‘Chicago Tonight’ in Your Neighborhood: Revitalizing North Lawndale

Located on Chicago’s West Side, North Lawndale is a neighborhood that has dealt with decades of disinvestment and vacant spaces. Community members have taken things into their own hands by creating community gardens and safe spaces for the next generation.

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North Lawndale has a rich history, but also a long cycle of violence that has plagued the West Side Neighborhood for decades.

“One of my friends was shot for walking down the street, and there was no drug relation. He was a kid,” Robert Welch said. “That was the moment that just like — things like that happen every day, and nobody is trying to change that. That was my first awakening of wanting to be a greater challenge to the community.”

Welch works with the Young Mens Educational Network, or YMEN Chicago. As a kid, Welch was part of YMEN, an organization aimed at giving youth a safe space to learn through a variety of programs. Welch now runs YMEN’s bike-sharing program. The Bike Box is free for residents to borrow bikes, fix bikes and buy them at a low price.

“There are four to five people that have started to come help out,” Welch said. “It was just because it provides a community event where they can reach out to different people in the community and feel like they’re actually giving back in a way that is actually beneficial.”

Michael Trout, YMEN co-founder and executive director of strategy and development, has lived in North Lawndale since 1992.

“The real assets of our community are the residents, the neighbors, and we just feel like proximity to our neighbors is the sweet spot of really appreciating and enjoying North Lawndale for the community that it is,” Trout said. “Putting people on bikes will encourage people to be closer to their neighbors. You'll be driving by, and Grandma will be sitting on the front porch or that will be walking a dog or moms will be taking their kids to school.”

Video: Watch our full interview with Michael Trout

This year YMEN was chosen to be part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial. Architects from around the globe worked with local community groups to come up with different ways to utilize empty spaces. YMEN used a shipping container to create an outdoor space for people to use. 

“The YMEN Organization had a whole group of teenagers who were there who helped us paint surfaces, who helped us put the planters together, so I want people to feel what is the power of community, what is the power (of) same things in just a little bit (of a) different way,” Sekou Cooke, the architect behind the project said.

In recent years there has been a big push to help struggling communities in the South and West sides by reinvesting in neighborhoods like North Lawndale. 

Cornelius Griggs, president of GMA Construction Group, grew up on the South Side and now runs a company determined to revitalize Chicago neighborhoods. 

“I grew up in foster care my entire life from the time I was 9 to 21 years old,” Cornelius Griggs said. “Because I bounced around, I gained a sense of grit and determination that I knew I wanted better.”

GMA Construction is gearing up to transform a vacant lot into 60 mixed income apartments, townhouses, retail, and restaurant spaces plus a community center with an outdoor plaza. It’s one of multiple projects that were selected by the city for the Invest South/West initiative.

“I want people on my project who are representative of where I come from, who look like me, who sound like me, who have been through some of the same struggles as me so they can have the same opportunities to go out there and be successful,” Griggs said.

Also working to make an impact on the lives of students in the area is Deion Owens, principal of North Lawndale College Prep at the Collins Campus.

“I've always wanted to be a principal, but it was primarily because I saw what education did for me, for my peers and even my family,” Owens said. “Knowing that education was what saved me, I knew that that's where I need to be. In the classroom while I was making an intense impact with my students, I knew that there were other students in classrooms next to me who were not receiving the same impact and so I knew that I needed to lead from a greater lens.”

Video: Watch our full interview with Deion Owens

North Lawndale was one of the few schools that returned to in-person learning last year. It has also seen a steady increase in enrollment at a time where Chicago Public Schools are seeing dips in student enrollment. Currently, North Lawndale College Prep has a student enrollment of 815 students for the 2021-2022 school year, up from 777 students enrolled last year, according to their administration.

Another organization working to address systemic issues in the community is Better Boy Foundation Family Services.  They offer programs in community engagement, education and health equity as well as employment, family and youth services.

“We can see the change going on right now and it’s only going to get better,” said Pamela Blackman, CEO of BBF family services. “And it’s going to take the community, it’s going to take stake holders, elected officials to make North Lawndale what it should be.” 

Angelo Williams was a teenager when he started at BBF and now owns his own film production company. 

“With BBF being so invested in the youth, like outside of high school, they also hooked us up with internships that developed me greatly and I’m extremely grateful,” Williams said.

Williams hopes that young people will take advantage of what organizations like BBF have to offer. 

“Discover, be open to direction and cultivate the hidden resources and blessings that are around you,” Williams said.    

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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