For many Chicagoans, the clatter of roller skate wheels is a familiar sound of summer.
In Garfield Park, that clatter’s been replaced by another familiar sound of the season – the clamor of construction equipment.
Renovations are underway at the Garfield Park Community Plaza to create more play areas for kids, a stage, a covered roller rink and a sculpture designed by young people from the community.
“It’s going to be a really dynamic space,” said Theodore J. Crawford of the Garfield Park Right to Wellness Collaborative. “It’s an oasis in the midst of a busy block where folks can come in, they can find a little peace a little quiet, or a lot of fun and activity and joy happening in the space.”
A simpler version of the plaza and roller rink first opened in 2021, offering free skates and a place to gather on the site of a long-vacant lot that had become an issue: “abandoned cars … drug users, drug needles, … on a busy street that has all types of activity going on as well,” Crawford said.
Studies have shown reclaiming vacant lots like this don’t just create a fun space for neighbors to gather and play. It also makes communities safer and healthier, especially when it comes with increased attention to the site. It’s something Crawford’s seen with his own eyes.
“You go two blocks to the north, two blocks to the south, two blocks to the east, it’s a different story,
he said. “But right here on this corner, the attention, the consistent activity, knowing that children and families are here, knowing that we’re working to increase walkability along the corridor, it’s been a big help.
Crawford says investing in the physical space on this block shows residents this is a place they can grow and thrive. But he also knows investment can mean real estate speculation, gentrification and displacement.
“We want to make sure that as we seek justice, there’s balanced development so that those who have weathered the storm for all these years are also going to be here while the sun shines,” Crawford said.
They also want to make sure the space is designed around the idea of “Black culture wellness” – addressing the needs of the community and uplifting its values within the plaza: “images that reflect who we are as we self-determine, as we work to build a community that is a reflection of who we are as well,” Crawford said.