Spring 2021 - Site Tour: A Guided Walk Through East Garfield Park
In the middle of a large lot between two one-story-foot-tall commercial businesses, Western Union and Catfish Corner is the first stop of our guided tour of East Garfield Park. As part of our strategic outreach and engagement methods, we participated in a guided tour of the community. Through his vast historical knowledge and connection to East Garfield Park, our tour guide, Jason Ferguson, provides first hand insight into the ways community members interact and navigate the space that is the Madison Commercial Corridor.
We began our tour greeted by Jason Ferguson coach of GOlympians and Marshall High School in the neighborhood. A former lifelong resident of East Garfield Park and a prominent figure in the community, Jason gave us the pleasure of being our tour guide of the Madison Avenue Study Area. As we walked down Madison Avenue, Jason continued on effortlessly sewing the history of systemic racism East Garfield Park faced with the current state it is in. He noted the aftermath of the MLK Riots and the City’s part in years of the City falsely promising to prioritize the rebuilding of Madison Street. The aftermath, years of large lots that lay empty, neglected, or completely abandoned decreasing the storefronts for local entrepreneurs to lease.
Along the way Jason pointed out the various vacant lots and boarded up windows, highlighting remnants of the once-thriving corridor. Jason recounts the several businesses and services that once filled the stretch. He pointed to empty lots and parcels that once homed former local businesses, specialized shops, small grocery stores, corner stores, restaurants, and social service offices and clinics. A vibrant, well-activated space comparable to that of Oak Park’s commercial corridor, as Jason put it.
Our tour then led us to the intersection of Kedzie and Madison. At this intersection, Jason stopped us to re-center our focus to the two buildings. We stop in front of a Dollar Tree with wooden boards blocking the windows. Facing directly across from the Dollar Tree is a historic Greystone building also with wooden boards covering the windows. He noted the similarities between the two, referring to how both lost outside and local businesses interest in returning. The Dollar Tree boarded the windows up during recent protests and riots in Chicago as well. Although much time has passed since then, no organized plan from an institution has been put in place. Another resource is taken from the community.
Looking at the other side of the building, we stop at the front steps of the Garfield Community Service Center. Jason notes on the Greystone building the faded signage from former local businesses, corner stores, social service offices, and mental health clinics are all now closed or inactive. Both sites the results of disinvestment, inactions, ineffective policies, and lack of interest from the institutions and those in power.
We continued southbound down Kedzie Avenue and approached Marshall High School, Jason’s alma mater. With us walking, Jason told the group about the high school and the deep roots it has in the community. Marshall High School has received national recognition for its track and field teams and culinary program. Within the neighborhood, it’s known for the several educational, health, and opportunity resources. We stopped near the school’s urban garden and took in the site of the entire park and field. Jason continued telling us the vast contribution the school and park have given the residents of East Garfield Park.
Exiting the park Jason guided the group down Fifth Avenue, a special diagonal strip in East Garfield Park. As we crossed the street, we could see large empty lots with a few standing 2-3 flat units along Fifth Avenue. As we continued our tour, Jason pointed out several subsidized housing newly built on Monroe Street that seems to have become a growing trend. However, as alluded to by Jason, the growth of the community won’t happen so easily. Walking down Fifth Avenue, we see more empty lots along with several buildings in poor condition, and Jason brings back our attention to the current issues the community is facing.
Jason informs the group of the avenue’s history and how it has shaped the present. As a way to improving public safety, the City of Chicago planned to demolish several of the buildings that were seen as blights after the MLK Riots. However, the properties that were demolished remained empty for a while. We pause at a large lot with a “For Sale” sign from a realtor. Jason informs us more on how the vacant properties were then purchased by speculators, often from outside the community, with little to no intention of developing on the parcels as a result of demolitions.
We proceeded walking Northeast bound towards our final stop at the intersection of California and Madison. The group stopped momentarily at a semi-plaza in front of Congressman Davis’s office. Here Jason provided the group with more insight into the community’s current political issues regarding elected officials and developers, as well as the inter-community tensions with West Loop expanding its development in the neighborhood. Once the conversation was over, the group continued walking north on Fifth Avenue, approaching the final stop of the tour
Wrapping up the last part of the tour, we stand at the intersection of N California and W Madison Avenues. Jason points out two important spaces around this corner. The first, Catfish Corner, a once well-known barbecue restaurant in the neighborhood that was often the location where various events and groups would congregate. The second, the Fred Hampton Black Panther Party mural. Not so far from this intersection was the home of the leader of the Illinois Black Panther Party Fred Hampton where he was assassinated by the FBI. We learned from Jason that the mural was recently retouched by Fred Hampton Jr. (Hampton’s son). Jason concluded the tour, pointing out various murals, landmarks of the Black Panthers Party, and the landmarks and placemakers acknowledged local neighborhood residents. We managed to get a group picture at the site of the mural before thanking Jason for sharing his expertise and welcoming us into the space.
Juan Luna - a planner and designer interested in the intersection between housing policies and urban design.