both grants will also fund two national conferences to be held at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The Cleveland Museum of Art, which has a staff of approximately 500, has also implemented a requirement for developing a diverse candidate pool for every open position, effective immediately. In addition, a board committee was tasked with assessing the contracts and the contractors to ensure that minority and women-owned businesses are included in the museum’s vendor pool.

“We’re trying to create structural change. And so that requires setting [processes] in motion so that we are becoming as inclusive as possible and not simply doing business as usual,” Levinson says.

 

Chicago Segregation Mapping Project Makes Real Life Connections

Nanette Tucker and Wade Wilson, a pair of "map twins" from Tonika Lewis Johnson's Folded Map Project. (Photo by Tonika Lewis Johnson)

As a high school student living in the Englewood neighborhood, on Chicago’s south side, artist and photographer Tonika Lewis Johnson noticed the continuity of several of the city’s street names on her daily commute to Lane Technical College Prep High School, located on the city’s north side. The character of the streets, however, varied widely going from south to north.

“I definitely noticed those inequities. Because if you get off the train stop at Addison and take the [westbound] bus, essentially from the lake going all the way to Western [Avenue], you run into the exact same streets that exist in Englewood — Paulina, Damen, Winchester, Wolcott,” says Johnson. “I just recognized that, oh, these are very different and it just stuck with me.”

Eventually, those impressions manifested themselves in the Folded Map Project, an installation of photographs, a video of interviews with participants of the project and a map display of the city on exhibit till October at the Loyola University Museum of Art, which is free to the public.

“I wanted to create an example of what it looks like to have a direct conversation between people who have been segregated from each other, to see how they struggle with hearing each other describe their neighborhoods, to hear how sympathetic most people are, people who are living in a privileged Chicago and people who are not,” Johnson says.

Many residents of Chicago’s predominately white north side never venture further south than downtown or Soldier Field. Newcomers are often warned away from venturing to the city’s predominantly African American south and west sides. One goal of the Folded Map Project was to address and challenge this circumstance.

“I wanted to remind people who are in a privileged Chicago that you’re living in a small, small fraction of Chicago and you are not allowing yourself to break down stereotypes that you have,” says Johnson. “And that is actually what is perpetuating the issue in Chicago. Chicago is highly segregated and it remains that way because of people getting instructions of where they should or should not go and where they should or should not live.”

The Folded Map exhibit includes photographs of various “map twins,” as Johnson calls them: residents at corresponding addresses on the same or nearby streets located in Englewood and on the city’s north side. The photos illustrate the sharp discrepancies between the city’s north side and the south side, the result of decades of redlining as well as disinvestment in the city’s black and brown neighborhoods, says Johnson.

“I wanted to put that back into the larger Chicago conversation. I know that Englewood and a lot of neighborhoods on the west side are struggling with the same issues of low income, school closings, low home ownership, gun violence — but what really bothered me was the fact that people were completely blaming the neighborhoods for the conditions that lived there instead of recognizing the inequities between the north and south,” Johnson explains. “No other neighborhoods like Chicago’s south and west sides have experienced disinvestment and outright racism and systemic racism that these neighborhoods have had to deal with over decades. And for people to just brush these neighborhoods off like, oh, they’re their own problem. It was just frustrating.”

While no one directly turned her down, several potential map twins have yet to respond to Johnson’s outreach attempts. She obtained enough responses from North Side residents to be able to carry out her project.

Tonika Lewis Johnson speaking at a design workshop in July. (Photo by Audrey F. Henderson)

“It really came down to the streets. I already knew the streets that I wanted to focus on to drive home the point. And it was just like I know people on those streets in Englewood so that’s not really a big issue,” she says. “But up north, I was like, this is going to take some planning. It’s going to take some luck.”

Johnson identified specific blocks on the north side she wanted to get residents from and, with help from Loyola University Chicago, which is located on the north side, she flooded those blocks with information about the project. It was just a waiting game to see who would respond.

In one case, without waiting for a response, Johnson went out to photograph one house on the north side, corresponding to someone she had already picked out on the south side.

“I was literally photographing their house when [Jennifer Chan] came out and was like, ‘What, hello? Why are you taking pictures of my house?’” Johnson recalls. “I told her about the project and she was really interested. She invited me back to their block party the following week.”

Chan and her husband, Wade Wilson, live on the 6300 block of North Hermitage Avenue in the Edgewater community on Chicago’s far north side. For the corresponding location on the south side, Johnson had picked out Nanette Tucker, who lives on the 6100 block of South Bishop in Englewood. Wilson and Tucker became Johnson’s first pair of map twins.

