Converting parking to people space on 75th helps reenergize Black-owned restaurant strip
While a fully pedestrianized Cafe Street was originally planned on 75th Street in Chatham to make room for socially-distanced outdoor dining during the pandemic, that proposal was cancelled because some merchants and community leaders were concerned about inconveniencing drivers. However, an alternative public space initiative called the 75th Street Boardwalk was opened last Saturday, with parking spots transformed into restaurant seating, hangout space, and art installations. These “parklets” are made out of wood repurposed from board-ups installed in the wake of this summer’s civil unrest. The structures were painted a cheerful lime green.
Billed as “a series of unique outdoor dining experiences,” the Boardwalk is located on 75th between Calumet and Indiana avenues and is available for use by eleven local restaurants and businesses, including iconic eateries like Brown Sugar Bakery, Lem’s Bar-B-Q, and Soul Veg City (formerly Soul Vegetarian.) The goal is to help establish Chatham as a hub for outdoor dining, similar to Wicker Park-Bucktown, Lakeview and other North Side neighborhoods.
The boardwalk project, led by the Chicago Department of Planning and Development and the Greater Chatham Initiative, cost about $250K. Pro-bono design services were provided by by the firm SITE design group. Funding sources include the Together Now fund and donations from various corporations. $16K in youth construction mentoring was led by Center for New Horizons. Since none of the parking spaces used were metered, there was no need to compensate the parking concessionaire.
The grand opening included a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 75th and Indiana, complete with live music from Yanna and Edward, a cello and guitar duo. While residents and visitors strolled the business strip, enjoying samples of food from local restaurants, artists painted pictures on the walls of the parklets.
“This is something we’ve been talking about since I got into office,” said Sixth Ward alderman Roderick Sawyer. “I wanted 75th Street to reassert itself as the ‘Black downtown.’ We wanted it to be a busy, walkable community where we have a lot of options for you to dine and enjoy yourselves, do business. All of that needs to be here, contained in our own community. We don’t have to go outside [the neighborhood] to do all that; we [can] just stay right here. That’s our purpose.”
“I think it’s a beautiful idea…a long time coming,” said Chatham resident Tracy Temple. “I hope a lot of people support the 75th Street corridor. The South Side has been a beacon of black-owned businesses for years.”
Planning commissioner Maurice Cox said the boardwalk was an effort to show that outdoor dining shouldn’t just be a North Side thing. “There are restaurants on the South Side of Chicago, too.” He argued that the parklets have already helped the bottom lines of local businesses. “The second we expanded the sidewalk, the business owners started to see an increase in their sales, before the thing was even finished. These kinds of things make a difference. We should be doing this all over Chicago, in Black and Brown communities.”
Ernie Wong, the head of SITE discussed the project. “When I first got out here I started to take some pictures. This dude in a van rolls up on me, rolls down his window, and says: ‘Hey, what are you doing here?’ I said, I got a project I’m working on for the city. He says to me, ‘All right, but I will tell you this…we in this community look out for each other. I want to make sure you know that.’ I said, ‘Yes sir, I understand, I appreciate that. Now I’m one of those guys, looking out for the community.”
Lori Seay, co-owner of Soul Veg City with her brother Arel Ben Israel, said she’s happy about the renewed attention to 75th Street. “We are so humbled, so grateful and so excited to still be here after all these years. Being an entrepreneur is not easy, but when you stick with it, this is what you get. We’re the second generation [of Soul Veg]; we’re raising our children to be the third generation, and to be on this corner and down 75th Street forever and ever.”
The 75th Street Boardwalk is yet another example of how taking space away from cars and giving it to people makes communities more vibrant and economically viable.