The July 18 ceremony outside the Westside Health Authority headquarters, 4800 W. Chicago Ave., was about more than marking the fourth anniversary of dedicating the section of Cicero Avenue between Grand Avenue and Roosevelt Road as “Nelson Mandela Way.”
It was a way to get the community out and about, doing something positive. It was a way to show what the local community organizations have accomplished over the past year. And it was an opportunity to pay tribute to another civil rights leader, as the nonprofit Westside Health Authority officially unveiled the 1968 statue of Martin Luther King Jr. at its new home on the plaza in front of the building.
For the past few years, Illinois State Representative La Shawn Ford (8th) has been pushing to rename Cicero Avenue to Mandela Road. The change wouldn’t be entirely unprecedented. Pulaski Road, a major Chicago thoroughfare a few blocks east, was renamed after Revolutionary War hero Casimir Pulaski in 1935, thanks in large part to the pressure from the city’s Polish-American community. Before that, it was known as Crawford Avenue.
Ford was able to get the honorary street designation for the Grand-Roosevelt portion, but during the ceremony, he said that he wasn’t content with that.
“We want all of Cicero to be Mandela, but some communities aren’t ready for it,” he said. “We’re going to continue fighting to make all of Cicero Mandela.”
In the meantime, Ford, WHA and representatives of other local community organizations have been gathering at the plaza each year to celebrate Mandela’s life and community successes. Some of the organizations that were represented this year included Jehovah Jireh #1 Outreach Ministry’s Stop the Violence initiative, the WHA’s Good Neighbor Campaign, officers from Chicago Police Department’s 15th District, Special Service Area 72, Institute for Nonviolence Chicago (CeaseFire’s successor organization) and Austin Police Youth Baseball League.
Quiwana Bell, WHA’s chief operating officer, said that the league was a collaboration between the 15th District and Good Neighbor Campaign. Launched this June, it is open to boys ages 9-12. District officers serve as volunteer coaches.
“By coaching them, they are able to mentor them and the youth are able to get a good impression of the police,” Bell said.
Good Neighbor Campaign also put together Good Neighbor Girls, a cheerleading team made up of girls within the similar age range, to cheer the players on during game. The team put on a brief performance at the beginning of the ceremony and Charles Perry, WHA’s community organizing director and the event’s emcee, was quick to lavish them with praise.
“We’re so proud of those young ladies, because they took the responsibility of being cheerleaders for our baseball team,” he said. “We’re so proud of [the baseball players], because they’ve done something they’ve never done before.”
15th District Commander Dwayne Betts said that being part of a sports team will help the kids on the long run.
“That impact on those kids … that will last longer than you’ll remember,” he said.
Betts said that if his officers were going to “bring peace to the streets,” it wasn’t something they could do alone — residents, businesses, community organizations and local politicians need to work together to make it happen.
There was one concrete step he felt residents could take to reduce crime.
“I’d like to deputize everyone within the sound of my voice,” Betts said. “We need peacekeepers to turn over that couch, have that conversation with your son, and gun violence will be reduced.”
Many speakers touted what their organizations accomplished. Bell took the opportunity to promote the Good Neighbor Campaign.
“GNC is about loving your neighbors, coming together,” she said. “If you want Good Neighbors to be on your block, to have village atmosphere on your block, connect with us.”
She also touched on Special Service Area 72. As previously reported by Austin Weekly News, it includes the portion of Chicago Avenue between Central and Kilpatrick avenues, and the section of Cicero Avenue between Rice and Ohio streets. The properties located within the area are charged a special tax, which is then used to make improvements.
“We want commercial businesses to come to the community, and we want residents to patronize them,” Bell said.
Bell said that SSA 72 sent out staff to survey local businesses to better understand they want to see as the community, as well as to let them know how the SSA can help them.
Yemisi Dinkins, VHA’s director of finance and economic development for WHA and SSA 72’s business and program development director, said that the special service area is also starting to make small improvements, sprucing up the building across the street from WHA by painting artwork where there was previously just boards. She said that the key advantage of an SSA is that any improvements will be community-driven.
“It’s about making sure businesses in the area reflects what the community wants,” Dinkins said.
Finally, the attendees celebrated the relocation of the statue of Martin Luther King Jr to the newly christened Peace and Justice Plaza in front of WHA building.
According to Rickie Brown, president of the West Side Historical Preservation Society, the sculpture, which depicts the civil rights icon as an African-style chief, was originally created by sculptor Geraldine McCullough in April 1968. She was hoping to bring peace after King’s death and the riots that followed. The statue fell into the hands of private owners, who didn’t exactly take the best care of it, Brown said.
“We brought this statue over here because [the owners] were about to destroy it,” he said. “I brought it to the Westside Health Authority, and they gave me a place to [put it].”
Brown said that Ford was instrumental in getting the statue to its current location.
The plaza was designed to architect Firmin Senga and built by Genesis Construction and Carpentry Services. Both men attended the ceremony, simply saying that they were proud to be part of making the plaza happen.
Ford said that he hoped it would lead to better things.
“It was our hope that the spirit of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. will be in our community, and violence will stop,” he said.