Everything about the new Pop Courts outdoor event space in Austin, at the southeast corner of Chicago and Lockwood avenues, will be designed to inspire.

The mural by local artists painted on the nearby wall, the triangular overhangs and the brightly colored concrete floor is meant to catch the eyes of pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers. 

The new space will host the 40 Acres Fresh Market, provide overflow seating areas for nearby restaurants and serve as a place where residents could sit down and relax. 

Pop Courts is a collaboration between Special Service Area 72 Austin Chicago Avenue Cultural Corridor, the Westside Health Authority, United Way Chicago and the Chicago Department of Planning and Development. 

Austin artist Vanessa Stokes, who manages SSA 72, wanted to do something with a vacant lot, and the city’s planning department was looking to create community meeting spots as part of the Invest South/West initiative— a program designed to direct city and private resources toward investments in Black and Brown communities in Chicago. 

The organizations officially held a groundbreaking on the morning of Oct. 24 to show the early stages of the project, the concrete base where the basketball court will be located and the wall where the mural will go. Stokes said that they hope to complete the project by Spring 2021. 

Stokes lives on the 600 block of North Lockwood Avenue and she regularly passed by the lot, which has been vacant for the past five years. She wanted to see an event space near the restaurants and businesses in the area, such as Schweet Cheesecake, 5248 W. Chicago Ave. 

“I’m hoping that people will start to see that we can support businesses along our corridors on the West Side,” Stokes said. “I think people think it’s hard for things to happen here and it’s not really that hard once you have the community engagement.”

Maurice Cox, the city’s planning and development commissioner, said the city wants to create public outdoor spaces in major commercial corridors.

“The idea is that we’re trying to create a place for the public to gather and to generate attention [for the corridor],” Cox said. “You can change people’s perception of safety and you can change the perception of community.”  

Cox explained that the planning department “helped cut through the red tape” in terms of legal hurdles and linked the project’s community leaders with funders United Way Chicago and BMO Harris Bank. Austin-based Butler Frelix Construction handled much of the initial construction. 

“It’s a beautiful thing,” reflected company owner Delvonn Frelix. “It’s a much-needed beacon of light for the community. I don’t think there’s anything else like this on the West Side.”

According to the posters at the ribbon-cutting, the plaza will have space for two food trucks on 

the south side, a basketball court on the east side that anyone can use, artificial turf and outdoor furniture. 

Stokes said that she will be working to bring in 40 Acres market, the business that sells fresh and affordable produce on the West Side. 

Ald Emma Mitts (37th), whose ward includes the Pop Courts, touted the project as the latest of many developments along Chicago Avenue. 

“At Pop Courts, we can have meetings outside and just be a community location where we can be safe outdoors,” she said. “It’s going to be even greater when the community paints the concrete. So I’m just excited about all the work on Chicago Avenue.” 

Cox said that the planning department would be interested in doing something similar in other West Side neighborhoods.  

“We hope this will be a model for other Invest South/West corridors, where we look at the soul of the community and light a s

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...