Features | History | Parks | South Shore

A Palace for the People

South Shore residents continue a long fight to make the South Shore Cultural Center a space for community arts

Jason Schumer

Boasting four tall towers, each topped by an American flag and flanked by well-groomed flower beds, the South Shore Cultural Center drips of stateliness. Inside there is no less pomp and circumstance—cascading chandeliers, embossed ceilings, detailed early-twentieth century wallpaper, and floor-to-ceiling windows give the space a palatial quality.

“The building is gorgeous. It is definitely a stunning building to be in, so that’s not an issue; it’s beautiful and it’s historic. But if you want to have state-of-the-art, world-class performances then it would need to be renovated and upgraded,” Kevin Iega Jeff, co-founder and artistic director of Deeply Rooted Dance Theater, said of the South Shore Cultural Center (SSCC). “And I think the South Side deserves more venues. And more venues [where] smaller arts organizations can present well, in an affordable house. I’ve always hoped that the South Shore [Cultural Center], in its vision to renovate itself, would embrace that idea.”

This desire echoes the mission of the South Side artists and activists who championed the center’s founding. In the 1970s, soon after the Park District bought the SSCC, formerly an exclusive country club, the District proposed demolishing the palatial building. South Shore residents organized to demand investment and renovation instead, converting it into a “Palace for the People.” They envisioned a facility that would give South Side artists somewhere to perform for South Side audiences—a place that would rival the grandeur of North Side cultural venues, appropriately honor the South Side’s rich artistic legacy, and train the next generation of South Side artists. They believed that such a facility should be managed by the community, for the community. But more than thirty years out, much work remains to realize that vision in full.

With little fanfare or public discussion, the SSCC has undergone a number of piecemeal changes over the last fifteen years. Cumulatively, South Shore residents assert, these have created a significant shift in how the center functions, favoring private rentals and bringing new obstacles that inhibit local community member’s access to arts and culture programs at the SSCC. The dissatisfaction that has emerged in the wake of these changes raises big questions about who benefits from development projects on the South Side.

Nonetheless, as the fate of much of the south lakefront has been embroiled in controversy in recent months—with tension over incoming developments, including the Obama Presidential Center, the Tiger Words golf course, and the now-thwarted redevelopment of the US Steel site—business as usual has continued at the SSCC. It has played host to many lively meetings about the surrounding changes, but a sustained discussion of the future of arts and cultural programming at the Center itself has been notably absent. That has been a disappointment for South Side activists who have hoped to see more discussion about building an inclusive and responsive cultural center. As with other development on the South Side, the current state of the SSCC raises crucial questions: whose needs get prioritized and who benefits when a facility gets upgraded? And what has to be done to ensure broad inclusion for those with a historic connection to the site?

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Courtesy Chicago History Museum, Chicago Daily News negatives collection

Courtesy Chicago History Museum, Chicago Daily News negatives collection

Founded in 1906, the South Shore Country Club was built by Chicago’s most prominent businessmen, including those associated with Marshall Fields and the Montgomery Ward catalogue company. The Encyclopedia of Chicago describes it as “a posh 67-acre lakeside playground, which excluded blacks and Jews.”At the time, South Shore’s population was almost entirely white and Protestant, though the club later became associated with the upward social mobility of immigrant groups, such as Irish Catholics, who became an important part of the membership. For decades, the club continued to be the heart of social life in an economically thriving neighborhood. Sociologists Harvey Molotch and Richard Taub later described it as “the focal point for the social life of the South Side’s elite” and the “jewel in the crown of South Shore.”

But eventually the Club’s racist policies led to its demise. First Jews became a significant portion of the neighborhood’s population, then post-World War II white flight to the suburbs significantly reduced the Club’s membership. By the end of the 1960s, South Shore, one of the last neighborhoods on the mid–South Side to undergo a racial transition from white to Black, was close to 70 percent Black. Rather than open its doors to African Americans, the Club closed and auctioned off its assets in 1974.

