New Bronzeville Community Center Offers Much-Needed Gathering Place

Over the decades, Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood has seen good times and hard times. Five years ago, the last of the troubled Ida B. Wells housing projects were demolished and for many years, the community had pressed the city to give the area a center where residents could come together. That day has finally come.


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Eddie Arruza: On a recent hot and sunny afternoon, Carmen McGhee brought her grandchildren to a sprawling and impressive field house in Bronzeville that she wasn't sure she'd ever see. But here it is.

Carmen McGhee, Bronzeville resident: It is just great. It’s a long time coming, they closed down Ida B. Wells, we used to have Ellis Park, little centers and stuff like that and they don’t have them anymore. We were looking for a place with a pool to enjoy this hot summer, so it’s just fantastic.

Arruza: The brand new Arts and Recreation Center at Ellis Park is no ordinary Chicago Park District field house. Less than a month old, the complex has already been embraced by a community that was in dire need of everything the center houses, like the full-size swimming pool, a gymnasium that can also serve as a community meeting area or performance space, a rooftop terrace for public meetings or private events and even a work out facility that for the time being is also being used as gathering spot for a community that sorely needed to come together.

Aaliyah Sims, 20, Bronzeville resident: I think it's super awesome. I really appreciate the fact that it was built over here. This space was very empty, I used to go to ChiArts, which used to be located on the other side of Doolittle right here, and honestly, there was nothing to do, and there’s so many children within this neighborhood that now have the opportunity to get involved in different things in their community, as opposed to having to go outside of the community.

Arruza: The new facility is located at the corner of 35th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue at the site where the Ida B. Wells, Clarence Darrow and Madden Park public housing complexes once stood. By the 1970s the Wells projects had become a symbol of inner city decay and failed public housing policies. The last of the Wells homes came down only five years ago. But even before then, Bronzeville residents had been pleading for a new public gathering space.

Mike Kelly, Chicago Park District CEO-Superintendent: Probably the biggest obstacle in getting Ellis Park done–this Arts and Rec Center done–was money.

Arruza: The Ellis Park facility came in at slightly more than $18 million funded through a complex array of sources.

Kelly: It's federally provided funds that are administered through local banks, local not-for-profits, to stimulate economic development or invest in historic areas as well.

Arruza: On the site where once stood a crumbling and dangerous public housing project, Bronzeville kids now have a brand new play area. Kids that have no memory of what it was like back in the day, but now see hope.

Karim Woods, 12, student at Mark Sheridan Academy: It looks great. It'll have a lot of opportunities for people to explore and find out their true abilities and what they like.

Arruza: For the time being, Aaliyah Sims uses the center’s workout space to head up peace circles, conversations about political and social issues in what she says is a conflict-free atmosphere. Sims also says she hopes the Ellis Center will bring more togetherness to a community that has long been in need of it.

Sims: Some people don't feel comfortable going into certain areas of the neighborhood because of maybe gang activity or outside people. This is a safe place. This is a place where they can come and not have to worry about, ‘I can’t go to Ellis Park because so-and-so is there and it’s not safe for me.’ No. They can come here, and it’s fine.

More on this story

The Ellis Park Center has 32,000 square feet of space and in the weeks ahead, the Park District says it will begin arts and recreational programming for all ages. 

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