Like many South Side communities, Auburn Gresham faced years of disinvestment. At the time, Auburn Gresham housing stock stayed strong (especially compared to surrounding neighborhoods), but the key commercial areas were hard hit. Now on 79th and on Ashland—two major commercial districts—there are several vacant buildings and empty lots. These eyesores detract from the neighborhood and prevent further investment.
Starting in 2002, Carlos Nelson, the executive director of the Greater Auburn Gresham Community Development Corporation (GAGDC), made it his goal to “turn these deficits into assets.” He facilitated the creation of art in these areas—including sidewalk art, light post hangs, murals and signs. Much of the art incorporates ancient African Adinkra symbols, connecting the community with its old world heritage. The art has been specifically targeted at long-vacant buildings and lots, and for every painting or mural, there’s a trademark symbol and command: “Build on 79th” and “Build on Ashland.” The imperative directly promotes development in these areas; it’s this imperative that makes Auburn Gresham’s street art so special. The buildings are literally asking to be built on.
This Build on 79th Street Campaign was among the projects that most struck me when I was paired with an internship at GAGDC this summer through the University of Chicago Community Service Center’s Summer Links Program. I had joined this program to better understand the city and its nonprofits. What I got in Auburn Gresham was so much more than that. I fell in love with the neighborhood and became embedded in the GAGDC’s work. There I facilitated the Auburn Gresham Portal, a website for news, events and businesses to connect to the community. I created program spotlights, in-depth examinations of some of the GAGDC’s dozens of projects, and I met Carlos Nelson, learning about his work, his passion projects, and his goals for the GAGDC.
For the Build on 79th Street Campaign, Carlos doesn’t bother asking the owners of the lots or buildings if he can make changes to them—the owners can’t be found even if he tried. Instead, “this art brings abandoned property to life.” It is this specific targeting that sets Auburn Gresham’s street art apart from other neighborhoods, some of which have many more murals. The fight to revitalize through art is recognized by the community. “The most exciting thing is that existing businesses are also incorporating art in their facades,” Carlos told me. The targeted art starts a chain reaction, where more and more local businesses include their own art, making the neighborhood more beautiful.
Jumpstarting this chain reaction is the revitalization of one of the largest abandoned buildings, a 60,000–square foot terra-cotta-clad building at 839 W. 79th St. that right now is “ominously vacant,” as Carlos put it. The centerpiece of the Build on 79th Campaign, its reconstruction into the Auburn Gresham Healthy Lifestyle Building is slated to begin next year. The capital campaign is ongoing—though back in school, I’ll be assisting in the campaign through the federal work-study program.
In the meantime, art will continue to be put up on and around the building. In Auburn Gresham, the weakest links of the neighborhood become cornerstone canvases for artistic production—turning on its head the narrative that disinvested communities lack cultural might.
Ian Grant-Funck is an assistant communications coordinator for the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation.
Three Chef’s Restaurant
Across Auburn Gresham, the arguments over what the best dish to order at Three Chefs rage daily in a battle royale for gastronomic supremacy—stuffed catfish supporters are up in arms against veggie skillet lovers. Some like the soul food, others the omelets, still others pledge fealty to the pastas, or the fresh fish, or even the peach cobbler pancakes.
But the most powerful group is the gumbo fans. Cooked fresh every time—not served out of a big pot in the back—this seafood and chicken sausage treat is known far and wide as the best gumbo in Chicago. I must have received four different recommendations for it before I came to Three Chefs for the first time, and I confess I’m on team gumbo.
In the newly restored building, Three Chefs (which has just one chef—its owner, Wallace Effort) supplies the hordes with sustenance. This sacred duty is “all about the community,” Effort said. “Bringing a full-service restaurant, bringing flavor and balance, it’s my dream.” Because Three Chefs is the only cook-to-order restaurant in the area, it’s the only place for people with dietary restrictions—Effort can adapt to Celiac disease or a shellfish allergy in ways other local restaurants can’t. “We give options,” he said. “We are catering to the people.”
A highly trained chef with twenty years of experience, Effort loves serving extravagant French cuisine as chef’s specials: “You gotta step out of the box a little bit.” He also brings that level of invention to classic Cajun, American, and breakfast dishes; his formal training shows in the flavor packed into the more “standard” diner fare on the menu. “I believe the plate is a canvas. I make art for your tummy,” he said with a deep, warm, laugh.
Effort is looking for a larger location to expand into in the next couple years so he can grow his business and offer cooking classes to local youth. “The kitchen saved me,” he said. “I know what it’s like to be lost.” Nowadays, though he’s busy, he stays civically engaged: “I donate food, chicken, and potatoes for the alderman when there’s an event, whatever the community needs.” However, no matter how much I pressed him, he wouldn’t tell me his favorite item on the menu—probably to keep it peaceful between him and his most fervent patrons. (Ian Grant-Funck)
Three Chefs, 8125 S. Halsted Ave. Tuesday–Sunday, 7am–3pm. (773) 483-8111.
Auburn Gresham Gold
When Chance the Rapper visited Westcott Elementary last March to announce his $1 million donation to Chicago Public Schools (plus an extra $10,000 directly to Westcott, and nine other schools), he may not have recognized it as the site of one of the best non-musical collaborations, between five neighborhood schools and a local community organization.
The Auburn Gresham (AG) Gold School campaign, launched by the Greater Auburn Gresham Community Development Corporation (GAGDC) in 2012, aims to bring wraparound supports for students’ education, health, and families. The partnership involves everything from organizing summer camps and before- and after-school programs, to providing parents with information about job opportunities, to making health services available to students nearby at Perspectives Charter Middle School. The GAGDC even helped save one AG Gold school, Barton Elementary, from being turned over and having its staff fired in 2013, by working with the school to bring parents and residents to protest at the CPS headquarters. (Hafsa Razi)
Oglesby Elementary School, 7646 S. Green St. Westcott Elementary School, 409 W. 80th St. Joplin Elementary School, 7927 S. Honore St. Cook Elementary School, 8150 S. Bishop St. Barton Elementary School, 7650 S. Wolcott St. (773) 483-3696. gagdc.org/education.html
Sitting under a tree next to the lagoon in Auburn Park, you would never know you were a stone’s throw away from the Dan Ryan Expressway. The park has a small-town suburban atmosphere, surrounded by Auburn Gresham’s historic bungalow district. It’s quiet and beautiful, reminiscent of the land’s predevelopment status as wetlands owned by William Ogden, Chicago’s first mayor.
Auburn Park (which gives the neighborhood its name) was designed in 1872, and its presence in the neighborhood inspired the construction of streetcar lines that brought in residents during Chicago’s rapid expansion at the turn of the twentieth century. Since its construction, it has served as a landmark community asset, a place to get away from the busy city without leaving your backyard. Today, as Auburn Gresham returns from a period of disinvestment during the eighties and nineties, the park’s presence as a refuge has never faltered.
It’s also the perfect place to fish. And while you’re sitting under that tree, there’s plenty of fish to catch. Spring crappie make way for channel catfish and largemouth bass in the summer, and bluegill last all year; with the Park District periodically restocking, there’s always something to catch.
Residents describe the park as idyllic, a refuge that inspires a sense of serenity only 300 feet from the busy 79th Street commercial corridor. On a normal summer day under that tree in the late afternoon, you can see seniors and teenagers fishing side by side, and collections of young kids finishing up their days at summer camps by learning how to cast. (Ian Grant-Funck)
Auburn Park, 406 W. Winneconna Pkwy. 6am–11pm. (312) 747-6998. chicagoparkdistrict.com