People sitting on a bench along the South Shore Country Club boardwalk at 7059 South Shore Drive, in the South Shore community, Chicago, Illinois, circa August 22, 1916. (Courtesy Chicago History Museum, Chicago Daily News negatives collection)

People sitting on a bench along the South Shore Country Club boardwalk at 7059 South Shore Drive, in the South Shore community, Chicago, Illinois, circa August 22, 1916. (Courtesy Chicago History Museum, Chicago Daily News negatives collection)

The Nation of Islam made the first offer on the property in the hopes of converting it into a hospital. But after some controversy and a lack of neighborhood support, the deal did not go through. Soon after, in 1974, the Chicago Park District bought it for nearly $10 million. This marked the beginning of a period of community organization that would transform the site from an explicitly exclusive and racist private institution to an ostensibly inclusive and democratic, public one.

The fight for access to the building began in earnest shortly after, when in 1977, the Park District submitted a proposal to the Chicago Plan Commission to demolish the Clubhouse building and replace it with a standard field house on the basis that it was too expensive to maintain the facility in its current form. The residents of South Shore reacted, quickly consolidating small ongoing efforts to influence the future of the building into one unified organization known as the Coalition to Save South Shore Country Club Park. This Coalition described itself as “an affiliation of multi-ethnic individuals and neighborhood-based organizations that united to fight the Chicago Park District wrecking ball aimed at South Shore Country Club.”

“[We were telling the Park District], we know the value of this structure,” said Harold Lucas, a longtime champion of historic preservation and heritage tourism in Bronzeville, in an interview. “We’re not about to let you tear it down because your perception is that all Black men need to do is play basketball, so [you think you] can tear it down and put up some basketball hoops.”

In place of more outdoor sports facilities like those that were already present and poorly maintained elsewhere on the South Side, the Coalition dreamed of turning the SSCC into a “Palace for the People,” where “the people’s” cultural wealth would be appreciated, in all senses of the word. The architectural grandeur would no longer be a symbol of class status and exclusivity, but rather of the value of the South Side’s cultural legacy, and of the work of local performers and other artists.

As Raynard Hall, the fourth president of the Coalition, put it in a speech to the City Council’s Housing committee in 1978:

“[The] South Shore Country Club has always been symbolic. In the past it was a symbol of wealth and power and the exclusiveness those attributes often demand. Now since the Chicago Park District’s decision to rehabilitate the facility for public use, the buildings and grounds of South Shore Country Club metaphorically suggest for all to see the potential of victory for the everyday man in the struggle to overcome the problems that beset many urban communities today.”

Early on, the Coalition was able to rally the support of some local organizations that had been working on community development and civil rights issues in the past, such as the Urban League and Hyde Park Kenwood Community Conference. It also tapped into the emerging historical preservation movement, garnering support from the Chicago Architectural Foundation, among others.

But most of their support came from individuals who lived in the neighborhood, many of whom were quite new to the area. Some had participated in various manifestations of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, like Bob Williams, who had a long trajectory with the Urban League, and Henry English, who was by then a seasoned student organizer. But many others, like Raynard Hall, were new to community organizing. Together they set up a volunteer-run office, managed by Hall and two older white women, Polly Silberman and Polly Schneider, who were longtime neighborhood residents. On the weekends, members would drive around the neighborhood broadcasting information about the proposed demolition and upcoming rallies to save the building from the bed of an old pickup affectionately known to neighbors as “Cadillac Jack.”

After just a few months of organizing and demonstrations, one of which drew over a thousand people, the Park District withdrew its proposal for demolition and agreed to negotiate with the community to determine the future of the facility. The Coalition was named the official representative of “the community” in what would be a seven-year negotiation process until the facility reopened to the public in 1985.

Soon after the victory of saving the building from demolition, what participation the Coalition had enjoyed from city-wide organizations began to wane, and it was left to local residents to carry the fight forward and make the Palace for the People a reality.

Few members believed that the rest of the work would be easy, despite the Park District’s withdrawal of the application for demolition. Distrust of the Park District ran deep on the South Side and activism at the SSCC was connected to a citywide push for equity in parks. This was just before the Chicago Reporter published an exposé in May 1978 documenting the Park District’s discriminatory spending that disadvantaged parks in Black and Latinx neighborhoods. The story led to a federal investigation into the Park District in 1982. But even without definitive statistics, Black and Latinx Chicagoans knew these patterns from personal experience.

