CHATHAM – A new opportunity to dine, listen to music, play and bask in the arts opened on the South Side on Friday, revitalizing a long-vacant corner and honoring an iconic gospel singer whose work contributed to transform a nation.
Mahalia Jackson Court, an 8,500 square foot public square named after the famous singer and civil rights activist, opened at 1 E. 79th St., offering daily food trucks, music, curated art by South Shore artist Dorian Sylvain and a natural playscape for children.
Neighbors can also visit an exhibit hall commemorating Jackson in a brightly painted purple container.
The Greater Chatham Initiative received $500,000 in April from the city’s Department of Planning and Development to build the square on land owned by the Carter Temple CME Church. The South Side neighborhood group and church leaders worked together for months to complete the square, they said. The South Side organization also received a $10,000 grant from People’s Gas.
A $50,000 grant from the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events will help local artist Gerald Griffin build a 15-foot bronze statue dedicated to Jackson as she sings to the heavens. Neighbors can see a smaller bronze sample of the piece in the plaza.
It took a “dream team of black designers and artists” to bring the Mahalia Jackson Court to Chatham, said Nedra Sims Fears, executive director of the Greater Chatham Initiative. But the community deserves the space and more to continue to thrive, she said.
Phase two of the land will include a cafe and an entertainment center with a stage where artists can perform, Fears said.
“It’s our job to give our residents amenities like other neighborhoods,” Fears said. “I hope they enjoy having this place. When they want a food truck, they can come here, have three or four options, and have a great time. This is my intention.
Originally from New Orleans, Jackson was among thousands of black people who moved to Chicago during the Great Migration. She came to Chicago in 1927 when she was 16 and lived in various places while singing in churches both south and west, according to South Side Weekly.
She settled in Chatham, then a predominantly white area, after buying a large brick ranch house at 8358 S. Indiana Ave. in 1956. She moved to Hyde Park in 1970 and died two years later.
“She was a successful businesswoman, a pioneer of gospel music, and an instrument of the civil rights movement,” Fears previously said of the choice to name the spot for Jackson. “I used to walk past her house to school every day, and she was both a goddess and a real person who lived in our community. Why not honor her?
The smell of smoked ribs from the I-97 restaurant and tunes from past and present wafted across the grounds as local leaders, community organizations and neighbors gathered Friday afternoon to celebrate the opening. Neighbors also enjoyed a performance by the Carter Temple CME Choir.
For neighbors like longtime resident and Carter Temple CME church member Sandra Williams, the plaza will provide a safe space for seniors to gather to eat and listen to music after a day at church.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” Williams said. “It’s great to be able to cross the street and this neighborhood here. I think a space like this is helpful for older people. People can get used to seeing these paintings and stuff. It’s encouraging. ”
Jimmie Williams, co-founder of Urban Roots Inc., a black-owned landscaping company, received his biggest project yet thanks to the square.
The plaza is the first step in the Greater Chatham Initiative’s plan to create the Mahalia Jackson Cultural District along 79th Street, Fears said. Lighted banners with Jackson’s face can already be found on street poles.
The neighborhood will empower black businesses and transform 79th Street into a place of culture and growth, Fears said.
“From the bottom of my heart, I hope all of our vacant storefronts will be reoccupied with artists and ADA residential housing,” Fears said. “Instead of having vacant storefronts, they’re occupied and we’re bringing back the vibrancy of 79th Street.”
The field is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday to Friday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday.
Neighbors can visit the plaza for “Saturdays at the Mahalia Jackson Court,” a day of music, games, local pop-up vendors, and meals from the food truck court from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday through October 9 .
The Mahalia Jackson Court is one of 12 spaces supported by the Public Outdoor Plaza program, an initiative that turns vacant land into public amenities for neighbors. POPGrove, a spot on vacant land in Garfield Park, opened in August.
Work will begin this summer on 10 additional public plazas supported by $500,000 grants from the Chicago Stimulus Plan, including POP! Heights, a 22,000 square foot outdoor recreational space.
Places like Mahalia Jackson Court “leave a far-reaching, positive, lasting impact on our entire city,” said Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
“We are now here today to once again change the narrative of what life is like in South Chicago; what it looks like shamelessly in Black Chicago,” Lightfoot said. “Reclaiming this space is a great thing.”
Chatham Court is an example of ‘urban acupuncture’, said Department of Planning and Development Commissioner Maurice Cox.
“You find a stress point in the organ, and you find a pinch point, and you put targeted intervention right there,” Cox said. “It eases the pain and it makes your mind rethink what’s possible.”
Over the next few years, Mahalia Jackson Court will provide a place for peace and community building as Carter Temple CME secures funding to begin work on Gateway 79, a mixed-use complex with housing and retail.
The church was one of 11 winners in November of the city’s Fair Transit Development Pilot Program, an initiative that supports developments near transit stations in disinvested communities.
Church leader Reverend Joseph Gordon said the project received $15,000 to gather community feedback via social media, advertise and launch a design competition.
Over the next few years, Mahalia Jackson Court will be dismantled to make way for Walkway 79, Gordon said. Some of the pieces will go with the church while others will go with the Chatham neighborhood group, Gordon said.
In the meantime, the church will use the plaza to engage with the community and see what the community wants “not just at the 79 walkway, but in our neighborhood in general,” Gordon said.
“Religious institutions don’t have to just specialize in faith,” Gordon said. “We are supposed to be community builders. It is about ensuring that we mobilize our communities to build and develop catalytic projects and engagement with the community.
I hope it’s a safe space for everyone and people have fun. When the housing development is finally complete, we will keep the same energy.
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