Until early September, the storefront building at 2711 W 51st St. in Chicago’s Gage Park neighborhood sat vacant for years.
But that all changed when the Gage Park Latinx Council (GPLXC) – a community organization founded in 2018 – moved in, just a few weeks ago.
The group was founded by Antonio Santos and twin sisters Samantha and Katia Martinez – all lifelong Gage Park residents.
For the past few years, they’ve run a variety of arts and education programming for neighborhood kids and residents, and had long been looking for a space to organize out of.
When the building on 51st Street became available, they jumped at the chance.
“A space like this has never existed in Gage Park. So the space itself is revolutionary just by existing. So I think the space is bringing hope for a lot of people,” said Santos, who also acts as the group’s director.
The council is still operating during the pandemic, amid many safety and sanitary measures. They’re letting community members reserve the space to privately use as a place to study or play.
And the building has become the new home of their “Fresh Eats Within Reach” initiative, which provides fresh and culturally-reflective food to anyone that needs it – no questions asked.
“We live in a community that is 92% Latinx, so we wanted to provide fresh food, healthy food, that we know our community is actually eating and that they would want to eat,” Samantha Martinez said.
The group says they’re feeding 150 to 200 families a week, which they expect to continue through at least the end of the year.
The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t slowed down the council’s arts programming, either.
This summer, the group led a monthlong art class with neighborhood kids – mostly online, due to the pandemic.
“When we were growing up in Gage Park, there wasn’t a lot of programs centered on the arts,” said Katia Martinez. “So we wanted to include that in GPLXC because we’re hearing from families that they need programming, that their youth are bored, especially right now at home.”
The program culminated in the unveiling of a mural on 55th Street, just a few blocks south of the center.
Kids got to design hearts which are now permanently fixed to the wall.
For lead artist Mario Mena, the project was a chance to reconnect with the Gage Park community he grew up in.
He says the mural was about creating a gateway to the neighborhood – a marker of the local culture.
“I don’t think a lot of people know about Gage Park unless you’re from the Southwest Side, Mena said. “So we wanted to make our own landmark here. We want to identify the neighborhood with our culture, being colorful, being lively, and not just any neighborhood you could just pass by.”
Group co-founder Santos says that footprint, like their new space on 51st Street, is key to building relationships and community – especially during COVID-19.
“Having physical space is the first step in creating community, where conversations can happen, where art can be created, where generations can mix. And during a pandemic which is creating isolation, I think the space is necessary more now than ever,” Santos said.
This story also aired Saturday, Sept. 26 on “Latino Voices.” See more from that show here.