“The park district by that time had such a horrible reputation for how they handled their assets, nobody believed that they would put back anything of equal value,” recounted Wyman Winston, who was a member of the Coalition while he was studying architecture at UIC. “We knew that it would be a concrete block building with toilets that weren’t in use. No one believed the Park District. To people who grew up on the South Side who were used to learning how to skate when they were kids, the Park District wasn’t creating skating rinks anymore in minority areas. When the facility reached a certain level of disrepair, they would shut it down—room by room, toilet by toilet. So if something broke, they just shut it down and you didn’t have access. You had a period, because people quit using them in the late sixties, where the parks basically became the domain of the gangs. And that meant even fewer people were using the parks.”

Accordingly, even after securing an agreement with the Park District, Coalition members continued to operate with the oppositional fighting spirit out of which the Coalition was born, acting as watchdogs throughout the restoration process. Members would regularly visit the site and take pictures of the ongoing renovations, checking for progress on the agreed-upon priorities and demanding accountability from the Park District. They also secured the first affirmative action hiring contract in Park District history to govern the contracting of the restoration process.

Beyond the physical restoration process, the Coalition took it upon itself to envision how the SSCC would be used and integrated into the surrounding community. They put together full proposals for what programming should look like and how each of the SSCC’s many spaces should be repurposed. In these proposals they drew on the ideas shared by neighbors at the public forums that they held, as well as on members’ talents and professional expertise. Many of the Coalition’s board members over the years were publicists, architects, and artists with the technical savvy to match any Park District contractor. They used these skills to fuse ideas popular in the neighborhood with best practices in neighborhood development, arts education, and architectural preservation. They could—and did—challenge the Park District’s designated experts, demand recognition of neighborhood assets, and expose the ways that official proposals tried to hide a lack of political will to invest in the park behind claims that many of the residents’ desires for the SSCC were architecturally infeasible.

For a time the Coalition’s proposals competed with proposals put forward by another neighborhood organization called The Center on the Lake, a group that many members of the Coalition saw as more elitist. They proposed to the Park District that the SSCC should be converted into a conference center or a dinner theater, like those becoming popular in the suburbs at the time.

The Coalition’s proposals for uses of the SSCC space were extremely diverse, but almost all drew specifically on the South Side’s own rich cultural legacy or sought to incubate new local creative talent or the “imaginative potential of surrounding communities” as they referred to it. The Coalition researched everything from a community-run television station to a culinary arts teaching facility and nature education center for children. But it was the outdoor summer festivals, and specifically the jazz festival, that the Coalition became most famous for.

The Black Arts Movement had just ended, and the South Side had seen rise to many groups performing and teaching African dance, free jazz, and Afro-centric visual arts over the last two decades. The Coalition dreamed that the SSCC could anchor an ecosystem of cultural activity, providing these new organizations with rehearsal, teaching and performance space where few venues of this scale existed at the time. The SSCC would give the local community access to these and to Chicago’s other diverse cultural traditions.

Jazz had once drawn patrons from across the city—and country—to Black Chicago’s commercial districts, where many jazz greats got their start. But by the 1970s the combination of public and private disinvestment in infrastructure and services on the South Side, and discriminatory enforcement of licensing laws for cultural venues had led to a vastly unequal distribution of cultural amenities in Chicago. Sixty-third Street, once the heart of a thriving music scene on the South Side, was “a musical ghost town,” as AACM musician George Lewis put it in his book A Power Stronger Than Itself. Jazz clubs were now concentrated on the North Side. Musicians had to leave the South Side to make a living, and for South Side youth and adult audiences alike, that shift significantly decreased access to their musical heritage.

In light of this, jazz singer Geraldine de Haas joined forces with the Coalition in 1981 to produce the Jazz Comes Home Festival. That summer, the festival drew a lineup to rival any downtown concert series, counting among its performers Count Basie, Muddy Waters, Dizzy Gillespie, and Sarah Vaughn, and drawing a crowd of over 100,000, according to media reports from the time.

“What I was trying to do was to educate African-American people and particularly African-American children about the kind of history that we have given to this nation,” De Haas said in a phone interview describing her vision for the festivals, which became an annual tradition. “The major artists who made this music, for many years, were not coming to the South Side. They were mainly performing on the North Side. Where they had better salaries and made more money. All I wanted to do was to talk about the history of the music and the people that it came out of.”

