The best part of this summer thus far has been getting to know and learn from high school students. WaPa’s youth have been instrumental to our team’s dynamic and accomplishments, and I have personally learned so much just from spending time with them. Though I have done a lot of service work in the past, this is the first time I’ve been able to work alongside of people who live in the community we are serving. Having their voices and stories at the table has made all the difference in my summer experience, and it leads me to think about whose voices are being heard in Washington Park.
5 years ago, the University of Chicago has purchased an entire block of buildings immediately west of Washington Park. These buildings have slowly been developed into an arts gallery, café, and creative spaces. Over the past month, the WaPa team has seen these spaces expand: a dance studio for a summer youth program and a mysterious bookstore have both popped up. We have spent many hours in the café and explored the exhibits at the art gallery. And while I very much enjoy the air conditioning, good food, and beautifully renovated space, I also wonder who this space is for. The high school students have told us these buildings used to hold a grocery mart, a Harold’s chicken, a currency exchange, and other local businesses. While the new establishments are open to everyone in the community, I can’t help but feel that the people who spend time at the hipster café are different from the people who would’ve shopped in the old grocery mart. Given the lack of fresh produce available in the neighborhood, I wonder who suffers the most now that the mart is gone. The new arts gallery and dance studio have both hosted programs for local youth, and are providing creative arts spaces, but again, I think about who used the Harold’s chicken as a social gathering place. Most community members we talked to don’t consider these new spaces when asked about local assets. Some don’t even know what these new spaces are, which is understandable given their eccentric names (Bing, Sweatbox). When decisions are being made about what to take out and put into a community, who has a seat at the table? What makes a space conducive to community gathering and collaboration?
The community organizations we have worked with throughout this summer have demonstrated so much passion and commitment to their work. They are striving to provide spaces for people to find their passions, exercise, eat, and collaborate. Their challenges range from manpower to sustainable funding sources, but they continuously show devotion and understanding to the people they serve. The KLEO (Keep Loving Each Other) center serves as a central location to much of the community’s operations, coordinating a large summer youth employment program, hosting monthly health talks, and entertaining the neighborhood with open mic nights. While the original mission of the KLEO center was rooted in domestic violence, the center expanded its services to find funding and new ways to reach the community. I believe its flexibility of mission is part of what makes KLEO a universally recognized asset in the Washington Park community. The space is simple but sufficient, and community members fill it with their ideas and passions. We have been told this is the goal the University-owned space is going for: to give community members and university members a space to come together, nurture ideas, and execute pilot programs. I worry that in their efforts to make spaces welcoming to university affiliates they have forgotten their original audience was both. I worry that by prioritizing the comfort of one group we are simply reinforcing existing power structures about whose comfort is catered to, and whose comfort is ignored. Washington Park as a neighborhood has a lot of new development on its horizon. Its proximity to the university and (possibly) the future Presidential Library promises continued influx of young, energized people. As organizations such as the university begin making intentional efforts here, I hope they remember to constantly ask critically, “Who has a seat at the table?”.