Chicago Avenue redesign in Austin will use art to represent neighborhood history and heritage


AUSTIN – Soul City Corridor in Austin is getting a makeover that will incorporate improvements to the streetscape as well as public art that will reflect Austin’s cultural heritage.

The Chicago Avenue Corridor Improvement Plan will reorganize all aspects of the route from Austin Boulevard to Cicero Avenue, including streets, bike paths, sidewalks, landscaping and crossings. Specific design improvements will be determined through resident feedback and may include carvings, tree plantings, curb extensions, post banners and widened sidewalks.

The initiative is led by the Chicago Department of Transportation as part of Mayor Invest South / West’s strategy to stimulate the economic revitalization of historically divested black and Latino neighborhoods.

The project builds on previous community-led planning efforts such as the Soul City Corridor Master Plan and Austin Quality of Life Plan. These earlier efforts identified specific needs that residents have asked the city to invest in to make Austin safe, walkable, and economically strong with an appearance that reflects the cultural identity of the people who live there.

“We are looking at different gateways and community identifiers….

There are currently five sections of the targeted corridor each of which has a different design, with some segments having wider or narrower streets and various types of pedestrian infrastructure. The redesign “will make it more consistent but really make it safer throughout the course of dealing with pedestrians and bicycles as well as the cars already circulating there,” Lechter said.

The narrowest part of the corridor between Menard and Central will have narrowed traffic lanes and parking spaces to slow down traffic and make more room on the sidewalk to activate foot traffic, shops and public space, said Lechter. The wider sidewalks will create more opportunities for businesses to host music and outdoor dining, Lechter said.

A section of Chicago Avenue between Leclair and Cicéron will have a cycle path protected from vehicular traffic by a row of trees to encourage cycling.

The road’s aesthetic upgrades have been eagerly awaited as a way to bolster Chicago Avenue’s Soul City Corridor rebranding as a hub of black culture in Chicago, residents said. The new hallway look can incorporate themes and colors that emphasize the neighborhood’s black history, said Corey Dooley, coordinator of the Austin African American Business Network Association.

“When I go to Chinatown and see that big gate, I know where I am… by certain design elements. For African-American culture, red, black and green are colors that… are linked to a Pan-African [identity]”Dooley said.

An Austin-based arts organization, alt_, is working with the city to design walkway sculptures along Chicago Avenue based on feedback provided by residents during a series of community workshops. Early designs for the project incorporated cultural symbols like the acacia, native to the African savannah, said Jordan Campbell, co-founder of alt_.

“It is one of the trees that produces many seeds. We thought about… how it represents Austin, how it represents the migration of siblings settling in Chicago, ”said Campbell.

alt_ co-founders Jon Veal (left) and Jordan Campbell (right).

The bridges designed by alt_ will also reflect how the united people of the West Side are due to the shared history and roots of many families in the South, said co-founder Jon Veal.

“Our business is so interconnected. And so for us, we think of our family tree, like how we’re all connected within that tree, ”Veal said.

The West Side has become home to many black families who fled the South during the Jim Crow era during the Great Migration, and residents want that story to be incorporated into the overhaul.

“My parents were also born and raised on the West Side. It reminds me of the Great Migration and the imprint the West Side made on the city of Chicago. I think it’s an important part of the history and history of the West Side, ”said resident Jackie Williams.

The public art will also make reference to the Ojibwe, Odawa, Potawatomi and Miami nations indigenous to the land before it was colonized, Campbell said.

“A lot of times there’s this huge erasure of these types of stories. And we want these things to be really front and center, ”Campbell said. “We are looking, for example, on how can we create something that draws on the past but also looks to the future.”

Residents also asked artists to create visual references to West African music and the West Side’s contributions to Chicago’s musical history. Sidewalk planters could be designed to resemble African drums, like the djembe, said Malcolm Crawford, executive director of the Austin African American Business Network Association.

Gateways and street banners could also honor music and dance subcultures like Chicago blues, stepping, bopping, and hip hop. Rap artists like Twista and Da Brat hail from the West Side, and their heritage may serve as a reminder that Austin residents can aspire to greatness, said Keli Stewart, founder of the Front Porch Art Center.

“The West Side culture really developed and added to the rap and hip hop culture,” said Stewart. “It would be great to call on the greats who have come from this space and who really need to be celebrated.”

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