Monroe Anderson, a writer for a city-wide publication Nightmoves, captured the symbolic success of the jazz festivals in a 1982 article:

“Back when the only blacks in the neighborhood were there to clean house or cut grass, the South Shore Country Club was a great white shrine. … It was a very private place for members only who knew they owned exclusive rights to the good life. Things changed about a generation ago. They became as different as day and night. Black and white. Open and closed. Now instead of chamber music or sedate evenings of symphony orchestras, there’s soulful summer Saturdays and Sundays of ‘Jazz Comes Home.’”

Even after the building reopened in 1985—when indoor programing began, and the Coalition became less active—jazz festivals continued to be the SSCC’s signature event. They are what many long-time residents most remember. De Haas continued to organize them until she left Chicago in 2013.

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When Jazz Unites was finally discontinued in 2013, “the community was on fire” one new member of the Park Advisory Council for SSCC told the Weekly. “They were mad because they felt like, ‘This is it. They don’t want us here and if they don’t want us here, then we’re not coming.’” Though statements made by De Haas indicate that the immediate cause for discontinuing the concerts was her departure from Chicago and subsequent fundraising challenges, it came at a time when there was a growing disconnect between the local arts community and the SSCC. Many neighbors felt that over the last ten years the Center had come to function more as a rental venue catering to private events and as a satellite space for the Park District’s central offices than the hub of activity for South Side artists and audiences that the Coalition fought for.

Many South Side arts aficionados remember a kind of heyday of the Cultural Center in the early 2000s, when the center was bustling with the activity of local arts organizations: tap dance, ballet, and instrumental music lessons were taught regularly and African Dance frequently performed; belly dancing and dance classes with Muntu Dance Theatre came and went after that. Back then, Black Chicago’s visual artists and collectors also often gathered in the SSCC gallery, where Andre Guichard—now a co-partner of the Bronzeville Artists Lofts, which hosts his and his wife’s art gallery—was curator from 1999 to 2004. Patric McCoy, a collector of African-diasporic art based in Kenwood, remembers attending many openings there during that time, but he says the Center has now fallen out of the circuit of venues he visits regularly.

Fans of the performing arts fans also report that programming run by established local arts organizations has decreased over the past decade. Among others, M.A.D.D. Rhythms tap dance collective and Iona Calhoun School of Ballet, which formerly held regular classes at the SSCC, have left the facility altogether. Deeply Rooted Dance Theater has shifted its engagement with the SSCC from offering regular community programs to occasional appearances at events organized by others.

Deeply Rooted’s Iega Jeff emphasizes the 2008 financial crisis’s impact on arts organizations, particularly those run by people of color, as the main reason that his company ended its partnership with the SSCC. At that point, he explains, Deeply Rooted had to rethink their programming model and their activity at the SSCC “began tapering off.” But he says the company is eager to continue to perform at the SSCC sporadically and performed there twice last year.

Other arts partners have left more definitively. Iona Calhoun said that as a teaching artist she never felt fully welcome at the SSCC after the retirement of former center director Efe McWorter in 2004. At first, in 2000, when Calhoun founded her dance studio, the environment of the SSCC was inviting, she said. McWorter hosted a free showcase every quarter to highlight the SSCC’s programming, and students performed.

“It was very community-driven, very community-involved, a family-life [environment] of camaraderie,” Calhoun said.

After McWorter left the Center, Calhoun said, such showcases ended. The tradition of monthly arts partner meetings suspended and as a result communication between Park District staff and artists became strained. Calhoun said that more than once she was informed on a Saturday morning that she would have to cancel all of her late afternoon classes because the SSCC was being used for a wedding or other private event, and the space that she paid rent to reserve all day for classes had been included in the bride and groom’s rental package. On other occasions she was asked to tell her students that they had to leave through the backdoor, something that she said was particularly degrading and ran directly counter to her teaching methodology to her because it paralleled the injustices of segregation and the site’s exclusionary history. Eventually, rather than put up with that treatment, Calhoun left and is now working towards being able to purchase and refurbish her own space.

