City plans gateway arch to mark ‘Soul City Corridor’
The city is poised to make a bold statement of the “Soul City Corridor” on Chicago Avenue. It is in the process of selecting artists who will design a gateway arch and other markers for the commercial corridor that stretches from Austin Blvd. to Cicero Avenue. As it unfolds, it will be a success for local business activists who have long pushed the concept.
The Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) plan calls for a gateway arch on the west side of the corridor at 5946 W. Chicago Ave., near the Chicago/Oak Park border. Smaller signs will be mounted on light poles near the east end of the corridor, near the intersection of Chicago and Cicero avenues. It’s something Malcolm Crawford, head of the Austin African American Business Networking Association (AAABNA), has long advocated as part of a broader vision to revitalize Chicago Avenue as the “Soul City Corridor,” the commercial and cultural hub of Austin’s Black community.
On January 20, DCASE and AAABNA held a virtual meeting where the community was introduced to the three artists selected as the finalists for the project. During the meeting, which was attended by 50-60 people, the artists shared their designs and asked attendees to share their perspectives on what Austin is like and what they would like to see in the corridor. DCASE is expected to select the finalist at the end of February. After that, the city will hold community meetings to refine the finalist’s design, with the goal of having the design in place by May and finishing construction by September 2024.
Soul City Corridor has been Crawford’s vision for many years. He sees it as a commercial and cultural hub, a destination for Austinites and West Siders in general. In previous interviews with Austin Weekly News, Crawford compared it to areas like Chinatown’s Wentworth Avenue, 26th Street in Little Village and the section of Devon Avenue that runs through the majority Indian/Pakistani sections of West Ridge.
In recent years, Westside Health Authority and Austin Chamber of Commerce have also embraced the Soul City Corridor concept. The Invest South/West initiative, which works to bring investment to historically underinvested parts of the South and West Sides, has made the revitalization of the entire Chicago Avenue corridor, including the Austin portion, a major priority.
DCASE is working with the Chicago Department of Planning and Development (DPD) and Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) to build the arches.
There are currently three finalists competing for the design contract. Sonja Henderson, of Pilsen, served as an artist-in-residence at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s North Lawndale campus and conducted community awareness workshops.
“My work always has a social justice or a social healing [aspect],” she said.
Henderson said community involvement is an important part of all her public art projects. When she designed a memorial to Emmett Till and his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, at Argo High School, a southwest suburban Summit school where Mobley was one of the first black students, she convened discussion groups that included local residents, members of Till’s family and Till’s were involved. friends.
Painter and sculptor Bernard Williams, of Chicago, created public art throughout Chicago and several cities in Indiana. He said he likes to make pieces that speak to the history of the location and use a combination of words, symbols and images. Williams is also aware of the kind of shadows his pieces create.
“In some sculptures, there might be a word, or some symbols that you literally go through,” he said. “I like the idea that you walk through the shadows of history illustrated in the artwork.”
Sculptor Wesley Clark lives in Hyattsville, Md., a suburb of Washington DC, but he said he has a Chicago connection – his wife grew up in the South Side’s Beverly neighborhood. Clark summed up the theme of his art as “really diving into the African-American experience and pushing us forward,” applying the lessons of the past to future solutions. He used a sculpture he designed for Washington DC’s Calvin Coolidge High School as an example. At a casual glance it is simply a statue of a young man rushing forward with a book in his outstretched hand, but a closer look reveals that the book is the autobiography of Malcolm X – giving the statue a deeper meaning give.
“[This book] is one of the best examples of written stories of just one man changing,” he said.
During the Jan. 20 meeting, all three artists asked attendees what the Austin community is like, what they would like to see on the Chicago Avenue corridor and what the Soul City Corridor concept means to the community. They all said that, if selected, they would conduct community engagement workshops.
Activist Aisha Oliver encouraged the artists to reach out to local youth.
“Make an effort to connect with the untapped potential of the youth who are not connected to organizations, parks, schools or churches,” she said. “They also deserve to be heard.”
Crawford said the turnout at the Jan. 20 meeting bodes well for the project.
“Just the number of people on this call shows how important this is to our community,” he said. “I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart.”