Open Boulevards in North Lawndale: “It makes you want to come outside”

Kids skate and bike on Douglas Boulevard. Photo: CDOT
Kids skate and bike on Douglas Boulevard. Photo: CDOT

Have you ever wanted to play in the street without having to worry about that whole pesky business called traffic? North Lawndale residents had that opportunity on Sunday, October 17th, thanks to the Open Boulevards program.

From 1-5 p.m. that day, Douglas Boulevard (1400 S.) was opened between Lawndale (3700 W.) and Homan (3400 W.) avenues for walking, jogging, biking, live music, games, a Haitian American Museum of Chicago exhibit, and grilling: a day of fun and culture. The event was hosted by the Chicago Department of Transportation, the Chicago Department of Public Health, the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, and the Chicago Park District, and various community organizations.

“The Open Boulevards program for Chicago is really a celebration of Chicago’s boulevards,” said Chelsea Ridley, cofounder of the Lawndale Popup Spot, a museum in a shipping container in a community garden, one of the co-sponsors of the event. “So there’s miles and miles stretches of the boulevards in this city, and it’s one of the real assets. But it is underutilized, and so this is an effort to really [open] the street and make sure that everyone has a chance to enjoy the boulevard in each of their neighborhoods.”

There were many different activities to choose from at the event. Photo: Cameron Bolton
There were many different activities to choose from at the event. Photo: Cameron Bolton

The North Lawndale event included all kinds of fun and games for people to enjoy. There were separate stands for attendees to peruse things ranging from free books to photography. The street was also filled with things you usually wouldn’t find on a typical day, such as a DJ, a makeshift basketball court, and lots of bikes for young children to ride. 

“I saw the ads on Instagram,” said attendee Rick Rosales. “I run an Instagram called Cycling in Solidarity Chicago, so I love any and all events where roads are [opened to people], and it encourages people and kids and families to come out and enjoy Chicago, in this case, the boulevards, but just the Chicago streets in general. Anything that makes our streets safer I want to come out and support.”

Rosales said the open streets and lack of traffic were absolutely a load off his mind. On his way over to the boulevard, there were cars in the bike lanes. According to Rosales, that just goes to show you how much of an impact opening streets makes, since there’s no car traffic and kids can just play without worrying about being struck by a driver.

24th Ward alderman Michael Scott Jr. and CDOT commissioner Gia Biagi speak at Open Boulevards.

It was a beautiful fall day that was sunny, with temperatures in the 60s. Of course, what constitutes comfortable weather varies from person to person, and attendee Montrell Tanksley told me he’d like to see more car-free events like this, he’d prefer warmer weather. “I want to say close to the springtime, not like when it’s really hot, but I prefer the springtime.” 

Rosales, however, had a slightly different take on when events like Open Boulevards should occur. “I think there should be tons of events like this, but more of these roads should be [pedestrianized] permanently and just allow, [for example], a family playing football in the street . So that shouldn’t be a special event. That should be every day. All these neighborhoods would be safer if more streets were [opened], so I would go one step further.”

Barbecue, bottled water, and soft drinks were available for sale. In addition, Brock Terry passed out free fresh vegetables to anyone who wanted some. “Just this whole vibe, this energy is everything. It makes you want to come outside and do more things instead of just being in the house… It makes you want to come out when you see things like this.” He noted that concerns about street crime often discourage North Lawn residents from spending time outdoors.

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Residents socialize at Open Boulevards. Photo: Cameron Bolton

Terry attended the event with his young daughter, who was among the children enjoying riding a bike in the street. When asked what he enjoyed most about closed-off events like this, Terrey said everything. “All the little kids that were out there? Those same kids would be in their houses with nothing to do. So having them come outside and having somewhere to come to was nice.”

Terry added that it seemed like people were enjoying being in the street and not having to worry about cars. “I saw some kids rollerskating. They have bike demonstrations down there, so they have sorts of bikes for kids to try out, safely try out in the street without having to worry about cars… They’re playing basketball in the street, so it’s really [using] all of this space and having a good time.”

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