Bril Barrett of M.A.D.D. Rhythms shared a similar experience. He said that just before the 2004 change in management, his company was relocated to a space in the basement as the SSCC began a renovation process and the original dance studio was remodeled to make way for the Parrot Cage Restaurant. As part of the remodel, a dance studio was being put in upstairs. In the meantime, Barrett hired contractors himself to have a sprung wood floor, mirrors, and an extra wall put in and to repaint the space, transforming the former basement storage room into a fully functional dance studio and office. All of which, Barrett said, “we had no problem doing, because as Arts Partners we were benefiting from not having to pay financial rent, but being able to offer our resources to the community in exchange for” use of the space. However, soon after new management took over at the SSCC, his contract with the Park District was modified so that community performances and classes for kids enrolled in Park District programs were no longer a part of the exchange. Over less than five years, his rent tripled.

When the new dance studio upstairs was finished, the tap dancers were not allowed to use it because no one had asked what kind of floors could accommodate tap. This made it clear to Barrett that “we’re not even included in the future of [the SSCC].” He finally left in 2009, and M.A.D.D. Rhythms is now based at the Harold Washington Cultural Center where they enjoy a rental agreement focused on community services, modeled off their pre-2005 partnership with the Park District at the SSCC.

Jason Schumer

Jason Schumer

South Shore Park Advisory Council members say the Park District has been opaque in how it has handled this loss of partners. Bobbie Greer, who is a lead organizer of the South Shore Opera Company—another arts organization that was founded at the SSCC— used to include a complete list of Arts Partners on the back of the Opera’s programs to encourage audience members to branch out in their engagement with the SSCC.  However, she told the Weekly that she last included this list in 2011 because the Advisory Council had not been able to access a full list of current arts and culture partners at the facility since then.

In response to questions about Arts Partners, Chicago Park District spokesperson Irene Tostado wrote in an email that “There are currently no arts partners in residence at South Shore Cultural Center,” and linked to a section on the Park District’s website listing Arts Partners in Residence, which indeed does not list any current partners at the SSCC.

Nor have Advisory Council members been able to see a full calendar listing the dates of private events and days available for public events, which they have requested repeatedly in order to effectively plan community-oriented events. Instead they have largely settled for planning community-oriented events for weekdays, when the park is less likely to be rented out for private use, though this makes participation difficult for working families. And many of the younger members of the Park Advisory Council complain that even for the programs that exist, there is little to no outreach— even those most engaged with the park often have trouble keeping track of what is currently offered.

Park users and Advisory Council members point to a number of additional reasons for this decline in local activity. Longtime Advisory Council members, including Greer and David Offenberg, say that in the mid-2000s, the Park District moved some of their centralized administrative office staff into the Cultural Center. First housed in previously unused space on the third floor, the offices expanded and now take up prime space on the mezzanine level.

Yvette Moyo, whose nonprofit Real Men Cook used to host many events at the SSCC years ago, said that now the SSCC is “an annex to the Park District’s central office. There’s some value and convenience to that, [but] I think there should be more space for the community—a community that has less resources to work with, less places to go, and less money to spend on rentals.”

And the rental costs are not cheap. Moyo’s organization spent upwards of $10,000 last year to host a one-day event showcasing Black chefs and the culinary legacy of the Great Migration. Most of the rentals are for weddings, not for cultural events working with local chefs.

The difficulties only increased when the building’s lobby was renovated a decade ago. According to Moyo, after the renovation the Park District put into place a “no-touch policy” so extreme that the Park Advisory Council subcommittees were forbidden from rearranging chairs in the lobby of the Cultural Center. In order to be close enough together to hear each other talk, they had to meet at Bing’s, a Chinese restaurant a couple blocks to the north, to draw up their stance on the golf course proposal. This happened after their requests for a meeting room were denied because they, like many community-based organizations, could not plan their meeting thirty days in advance, the amount of time they were told the Park District requires to process requests for even the smallest spaces at SSCC.

Now seen as a desirable events space and rental facility, the SSCC is not in danger of being torn down nor “shut down room by room” through neglect and disinvestment, as it was before the 1982 lawsuit. Instead, the local community is being shut out “room by room” through bureaucratic barriers and protocols that favor lucrative private uses over public ones.

