‘Chicago Tonight’ in Your Neighborhood: Fuller Park

Fuller Park is a small community area on the South Side of Chicago, located right off the Dan Ryan Expressway. Despite being considered one of the smallest, and poorest, neighborhoods in Chicago, community leaders have been investing in the neighborhood for years. 

Interactive map: More from our community reporting series

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The Eden Place Nature Center, which used to be an illegal dumpsite, is now an urban oasis for residents.

Founders Michael Howard and his wife Amelia Howard have dedicated years of their lives to educating and providing services to the neighborhood. They run the nonprofit Eden Place Farms where they teach youth to farm and connect with nature by providing the community a safe place to learn.

“Our mission is to help improve the quality of life for all our neighbors,” Howard said. “We’ve helped with mortgage closures, we help people get mortgages, we do financial literacy and we ran one of the city’s longest job training programs teaching construction job skills to guys right off the street.” 

The Howards said they were hit hard by the pandemic and had to temporarily close the farm, but they’ve used their savings to help support families in the area.

According to the founders, about 10,000 people have passed through the farm since in the past 20 years, and while many have left the neighborhood, the Howards have vowed to stay.

“I have to remain with a good positive perspective because a lot of people don’t have the same resources I have,” Howard said. “I have an education, but my wife and I chose to be here to help other folks get to where we are. We could’ve left years ago … but we know our work here isn’t done.” 

Meanwhile, residents pointed to another strong pillar in the community: Thomas A. Hendricks Community Academy. It’s the only remaining elementary school in the area following the shutdown of Parkman Elementary during the 2013 school closures.

For the past eight years Sandee McDonald has been a principal at Hendricks, where she’s worked in a variety of roles over more than 15 years. She’s now retiring.

“The community means so much to me having taught here in the ‘90s,” McDonald said. “I’ve worked on building a culture and climate of learning, making sure that the materials, the resources all spoke to my children…that they felt loved and nurtured. I’ve worked on bringing a highly-qualified staff here. We have to make sure as educators that we’re finding children’s strength. We’re a hidden gem over here in Fuller Park.”

Fuller Park by the Numbers

Fewer than 4,000 people live in Fuller Park, where about 55% of families in the area make a median household income of under $25,000 a year, according to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

Jacqueline Russell, a longtime resident of Fuller Park, says the community is often overlooked when it comes to federal funding and that there’s a lack of businesses and restaurants.

“I would rather put money back in my own community than drive somewhere else,” Russell said. “Most of the time I have to drive up to 103rd to get something to eat so the few places we have here, we have to try to keep them.” 

Located in Fuller Park, the South Side Community Federal Credit Union is one of two minority-owned nonprofit financial institutions in Illinois. 

South Side native Gregg Brown, who’s the CEO and president, and said his goal is to provide South Side residents financial tools to help them own a home, create saving plans and give people opportunities to own businesses in their community.

“It’s very challenging for most businesses in this community because you’re targeting a population that has a high poverty rate, high unemployment rate. The incomes are very low so it’s very difficult for businesses to compete in today’s market,” Brown said. “However, we can change all that and that’s what I’ve dedicated my life to see how I can be an agent for change to spur what we really need: an economic movement.”

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd Ward) said economic revival in Fuller Park is underway, with more investment coming into the neighborhood as of late.

“I am surprised that I’m getting a lot of requests for city owned land to build housing in Fuller Park,” Dowell said. “A few years back that was not the case, but since the pandemic has lifted, people are getting to express more interest in Fuller Park. We also have a major development underway on 43rd and Wells: a car wash and a laundromat. [It’s] very much needed not just to serve Fuller Park, but for surrounding communities.”

Video: Watch our full interview with Ald. Pat Dowell.

Fuller Park also has a high concentration of churches per capita. Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church on Princeton Avenue is just one of them.

Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church Chief of Staff Lemont Watson has been a member since he was 12.

“It’s about saving souls, that’s the ultimate goal but it’s about meeting needs first,” Watson said. “That’s one of the visions of our pastor: meeting needs.” 

The ministry runs a pantry every Wednesday and hopes to reopen their weekly soup kitchen held every Thursday in the church basement early next month.

“Even during the pandemic, we had food giveaways,” Watson said. “Since we couldn’t come in the building, we set up in the parking lot, and it was big where cars can just drive up and give them a box of food and everything. So it was really essential not only for the Fuller Park Community, but it really helped a lot of families as well.”  

Video: Watch our full interview with Sandee McDonald.

Even though residents say Fuller Park lacks investment and is underserved, people are investing their time to uplift the community like Michael Howard, who believes helping people obtain knowledge will lead to greater change.

“We can see that we have caused a ripple in people’s families where their lives have improved, where they now have a higher knowledge of environmental hazards that they could protect their families from,” he said.  “They also have a better quality of life because we take them camping, fishing, canoeing. We take them on hikes and to parts of the country that they probably never have been before.”

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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