The first thing the seventh and eighth graders gathered in their Far South Side library last week wanted city officials and others to know about Altgeld Gardens is that it’s their community.
They called it a place of family, barbecues and fun.
But they also wanted them to hear their wishlist. It features much of what other neighborhoods take for granted — a park full of flowers, a grocery store with diverse foods and a rec center that kids feel good about going to.
For two years, these Aldridge Elementary School students have been working with the Field Museum on a plan for Altgeld Gardens, a sprawling, 190-acre public housing development at the southern edge of the city. They took field trips to look at other communities and heard from guest speakers.
They learned the history of the area, which the kids call the Gardens. And they learned about the CTA Red Line extension from 95th Street to 130th Street. After decades of isolation and stagnation, it will connect the Gardens to the rest of the city and is bringing hope of new investment.
Several CTA officials came out to hear the students present their plan. They are interested because of the Red Line extension, set to be complete in 2029, and the prospect of transit-oriented development.
The students created a sprawling 3D map that stretched across a huge folding table. It included every block of the Gardens’ roughly 1,500 row houses and each element the students wanted.
“This is called informed action,” eighth grader Rondell Sims said. “Our ask is that development comes to our community and that you will become advocates alongside us in creation of a plan that is for us and by us.”
The asks include more businesses, recreation and for a community that looks and feels better.
Among the desired businesses, they want a pharmacy, a restaurant with a cooking school and a tech store. Topping the list is a grocery store. Several students pointed out an abandoned building where one was once located.
Ethan Mosby said all that’s left is a convenience store that “sells the basic general needs like toilet paper, paper plates and ramen noodles.”
Mosby said he would like to see a grocery store with food from other countries. He got the idea from a visit to Chinatown, where he had a Mochi Ball. He thought his neighbors also probably wanted variety and to try something new.
The students said the closest grocery store is a Walmart at 111th Street. Though it is only 4 miles away, it takes two buses to get there.
Student Terrence Perry says the closest recreation center is also at 111th Street and his mom doesn’t have a car right now, which is upsetting.
“It’d be good for us to have it all in the community so we can just have it in walking distance,” he said.
For his part of the plan for the Gardens, Corey Bush concentrated on creating a park that he envisions will be close to the Red Line extension. He says the area has grass and trees, but his park would be filled with flowers.
“I want it to look alive,” he said, explaining that he also wants flowers that will attract pollinators. People in the community can also plant their own flowers, sit on benches, eat at picnic tables or take walks on a gravel trail.
“It brings certain people together more so people can take breaks or just bring families together generally to have fun. It’s just a peaceful site,” he said.
Sa’maya Mitchell also wants the reimagined community to be filled with public art. She says the only public art now is a memorial wall for victims of gun violence and environmental hazards. She wants butterflies, rainbows and art that features affirmations.
“I feel like we need more positivity,” she said.
The city officials in the room said they were impressed with the plan. As they advocate for development, they said having the support of the students on record is important.
Raven Mayo, the Aldridge teacher who coordinated with the Field Museum, said the students have already accomplished a lot. She gleamed with pride at the gathering last week.
“A lot of times we investigate the opinions of other stakeholders, but we never listen to what the children have to say,” she said. “And if we listen to the youth, they’re a powerful weapon and a powerful tool.”