Wilson is an Oklahoma native who has lived in various locations in the United States and abroad. He and Chan returned to Chicago in 2008. They’ve lived in rental properties in Pilsen on the west side and Bridgeport on the south side before purchasing their present home, so the couple had some familiarity with other parts of the city.

Tucker is a Chicago native raised in Bronzeville, on the south side. She moved to Englewood 12 years ago to purchase a home in an area she could afford on her salary. She has some knowledge of the north side due to several years of social service experience, with most of her jobs located in organizations on the north side.

Johnson brought the pair together at Tucker’s home in mid-2017. They sat on Tucker’s front porch and discussed various aspects of living in the city.

“We talked about [how] they can walk out of their front door and have access to auto-mechanic shops, sit-down cafes, grocery stores, well basically anything within minutes,” Tucker says. “Whereas for so many years, Englewood was a food desert. You didn’t have the big chain grocery stores. You had the little corner stores so you couldn’t get fresh produce, things like that.”

Wilson’s visit occurred on a Friday evening when several proms were scheduled. Tucker took advantage of the opportunity to invite Wilson to witness “prom send-off.” The African American tradition includes pre-prom parties with music and couples dressed in their finest gowns and tuxedos — unlike anything that occurs on the city’s north side, according to Tucker.

“I asked Wade ‘Have you ever been on the South Side and seen a prom send-off?’ And (he said) ‘What’s that? ‘And I said ‘Well, it’s better for you to see it than for me to try to explain it to you,’” Tucker says. She walked Wilson around the neighborhood to three prom-send offs going on that day.

Tucker also owns a plot down the street (purchased through Chicago’s Large Lot Program) that she transformed into a flower garden. On another occasion since their first meeting, Wilson drove down to bring Tucker plants for her garden. His presence was initially questioned by some neighbors, but ultimately several bystanders offered to unload his plants, according to Wilson.

“The people on the street are all looking at me going what’s this guy doing? And you could tell they were very suspicious and who could blame them … I mean they don’t see that many white faces down there and here’s this guy pulling up in his car and starting to pull things out of his car and they have no idea who I am,” Wilson says. “The only guy who questioned me openly was a guy who lived right next door to the garden. He finally came out and said ‘I really don’t like cops, what are you doing here?’ I’m like ‘I don’t really know many cops.’ It was funny.”

Tucker also visited with Wilson and his brother on the north side for lunch this past July, and to attend the 2018 Roscoe Village Garden Walk.

“You visibly see the difference,” Tucker says. “There’s no vacant lots over there. No boarded up buildings over there. I mean, over in Englewood one block can have five boarded-up buildings and three vacant lots so how many houses do you count on that block?”

The map twins have future plans for Tucker to visit the Green Mill, also located on the north side, for poetry readings.

“I couldn’t be more surprised and thrilled at how it developed with them. Seeing them meet each other and talking to each other, that’s what moved me and let me know I needed to do more map twins because of how empathetic they were to each other and how genuinely interested they were in learning,” Johnson says.

Johnson has posted a Folded Map online contact form for potential future map twins. So far she has received 176 responses. She plans to expand the project to include addresses on the city’s west side. She hopes to photograph and interview additional pairs of map twins by the fall. An artist talk with Johnson is on schedule at the museum for September 29, which will hopefully include all of the map twins up to that point.

“All of [the map twins] have their own unique connection but everybody was interested in learning more about the other person across the board,” Johnson says.

 

Commercial Greenhouse Jobs to Double at Historic South Side Chicago Site

A Gotham Greens greenhouse in Brooklyn, NYC. (Credit: Gotham Greens/Ari Burling)

Located on the roof of the Method soap production facility in Pullman on Chicago’s far South Side, the 75,000 square-foot Gotham Greens greenhouse is presently the largest commercial greenhouse in the world. It won’t be for much longer.

Gotham Greens is now planning the construction of an even larger 140,000-plus square-foot free standing greenhouse, on another section of the property formerly occupied by the Pullman Rail Car Yard and later the Ryerson Steel plant. It will essentially double the company’s footprint in the community, its only location outside of NYC.

The 6.2-acre site hasn’t been in use the Ryerson Steel plant closed in 2008. The site will be prepared for development by Pullman-based Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives and then sold to Gotham Greens. The expansion of Gotham Greens is the latest in a series of developments that have sparked a comeback for the Pullman area to 9th Ward Alderman Anthony Beale, who grew up in the neighborhood he now represents on city council.

