The corner of Austin Boulevard and Chicago Avenue. (Google Maps)

Malcolm Crawford, the owner of the Sankofa Cultural Arts & Business Center and the executive director of the Austin African American Business Networking Association (AAABNA), said that he’s had discussions with high level city officials, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, to develop Chicago Avenue into an ‘African American village.’ 

“Every other nationality understands that you have to have a place where you can conduct business,” Crawford said during a talk he gave on Feb. 22 at the Afrikan Village Chicago Cultural Center, 5840 W. Madison St.

“That’s why you can go to 44 African countries and 40 of them have a Chinatown. You can go to Lagos, Nigeria and have you some shrimp fried rice. Others understand the importance of having a designated area. We’re the only ones that don’t have a designated area to conduct business.”

Crawford said that he met with Department of Planning and Development (DPD) commissioner Andrew Mooney last week, and received a personal phone call from Mayor Emanuel, about the plans.

“The Mayor said, ‘You know we’re coming out to Chicago Avenue next week and we want to talk about what that development is going to look like for an African American village on Chicago Avenue,'” Crawford said, recounting the conversation. 

He said that he and participating developers in the proposed project own about half of the 5700, 5800 and 5900 blocks of Chicago Avenue. Crawford’s Sankofa center is located at 5820 W. Chicago Avenue. 

Acknowledging that the project is still in the conceptual phase, Crawford said that currently, the focus is on Chicago Avenue’s streetscape.

“If you’ve ever been on Chicago and Austin, the bus turnaround looks like 1950,” he said.

Crawford added that the interest from City Hall isn’t the only indication of what could be a turnaround happening in the area. 

“I just got a call last week from somebody asking me to sell Sankofa to a medical center,” he said. “That lets me know that we’re moving in the right direction, but we’re going to need your help,” he said, referring to the audience of about 35 attendees.

He said that he wants to preempt any conflict among residents and interests within Austin who may want the designation of a business epicenter to go to other major economic corridors in the community—such as Madison Street or North Avenue.

“Let’s get something before we fight over nothing,” Crawford said. “We don’t have to argue about everything.”