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Austin business owner Malcolm Crawford has driven through Chinatown and Little Village on the Near West Side numerous times. But during a drive back in January from a business meeting on the South Side, Crawford, executive director of the Austin African American Business Networking Association, was struck by what he saw – and didn’t see once he drove through Austin.
The experience prompted Crawford, owner of African Accents, 5820 W. Chicago, to write a column for Austin Weekly News. A regular columnist for the paper, Crawford was impressed with the cultural art throughout those neighborhoods.
Murals on businesses and residences in Little Village and statues of cultural figures outside the high schools in the community.
In Chinatown, franchise businesses like Walgreens and KFC have Asian-inspired art and characters on those buildings. In Little Village, at bus stops, benches and on glass canopies were decorated in art.
Even while on the South Side, Crawford passed by the Chess Records and Studio building at 2120 S. Michigan. The recent film Cadillac Records was about the legendary Chicago recording studio. Next door to the building that’s since been designated as a Chicago landmark is a green-space garden named after bluesman Willie Dixon. But the black-iron fence has several images of Dixon and his guitar welded on it.
Eventually, Crawford made his way back to Austin. No murals on buildings. No statues of historic black figures outside anywhere. No memorial to, say, black U.S. soldiers similar to the one at the center of Chinatown Square on Archer near Cermak. The Chinese American Veterans Memorial is a large black monument by Maya Lin, the artist who also created the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
“I just thought, ‘Man, we don’t have even one statue or piece of art showcasing who we are,” said Crawford, who allowed Austin Weekly News to ride along with him recently on another trip through the West Side.
After his January column was published, Crawford received responses from people in Austin and elsewhere in the city who wanted to pitch in to create art projects for the community.
“When you see a statue like that,” he said, referring to one of more than a dozen located outside Benito Juarez Community Academy, 2150 S. Laflin, in Little Village, “it makes you think. And for the kids in our community, when they see something like that, it makes their minds wonder, and they start asking, ‘Who is this person? What did they do?'”
While the Networking Association deals with cultivating and showcasing new and existing Austin businesses, it has worked on creating a cultural and business district in the community.
But as Crawford noted, any one person in the community can replicate the cultural pride seen in other neighborhoods. As Crawford drove back through Austin, he pointed out the blank sides of commercial buildings where murals depicting black people and events could go.
As for money to do such work, he noted that that can discourage some in the community. But he pointed out that lack of money is also concern in other ethnic communities, but they don’t allow that to stop their efforts to improve their neighborhoods.
Some of the statues at Benito Juarez didn’t have their plaques placed yet, but Crawford estimated that they weren’t made cheaply. The West Side and Austin wasn’t completely void on any esthetic beauty, Crawford noted. But you won’t find stone-carved benches at bus stops depicting black American or African culture, Crawford said.
“Something like this, people will donate money for, and they can take pride in knowing they helped create this,” he said.