Englewood. Photo Credit: Brittany Norment
Photo Credit: Brittany Norment

Best of Englewood 2020

The sun is bright and the energy is electric as clusters of people approach the In & Out Food and Deli at the corner of South Halsted and West 66th Streets. The last operating business in this small building was a corner store with everything from cigarettes to diapers to hot Italian beef sandwiches—one of many in a long list of businesses unable to maintain a hold on the property. Boarded up for months after failing health inspection after health inspection, the former eye-sore is in the process of a transformation. 

Teams of artists from the Englewood Arts Collective paint colorful murals as vibrant as the people of Englewood, while others lead children in arts and crafts. In the parking lot, residents and families dance to music played by community leader and resident DJ Dap, with children playing on see-saws crafted by design studio Made in Englewood. Just days after a shooting took place at the same site, residents are gathering to celebrate the launch of the free communal market, orchestrated by local community art nonprofit alt_, where shelves are regularly stocked with non-perishable food and essential items and available to anyone in need. Dedicated, resilient, powerful, vibrant, innovative, and unstoppable. This is Englewood.

I am a third-generation Englewood resident; the landscape surrounding my legacy home has evolved over the years: from a thriving Black business district, to a gang war zone, to a mass of vacant lots central to neighborhood revitalization efforts happening today. In the nineties, my father retired from the Air Force and moved our family from England to Englewood. Around the time we moved back, post white-flight and after years of systemic disinvestment, gang violence had ravaged Englewood. Many families made the difficult decision to relocate in search of safety. Our home at the corner of West 65th and South Green Streets sat in the middle of this battle, driving my family to be one of the many who would migrate to the south suburbs. But despite our physical relocation, Englewood was always my home, and the only place in America I felt connected to. When I came to a crossroads in my adult life, just like my father before me, it was only natural that I returned home to 65th and Green Street.

While the media blared negative images of Englewood and daily shooting statistics, I was encouraged to move almost anywhere but here. And yet when I returned, first by way of being a barista at the nonprofit Englewood coffee shop Kusanya Cafe, I was elated to discover a warm and vibrant community that cared. Yes, pockets of violence still occur, but matching every report of violence is a collective, individual, or organization working to effect positive change. 

In the three years since I returned to the neighborhood after living in the south suburbs of Chicago, Wicker Park, Humboldt Park, Logan Square, and the San Francisco Bay Area, Englewood has shown me the definition of community. I have received more “good mornings” and genuine “hi, how are yous” than anywhere else I’ve lived. I returned with the intent of reconnecting with the only place that felt like home and that home gave me a family, teachers, and new friends. 

The Englewood that exists today is not the same as the media will lead you to believe. Beyond the violence and the disinvestment lies a community only minutes from the city’s center teeming with originality, passion, ingenuity, and most of all, heart. The community of Englewood vibrates with creativity and an unparalleled force that has driven change without the help of city leaders and government involvement. 

Asiaha Butler, co-founder and president of R.A.G.E.—the Residents Association of Greater Englewood—and Best Activist-Around-Town in 2016 BoSS, once said, “The major assets of our community lie in the spirit of the people—their resilience, commitment to community development, and the dedication to actively engage in projects or issues that impact them.”

For years, Englewood has been home to artists, entrepreneurs, activists, politicians, musicians, athletes, and influencers. Our greystone buildings are filled with essential workers, mothers, fathers, grandparents, and students. Every day activists, community leaders, and neighbors work to maintain peace and heal the wounds created by white flight and city leaders’ lack of involvement. 

Today, the people who call Englewood home are creating a new legacy all their own, on their own. We have broken through barriers to take hold of our neighborhood and reinvest in ourselves when no one else will. In this community, you will find thought leaders, innovators, and families working every day to reshape the neighborhood and create our own narrative. 

To know Englewood is to know the residents that are the real engine driving change within our neighborhood. Englewood IS rising, every day. (Brittany Norment)

Neighborhood Captain Jade Yan is a staff reporter for the Weekly.

