CHATHAM — A new dining, music, play and art venue opened on the South Side Friday, reviving a long-vacant corner and honoring an iconic gospel singer whose work helped transform a nation.
Mahalia Jackson Court, an 8,500-square-foot public plaza named after the famous singer and civil rights activist, has opened at 1 E. 79th St., offering daily food trucks, music, art curated by South Shore artist Dorian Sylvain, and a natural play environment for children.
Neighbors can also tour an exhibit hall dedicated to 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 plaza on land owned by Carter Temple CME Church. The South Side neighborhood group and church leaders collaborated for months to bring the plaza to fruition, they said. The south side organization also received a $10,000 grant from People’s Gas.
A $50,000 grant from the Department of Culture and Special Events will help local artist Gerald Griffin build a 15-foot bronze statue of Jackson as she sings to the heavens. Neighbors can see a smaller bronze sample of the piece in the square.
It took a “dream team of black designers and artists” to bring Mahalia Jackson Court to Chatham, said Nedra Sims Fears, executive director of the Greater Chatham Initiative. But the community deserves space and more to continue to thrive, she said.
The second phase of the courtyard will include a cafe and entertainment facility with a stage where artists can perform, Fears said.
“It’s our job to provide our residents with amenities like other neighborhoods,” Furse said. “I hope they appreciate this place. When they want a food truck, they can come here, have three or four options, and have a good time. That is my intention.
Originally from New Orleans, Jackson was among the 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 on the South and West Sides, 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 in the civil rights movement,” Fears previously said of the choice to name the square after Jackson. “Every day I passed her house on my way to school and she was both a goddess and a real person who lived in our community. Why shouldn’t I honor her?’
The smell of smoky ribs from the I-97 restaurant and tunes from the past and present wafted over the courtyard as local leaders, community organizations and neighbors gathered Friday afternoon to celebrate the grand opening. Neighbors also enjoyed a performance by the Carter Temple CME Choir.
For neighbors like Sandra Williams, a longtime resident and member of Carter Temple CME, the plaza will provide a safe place for seniors to gather for food and music after a day of church.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” Williams said. “It feels great to be able to cross the street and this area here. I think a space like this is useful for older people. People can get used to seeing these paintings and all. That’s encouraging.”
Jimmy Williams, co-founder of Urban Roots Inc., a black-owned landscaping business, got his biggest project to date thanks to the plaza.
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. Bright banners with Jackson’s face can now be found on street poles.
The area will empower black businesses and make 79th Street a place of culture and growth, Fears said.
“In my heart of hearts, I hope that all of our empty storefronts will be reoccupied by artists and ADA housing,” Furse said. “Instead of having vacant storefronts, they’re occupied and we’re bringing vibrancy back to 79th Street.”
The court is open 7am to 7pm, Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm on Saturdays and 12pm to 5pm on Sundays.
Neighbors can visit the plaza for “Saturday at The Mahalia Jackson Court,” a day of music, games, local pop-up vendors and food truck fare from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays through Oct. 9.
Mahalia Jackson Court is one of 12 spaces supported by the Public Outdoor Plaza program, an initiative that turns vacant lots into public amenities for neighbors. POPGrove, a vacant lot in Garfield Park, opened in August.
This summer, work will begin on 10 more public plazas supported by $500,000 in grants from the Chicago Regeneration Plan, including Roseland’s POP! Heights, a 22,000-square-foot outdoor recreation space.
Plazas like Mahalia Jackson Court “leave a positive, long-lasting and far-reaching impact on our entire city,” said Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
“We’re here today, once again changing the narrative of what life looks like on the South Side of Chicago; what it looks like in an unapologetically Black Chicago,” Lightfoot said. “Restoring this space is a great thing.”
Chatham Court is an example of “urban acupuncture,” said Maurice Cox, commissioner of the Department of Planning and Development.
“You find a stress point in the organ and you find a pinch point and you apply a targeted intervention right at that location,” Cox said. “It eases the pain and gets your mind thinking again about what’s possible.”
Over the next few years, Mahalia Jackson Court will offer a place for peace and community building, while Carter Temple CME provides funding to begin work on Gateway 79, a mixed-use residential and retail development.
The church was one of 11 winners in November of the city’s transit-oriented development pilot program, an initiative that supports development near transit stops in disinvested communities.
Church leader Rev. Joseph Gordon said the project received $15,000 to gather community feedback through social media, advertising and launching a design competition.
Over the next few years, Mahalia Jackson Court will be dismantled to make way for Gateway 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 in Gateway 79, but in our neighborhood as a whole,” Gordon said.
“Religious institutions should not just specialize in faith,” Gordon said. “We are meant to be community builders. It’s all about making sure we mobilize our communities to build and grow catalytic projects and community engagement.
I hope it’s a safe place for everyone and people have fun. When housing finally starts, we will keep the same energy.”
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