A vacant lot on Adams Street, between Sacramento Boulevard and Francisco Avenue, is like many across East Garfield Park — covered in uneven patches of grass, plastic bags, campaign literature and waste strewn about. But for Tracelli Rockford, a longtime West Sider and president of a block club, the lot represents potential.
After an ultimately failed attempt to turn the lot into a community garden, she and her neighbors are now looking to turn it into a community space where people can play chess, hold public meetings and parties, stage performances and hold film screenings.
There are also plans for a lending library to help make up for the fact that, unlike other West Side neighborhoods, East Garfield Park doesn’t have a branch library to call its own.
Rockford and members of her block club have already secured a grant to cover startup costs related to installing outdoor fixtures like chairs, tables, a patio and fencing. Rockford said that the block club hopes to host a groundbreaking for the park in April and start developing the park in the next few months.
Rockford said that she was been wanting to improve the lot for a long time. She was sad to see neighbors “sitting out on the sidewalk, in front of their house.” A double murder that happened on the lot in 2011 was the last straw.
“It could have been something positive, but it became a drug spot,” Rockford said. “And I thought that I wanted to try to bring life back into our block. Because after that murder happened, you didn’t see any neighbors. It was a ghost town. And they needed something to just bring life back into the community.”
Rockford reached out to Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), whose ward was in the lot, and he connected her to a program that allowed her to lease the lot for five years.
Rockford said she worked with the Garfield Park Community Council and Safer Foundation, an East Garfield Park non-profit that works to help ex-offenders lead stable, successful lives. Angela Taylor, GPCC’s Wellness Coordinator and head of the Garfield Park Neighborhood Market, helped the neighbors get trees and shrubs, and Safer Foundation clients cleaned up the lot.
“It wasn’t a lot,” Rockford recalled. “But once we cleaned it out and started to bring some form of beautification to it, things opened up. People started coming back out, mingling with each other. It took a while for it to happen.”
While the lot was progressing, Rockford took a “medical hit” in 2014 and the progress slowed to a halt. Rockford lost the lease on the lot. As she recovered and reconnected with her neighbors, however, she figured she’d restore her effort to develop the lot.
She found an enthusiastic ally in Carley Mostar, who moved to the block with her boyfriend in 2016. They wanted a public space that could serve the community and reflect what the residents on the block wanted.
“The vision for the lot is to bring the community back into our neighborhood,” Rockford said. “We have nothing local. There’s not a local library right there in walking distance. And the closest library is not in East Garfield Park.”
Mostar, a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Business Administration. In 2018, she applied for the Ford College Community Challenge grant, which provides grants to students who want to improve their neighborhoods through design. Mostar was one of 10 applicants chosen, with each winner getting $25,000.
She said that the $25,000 will cover startup costs related to developing the lot. Mostar added that she’s been reaching out to a local contracting company and specialists to do the paid work, as well as for volunteers and “donated materials and services.”
Since getting the grant, the block club has been working with the UIC School of Architecture design students to figure out the park’s design and to see how what they can afford to do. Mostar said that she hopes to have a final design completed by the end of March, and generate community feedback and approval by the time of the April groundbreaking.
“The plan is to build up our community — block by block,” Rockford said. “The space will not only serve residents on the block, but it will serve all the surrounding blocks. “
Those interested in volunteering or otherwise getting involved can contact Rockford at Yhelp1@yahoo.com and Mostar at email@example.com.