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Best Wellness on Wheels

T.H.U.G. Hippie Bus

E A Williams. Thug Hippie Bus. Photo Credit: Brittany Norment
E’a Williams and the T.H.U.G. Hippie Bus. Photo Credit: Brittany Norment

Yoga instructor and massage therapist E’a Williams wasn’t looking to make a radical lifestyle change, but 2020 presented her with one. Divorced, with her teenage son living in California and her regular paying work on ice thanks to the shutdown, she realized she had the chance to do something new. “I’ve always wanted to be a wellness gypsy,” she said. “[COVID-19] gave me the opportunity to do that.” On July 1, she launched a GoFundMe to raise money to realize her off-the-grid dream: a retrofitted, solar-powered school bus to serve as a mobile wellness and arts center she’s dubbed the T.H.U.G Hippie Bus. 

The name’s an homage to Tupac, whose “Thug Life” tag famously stood for “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everbody.” In Williams’ spin, it means both “The Healing U Give” and “Trauma Healing Urban Guru.” She’s no stranger to trauma herself; she’s lost a daughter and experienced homelessness. Raised in Uptown, she said her eyes were opened to the grievous disparity between the North and South sides when she moved to Englewood. “When I moved here to try and raise my kids and I couldn’t give them the same life I had had on the North Side, I was frustrated,” she said. “I was, like, why can’t I find a free circus or free art class, summer program, or free just theater in the park?” The antiracist arts organization Enrich Chicago helped her put words—“systemic racism”—to what she was experiencing. 

E A Williams. Thug Hippie Bus. Photo Credit: Brittany Norment
T.H.U.G. Hippie Bus. Photo Credit: Brittany Norment

Williams describes herself as “a community thread”; she’s worked with neighborhood organizations like Resident Association of Greater Englewood, Inner-City Muslim Action Network, and others. Those connections have helped her make the T.H.U.G. Hippie Bus come together in just four months. Thanks to a donation from the Greater Englewood Chamber of Commerce, she was able to fly to Las Vegas and pick up the bus; it’s now parked at 59th and Honore, on land owned by Growing Home, who she’s partnering with so they can use the bus for their mobile farmers market. In early November, the bus had been stripped of seats and insulated, and masking tape outlined the new floor plan: kitchen in the back, seating for workshops and classes in the front, a privacy curtain for when she does massages during R.A.G.E.’s So Fresh Saturdays. Williams hopes to have all the renovations done by the holidays, so she can host a “Christmas village” at the bus.

Too many people in the Black community don’t give health and wellness care the respect it deserves, she said. “We’re quick to pass on all the trauma, with all the fast food and all the fake hair but we don’t pass on what’s healing us. For some reason we’re very shy and embarrassed about telling people ‘I get a massage or I go see a therapist,’ ” she said. “I’m out here to combat that, because if we don’t get over the simple thinking about getting a massage, we won’t be able to heal ourselves.” (Martha Bayne)

Find more information about and donate to the T.H.U.G. Hippie Bus at gofundme.com/f/thughippie

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Best Source of Wisdom for a Nonprofit

I Grow Chicago’s Wisdom Council

Ms. Gwen. Photo Credit: Brittany Norment.
Ms. Gwen. Photo Credit: Brittany Norment.

Ms. Gwen is back to sitting on her porch next to her flowers, after a period of battling COVID-19. She is also back to meeting with members of I Grow Chicago, an Englewood nonprofit that provides resources such as mentorship and after-school programs.

Ms. Gwen is one of five elders in the Wisdom Council, a group of women who help the organization with peace-keeping initiatives.

The Wisdom Council is modeled after indigenous tribal councils and holds power above I Grow’s formal board, dealing with issues and finding solutions for the I Grow and Englewood community. One initiative was a multipurpose basketball court for I Grow’s  peace campus, which spans six formerly vacant lots and two homes, and gives young people a space to play and the elders a space to take walks.

Although Ms. Gwen hasn’t been able to get down to the campus since March, when the pandemic hit—“I was really…out for the count,” she said about her experience contracting the virus—I Grow came to her porch to say hello, bringing food and news. 

