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Catalyzing Change Through Empty Lots on Chicago’s South Side

In Englewood, vacant lots have become beacons of opportunities. An opportunity that isn’t without difficulty and hardship. An opportunity that requires determination, vision and, most importantly, collaboration.

Since 2016, Englewood residents have been able to purchase vacant City of Chicago owned lots for a single dollar through the Large Lots Program - with just two requirements: they must already own property on the block and submit an outline of their plans to repurpose the space. To date, more than 500 lots have been sold city-wide, with an additional 900 expected to close before the end of 2017. However, renovating the spaces is not always easy.

LISC Chicago, in collaboration with Teamwork Englewood, has provided targeted grants to help some of the Englewood lot owners realize their visions. In addition to multiple small grants, with support from the Kresge Foundation, LISC invested in two catalytic projects that demonstrate the potential of engaging artists and empowering lot owners to reactivate vacant space. These owners received larger grants of $15,000 each and, teamed with local artists, put in significant labor and financial resources themselves.

Mekazin Alexander and Tina Hammond were the recipients of the catalyst grants. They shared a vision of not only revitalizing their block, but inspiring a future generation to take pride in their spaces. The following photo essay follows them through their renovation process.


Tina Hammond stands in front of her lot at 6832 S. Paulina St in Englewood. There are several vacant lots on her block, but this was the only one available for purchase. “If I could, I’d buy all the lots on the block,” she said. “When we moved in 15 years ago, the block didn’t look like this. We deserve better than what we’re getting. As a community, we deserve more than just a bunch of vacant lots.”

Photos by Annie Grossinger


Tina’s vision for the lot is simple: She wants a space for the community to congregate. In addition to beautifying the lot, complete with a vegetable garden and flower beds, she and her husband, Alvin Sr., planned to create an event space. “We don’t have youth centers or places for the kids to go," she said. "This will be that place.”


Tina and Alvin Sr. took care of 6832 S. Paulina long before they were the owners. They picked up trash and made sure it looked presentable. “This is our community. If we don’t take care of where we live, how can we expect other people to care? I’ve never felt like, ‘this is not my building so I don’t have to clean it up’. My house is a reflection of your house and vise-versa.”


Mekazin Alexander purchased a 5,500-square-foot lot in the middle of two vacant lots on South Perry Street. She had taken an urban landscaping program and saw the lot as an opportunity to implement her new knowledge. Her vision was an ambitious mix of permaculture, urban agriculture, an event space, and a meditative pond.


Early on, Mekazin realized the biggest hurdle to her success would be trying to develop and maintain the lot as an individual owner. After securing the larger catalyst grant, she constructed a team: a horticulturist, an artist, several community volunteers and permaculture-enthusiasts, and her eager family. “If we hadn’t pushed for money and help, we’d be moving at turtle speed," she said. "This doesn’t happen overnight.”


Mekazin’s daughter plays in the soon-to-be fire pit. On her block, the reaction to her work was immediate: “Right after we cut down the big trees, two women and a guy I’d never met came by. They thanked me and said, ‘we feared for our safety every time we had to cross.’ They would walk in the street.” With the smaller grants, costs to remove the trees would have depleted nearly all her funds.


Mekazin’s plan to incorporate permaculture adds an innovative and cutting-edge approach to her lot. Permaculture is a scientific and artistic method for designing land to not only self-sustain, but actively regenerate biodiversity and natural resources. It’s founded on the premise that by mimicking nature’s principles, one can create healthy, long-term habitats.


During the school term, Mekazin intends to engage students at Johnson College Prep – allowing them to use her lot for urban agriculture in return for some basic maintenance. “The only thing I want in return is for the lot to maintain food so we can feed people on the block and those that participate.” Eventually, she wants to incorporate an outdoor kitchen so she can use the vegetable garden to demonstrate healthy cooking.


Alvin Sr. installs the fence at 6832 S. Paulina. Alvin Sr.’s mother is from Mississippi and always had a garden. When it came time to plan their lot, they wanted the families on their block to enjoy the same thing.


Alvin Sr. lays down the path to the event stage, where Tina hopes to hold dances. “You’ve never seen a person dancing not be happy,” she said.


Alvin Sr. and Tina make sure to work on the lot nearly every single day. “What we do with our lot will inspire people with other lots here. We’re looking to show them, not just tell them,” Tina said.


Tina runs a daycare called Tina’s Treasures from her home. She hopes the kids in her care will be able to enjoy the space as well.


By late August, Mekazin’s lot had flowers, eight fruit trees, the shell of a fire pit and stage, and the makings of the meditative pond. Planting has been relatively easy, but clearing the land proved to be more difficult than she anticipated. There were large trees, mountains of garbage, downed tree branches and stumps – some of which she incorporated into her design – and a concentration of weeds. But Mekazin remained undeterred. She had a vision, which she intended to create: “I’m truly a dreamer.”


Mekazin’s daughter and nephew assist with building the stage, which they hope to utilize in performances and block parties. The stage, which Tina’s lot features as well, is a common theme amongst many of the lot owners’ visions. It’s not an example of unoriginality, but one of need. There aren’t safe places for community members to congregate, so lot owners like Mekazin and Tina are set on creating them.


Alvin Sr. and Tina stand with Alderman David Moore at the unveiling of their finished lot on Saturday, August 26, 2017. The mural was painted in collaboration with local artists Pugs Atomz and Damon Reed.


Tina serves food to neighbors and friends at the grand opening of their lot.


“I’m not ashamed of where I live; I’m proud of it,” Tina said at the beginning of her and Alvin Sr.’s journey. Now her neighbors and friends can enjoy the success of their efforts.


Mekazin welcomes her neighbors and friends to the grand unveiling of her lot on Sunday, October 1, 2017.

Photos by Taryn Roch


Friends enjoy the Mediation Pond in Mekazin’s lot. The bench was created by local artist Dorian Smith Jones.


The metal sculpture that welcomes you to the lot was created by a local artist, Alice Jones.


 

Mekazin’s completed lot sits between two vacant ones that she hopes to eventually renovate as well. Though her lot has officially been unveiled, she still has plans to optimize the space to include more offerings for the community. But for now, she can enjoy the planted fruits of her labor.

Annie Grossinger

Posted in Placemaking, Englewood

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