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Confronting community problems through architecture and design

Anyone who drives on the Kennedy has likely seen Juan Moreno’s work. The Northeastern Illinois University El Centro building is mostly glass, with vertical dividers turning it from yellow to blue to yellow, depending on the direction on the expressway.

Moreno’s office building on Wabash Avenue is a frenetic space under the ‘L’ tracks, surrounded by the noise of nearby road repairs. The lively business district gets constant care and attention, unlike Gage Park on the city’s Southwest Side.

“In the corporate world, there isn’t this kind of desire to go into our communities of need,” said Moreno. “And give our gifts as architects, our ideas, our vision — to try to uplift the community.”

And an area like Gage Park could use the help. It has different kinds of infrastructure problems: Its streets are punctuated by potholes, bridges crumbled to where the rebar steel peeks out from the concrete. Weeds grow tall and wide through sidewalk cracks in front of a multitude of empty buildings.

Moreno noted the differences between the rapid repairs happening near his office that might inconvenience commuters downtown, and the visible neglect in this mostly working-class Latino community. He believes that lack of attention can affect a resident’s psyche.

“Because they walk by it and those buildings talk to them. And it makes them feel like people don’t care about them,” said Moreno. “That they (problems from neglect) are in communities of color. And it’s a constant reminder when they look at that.”

Rows and rows of one and two-story brick, pre-war homes line the streets of Gage Park: Brick homes and vacant lots. But a gleaming structure pierces the horizon — a giant, modern, glass-and-metal building — and in its shadow, kids played at its feet on the artificial turf.

The UNO charter Soccer Academy Elementary School could easily be mistaken for a museum or airport terminal. Moreno said he’s happy his design gets that kind of reaction.

“They don’t always have to be the same prototype. We can think about their role in the community, the way learning is approached,” said Moreno. “And I think this school does a great job in doing that.”

Punctuating the past with designs for the future isn’t for everyone. Just north, in Pilsen, there’s been lots of talk about gentrification in recent years. The Mexican neighborhood is known for its European-styled buildings dating back to the 1800s.

Crystal Quintero was peering into a soon-to-opened Giordano's restaurant on 18th Street, across from a Subway restaurant. The new pizza place is going into an old building that once housed a youth art studio. Some residents might see the chain going in and think, ‘there goes the neighborhood.' But Quintero didn’t see it that way.

“I was going to fill out an application,” said Quintero. “I want to work here so I’m going to fill out an application online.”

And that’s one of the fundamental challenges for today’s architect — how to transform space for the future while preserving the integrity of its past.

Follow WBEZ reporter Yolanda Perdomo on Twitter @yolandanews

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