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75th Street Boardwalk controversy shows public safety is essential for livable streets

One of the seating areas on 75th Street. Photo: James Porter

Last September, the 75th Street Boardwalk project transformed parking spots along an iconic Black-owned restaurant district in Chicago's South Side Chatham community into restaurant seating, hangout space, and art installations. These “parklets” were made out of wood repurposed from board-ups installed in the wake of last summer’s civil unrest, and the structures were painted a cheerful lime green. Some of the establishments on 75th credited the initiative with boosting sales.

But in the wake of a tragic mass shooting near the strip on June 15, along with ongoing issues with late-night crowds on the street that were blamed on the installation, the boardwalk is being dismantled. The situation highlights what should be obvious truths. All Chicago neighborhoods deserve vibrant outdoor public spaces and restaurant seating, which improve quality of life for residents and promote commerce. But while people in relatively affluent, majority-white neighborhoods can generally take safe, lively street life for granted, that's not the case in many Black and Latino communities on the South and West sides. It's impossible for our city's streets to be truly livable unless we can provide basic standards of public safety in all parts of town.

Last summer the service drives on Randolph in the West Loop were pedestrianized for cafe seating. Photo: John Greenfield
Last summer the service drives on Randolph in the West Loop were pedestrianized for cafe seating. Public safety is largely a given in Chicago's more privileged neighborhoods, and therefore outdoor seating is common. Photo: John Greenfield
Last summer the service drives on Randolph in the West Loop were pedestrianized for cafe seating. Photo: John Greenfield

As reported by Block Club Chicago's Atavia Reed, some residents attributed issues with late-night partiers outdoors on 75th Street, including raucous behavior, loud music, and public urination, on the Boardwalk. The shooting earlier this month at a parking lot near Lem's Bar-B-Q, left Kimfier Miles, 29, a mother of three, dead, plus nine other people wounded. Some neighbors argued that was proof that the outdoor seating needed to go, and the Greater Chatham Initiative has reportedly already taken out about 40 percent of the seating, with the rest slated for removal by August.

“This is a quality of life issue — when you have people coming into your community, making a lot of noise, urinating in the bushes and keeping you up until four o’clock in the morning,” Niena Feme, the leader of a local block club, told Reed. “I hope the businesses will continue to flourish and that people will respect our community and allow us to continue to enjoy the peacefulness that we all desire.”

But Brown Sugar Bakery owner owner Stephanie Hart argued that the Boardwalk was unfairly scapegoated for the violence and rowdiness. “There was a specific incident that had nothing to do with the boardwalk,” she told Block Club. “Unfortunately, sometimes when something terrible happens, people look at what’s different and what’s changed even though it is a beautiful thing... One incident, and they want to throw the whole thing away."

Streetsblog contributor and Chatham resident James Porter weighed in on the situation. "The Boardwalk was an overdue idea," he said. "It helped raise 75th Street's profile as a destination spot for dining. Unfortunately, the shooting and the other problems places it squarely in the category of 'This is why we can't have nice things.'"

James also noted that outdoor dining, including at night, is common on the North Side. "People feel free to hang out and have fun," he said. "The same should be true on the South Side. 75th Street had a good thing going with the Boardwalk, and I hope we see it revived."

Kids wrote messages on a blackboard in one of the parklets last September. Photo: James Porter
Kids wrote messages on a blackboard in one of the parklets last September. Photo: James Porter
Kids wrote messages on a blackboard in one of the parklets last September. Photo: James Porter

Arguably the installation was itself an anti-violence initiative. It provided outdoor seating for businesses like Lem's and Brown Sugar that had no indoor seating, offering a way to draw more customers and therefore employ more people.

But the main takeaway from this sad story is that if you really care about creating livable streets across Chicago, you need to support holistic solutions to foster public safety in all neighborhoods. That means shifting our focus and resources to ensuring all residents have access to affordable housing; quality education and healthcare, including mental health services and substance abuse treatment; job training; and, yes, better transportation options.

Yeah, very difficult to have these kinds of public spaces when there's no safety. It's going to be a long hard path to revitalize these blighted areas. That's why I want Invest South/West to succeed.

— Michael Alarcon (@Michael68097880) June 30, 2021

On the bright side, Block Club reported that the Greater Chatham Initiative received a Chicago Alfresco grant to create other temporary outdoor public spaces. The community group will be using the money to construct eight mobile parklets along 71st, 75th, and 79th that can be set up for special events and removed afterwards.

Read the full Block Club article about the 75th Street Boardwalk issue here.

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