‘Chicago Tonight’ In Your Neighborhood: Holiday Happenings in North Lawndale

Some 35,000 Chicagoans call North Lawndale home, according to the latest census figures, and 80% of those residents are Black.

The median annual income is about $31,000 – roughly half of the median income for Chicago overall.

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Poverty and violence are part of the West Side community area’s story.

But community leaders say there's much more to it.

Residents of Lawndale are making new traditions. One of them being the third annual Light Up Lawndale. The event, 5-9 p.m. Saturday, is the brainchild of Princess Shaw, who said it’s literally about shining light in a dark place – and changing the narrative about her neighborhood.

“It started because, unfortunately, they have pegged Lawndale with like this really bad rap,” Shaw said. “Unless you’re having a big festival here, there’s no reason to come here. They don’t look at the actual people that are here and how they have to life here on a regular basis.”

She admits initially there were practical challenges like a lack of power outlets and ladders to string lights high in the trees. But then, she discovered battery powered lights, which she wrapped around tree trunks.

Interactive map: More from our community reporting series

A new challenge this time around: they need more lights and are still accepting donations and sponsorships. That’s because they’re doubling the lit-up area, from 15 to 30 blocks. 

“So we’re trying to encompass more of the actual neighborhood to get more people to get in the holiday spirit unlike they’ve been in years past,” Shaw said. “Especially with the pandemic that happened, and people were just kinda stuck in their house and in a gloomy mood, so we’re trying to cheer them up.”

The lights are part of a full day of holiday fun. The afternoon kicks off with a Christmas party in Franklin Park, where children can get scarves and gloves, lunch, and books, through North Lawndale Reads – part of the Open Books program. 

“We really want to make sure that our primary goal is that every kid can get a book, every kid has a book, eery kid has something to read – and that adults also have something to read so that they’re modeling reading for their children,” said Chelsea Ridley, the project director of North Lawndale Reads.

That isn’t all. Books are certainly a wonderful gift, but Ridley said it’s Christmas. Children, from babies to teens, can also get toys and other gifts.

Then folks can bike en masse on over to the other side of North Lawndale – from Franklin Park to Douglass.

And who’ll be there?

Not quite Santa Claus, but his alter ego will pay a visit to the West Side this weekend, on a bike rather than a sleigh.

“It’s not Santa Claus. It’s Banty Claus,” said Derek Brown, founder of Boxing out Negativity. 

Most of the year, Brown is busy leading a boxing program for area youth.

Boxing Out Negativity isn’t just a boxing program – it’s a way of life,” Brown said. “Just like in the ring we teach our youth to make split second decisions and they have to make these same decisions when they go out into the community.”

Brown said in his youth he had a reputation for knocking people out – a well-earned reputation that got him in a lot of trouble with the law.

Now, he’s helping 45 youth daily for free through training them as boxers. This isn’t mild training. Some Boxing Out Negativity participants are national champs.

Brown said funding has been tough lately as he relies on donor support.

Another big presence in the community is the North Lawndale Employment Network

The organization founded and run by Brenda Palms does a lot: financial support, helping folks get jobs, teaching beekeeping and running the BeeLove Café.

Their Sweet Beginnings beekeeping program helps to train the formerly incarcerated. 

Palms said she realized, those leaving prison hadn’t working in traditional environments for a while and often employers weren’t open to hiring them.

“And suddenly they’re asking: well what is it like to be a beekeeper?” Palms said. “And then there’s a different dialogue that starts to take place. I love when that happens – when it opens up an opportunity for the men and women we serve to be truly seen for the asset and the contributions they can make to the business."

Back in the day, Sears – the Amazon of its age – was based in North Lawndale. The employment situation here has changed.

But the North Lawndale Employment Network is helping connect residents with opportunities like solar panel training, transportation, distribution and logistics. 

“We learned that 57% of the adults in North Lawndale have had some involvement in the criminal justice system. And when you understand that, you understand why the unemployment rate in North Lawndale is so high,” Palms said. “It's not because people don't want to work. It’s because they’re battling the stigma of having a criminal record."

Video: Watch our full interview with state Rep. Lakesia Collins.

State Rep. Lakesia Collins was recently reelected to serve the 9th District, which includes North Lawndale. The second-term representative said she “hit the ground running” in her first term serving the community.

One of her focuses has been child care. Last year, she filed a bill that raised the age of those eligible for child welfare services to 23. Another measure she introduced expanded child care for youth in care –officially becoming law in May. And the matter is personal to her.

“When I got pregnant with my oldest son, child care was really hard to find – and I knew that those issues still existed today,” Collins said. “I wanted to make sure that if we’ere really going to have a pathway for our youth in care to emancipate and be stable – that they needed child care.”

Rep. Collins was also recently elected by her peers as the chair of the Illinois House Black Caucus. She said she’s looking forward to work with the General Assembly to support Black communities throughout the state.

“[We’ll be] putting structures in place to make sure that our communities can really see what their legislatures are doing,” Collins 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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