In an emailed statement, Tostado, the Park District spokesperson, denied that the SSCC prioritizes rentals over community activity:

The Chicago Park District provides access to arts opportunities for all ages year-round. Our fifteen cultural centers serve as hubs of activity and offer the arts community park spaces for arts and culture rentals based on availability. Only if a space is not programmed for a specific date or time will it become available for rental opportunities. Since 2013, the Chicago Park District has hosted a series of free cultural events, performances and arts programming as part of Night Out in the Parks. These events are free to the community. Last year, the Center hosted Civic Orchestra, Toca Live, Tsukasa Taiko Drumming and Jazz City Community Concerts at South Shore.”

Jason Schumer

Jason Schumer

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Meanwhile, another clash between public and private funding and uses of park amenities is unfolding in the surrounding parkland. The golf course, a collaboration between Tiger Woods’ design firm, TGR, and the Chicago Parks Golf Alliance (CPGA), is slated to transform much of the open space around the SSCC. The planned eighteen-hole golf course will combine two existing golf courses—the one at the SSCC and the one in Jackson Park—and will expand the amount of land dedicated to golf at the parks. The expansion means that the community would lose a beloved picnic grove and access to a riding rink used for decades by the Broken Arrow Horseback Riding Club to host their annual June rodeo event—a day when Chicago’s Black cowboys can affirm their community and identity.

Another flashpoint in the area has been the projected loss of the South Shore Nature Sanctuary, which sits on the lakefront just beyond the SSCC and which is slated to be replaced by the new golf course’s twelfth hole. The Park District shows a new sanctuary in a different location in its new South Lakefront Framework Plan, a nonbinding document that lays out proposed changes to the public park space at Jackson and South Shore parks, developed after a series of meetings with local community members in 2017 and the first quarter of 2018.

But, Susannah Ribstein, a South Shore resident and member of the SSCC Park Advisory Council (PAC), stresses that ecosystems cannot be picked up and relocated, and questions whether the location of the replacement sanctuary, between two golf fairways, is acceptable at all. “When the PAC suggested to the CPGA that this space be used for another fairway and hole instead of the [current] Nature Sanctuary location,” Ribstein said, “we were told that it would be unsafe because it’s too close to the other fairways. Which means it couldn’t possibly be usable as a nature sanctuary for either human or animal benefit.” And that replacement sanctuary would be built only if other outside funding is later secured; for now it lives without a budget-line, as do most of the improvements to Jackson Park and the SSCC grounds spelled out in the Framework Plan.

Ribstein also questions the supposedly community-led process that the Park District used to draw up the Framework Plan. “None of the main items that the PAC repeatedly requested during the SLFP process and beyond were included,” Ribstein said in an email, mentioning “more emphasis on community programming in the building and less on revenue-generating private rentals” and documentation of predicted community benefits from the golf course, as additional requests made alongside requests to preserve the cherished outdoor assets mentioned above, as the PAC’s key requests. “I know that there are many stakeholders involved and some may disagree on priorities. But if not one of the fundamental requests that the South Shore PAC submitted were even partially engaged in this process, how can it be described as community-led?”

For its part, the Park District states on its website that “the 2017–2018 Plan is an update to the 1999 South Lakefront Framework Plan and will adjust for the new catalytic projects underway for the park, while taking into account the needs of the community.” The “catalytic projects” that they evade naming—the Obama Presidential Center and new combined eighteen-hole golf course—both have their own private funding sources, from the Obama Foundation and from the CPGA. But despite the promise private funding for these projects, more than $3.9 million in taxpayer dollars have already been allocated to contract planning firm JJR, Inc., to draw up designs and prepare Jackson and South Shore Parks for the golf course expansion, including the cost of the $1.2 million contract that funded the formulation of the 2017–2018 South Lakefront Framework Plan.

The Framework Plan itself, however, brings no new guaranteed funding from the city or the Park District. The Park District and outside funders retain discretion about which elements of the plan to prioritize and fund. Framework plans are just one of eighteen sources of input that the Park District lists on their website as factors taken into account in annual capital improvements budgeting processes.

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One potential opportunity for more public conversation around the future of the SSCC will begin in May, when the SSCC hosts a Park-District facilitated “Re:Center” process.

