In June a wall went up between a park in southwest Evanston and the Skokie Swift tracks, built and whitewashed by a group of neighbors who planned to paint a mural on it. For three weeks while they completed their preparations, the eight-foot-high, 350-foot-long wall stood bare, challenging taggers to defile it with their spray paint.
“That white wall didn’t draw a mark–not one–and we are very proud of that,” says Karen Chavers, executive director of the Evanston Neighborhood Conference, a community group working with the residents. “It shows that we worked hard to make everyone, including teenagers, especially teenagers, part of the process.”
The wall, now brightly and beautifully painted, is only the latest undertaking by this group of residents: they’ve also organized a summer youth program in the area and rebuilt the run-down park that the mural now inhabits. All of these accomplishments were spurred by a neighborhood tragedy: the death of 13-year-old Marchelle Gibbs, who was shot the night of May 9, 1992, while standing on the sidewalk not far from her home.
“That child’s sad and tragic loss was a life given so that a community could live again,” says Frances Glass-Newman, president of the Evanston Neighborhood Conference. “It took that loss of life to bring people together and make them realize that we all are victims of fear and we have to do something about it.”
The mural is located in a small, unnamed park at Clyde Avenue and Brummel Street, two blocks north of Howard Street. The surrounding working-class community of walk-up apartment buildings, cut off by the train tracks from wealthier areas to the east, is one of the most racially diverse neighborhoods in the Chicago area. According to recent census figures, its residents include refugees and immigrants from the Caribbean, Central America, Europe, and Asia, as well as native-born African Americans, Jews, and Hispanics–many of whom moved there from Rogers Park, Uptown, Edgewater, and other far-north-side neighborhoods.
“The aura of Evanston is still very strong,” says Sherrill Frost-Brown, a former Rogers Parker. “It seems a little greener, a littler nicer, a little safer than Chicago. And the schools are definitely a plus.”
The stability of this little section of Evanston, however, is undercut by the transience of its residents, who are almost all renters. That makes it difficult for block clubs, church groups, or any kind of stabilizing grass-roots organizations to take hold. In the past, neighbors often didn’t know one another by name or even recognize each other as they passed on the street. Not surprisingly, without a singular voice speaking out, it was an easy community for Evanston city officials to overlook when it came to providing services.
But after the murder of Marchelle Gibbs, residents asked the Evanston Neighborhood Conference, which had been active in nearby areas, for help. “Marchelle was killed on the Saturday before Mother’s Day, and we were called in by local residents the next day,” says Chavers. “There was a lot of fear, a lot of baseless rumors, a lot of splitting along racial lines. Channels Two, Five, and Nine had their trucks out and they were being very divisive, running around holding microphones in the faces of kids, saying, ‘Are you in a gang, are you in a gang?’ We have a motto: ‘You tell your story or it gets told for you.’ And the story being told that day was not a nice one.”
Chavers helped organize a community meeting for the following Tuesday. It was attended by Evanston’s city manager, its former police chief, and over 100 residents. “It was intense,” she says. “We wanted everyone to speak, just to get things off their chest. One guy got up and said, ‘Everyone–go get an Uzi machine gun to defend yourself, ’cause that’s what the world’s coming to.’ We let people vent and then we offered them a choice: either wallow in fear and frustration or work to develop strategies for change.”
In the days following the meeting, Chavers, Glass-Newman, and other activists, including Isabel Oviedo, president of the Evanston Latinamerican Association, went door to door encouraging residents to attend a follow-up meeting at the Oakton School. The nearly 150 residents who attended decided to set up a summer recreation program for kids. The city provided the money for counselors, and throughout the summer of 1992 there were arts and crafts, sports, and music activities in local parks every day from ten to six. “Those summer programs were a great success,” says Chavers. “But we didn’t want it to end there.”
At a series of meetings held over the fall and winter they set their sights on renovating the park at Clyde and Brummel. “The city committed $45,000 to do the first phase of renovation, which meant updating play equipment and installing new lights,” says Chavers. “But the residents designed the project. We took tours of other renovated parks to see what they had done. We had discussions about what kinds of swings and slides we should have. We had kids show up to fight to keep the basketball court and the merry-go-round, which we did.”
The idea for the mural emerged from a discussion over what to do about the rickety old chain-link fence that ran between the park and the Skokie Swift tracks. “That fence couldn’t keep kids out of the railroad tracks,” says Glass-Newman. “Kids were always slipping through its holes to retrieve balls. Plus it was ugly.”
The residents decided to replace the fence with a cheaper wooden one and to decorate it with a mural. They wrote a proposal for funding that got them $18,000 from the city. They interviewed several artists before selecting Kiela Songhay Smith, who works for the Chicago Public Art Group, which specializes in public murals. Ironically, Songhay Smith, a lifelong Chicagoan, has traveled all over the world but has never really visited Evanston. “When I thought about Evanston, I guess I had the typical city kid’s image of a suburb, but I discovered it was a lot different than I expected,” says Songhay Smith. “I came to love its diversity.”
Songhay Smith led residents through a series of workshops, encouraging them to sketch themes and images that they wanted the mural to represent. “The mural had to tell not just your story or my story, but the whole neighborhood’s story,” says Glass-Newman. “It had to be about what makes us unique and what we have in common. It had to be about our fears and dreams. Those discussions were a very intoxicating and enriching experience.”
But it wasn’t easy at first. “We didn’t have any trouble getting the little kids involved, but the older kids didn’t seem to like us coming around,” says Chavers. “There was one teenager, maybe 16 years old, and I asked if he would help me move a bench. He said: ‘You gonna pay me?’ It was a typical teenage thing: he kind of mumbled it and there was no eye contact. I said, ‘Does your mother pay you to help her?’ He didn’t say anything, but a few days later, after we had started painting the mural, he comes up and says, ‘This thing ain’t got nothin’ about us.’ He wanted us to put up something about the basketball court. I told him, ‘You have to participate if you want to have a say.’ He wound up washing the brushes, and we put a basketball scene in there. I see him all the time now. It is, after all, his park. I still don’t get any eye contact, but he grunts a hello. Hey, I’m not picky. I’ll take what I can get.”
Roughly 120 people volunteered to help paint. “I wanted a very colorful mural, because color generates warmth,” says Songhay Smith. “I ordered 26 paint colors, and then we created about 75 different shades by mixing.” The unifying image is a ribbon running from one end to the other, on which are painted flags from 26 countries. At one end of the mural is the “dream sequence,” which pictures white birds in flight; at the other end are several harrowing images related to violence and drug and alcohol abuse. In between are images of nature–trees, birds–as well as men, women, and children of diverse races and ethnicities doing everything from reading to jumping rope. One instantly recognizable face is that of reggae legend Bob Marley.
“The Jamaicans in the community kept telling me, ‘You gotta put Bob up there, man–put up smilin’ Bob,'” says Songhay Smith. “The flags represent all the different cultures of the people who live here; that was very important. ‘People without knowledge of their past culture are like a tree that has no roots.’ That’s a quote from Marcus Garvey. The dream sequence illustrated hopes for peace. We talked a long time about the part that deals with drugs and death, and the residents decided that they wanted it because it is a reality. But they wanted it smaller in relation to the rest of the mural so it wouldn’t be glorified.”
The residents are hoping to have the dedication ceremony sometime in the spring; they plan to discuss a name for the park around October 16, when the ENC holds its fifth annual citywide conference (for more information call 708-475-0858). “This is a major achievement for the neighborhood–a great source of pride,” says Chavers. “Other communities can learn from what we have done.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc Pokempner.