For years, Catherine Hollis and her daughter, Catelen, passed by the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Fair Housing Exhibit Center in North Lawndale. Nestled on the corner of 16th Street and South Hamlin Avenue, the center – which is a part of the Dr. King Legacy Apartments – is rather small. The brick building blends in with the others around it; big glass windows are covered with white blinds, hiding what’s inside.
“I’ve never been here,” said Catherine, as she sat on a fabric-covered bench inside the MLK Exhibit Center on June 8. Alongside her daughter and mother Anna Rembert, they were among many guests at the Art West Gallery Tour. The community museum was wrapped up in pieces and installments created by local artists, as well as photos of King, his work and his influence in Chicago.
As history tells it, King and his family once lived in a rundown apartment building at 1550 S. Hamlin Ave., right where the Legacy Apartments and Exhibit Center are now. He also came to Chicago to show the deplorable living conditions and poverty of African-Americans in the urban north and to display the segregation of housing in northern cities; 1550 S. Hamlin was the only place in the North where Dr. King ever lived.
“I’ve driven by many times, and I’ve always wanted to know what’s in our community,” said Catherine, a longtime resident of North Lawndale.
That’s a comment Alexie Young, director of the MLK Center, often hears, one that usually follows closely behind a perception about the West Side. Catherine and Young said that people forget about the West Side, and whenever it does come up, crime and violence always take the spotlight.
“The Art West Gallery Tours is going to challenge people to actually step in and activate this new wave of supporting arts and culture spaces, especially on the West Side,” said Young, an Austin native.
“A lot of times the city of Chicago, especially the West Side, gets a bad reputation, like negativity from the media, but there’s so many positive things that are in this neighborhood,” Catherine added. “And, this is one of them.”
Aside from the Exhibit Center, the free tour – which included complimentary shuttle service – also stopped at the Legendary Art Gallery on West Madison Street and 345 Art Gallery on North Kedzie Avenue. Each spot offered a different showcase of art and performers.
“Summertime in Chicago is a huge deal,” Young said, adding Art West was a step away from the city’s long list of festivals and family-friendly activities.
Inspired by the summer trolley tours in the Bronzeville Art District, Young wanted to bring a similar experience to the West Side.
Beyond that, she sought to cultivate a place where young adults like herself and her friends didn’t have to travel out of their neighborhood or past city limits just to eat, drink, dance or hang out. Art West was made for the millennials, for “the people who want to find something fun, and dope, and inspiring to be a part of,” Young said.
Young reached out to old friends like Apriel Campbell and Arriel Azadi Janae Williams, both of whom are also from North Lawndale. As creatives, the two shared Young’s mission and passion to create a safe space in their community and change the narrative of the West Side. They were mindful to keep events like these accessible and affordable for their target audience.
Through weeks of planning, networking, organizing and partnering with area nonprofits for sponsorship, they revealed a side of the West Side in a way they’ve always seen it. To them, this was home.
“All of us are really attached to the vision of mobilizing this community and really putting it on a map,” Williams said. “That’s what we always keep saying. We’re trying to put North Lawndale on the map, trying to expose people to what’s here and what can be here.”
“There’s a misconception that this place is not thriving and growing, but there are things happening all over North Lawndale at the moment. It’s just that folks aren’t tapped into it, and we’re trying to elevate the resources.”