“Right now we are in the midst of a total renaissance for the Roseland-Pullman community,” Beale says. “This industrial corridor that we’ve created, bringing these job opportunities not only from a construction standpoint but just from a day-to-day operating standpoint, these long-term jobs, the community is embracing them overwhelmingly … Years ago, Ryerson Steel moved out, it was a huge void in the community, a lot of opportunity left. We’re bringing those opportunities back.”

Beale’s office has been especially active in landing new development in the ward, including the Gotham Greens greenhouse and its new facility. His office works closely with the Chamber of Commerce and the Calumet Industrial Commission along with community leaders on the ground in crafting sales pitches for companies to come to Pullman.

“It’s just not me. I bring in key community leaders who know the community well and who can articulate in a professional manner why we want these companies in the community,” says Beale. “They like that we put that personal touch on it … We’re not just saying we want you to locate your business here … They’re locating next to a national monument; they have great transportation on and off the expressway; they have access to Indiana, Wisconsin — we’re a transportation hub.”

A groundbreaking ceremony for the new greenhouse took place in March 2018 with several dignitaries in attendance, including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Gotham Greens co-founders Viraj Purl, Eric Haley, Beale, and Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives President David Doig. The new facility is projected to be completed in early 2019.

The company is focusing hiring efforts for the new plant on the five surrounding zip codes on Chicago’s South Side. The new greenhouse will create approximately 100 construction jobs and employ about 60 permanent workers, roughly the same number as are employed in the present facility, which will remain in operation, according to Doig.

Gotham Greens worked closely with Beale’s office and with the Calumet Area Industrial Commission in recruiting candidates for the original facility. Being co-located with Method also drew a lot of candidates, according to Purl.

“When our project opened it was in The Chicago Tribune; it was on the news. There was a lot of buzz. We had a lot of people just reaching out to us in the community reaching out for jobs. Now that the business is a little more mature we have good retention. Candidates are referred by friends or family members and word of mouth,” Purl says.

Beale’s office also plays a large role in ensuring that local residents have the best possible opportunities to land any available openings.

“We can’t mandate it, because it would be totally wrong,” says Beale. “But what we can do is put people from the community in line first. We know that hiring is going to take place … I shoot an email blast out. People from the 9th ward can get to the facility before somebody from the outside.”

The jobs at Gotham Greens are not glamorous and involve manual labor. Nonetheless, they pay well enough for workers to support their families, according to Beale. The work environment itself is also an asset, argues Purl.

“People like working in our facilities, it’s a unique working environment. It’s a lush garden oasis in the heart of Chicago – climate controlled, glass building, plants – there’s not a lot of places like it,” Purl says.

Gotham Greens employs hydroponic growing methods in cultivating its plants, relying on 100% renewable energy sources and beneficial insects rather than pesticides, which is a major asset for Jeanine Costa, plant manager for the Chicago Gotham Greens facility.

“I’m so proud of what we do here, the concept, the environmental friendliness, the sustainability,” says Costa. “The fact that we can grow year-round local produce, distribute it fresh every day of the year, be really responsible to the environment, I think it’s a model for the future.”

Striving to be a good corporate citizen, Gotham Greens conducts weekly tours of the facility and helps to ease food insecurity by providing fresh produce to local food pantries through the Greater Chicago Food Depository. Gotham Greens also works with local schools, distributing seedlings to school children and providing instruction in sustainability and wellness, according to Nicole Baum, director of marketing and partnerships for Gotham Greens.

“We’re teaching these kids to grow their own food and literally providing the plants that will provide their next salad,” Baum says.

Nonetheless, Purl would like to see even more engagement with the Pullman community. In particular, Gotham Greens has met with limited success in its efforts to introduce fresh produce to small local markets, many of which carry little or no fresh produce.

“I think there’s a lot of opportunity to integrate more, frankly speaking. I don’t think we’re fully integrated. I think we’ve made a positive impact on the community but I think there’s a lot of room to expand those initiatives and integrate with the community even more,” says Purl.

Costa is excited about the new greenhouse, but also aware of the tremendous amount of work that lies ahead.

“It’s going to be quite an undertaking to start a whole other greenhouse. We’ve got a lot of safety procedures, so much training to do for all the new employees we’ll be hiring, training on the packing line, classroom training in food safety. It’s going to take everybody to get the place up and going,” Costa says.

 



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