On the second story of the brown brick storefront at 63rd Street and Racine Avenue, sunlight spilled onto exposed walls as construction workers in hard hats hauled wood studs and buzz saws whined.
Above, through the still-open roof, was the infinite blue sky.
Englewood residents and organizers have big plans for the building at the intersection that unites the east and west parts of their community. It will be home to a Fresh Market grocery and food co-op, the first step of a redevelopment that aims to transform vacant lots and abandoned buildings into amenities that include the food store, a recycling operation, a health center, a business incubator, mixed-use housing, a job training site and a restaurant.
The hope is the final step will be the reopening of the Racine Green Line stop, a historic landmark that was shuttered some 25 years ago, a decision that for residents symbolized disinvestment along racial lines — abandonment that made Englewood synonymous in Chicago with poverty, lack of opportunity and high crime. The idea has the backing of local Ald. Stephanie Coleman, 16th.
The Go Green on Racine project at South Racine and West 63rd Street in Chicago on Aug. 11, 2020. (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune)
On Sunday, the neighborhood once again found itself the focus of unwanted attention, when Chicago police shot and wounded a 20-year-old man at 56th and Aberdeen streets after he allegedly fired a gun at officers.
The shooting and the man’s arrest touched off a tense standoff with police on the block. Authorities have said the series of events may have helped ignite looting downtown that stretched all the way into sunrise Monday morning.
But at the same time the looting was ending in the center of the city, there was a different gathering back in Englewood at the 63rd and Racine construction site.
Nearly 20 men, many of whom acknowledge they have been involved in street violence in the past and are trying to find a new path, stood in a circle to celebrate the start of a week’s worth of asbestos training so they can work on buildings that will be part of “Go Green on Racine.”
“We succeed!” their voices sounded loudly in a call-and-response, “By strengthening! Each other!”
Residents and activists in Englewood said this early morning meeting — and all the work around the new development — reflects a long-standing, sometimes overlooked determination by residents there to overcome the odds and improve their neighborhood.
Demetrius Johnson, middle, who grew up in the Englewood neighborhood, cuts a two-by-four as Dominique Richardson, lead carpenter, looks on at the work site for the Go Green on Racine project at South Racine and West 63rd Street in Chicago on Aug. 11, 2020. (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune)
Parish Archer, 58, was biking west in the alley that runs between the development fence and the “L” on a recent morning.
“I say, 90%, Englewood really needs it,” said Archer, who has family in Englewood and was cycling four blocks to the Ashland Green Line stop.
Archer said he would have stopped to use the Racine stop if he could have. Today the station sits empty, with debris visible behind the rusted the gates. Every 15 minutes or so the trains rattle by, halting conversations below.
He said he sees promise in the development — fresh food for seniors, community space where people can “intermingle,” including the young gang members who could use some wisdom from the older guys.
The market broke ground in February, and those helping to make it happen said they already feel a sense of pride.
“First and foremost I think it will be a refreshing type of place to have inside of Englewood,” said Demetrius Johnson, 26, as he recently carried boards as part of the construction work for the Fresh Market. “(Then) I really thought about the job and the Fresh Market. I want to one day tell my cousins or my little kids or my nieces and nephews that I built this. I would tell the neighbors and everybody I know, ‘Man, I had a part in that.‘”
Johnson also figures he is passing something down to his younger family members too.
“If my uncle can do it,” he hopes they will conclude, “I can too.”
And it’s not the only investment Englewood has seen in recent times. Abandoned lots have been transformed to community art and gathering spaces. Each September, Hamilton Park fills for a jazz fest that draws national talent and features local jazz students. Residents and outreach workers have continued to work with police to reduce crime, despite how intractable it seems. A Whole Foods and Starbucks opened in 2016, and a new high school in 2019.
“Go Green on Racine” is the latest grand vision for the neighborhood, building off 10 years of neighborhood quality-of-life plans that have been fused into one idea. A year ago, community leaders started gathering groups that could “work toward action” and began putting plans to paper, said Asiaha Butler, the executive director of R.A.G.E., the Resident Association of Greater Englewood, one of four organizations partnering on the project.
