The city is ready to make a bold declaration of the “Soul City Corridor” on Chicago Avenue. It is choosing artists who will design a gateway arch and other markers for the commercial corridor stretching from Austin Blvd. to Cicero Avenue. As it unfolds, it will mark success for local business activists who have long pushed the concept.

The Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) plan calls for a gateway arch at the west end of the corridor at 5946 W. Chicago Ave., near the Chicago/Oak Park border. Smaller signs will be mounted on light poles near the east end of the corridor, near the intersection of Chicago and Cicero avenues. This is something  Malcolm Crawford, head of the Austin African American Business Networking Association (AAABNA) has long advocated as part of a broader vision of revitalizing Chicago Avenue as the “Soul City Corridor,” the commercial and cultural hub of Austin’s Black community. 

On Jan. 20, DCASE and AAABNA held a virtual meeting where the community was introduced to the three artists who’ve been selected as the finalists for the project. During the meeting, which was attended by 50-60 people, the artists shared their designs and asked attendees to share their perspectives on what Austin is like and what they would like to see in the corridor. DCASE is expected to select the finalist in late February. After that, the city will hold community meetings to fine-tune the finalist’s design, with the goal of having the design in place by May and finishing up construction by September 2024.

Soul City Corridor has been Crawford’s vision for many years. He sees it as a commercial and cultural hub, a destination for Austinites and West Siders in general. In previous interviews with Austin Weekly News, Crawford compared it to areas such as Chinatown’s Wentworth Avenue, 26th Street in Little Village and the section of Devon Avenue that runs through the majority Indian/Pakistani portions of West Ridge. 

In recent years, Westside Health Authority and Austin Chamber of Commerce have also embraced the Soul City Corridor concept. The Invest South/West initiative, which works to bring investment to historically under-invested parts of the South and West Sides, set the revitalization of the entire Chicago Avenue corridor, including the Austin portion, as a major priority.

DCASE is working with the Chicago Department of Planning and Development (DPD) and Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) to build the arches. 

Sonja Henderson

There are currently three finalists vying for the design contract. Sonja Henderson, of Pilsen, served as an artist-in-residence at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s North Lawndale campus and conducted mindfulness workshops in the community. 

“My work always has a social justice or a social healing [aspect],” she said.

Henderson said community engagement is an important part of all of her public arts projects. When she designed a memorial to Emmett Till and his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, at Argo High School, a southwest suburban Summit school where Mobley was one of the first Black students, she convened discussion groups involving local residents, members of Till’s family and Till’s friends.

Bernard Williams

Painter and sculptor Bernard Williams, of Chicago, created public art all over Chicago and several cities in Indiana. He said he likes crafting pieces that speak to the history of the location and utilize a combination of words, symbols and imagery. Williams is also conscious of the kind of shadows his pieces create.

“In some sculptures, there might be a word, or some symbols that you literally pass through,” he said. “I like the idea that you’re walking through the shadows of history that’s illustrated in the artwork.”

Wesley Clark

Sculptor Wesley Clark lives in Hyattsville, Md., a suburb of Washington D.C , but he said he has a Chicago connection – his wife grew up in the South Side’s Beverly neighborhood. Clark summed up the theme of his art as “really diving into the African American experience and pushing us forward,” applying the lessons of the past toward future solutions. He used a sculpture he designed for Washington D.C.’s Calvin Coolidge High School as an example. At a casual glance, it is simply a statue of a young man racing forward with a book in the outstretched hand, but a closer look reveals that the book is the Autobiography of Malcolm X – which imbues the statue with deeper meaning.

“[This book] is one of the best examples of written accounts of just a man changing,” he said. 

During the course of the Jan  20 meeting, all three artists asked attendees what the Austin community is like, what they would like to see on the Chicago Avenue corridor and what the Soul City Corridor concept means to the community. They all said that, if selected, they would do community engagement workshops.

Activist Aisha Oliver urged the artists to reach out to local youth.

“Make an effort to connect with the untapped potential of youth that are not connected to orgs, parks, schools or churches,” she said. “They deserve to be heard as well.”

Crawford said the turnout at the Jan. 20 meeting bodes well for the project.

“Just the number of people on this call shows how important this is to our community,” he said. “I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

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...