Cecilia McManus, 8, an Oak Park student, picks up trash in Austin Park on May 8. (Shanel Romain/Contributor)

Around 30 people, most of whom were from Oak Park, got together on May 8 to pick up garbage and wash storefront windows in Austin’s Madison Street and Lake Street corridors.

The clean-up was organized by Renew 312, a nonprofit founded by Shawn Netisingha and Dani Kowack-Dengel, both of Oak Park, to address the long standing disparities between Austin and Oak Park by bridging the divides between the two communities. 

The clean-up was meant to do something good for Austin while supporting Austin businesses and getting the residents of two communities to talk to each other and make connections.

Co-presidents of OPAU Danielle Dengel and Shawn Netisingha in Austin Park on May 8. (Shanel Romain/Contributor)

Netisingha said that Renew 312 is planning to do another clean-up during the summer, but they haven’t settled on the exact date. 

“There hasn’t been a lot of trust between Austin and Oak Park, and there hasn’t been a lot of listening to what Austin residents want,” said Kowack-Dengel, adding that the Saturday cleanup hopefully helps remedy that problem. 

Dearra Williams, of Austin, said the cleanup was particularly important to her. 

“I was born here in Austin, I was raised here, I live here now, and it’s very important to me to give back to my community,” Williams said. “Austin is often neglected. You can see it in the amount of trash.”

Janelle Martin, who lives on the North Side but works for Austin Coming Together, a coalition of Austin stakeholders that collectively work on various quality of life initiatives, said she participated because she wants to learn more about the community where she works. 

Janelle Martin, 24, of Chicago and Dearra Williams, 25, of Austin, join the clean-up the Austin area on May 8. (Shanel Romain/Contributor)

Aaro McManus, of Oak Park, said since Austin residents spend so much money in Oak Park, residents of the suburb should give back to their neighbors to the east.

“We sort of treat Austin like a weaponized military zone, instead of like neighbors,” he said.

Laura Derks, who lives in Oak Park, said she felt like Austin was practically in her backyard. She said that the community deserves more attention and appreciation, pointing to its long history and the many “community assets,” such as its schools and parks. 

She pointed to Columbus Park, 500 S. Central Ave. ini Austin as a “crown jewel” and a logical place where Oak Park and Austin residents could come together.

“I am all about destroying any kind of barriers between Oak Park and Chicago,” Derks said. “So long as the community is OK with us cleaning up, I’m all for it. You never want to go into a community when you’re going to feel like you’re going to be unwelcome, and that’s why community engagement is essential.”

Throughout the clean-up, several Madison Street business owners said they appreciated what the volunteers were doing and urged them to come back again. 

Netisingha and Kowack-Dengel said they spoke with several business owners about potentially collaborating on events, as well as promoting those businesses to Oak Park residents. Kowack-Dengel mentioned that she planned to come back later to do some shopping.

“It comes back to building relationships,” Netisingha said.

CONTACT: michael@austinweeklynews.com

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...