‘Chicago Tonight’ in Your Neighborhood: West Garfield Park

Six miles west of the Loop sits West Garfield Park, which is separated from its eastern counterpart by the Garfield Park Conservatory. It’s a community, historically disinvested, facing food insecurity, poverty, violence — and now a pandemic and fallout from looting during the summer’s civil unrest. 

Meanwhile, residents say it’s a resilient community that has mobilized to support one another and address the challenges this year, and the past several decades, have brought.

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Before World War II, West Garfield Park was home to Irish, Russian and German immigrants. In the 1950s, as African Americans began moving into the area, realtors began panic peddling, scaring white residents into moving out of the area. Other housing discrimination tactics, such as redlining, continued in West Garfield Park, as the population shifted from majority white to majority Black in roughly 10 years. 

Today, West Garfield Park is still a majority Black community, with about 16,950 residents, according to a 2020 community data snapshot. It remains a community heavily disinvested, still affected by decades of segregation and discrimination. 

Madison and Pulaski is West Garfield Park’s business district. In the early 20th century, it was one of the largest commercial districts on the West Side, and still resembles a “mini downtown” today. This district is home to historic architecture

“This is the heart of the West Side of Chicago, the Madison business district rivaled Michigan Avenue back in the day as the number one place for people to shop,” said Ald. Jason Ervin (28th Ward). “We’ve got plenty of people that still believe in the West Side.”

Madison Avenue, and other parts of the West Side, were devastated by riots over 50 years ago after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. 

After the killing of George Floyd, the commercial district was vandalized and looted.

“Most businesses lost about 75% of their business,” said Siri Hibbler founder and CEO of the Garfield Park Chamber of Commerce. “I don’t even know how they’re still surviving. The few that are still open. After that as you know the riots hit, so the majority of them were looted.”

Most of the business owners have been in the community for a long time, and many are planning to rebuild, Hibbler said. 

Dreamtown is a shoe store in the Madison-Pulaski business district, there are also four other locations in the Chicago area. Over the past six months, owner Robert Kim said the store has grappled with both the effects of the pandemic and the impact of looting. 

“The COVID part was pretty difficult. Over the 40 years that my parents have been in business, that was the first time that we had to close and it was for two months,” Kim said. “We saw some stress on us financially, as far as the actual looting happening, that was just another whammy to us, just seeing our stores being broken into was really difficult for us mentally.”

Video: Our full interview with 28 th Ward Ald. Jason Ervin.

From both an economic and health perspective, West Garfield Park has been deeply affected by COVID-19. 

“We’ve lost quite a few people. Some prominent people in our community have passed over the last six to eight months,” Ald. Ervin said.

The 60624 ZIP code, which includes parts of West Garfield Park, had an 11.3% seven-day rolling positivity rate as of Sept. 26. The area has had 1,240 confirmed positive cases of the coronavirus, and 31 people have died. 

“You’re talking about an area that has never recovered from the 1968 race riots,” said Donald Dew, president and CEO of Habilitative Systems Inc. “You’re talking about a community that was already impoverished, already unemployed, already going through substandard housing. All of these different factors were already affecting this community, and then of course enters COVID-19.”

Habilitative Systems provides health and human service programs to residents on Chicago’s South and West sides, including for people with mental illness, substance abuse disorders, developmental disorders and seniors. Habilitative System’s main office is in West Garfield Park. 

Dew said COVID-19 has only exacerbated issues already present within the community. 

“It created greater levels of stress, greater levels of anxiety and depression,” Dew said.  “We’ve seen the rate of suicide among young Black males increase, we’ve seen the rate of suicide among first responders increase. So the services that we’ve been doing for over 40 years are needed more desperately now than ever before.”

Amid the pandemic without the eviction moratorium, a significant number of people would likely be forced out of their homes, said Cynthia Bednarz,  a realtor and a volunteer for the Garfield Park Community Council whose work with the organization relates to housing. 

“The moratorium on evictions has really been a lifesaver for people,” Bednarz said. “How that can work long term, I don’t know. ... A lot of homes in Garfield Park are two flats and three flats, of small owners. So people that own and have a mortgage themselves, and they use the rent money to pay that mortgage. So the fact that they’re not getting rent, but still being charged taxes is still really hard on those smaller two flat, three flat owners.”

In addition to housing security, food insecurity has been an issue exacerbated by COVID-19. The Garfield Park Community Council hosts a monthly neighborhood market, selling produce grown in community gardens in Garfield Park. Through the pandemic, the council has been able to continue the market, in adherence with city and state guidelines. 

“We were very happy to be able to address that food insecurity issue for residents of the community, as well as know that it gave them hope that something that was built from community was surviving during the pandemic,” said Angela Taylor, the wellness coordinator for the Garfield Park Community Council.  

Video: Our full interview with the Rev. Walter Amir Jones Jr.

Taylor said the community hasn’t seen food insecurity worsen amid the pandemic because so many organizations have stepped up to help make food accessible to residents, not just in West Garfield Park, but across the city. 

This all comes as Chicago has seen a surge in violence this year, like cities across the country. As of Sept. 29, the 11th Police District, which includes West Garfield Park, has seen 328 shootings (up 43% from the same time last year) and 72 homicides (up 20% from last year at this time). 

The Rev. Walter Amir Jones Jr., the executive director of Fathers Who Care, said he feels West Garfield Park is often overlooked as a community deeply affected by poverty, violence and disinvestment.

Community members are traumatized, Jones said, including himself. Residents don’t feel safe in their own communities, going to work or visiting their families.

Meanwhile, Chicago also has seen a spike in opioid overdoses. More than half have been Black residents, with the majority occurring on the West Side, including in West Garfield Park. 

Fathers Who Care is an organization that addresses drug use, poverty and violence in West Garfield Park. The organization educates community members about naloxone, including how to use it to treat overdoses, along with connecting them with health resources available to them. 

“We’re training folks because there’s an increase, an influx in overdoses here in the West Garfield Park community because most people in the neighborhood are depressed,” Jones said. “They’re stressed out. They experience a great deal of anxiety, post traumatic stress and all kinds of other pandemics in this community. “

Since the pandemic, Fathers Who Care has been distributing personal protective equipment to residents. The organization has also been spreading information about the census.

Amid the challenges, last week Jones, Dew and other community organizations and leaders held a block party on Madison Street to bring together the community and police officers. The event had music, T-shirts, food, resources and, in the age of COVID-19, PPE. 

“What you saw was the real community engagement with the community and the police,” Jones said, sharing that the police officers were dancing with the residents. “It was an absolutely wonderful time where folks were loving on each other, supporting one another and we’re bridging that gap between police and the community.”


Community Reporting Series

“Chicago Tonight” is expanding its community reporting. We’re hitting the streets to speak with your neighbors, local businesses, agencies and leaders about COVID-19, the economy, racial justice, education and more. See where we’ve been and what we’ve learned by using the map below. Or select a community using the drop-down menu. Points in red represent our series COVID-19 Across Chicago; blue marks our series “Chicago Tonight” in Your Neighborhood.

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