Crossing Austin Boulevard: This story is part of an ongoing series of articles that Austin Weekly News publishes about issues, events, people, places and things that take place west of Austin Boulevard, but that nonetheless resonate to the east of it, as well.
Oak Parkers and Galewood residents gathered at Code Ninjas, 7119 W. North Ave. in Oak Park, on Nov. 13, to mark the unveiling of the first of what they hope will be a series of window and wall murals designed to help bridge the divide between the communities.
The mural series is spearheaded by The North Avenue District, an organization that aims to revitalize the North Avenue commercial corridor between Harlem Avenue and Austin Boulevard on both Oak Park and Chicago sides.
Judith Alexander, the organization’s chairwoman, said that busy traffic and a shortage of good pedestrian crossings hinders the ability of residents of the two communities to patronize each others’ businesses. She hopes the mural series helps change that reality.
The Code Ninjas mural was painted by young people who attend St. Giles Catholic Parish school, which is located in Oak Park, but serves Galewood, as well.
Alexander said getting more people from both sides to cross North Avenue is a major component of her organization’s vision.
“We really want to turn North Avenue from a barrier to a bridge,” she said. “North Avenue is difficult to cross — physically and literally. [During the 2018 Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning North Avenue Revitalization and Mobility Plan study], I think about 30 percent of people said that they don’t cross North Avenue. And some of the business owners told me, ‘I sure wish I could get people from the other side.’”
But art alone won’t surmount the physical barriers to access along the busy corridor. Alexander said her organization is also pushing for better crosswalks, sidewalk improvements, more landscaping and traffic calming measures.
The murals, she said, will help with cultural revitalization in the area. Alexander cited Wicker Park and Pilsen as examples of communities where street art has played roles in community revitalization.
Alexander’s organization was instrumental in the Oak Park Area Arts Council’s 2018 installation of a mural on the west wall of the Wonder Works Children’s Museum on the Oak Park side of the corridor, at 6445 W. North Ave.
She said the new mural installed outside of Code Ninjas is ideally located at the intersection of North and Harlem avenues, where Oak Park, Chicago, River Forest and Elmwood Park converge.
“It’s a wonderful location, on the corner of North and Harlem, so it’s kind of an entryway to our district,” she said. “And the murals will be facing North Avenue and they’re large and colorful, so they’ll be a wonderful welcome.”
Chris Kvapil, who runs the Code Ninjas location in Oak Park, as well as two other locations in the Chicago area, said the organization’s involvement with the mural project is a natural extension of its mission.
“With what made us successful, this was an opportunity to build bridges with our community,” he said.
The mural’s design was inspired by Black British artist Lakwena Maciver, who paints murals that employ bright colors, eye-catching geometric patterns and phrases of affirmation.
Jocelyne Adkins, the program director for By Discovery, which provides after school arts programming to Oak Park elementary school students, said the students who painted the mural looked to Maciver’s work when thinking of their own patterns.
“Their dedication to their task never wavered,” Adkins said. “Nor did their ability to enjoy the process.”
Connor Yaffe, 8, of Oak Park, said the mural project “was really fun,” echoing the thoughts of 11-year-old Emma Hartweg, of Galewood.
“It was really fun and cool that something that I helped make is going to be shown to a lot of people,” Hartweg said.
Senate President Don Harmon (39th) said the mural project made him reminiscene on his own days as a student at St. Giles, when he and his classmates painted the windows of what is now Buona Beef, 7025 W. North Ave.
“This is a proud tradition for St. Giles students to paint windows on North Avenue,” Harmon said.
“This is what we need in our community,” said state Rep. Camille Lilly (78th). “I’m very excited about the energy that’s bringing together the local businesses, the government and the residents to the benefit of North Avenue.”
Alexander said that, in the future, more North Art Bridge project murals will be painted by professional artists and local students. She said her organization hopes to have a mural painted by students from Galewood’s Sayre Language Academy, 1850 N. Newland Ave., and Oak Park’s Mann Elementary School, 921 N. Kenilworth Ave. She said the only thing standing in their way are the funds.
“There are various public sources of grant funding in Chicago and Oak Park and we’ll also be looking for donations,” she said.