Austin rapper Samantha Jordan, who performs as Fury, is working with the City of Chicago to improve Columbus Park, 500 S. Central Ave., putting in an outdoor performance venue, adding signage around the trail that encircles the park, refurbishing and improving the park’s basketball and tennis courts, and adding outdoor fitness equipment.

The Chicago Works Community Challenge, an initiative launched by Mayor Lori Lightfoot in May 2021, invites Chicago residents to submit ideas for how they would use around $1.5 million to improve their local parks, schools, libraries and city-owned vacant lots. Five-hundred Chicagoans applied and Jordan submitted one of the seven winning proposals. 

While the city will handle the actual construction and renovations, Jordan is responsible for reaching out to the community to help flesh out the proposal. She is currently inviting Austin residents to take a survey to get a better sense of how the residents feel about the park and what they would like to see there. 

Jordan plans to hold several community meetings on the project, with the first meeting scheduled for later this spring. She anticipates finishing the project before the end of the year. 

Jordan grew up in Homan Square and moved to Austin six years ago. After losing her job during the pandemic, she had more time to become civically engaged, she said. 

Jordan reached out to Austin organizations such as the Austin Coming Together coalition, the Broader Urban Involvement & Leadership Development (BUILD) Chicago nonprofit and the Austin Chamber of Commerce to see how she can get more involved in her community.

The Columbus Park Refectory in Austin. | Courtesy Chicago Park District/Facebook

She said that Tina Augustus, who was the chamber’s executive director at the time, encouraged her to submit a proposal to the Community Challenge.

Jordan said that, as a musician, she knows the challenge of finding a performance venue on the West Side and the program gave her a chance to address the problem. 

“[Artists and performers] took a hard hit during the pandemic and there’s really no West Side [infrastructure] as far as music,” she said. “I have to go up north or on the South Side, because there’s no venues, no network.”

While several Austin parks, including Austin Town Hall, 5610 W. Lake St., and La Follete Park, 333 N. Laramie Ave., have auditoriums, Columbus Park isn’t one of them. 

Austin also has a few other performance spaces, including the Austin branch library, 5615 W. Race Ave., which has a smaller auditorium on the second floor, and the 900-seat Kehrein Center for the Arts, 5628 W. Washington Blvd., which opened in 2018. 

But poets and spoken word artists on the West Side have long complained about the lack of smaller, more intimate venues and outdoor venues. Currently, the closest thing that fits the bill is the Island Community Garden, 1114 S. Mason Ave., which includes a small stage area. 

Jordan said that, since the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t over, building an outdoor performance venue at Columbus Park makes sense. 

“One of the suggestions was a performance area, a concrete area where people can have events like poetry sessions,” she said. “It’s just somewhere where creatives can get together and do pop-ups. I think the park is totally underutilized when it comes to having [opportunities for] local artists and I definitely want to change that.”

Other improvements in Jordan’s proposals include more benches, a staging area for food trucks, mile markers at the walking trail that encircles most of the park and an outdoor exercise area. She also wants to rehab the basketball and tennis courts.

The public meetings will be used to fine-tune the concepts and figure out where the amenities will go. Jordan said that the first community meeting will take place in either April or May, and construction will begin sometime this summer.

“The goal for this project, the mayor said, is a quick turnaround, quick activation, so the hope is to be done by the end of this year,” Jordan said. 

She said that she intends to look for other opportunities to grow art in Austin, including lobbying the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events to “to fund us, fund the artists on the West Side, so we can build a network out there and not depend on other neighborhoods.”

To take the survey, visit https://bit.ly/ColumbusParkSurvey