Why can't we turn Austin into 'The African Village'?

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Malcolm Crawford

February was Black History Month and as the owner of a retail store which caters to my culture (African-American), I was proud to see my people coming from near and far. I had customers from Evanston, Aurora, the south suburbs, and Indiana. I can't forget how happy I was seeing everyone shopping, laughing and talking, but most of all, they were purchasing. They were saying, "I will be back, and I will definitely tell others."

I also look back on February and remember how every week I would pick up my Austin Weekly News and proudly see the pictures of many prominent African Americans under the title "Saluting the Unsung Black History Heroes." What a month! There were many of our church leaders and their congregations dressed in full cultural attire. It seemed that just about every one of our elected officials wanted to share in the richness of the African-American culture.

I can remember how elated I was after attending the African-American pride program, which was hosted by 29th Ward Alderman Isaac Carothers. There we were at the Columbus Park Refectory, standing room only, celebrating our past and present greatness. I can say with a smile that the highlight of the program was when our first African-American fire commissioner, Cortez Trotter, asked if he could sit in on our drum circle. There I was with all the brothers playing African rhythms with the commissioner and watching Alderman Carothers swaying as we made music with our souls. What a month!

Oh well, Black History Month is over, and so is the constant parade of customers.

Gone is the Austin Weekly News section that displayed the pictures of the unsung heroes. The preachers have stopped calling and so have their members. The regular drummers are also back to playing drums every fourth Saturday.

But can you imagine if this were the rule and not the exception? It doesn't seem to be so far-fetched.

Chicago is known for its cultural diversity and pride. Since Austin has the largest concentration of African Americans in the city, it only makes sense that we showcase our cultural pride in our community as we did with such elegance during February. I looked high and low around Austin and could not even find one monument dedicated to its largest ethnic group. I often look around Chicago and see the ethnic pride in Chinatown, Little Italy, Greektown, the Ukrainian Village. As I see the Puerto Rican flags flying high across Division Street in Humboldt Park, I began to wonder if Austin could be the hub for African Americans. For those who are wondering, "What does this have to do with business?" let me tell you:

This will create an opportunity for many different consumers to spend money with Austin businesses, and business is the heart of every community. Small businesses provide jobs and an economic base which every community needs to thrive.

What if Austin had a culturally-centered business district? What if we take one of our main thoroughfares, such as Chicago Avenue and created "Little Africa" or maybe the "African Village" or whatever name that works. What if the soon-to-be former 15th Police District building were converted into an African-American history museum or cultural arts center? The street could be lined with establishments where people could go to hear some good jazz, hear African drummers, go in and out of African-American art studios, or enjoy meals at upscale African-American-owned restaurants--the area peppered with black doctors' offices, accountants' offices and similar businesses. This would create an opportunity for us and others to share in our rich culture just like we did during Black History Month.

I cannot express the pride I felt this February, and I wish that our kids could feel that same pride all year long. I hope that they will not have to wait for Black History Month to feel a sense of pride in themselves. Or maybe we can just hold onto February. It's only 10 months away.

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