For many Austin residents, the vacant lot at the corner of Madison and Central continues to be a bitter reminder of the deep-rooted disinvestment that pervades the community. Until its closure, the lot at this bustling intersection was home to Robert Emmet Elementary School. The school, which served generations of Austinites, closed along with several other Chicago Public Schools in 2013.

The loss of Emmet Elementary was lamented by the many former students who called it home in their formative years. After its closure, the abandoned school grounds started to decay and slipped into disrepair, effectively becoming an eyesore for all to witness.

Conversations surrounding the reuse and repurposing of the former school site began in 2016. Ideas such as a community health campus proposed by a non-local developer drew community interest into conversations, leading to more dialogue on its potential use. For some time, community skepticism and apprehension slowed the progression of further development. Many residents believed a constructed site led by outside entities would irreparably harm the community, citing the deep-rooted history of systemic discrimination in Austin. Through more engagements, residents began to urge the project to attach existing community resource partners. During these discussions, the project shifted its focus to a site for job training programs. The community felt more inclined to move forward with a plan knowing that local partners and organizations would take part.

Ultimately, Westside Health Authority purchased the site in 2018 and with support from community stakeholders the project blossomed into the Aspire Center for Workforce Innovation after its inception in 2020. After several funding commitments to the project were made, the Center broke ground on May 3, 2023, and construction commenced. The development of the Aspire Center is a special moment for generations of Austinites. By repurposing the former Emmet School site, the community is reigniting their legacy and reclaiming a piece of their history.

“I was heartbroken by the school closing. Growing up in this neighborhood, I still miss it over 60 years later. The Aspire Center will bring so much renewed hope to Austin residents. I wish them all the best.” -Former Emmet Student at the Community Celebration

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