Each year the Re:Center process—facilitated by the Culture, Arts, and Nature division of the Park District—brings part-time Cultural Liaisons to three of the city’s fifteen Cultural Centers, and charges these staff members with facilitating a process to increase community input and buy-in on programming there. They hold an array of participatory planning meetings that lead a group of local cultural stakeholders through brainstorming and listening processes, the implementation of a small project, and the formulation of a longer-term plan.

Arts and Culture Manager Meida McNeal explained that the process is guided by “consensus-driven visioning and facilitation,” and so these neighborhood cultural plans incorporate “the things that community members really want … the things that the Park Supervisor and their cultural staff really want, and some kind of strategy or plan to, over several years, try to get at those things.”

The SSCC is a part of the last cohort of cultural centers to go through the Re:Center cultural stewardship process.

The success of the Re:Center process in resolving tensions around the SSCC will, of course, remain to be seen. But process will at least temporarily offer an infusion of human resources that might help bring the Center’s focus back to the arts and cultural activity that aligns with the neighborhood’s preferences and cultural legacy. A long-term plan for the SSCC today will have to take into account how demographics and cultural life around the Center will inevitably change with the construction of the Obama Presidential Center and the expanded golf course.

Issues of equity in the parks are crucial beyond just South Shore: the December 2018 “State of the Parks” report published by the nonprofit group Friends of the Parks found, in their analysis of citywide programming distribution, that the Park District is “replicating the patterns of social and racial inequity that led to the Consent Decree” that came out of the 1982 lawsuit against the Park District for racial discrimination.

In this context, grappling with the city’s debt to African-American communities and artists who have enriched the city’s cultural life (and international reputation) should be a renewed priority at the SSCC. The stakes of meaningful inclusion for artists and audiences in South Shore are as high as ever.

The historical section of this piece is adapted from Jeanne Lieberman’s longer essay, “A Palace for the People: Claiming Space Through Expressive Culture in Chicago’s South Shore Neighborhood,” which appears in the 2016–2017 edition of the University of Chicago’s Chicago Studies Annual journal.

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Jeanne Lieberman is a researcher and educator deeply inspired by Chicago’s art worlds. Six years ago she got her start as a young writer through the South Side Weekly and is excited to return now to share the results of this long-term research project about South Shore history.

The Weekly is a volunteer-run nonprofit written for and about the South Side of Chicago. Our work is made possible through donations from our readers. If you enjoyed this article, please consider making a one-time or recurring donation. Donate today.

Thoughts on “A Palace for the People”

  1. I believe that the women who supported the Cultural Center in the 1970s were Polly Silberman and Polly Scheiner who was a resident of the Jackson Park Highlands, not Polly Schneider. There is a small garden south of the entrance to the Cultural Center that Is dedicated to Polly Scheiner. Please check that out.

  2. Very interesting, timely and well presented piece of writing. I served on the board as a member Geraldine de Haas’ Jazz Unites organization from its early years until the late ’90s, involved in the decision-making, but mainly volunteering my photographic skills and having captured the essence of many events.

  3. My connection with the hallowed ground of SSCC goes back three generations. My grandfather was according to family lore a founding member of the Club. My father had membership privileges as a family member. However dad was downwardly mobile so I ended up caddying there.

    I would like to belatedly thank the Coalition from saving the clubhouse from the wrecking ball.

    One point of information: the Club was not exclusive in the religious sense when it was founded according to my research. There were some prominent Jewish businessmen among the charter members. The religious restriction came later and played a large role in the history of the Club and the community.

    I wonder if the author or any others could provide any insight into the decision to paint the white stucco brown.

    I certainly hope the magnificent Center building will be preserved even if the redevelopment proposal is implemented.

  4. Terry,

    Looking at old pics, the builing and colonnade was originally adobe….btw, the structure that contained the locker rooms, the “bird cage” and maintenance shops was the original clubhouse. It was rolled about 100 yards to make way for the new clubhouse, a white, stucco building.

  5. Wonderful article and really helpful to understand the forces that come to bear on the SSCC. I have written a number of pieces outlining why the proposed golf course is a very bad idea and poorly conceived. If there is any interest in this focused area please contact me.
    Bill Daniel
    billdaniels@me.com

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