Hundreds of volunteers have fanned out across the West Side during multiple cleanup efforts held days after looting and vandalism that started on May 31 resulted in boarded-up and burned out businesses.

On June 3, around 200 volunteers participated in a day of cleaning organized by Austin Coming Together, the Chicago Police Department’s 15th District and area churches.

Jai Jones, ACT’s community engagement coordinator, said that the event’s goal was to promote “positive loitering.” She said many of the areas chosen for cleanup have heavy foot traffic and are very visible. Some are known hotspots for criminal activity.

“We just wanted to make our presence known to say, ‘Hey we are still in this with you guys,” she said. “Although you may see negative activity happening on this corner all the time, this corner is not forgotten about in the community.”

Jones said that a large part of the event’s coordination took place through the 15th District Community Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS) office and local faith leaders who are part of the district’s faith and community committee. Build Chicago, Westside Health Authority’s Good Neighbors Campaign, Hope Community Church and Rush University Medical Center also got involved in the effort.

Officers from the 15th District blocked off streets to help with the cleanup and kept an eye on the ground. The district commander, Yolanda Talley, who was appointed to the position last December, was seen talking to residents and coordinating volunteers. Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), whose ward includes the southeastern portion of Austin, was on hand, with his staff mowing grass and helping with the cleanup. Department of Streets and Sanitation trucks helped with the street cleaning, as well.

Jones said that she worked with many officers in the 15th District and found that many are dedicated, committed and faithful to the community.

“There are so many things that we are seeing that is counter to the police who we know,” she said. “It is very important to help to cultivate positive images of police and community, because that is what we do here in Austin. We are all about working together, community organizations, community residents and also law enforcement to build a cohesive unit to tackle injustice.”

The original plan was to clean up around Lake St. and Laramie Avenue, near By the Hand Club for Kids’ Austin location, before moving to the intersection of La Crosse and Maypole avenues. Later in the afternoon, they planned to clean around the intersection of Lavergne Avenue and Washington Blvd.

But the clean-up at La Cross and Maypole was going faster than expected, with volunteers moving west and south along the surrounding streets. By around 1:10 p.m., the volunteers had already moved to the next destination, converging at the intersection of Washington Boulevard and Leclaire Avenue, near St. Martin de Porress Church. Father Tom Walsh, the parish’s pastor, directed the volunteers.

“People in this neighborhood know a lot more about death than they know about life, so let’s bring some life to this place,” he said.

Cleaning up East Garfield Park

While volunteers were cleaning up parts of Austin, two West Side youth organizers led a coalition of volunteers who cleaned up part of East Garfield Park.

The Westside Justice Center, 601 S. California Ave., allowed Destiny Harris, 19, and Kaleb Autman, 18, to use its space as a jumping off point for their community cleanup, which attracted 300 people of all races over two days beginning on June 3.

During last Wednesday’s event, at least 100 volunteers participated, with cleanup crews fanning out along California and Harrison to clean sidewalks, empty lots and even alleys.

The volunteers, working in teams of three or four pulled weeds, raked debris from alleys and picked up trash from sidewalks and curbs. Financial donations helped purchase rakes, buckets and brooms. And a disposal truck to haul off all the debris was donated in collaboration with the West Side Justice Center. Donations also came in from Rotary Chicago, Assata’s Daughters and Good Kids Mad City.

“We know we have to be the ones to care for our community that the city has constantly abandoned,” said Harris. “We know in solidarity with the movement that we have to be the ones to rebuild our communities.”

“We saw a need for our communities to be loved for and cared for,” said Autman. “We saw a need for warmth of community and not anything that is more divisive. We saw a need in supporting communities already deprived of resources and then what happens after a rebellion.

“We’ve seen this before after the MLK riots. Our communities still haven’t recovered from that. So we knew we had to come up and show up for our communities in a way that wasn’t just us cleaning up [after] rioting and looting, but also in a way that says we can clean up every single day. It shouldn’t take a protest to do that.”

Igor Studenkov

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...