Austin residents living near the intersection of Chicago and Lockwood avenues now have a place where they can hang out, play basketball, get food from food trucks and enjoy occasional outdoor events.

Located on the previously vacant lot at the southeast corner of the intersection, the Pop Courts has a basketball court that can double as an event space, a gravel-paved alley for food trucks and a shaded lawn area with an artificial turf, chairs and triangular overhangs. 

Artists painted a mural with prominent Black historical figures and fictional characters on the nearby wall and the concrete surfaces are painted in bright colors. 

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, which directs city and private resources toward Black and Brown communities.

The organizations held a ribbon-cutting on June 17. While the groundbreaking for the project in October 2020 was held in the shadow of climbing COVID-19 cases, the officials framed the ribbon-cutting as a symbol of the post-COVID recovery.

Lillie Sanders, who lives near the Pop Courts, at 624 N. Lockwood Ave., was one of the seniors who watched the kids play basketball.

“Whoever came up with this idea, this gorgeous idea … it couldn’t be better if I did it,” Sanders quipped. 

“It’s beautiful and nice for the kids,” said Precious Pantoja, also of Austin. “The people who did it, they did a great job.”

Several artists involved in Pop Courts’ creation attended the festivities. Emone Quabeem, of Austin, was one of the artists who painted the paved surfaces. He said that he wanted to be part of the project, so he reached out to Stokes.

“I love how it came together, “ Quabeem said. 

Artist Barrett Keithley helped paint the mural that went on the wall and said that he wanted to create something that would “pay homage to our ancestors” who fought for the betterment of the Black community, as well as something that kids could see themselves in. 

“It was a process that I was glad to be a part of,” Keithley reflected. “I’m happy to see so many people come out and support the community.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot described Pop Courts as part of her commitment to reverse the historic pattern of disinvestment in the West Side communities.

“I made a commitment to the West Side that we would not abandon you, that we’d be present, not just with words but with actions,” she said. “Ladies and gentlemen, as we continue to celebrate Chicago’s shift to Phase 5, It’s never been more important that we are refocusing our efforts to ensure that the social and economic recovery in our city is equitable, and that means no one gets left behind.”

Ald. Emma Mitts (37th), whose ward includes the court, lauded the project as a step toward post-pandemic recovery.

“I never saw anything like this in my community and I’m truly, truly elated and excited,” she said. “Now is the time, coming out of the pandemic, that we can have a place where we can go and yes, a place where our children can play, and yes, where we can listen to some blues.” 

Morris Reed, the CEO of the Westside Health Authority, urged residents to take good care of the Pop Courts.

“If you see something, you say something, because we have to manage this park moving forward,” he said. “It has to be clean and it has to be safe.”

Chicago Development and Planning Commissioner Maurice Cox described the plaza as “a down payment on long-term investment.” 

Throughout the press conference, a toddler ran and danced in front of the podium, which is exactly what Cox wanted to see. 

“Another part of this effort is to make sure that everyone feels welcome in this space,” Cox said. “I can’t tell you how excited I am to see a young kid running around. This is a space for them.”

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...