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Food justice, Chicago and Detroit

The Root profiles Chicago food justice activist LaDonna Redmond (via Progress Illinois) — including her Graffiti and Grub store (first covered by Newstips) and a related effort in conjunction with the Washington Park Homeowners Association and Southwest Youth Collaborative to develop empty lots into community farms employing local youth. 

Redmond also has a contribution to the Nation’s recent forum on Food and Democracy — but the most fascinating piece there is from 94-year-old Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs. 

In her town, a group called Detroit United which defeated a 1988 attempt to develop a casino industry there went on to establish Detroit Summer, an intergenerational, multicultural program involving youth and elders in planting community gardens and painting community murals.  That movement triggered the Detroit Agricultural Network, which now includes 700 community gardens.

Washington Park and the Olympics

Not everyone around Washington Park supports building a 90,000-seat temporary stadium there to accommodate the 2016 Olympics if they come to Chicago, according to Cecelia Butler, president of the Washington Park Advisory Council. But there is a broad community consensus on what Washington Park and the surrounding community need – “with or without the Olympics,” she said.

Residents of the communities surrounding the park – Washington Park, Grand Boulevard, Kenwood, Hyde Park, and Woodlawn – have been meeting since last fall to discuss prospects for the Olympics, and the advisory council created a separate Washington Park Olympic Committee because of heightened interest, Butler said.

The committee has come up with a 26-point plan to articulate community goals regarding the Olympics. “We asked each other, what would it take for you to support the Olympics?” Butler explained.

Some items are long-standing requests as simple as a pedestrian crosswalk across 55th Street, and improved lighting, safety and sewers in and around the park.

The meat of the plan has to do with economic and community development – “jobs, jobs, and more jobs”; greater access to job training and apprenticeships through City Colleges; business development; and support for cooperative housing so current residents can afford to stay in the neighborhood.

Indeed, that’s one reason Butler herself is supporting the stadium proposal – she sees it as an opportunity to bring badly needed resources to the community, and especially its young people.

Another reason is civic pride: “This is Washington Park’s opportunity to showcase itself to the world,” she said. “Should we say we don’t want to share our park?”

But residents and park users are also calling for guarantees that the park, its history, and its current users are respected. They want assurances that all programs within the park will be maintained, along with the park’s historic landmark status and the Bud Billiken Day Parade. Soccer, cricket and ballplayers who now use the fields of the park’s Harold Washington Common Ground should have their fees reduced or eliminated if they are required to move, they say.

And the committee wants assurances that the Olympic stadium will be immediately dismantled after the games, the park’s green space restored, and control of the remaining 5,000-seat ampitheater shared, with profits supporting programs in Washington Park.

The committee is calling for a community benefits agreement with the Chicago Olympic Committee, and they want a seat on the Olympic Committee as well.

The plan is a “work in progress,” Butler said; they have dropped proposals for underground parking and for moving the stadium site to another part of the park; more recently, learning that the city has no indoor fieldhouses, the committee has been discussing a proposal to use the National Guard’s General Jones Armory at 52nd and Cottage for an indoor track facility.

The plan is being shared with the Mayor’s Office and the Olympic Committee, Butler said, “to help them understand that this is what the community needs” in order to “make us feel like we’re part of the process.” A long-time organizer, she notes with some relish that “we’ve got years and years to work on this.”

Washington Park’s 125 Anniversary Marked

A month-long celebration marking the 125th anniversary of the naming of Washington Park will highlight the park’s “rich and vibrant” social and cultural history, said Elizabeth Babcock of the University of Chicago’s Civic Knowledge Project.

A community celebration on Sunday, May 7, 3 p.m., in the park’s refectory (5531 S. Russell Drive) will feature a buffet dinner and a talk by local historian Christopher Reed, professor emeritus at Roosevelt University. Presentations will be given by community groups which use the park — including the Washington Park Forum, an open discussion group which has met continuously since its origin in the 1920s, when Washington Park was a gathering place for soapboxers.

Historical photos and archival material gathered by students with the Civic Knowledge Project will be displayed, and residents are encouraged to bring their own photos to be digitized during dinner, with complementary “Treasures of Washington Park” CDs available at the conclusion of the program.

On Saturday, May 13, at 8 a.m., UC Professor Aaron Turkewitz will lead an introduction to bird-watching starting at the park’s field house.

On Saturday, May 20, at 1 p.m., Washington Park Advisory Council President Cecilia Butler and two UC graduate students will lead a walking tour of the park, covering the park’s design and development and how race and class issues have played out there. Starting at the field house, the tour concludes at the historic site of the Washington Park Forum, with a public debate by current members of the forum and local school debaters.

On Saturday, May 27, at 10 a.m., Loyola historican and archivist Ellen Skerrett and St. Ignatius College Prep teacher John Lillig will lead a tour of prominent sites from James Farrell’s novels.

On Tuesday, June 6, the advisory council will host Washington Park Discovery Day for children from neighboring schools, with displays by the city’s cultural institutions and recreational agencies.

Washington Park was initially designed in the 1870s by seminal landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and his partner, Calvert Vaux. The park’s central green was a pastoral meadow featuring grazing sheep; today it’s the largest ballplaying field in Chicago, named in honor of Harold Washington, said Butler.

Racial issues played out in Washington Park during the post-World War I Great Migration, said Babcock. Pioneer black banker Jesse Binga was the first African American to live on South Park Drive, and his home was firebombed repeatedly; by the 1930s, the entire neighborhood was African American, said Babcock.

The Bud Billiken Day Parade, founded by the Chicago Daily Defender in 1929, was part of an effort by African Americans to claim their right to use the park, where they were initially unwelcome, Babcock said.

The Park District rebuffed the advisory council’s efforts after Mayor Washington’s death to renamed the park for him, Butler said. But she adds, “When you say ‘Washington’ today, very few people who live around here think ‘George.’”

Butler enumerates the park’s “treasures” — Lorenzo Taft’s massive sculpture “Fountain of Time” (recently restored, with the restoration of its wading pool imminent); the DuSable Museum; the city’s only water slide; the city’s only arboretum, and its oldest tree. The council’s goals include a permanent bandshell for the many large cultural events that now use portable stages.

The May 7 buffet dinner (tickets are $25, donations at the door accepted) will benefit a new disabled-accessible playground at the park.

Butler has served on the council since its inception in 1986 — and she points out that 2006 is also the 20th anniversary of the Chicago Park District’s advisory councils, instituted by Mayor Harold Washington.

The Civic Knowledge Project is sponsored by the University of Chicago’s Humanities Division and seeks to build bridges of knowledge and discourse between the University and South Side communities.

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