“We’re going to see this realized,” Butler said. “It’s personal for us.”
Johnson is a participant at the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, or IMAN, another of the four partner groups. IMAN provides social services to Chicago’s marginalized neighborhoods, including health care, and job training and housing for former inmates and high-risk youth.
Though they did not secure the ultimate prize, “Go Green on Racine” will get continued support from the foundation. The project also has earned about $4 million in city funds and private donations, and on Saturday — the day before the controversial shooting about six blocks away — Mayor Lori Lightfoot paid a visit to the site.
Locals in the neighborhood noticed the arrival of the mayor, and a few days later said it was a good move for her to appear.
“You run the city, you got to come here and see what the residents need,” said one man, as he stood on Racine with two other residents on a recent day.
For too many years, though, policymakers and others in power not only failed to pay attention, they also allowed resources to drain out of Englewood, said Arthur Ingram, 77, who lives on Racine, a few doors south of the Fresh Market development.
Over the years, Ingram, a retired teachers aide, watched the nearby bustling Halsted Street business district of movie theaters and stores like Sears and Wieboldt’s fade out. Later, it was the schools that closed, including Woods Elementary, which was shuttered during the 2013 school closures and is a central part of the Go Green development.
When talking about the idea to reopen the train stop as well, Ingram offered a concise dissertation on low points in Chicago’s history that many see as racist. After resources drained away from Englewood, residents who were left behind struggled.
“They shoulda never closed that,” he said of the Green Line. “They did that ‘cause it turned Black. Just like they do. Simply because we’re Black. Redlining us.”
The closure of the stop happened in 1996, during a massive renovation of the line. At the time, closing stations was seen as a way to speed service and keep costs down.
The “Go Green on Racine” plan is looking to reverse that kind of disinvestment, and include everyone. It will not only have job training, but also dorm-style housing for people returning from prison. As he readied to head back off on his bicycle, Archer said this is a welcome layer to the project.
“Keep hope alive,” Archer said with a smile, quoting the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. “You bring hope, that is what it’s all about.”
Just behind the fence where Archer had stopped, construction on the Fresh Market continued. There, Demetrius Johnson, along with other IMAN participants, were already earning a stipend as they worked alongside employees of UJAMAA Construction, construction manager on the Fresh Market.
The work matters a lot to Johnson, who said he has been shot twice in his life, including in 2011 at the Church’s Chicken on Halsted, when two of his friends were killed. He has a conviction of his own.
Such violence has taken a toll. Johnson said he is a “loner” now and avoids crowds.
But, he said, he also has a girlfriend and is close with his family. That and the construction work keeps him stable and focused, he said.
“That is all I need,” he said. “And my motivation to keep working.”
That is the kind of inspiration that UJAMAA Construction President Jimmy Akintonde sees in the building.
“There is some excitement about the newness of a building, about a new environment,” said Akintonde, whose firm is one of five that has been given the contract to manage the building of the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago. “To be able to see hope in your community ... it elevates the mindset.”
Even Akintonde’s construction workers are feeling it.
“This is the most exciting job I’ve been on,” said UJAMAA carpenter Dominique Richardson, who is helping to train Johnson and lives in Englewood.
“To see me with my hard hat on, going to work and working with young men chasing the same goal I’m on is amazing,” Richardson said this week at the job site. “The goal is to be productive and change the neighborhood. To be a productive Black man in the city of Chicago.”
Earlier that day Johnson and Richardson stood together — again, at daybreak — as members of the construction team and remediation crews gathered before heading to work.
Before they left, IMAN Executive Director Rami Nashashibispoke to the circle, acknowledging the painful recent days. The shooting and the destruction that had followed it. How friends had texted him, wondering how Englewood was handling it.
Then Nashashibi told the men to remember that the struggle to transform themselves and the neighborhood will not be easy. And it wouldn’t happen without one another.
“Look around,” he said. “We know drama is jumping off on the West Side. We know drama is jumping off here. But we know we can lift up a larger vision. Look at everyone in this circle. Collectively we are a power about building our community and demonstrating and defying every perception they have about Englewood.”