Seeing potential amid Chicago neighborhood blight

July 5, 2013

On 69th and Emerald, several empty storefronts are squished together. Vacant lots are on the periphery.

Englewood resident and activist Orrin Williams calls this “the aesthetics of oppression.”

“Who has the highest rates of asthma, lead poisoning, violence? You can do that map and it coincides with the vacant houses, the vacant lots,” Williams said.

That’s why Williams co-founded See Potential, a public art project that launched this summer. Large-scale photography is gracing buildings in blighted areas on Chicago’s South Side.This isn’t just a beautification project. It’s a step toward getting community input about what future development should look like. The installations on various buildings ask community members for their ideas via text -- to see the potential of their own neighborhood.

At a recent See Potential celebration, residents gathered on 69th Street in front of a free youth center among the vacant storefronts called Imagine Englewood If, It wants to offer expanded hours during the week and a full day on Saturdays. Right now, there’s no operating budget.

The question splashed across its current location is: do you want a community center here? To say yes, people can text “safe,” a nod toward giving youth a safe space in an area known for violence.

Jean Carter-Hill runs Imagine Englewood If and hopes See Potential can bring in money.

“Where we can have more capacity. I really work six, seven days a week because we don’t have enough people to do the work needed to be done. And to be able to make our place more comfortable,” Carter-Hill said. The haggard space needs plumbing, cosmetic work, a new floor and improved heating/air conditioning systems.

Williams said See Potential gives more heft to an idea than simply going to a local official.

“We want people to be able to say to a banker, to a funder or whatever the case may be, we have 500 responses. People support this. We can demonstrate it,” Williams said.

By fall, the project will tally all the community input. Another location is a vacant performance hall on 43rd and Calumet where crooner Nat ‘King’ Cole once sang. Portraits of artists hang on the empty red brick building and the project asks passersby if they want the space restored. At 51st and Calumet a garden includes the question: ‘do you want a community center without walls?’ There, photos of children blowing bubbles and riding bicycles line a wall.

Kheir Al-Kodmany teaches urban design at the University of Illinois-Chicago. His research shows that improving physical appearance of a neighborhood increases economic opportunity, enhances social life and leads to residents feeling safer.

“We planners see the potential of art to critically improve social conditions and economic well being. We’ve also been utilizing art to improve transportation and environmental aspects of community life,” Al-Kodmany said.

He said experts alone can’t solve community design problems.

“People understand pictures more than words. Really once they see how it looks like they say ‘oh, I got it.’ You may speak for an hour and people don’t get it but in a few pictures they really get it,” Al-Kodmany said.

Back on 69th and Emerald, See Potential has become a mini-block party. R&B music blasts from the speakers. Volunteers give away toys, books and clothing. Getting random residents engaged is key for See Potential. Jessica Smith was buying incense at the corner store across the street when she ambled over and got See Potential literature. She’s in favor of a community center.

“We need it within the Englewood community, especially for the kids. I have a four year old. He likes art, to play ball,” Smith said.

Before leaving, Smith quickly texted “safe.”

Natalie Moore is WBEZ’s South Side bureau reporter. Follow her @natalieymoore.