“I must have done a good job with them because everyone’s missing me,” she said, laughing. 

Ms. Gwen has lived in Englewood for fifty years and joined I Grow when it started in 2014. She noticed Robbin Carroll, the founder, setting up on a lot on the next block and went over to see what was going on. 

At first, she helped with the garden and grew vegetables and flowers; her own house is full of flowers, both inside as well as in her backyard and on her porch. Then Ms. Gwen decided to found the Wisdom Council around three years ago, with two other members, Ms. Ora and Ms. Johnson.

“[I Grow is] just something I’m really excited to be a part of,” she said.

She’s proud of how the organization has “a lot of activities going on,” including art and cooking classes and yoga (the organization’s yoga program was named Best Child’s Pose in 2018 BoSS). One program that made an impact in her life was the weekly Women’s Group, also called Moms First, run by Deirdre Koldyke. The group plans outings for women and mothers, and offers excitement and variety. Looking after children can make people feel like “you’re stuck in a rut—like, ‘this is life,’ ” said Ms. Gwen. “[But] when you get a chance to get out and see what other people are doing, then your life hasn’t ended, you still got hope.”

Ms. Gwen is on the mend from COVID-19, and celebrated her eighty-third birthday earlier this month with her four daughters. She wants to see Englewood’s vacant lots “built back up,” from houses to businesses to educational opportunities.

“I feel it’s gonna be alright,” she added. (Jade Yan)

I Grow Chicago, 6402 S. Honore St. Get involved by calling (773) 245-2212 or visiting igrowchicago.org.

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Best Place to Get Fresh Food On the Corner of 57th and Racine

Dion’s Dream Fridge

Dion’s Dream Fridge
Dion’s Dream Fridge. Photo Credit: Brittany Norment

Every day, Dion Dawson wakes up at 5am and goes to shop for fresh produce. Then, he makes his way over to the corner of West 57th Street and South Racine Avenue, to place the fruit and vegetables on the shelves of his community fridge. 

The fridge was created by Dawson, a thirty-year-old veteran, to address the food desert in Englewood, where he was born and raised. “It’s always been the case,” he said, of the lack of supermarkets in Englewood, besides the Whole Foods on 63rd and Halsted. “I guess the difference has been committing my non-stop energy to fixing that.” 

The fridge, called Project Dream Fridge, is open weekdays. Dawson is out there every day, making sure people are wearing masks and only taking what they need until the next day, “because we’ll be open tomorrow,” he reminds people. Everything is always gone by midday, he said.

By tuning in to what food the community responds to, he has also been able to narrow down the contents of the fridge. Items that go fast include bananas, lettuce, onions, apples, and water. As for the less popular food, “cabbage moves a little bit slower,” he said, adding that radishes weren’t “a big thing” either.

The fridge is part of a larger charity called Dion’s Chicago Dream, which Dawson runs along with Nataly Moreno, as vice president, and his mother, Constance Strickland, as its administrative officer. Dawson told the Weekly he started the organization on Juneteenth of this year: “I looked in the mirror and asked myself, ‘What do I want to say I did, as far as this Juneteenth?’ ” 

He started a GoFundMe and raised $2,500, with which he fed a hundred families. Riding on this success, Dawson decided to turn his efforts into Dion’s Chicago Dream. He opened Project Dream Fridge around three months later, on September 11. The fridge is protected by a small shed, built by the mutual aid network Love Fridge Chicago, and covered in colorful paintings by Chicago artist Pugs Atomz.

While addressing food insecurity is the main goal, it’s “only one pillar of the things we do,” said Dawson. He tries to tailor the charity’s work to whatever Englewood needs. This might mean clearing up vacant lots, or finding an ice cream truck for children. 

“I’m willing to do whatever we can to assist Englewood,” said Dawson. (Jade Yan)

Project Dream Fridge, corner of W. 57th St. and S. Racine Ave. Weekdays, 9am–4pm. dionschicagodream.com

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