Chicago is a highly diverse community and as such its surrounding communities reflect a variety of cultural, culinary and artistic preferences from a variety of nationalities.
The mosaic structures and Mexican eateries throughout the Little Village community, the sprawling architecture of Chinatown and the authentic rendering of the national flag of Puerto Rico in Humboldt Park show communities have become landmarks of cultural awareness.
However, according to Rickie Brown, co-founder of the Gateway Project, there is no community in Chicago that allows tourists and community residents alike to gain insight into the African-American experience to the same extent as the aforementioned communities.
“There really is no community set aside to reflect the African-American experience,” said Brown. “Many people mention Bronzeville and Hyde Park, but those communities do not possess the cultural and entrepreneurial amenities of, say, Greektown.”
Consequently, Brown, along with Malcolm Crawford of the African-American Business Network and Ron Smith of Bodis Computer Company, have spearheaded the “Gateway Project,” to create a business district within the Austin community down Chicago avenue from Cicero to Austin.
The project, which has been in the planning since late last year, proposes the opening of a fine arts center, a “Memorial Park” dedicated to community activists Leola Spann and Edward Bailey, and “Freedom Fountain,” an parklike setting where patrons can read and meditate.
The plan also seeks to open a “Freedom Hall,” a museum chronicling the Civil Rights struggle. It would include painting, writings and memorabilia from the era.
The Gateway Project was influenced by a plan the late Mayor Harold Washington supported prior to his death.
“Before Mayor Harold Washington died, he had been planning to create a similar cultural and business district on the South Side, in the area that was called ‘Jew Town,’ at the time” said Brown.
“However, when he died, that dream died with him and after the University of Chicago obtained that property, it was largely forgotten.”
The Gateway Project faces several obstacles though.
Because its vision is so elaborate and expensive, it stands to reason that entrepreneurs, community residents, politicians and organizers would be required to support the project with equal vigor.
That will not be easy.
“I think the best way to think of the project is to realize that we all stand to gain from it,” said Brown. “It would increase the revenue in the Austin area because we would have a bonefide tourist attraction here. Businesses would prosper because they would be located in the midst of a business district that would undoubtedly draw a lot of business. Residents would benefit because the more businesses that open means job creation and accessibility to services that are out of the community.”
Brown contends that with every dollar African-Americans spend currently, 96 cents leave the community.
“The Gateway Project would allow African-Americans to reinvest into their own community,” he said.
37th Ward Alderman Emma Mitts says she has also been lobbying to attract new businesses to the Austin community, particularly on Chicago Avenue and Madison Street, but she supports Brown’s plan-with reservations.
“I do believe that we need to create a sense of racial pride in the community, one that reflects the cultural, spiritual and historical facets of our race,” said Mitts.
“I have been meeting with the [city’s] Department of Planning about a similar project and feel that it is imperative to get both businesses and community residents all on the same page. That will be Mr. Brown’s biggest challenge,” said Mitts.
Brown says support for the project has already been forthcoming.
Through his petition in favor of the construction of a business and cultural district, he says he has raised over 2,000 signatures from Austin residents.
He also says Alderman Isaac “Ike” Carothers supports the construction of the Leola Spann/Edward Bailey “Memorial Park.”
However, 2,000 signatures is a long way from what would be required to begin making the Gateway Project a reality, and until funds begin to change hands to finance its construction, it will remain merely a plan.
To visualize the Gateway Project and/or sign an online petition in support, visit the website at www.rpbconsultinginc.com.