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North Lawndale’s MLK Dream Goes on Display

His legacy lives … and not just through the things on display.

Skilled tradesmen Johnie and Paul Blakely at work on the King exhibit.

John McCarron

It lives in the work of skilled African-American tradesmen, like Johnie and Paul Blakely, who helped build the new Fair Housing Exhibit Center in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood.

It lives through the award-winning African-American designer, Vernon Lockhart, whose firm helped design the exhibition space at 16th and Hamlin. 

It lives through the nationally-renowned Afro-Indian muralist, Paul Collins, who painted the image of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that is the exhibit’s centerpiece.

And in a wider sense, Dr. King’s legacy lives through the organizers and resident-leaders of the Lawndale Christian Development Corporation, who labor daily to keep alive Dr. King’s dream in one of the toughest corners of a tough city.

“The focus of the exhibit,” explained Kim Jackson, LCDC’s executive director, “is sharing the story of why Dr. King came to North Lawndale; why his stay here was so significant; what happened during the time he was here and what happened after he left.”

The MLK Fair Housing Exhibit Center, which opens to the public with a ribbon-cutting at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 26, is also the newest addition to the MLK Memorial District. It’s a multi-block zone conceived in 2005 as part of a neighborhood quality-of-life planning process supported by LISC Chicago and its New Communities Program.

“Part of the planning done by our local partners is to recognize and honor historic moments from the past,” said Susana Vasquez, executive director of LISC Chicago. “It’s always a source of pride, but here in North Lawndale that history has the potential to be an economic engine.” 

Historic sojourn

Most Americans know about Dr. King’s 1963 March on Washington and his tragic 1968 assassination in Memphis. Fewer remember his 1966 Chicago Freedom Campaign when  the King family took up residence for six months in a rundown apartment building at 1550 S. Hamlin Ave. 

Kim Jackson, LCDC’s executive director, “is sharing the story of why Dr. King came to North Lawndale."

John McCarron

“We now have the choice of living anywhere we want to live based on what Dr. King did when he came here in 1966,” said Lawndale Christian’s Jackson. But if the impact was national, LCDC is using the history to drive a very LISC-style, place-based community redevelopment.

“This is one way we’re revitalizing the community,” she said, “by giving it a national presence, by putting it in the national spotlight. Once that happens, it takes off from there.”

Early inspiration for the MLK Memorial District came from Andrew Mooney, former executive director of LISC Chicago, now commissioner of the city’s Department of Planning and Development. While still at LISC he encouraged Jackson and a grassroots task force of community residents to tour redevelopment efforts tied to black heritage districts in Kansas City and New York City.

It was, said Jackson, “as if a light came on.” 

More to come

The anchor of the still-evolving North Lawndale district is the Dr. King Legacy Apartments. It’s an affordable housing complex built by LCDC and its partners on the exact location of the long-gone slum building where Dr. King and family lived in a cramped third-floor tenement.

The Dr. King Legacy Apartments are built on the exact location of the long-gone slum building where Dr. King and family lived in a cramped third-floor tenement.

Gordon Walek

Dedicated in April of 2011, the $18 million, 45-apartment complex also features commercial spaces along its 16th Street frontage, including the new home of the Fair Housing Exhibit Center. Another space will soon house Roots Café, a combo job-training and healthy-eating effort. Next door, the St. Anthony Wellness Center provides affordable health care to low-income residents on a sliding scale.  

LCDC is still taking Mooney’s advice to “think big.” Still planned for the district are a public park and city branch library, an upgraded William Penn Elementary School and a community center focusing on skills development in technology and the arts. And there will be landscaping and signage to tie the district together, beginning with the Peace Path horticultural project newly installed across 16th Street from the MLK Legacy Apartments.

This winter the buzz centers on the opening of the MLK Fair Housing Exhibit Center, which pulls together photos, memorabilia, news accounts and personal remembrances of Dr. King’s 1966 stay.

Project coordinator Todd Wolcott said the mini-museum will focus especially on the Great Migration and its relation to Chicago and North Lawndale; conditions that brought Dr. King to Chicago; historic redlining by lenders and insurers of minority neighborhoods; and the Contract Buyers League formed to protect the rights of black homebuyers.

On display will be a bounty of photos and recordings of the King family’s sojourn in North Lawndale, including chats with neighbors, his speech at Soldier Field, ugly encounters with white racists in Marquette and Gage Parks, and the “Summit Agreement” on fair housing reached with the late Mayor Richard J. Daley.

Funding for the exhibit center is being provided by Citibank, The Private Bank, Associated Fire Fighters of Illinois and numerous friends of LCDC who donated both money and memorabilia.

Likely the exhibit’s centerpiece will be the 10-by-7-foot double-panel mural by Michigan-based muralist Paul Collins, titled "I Have a Dream - End Slums."

“Martin’s dream is moving forward” in Lawndale, declared the artist on completing the work. At the request of Dr. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, Collins also designed the MLK Peace Prize Medal. But he regards as special his North Lawndale contribution. “It shows,” he said of the overall exhibit, “what we can accomplish when we put our hate aside, draw down our guns and realize it is not about color, it is about injustice and justice.”

Record of success

The January 26 ribbon-cutting is a welcome pick-me-up for Lawndale Christian, which has had some recent setbacks. Last year a storm blew away part of the roof over their Ogden Avenue headquarters, forcing senior staff to decamp to temporary spaces at 1859 S. Pulaski Rd.

Yet LCDC remains one of the most active and successful local affiliates of the LISC NCP Neighborhood Network, with more than 300 affordable dwelling units developed and/or under management. Their Jubilee Family Resource Center cares for more than 200 children and employs 50 adults. A 30-computer Neighborhood Technology Resource Center provides an after-school oasis for students and an IT training and job search platform for adults. And its partnership with the North Lawndale Employment Network (NLEN) has produced one of the stronger links in LISC Chicago’s chain of wealth-building Centers for Working Families.

At a Jan. 20 preview reception for the exhibit, longtime West Side Congressman Danny K. Davis (D-IL) saluted the organization, saying LCDC “has been, and continues to be, one of the most effective organizations of its kind in the United States of America.”  

Site of the Dr. King Legacy Apartments in 2006 when it was a vacant lot used as a neighborhood football field.

Eric Young Smith

Little wonder that LCDC was recently chosen by LISC Chicago, along with South Chicago, to pilot its Neighborhood Safety Initiative. It’s an intensive, research-informed effort to develop trust and coordination among police, residents and local faith-based and nonprofit stakeholders. LCDC also was one of seven LISC partners chosen to participate in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s “Get in Chicago” program of youth activities aimed at preventing violence.

To be sure, much remains to be done in a neighborhood where 38 percent of families live at or below poverty level. Homicides are rare, but the area’s stubbornly high incidence of robberies and other violent crimes ranks third worst in the city. Jobs remain scarce and the escapist lures of alcohol or narcotics lurk around too many corners.

Yet here also, at 16th and Hamlin, a different story is unfolding. Here are skilled craftsmen – African-American craftsmen – laying tile, taping drywall and placing finishing touches on a mini-museum to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  Here are artists, designers and community organizers dedicated to the proposition that Dr. King’s dream of peace and justice has the power to reinvigorate an entire neighborhood.

Who’s to say his dream cannot come true?  Who indeed … when in so many respects it already has.

More information: Tracie Worthy, Lawndale Christian Development Corp., tworthy@LCDC.net, 773-762-8889; or Dominique Williams, LISC Chicago, DWilliams@LISC.org, 312-422-9571.

Posted in North Lawndale

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