A train of honking cars passes under the viaduct at 67th and Dorchester. Some drivers slow down. Some holler out of their windows. Some park, get out, and pick up a paintbrush.
This past weekend, the residents of Woodlawn began work on a public beautification project—a community mural entitled “Woodlawn Works” that will adorn the three walls of the railroad underpasses on 66th and 67th streets. This celebration of local labor history, now two years in the making, is a collaborative effort between the Woodlawn Residents Association and the Chicago Public Art Group.
“It’s an artistic counter-argument to the Chiraq stigma,” said Rahmaan “Statik” Barnes, a muralist of 18 years born in Woodlawn.
Statik is spearheading this project under the community’s direction along with professional Chicago artists Damon Reed, Max Sansing, and Bernard Williams. Together, these artists aim to develop an inspiring mural that reflects the desires of the Woodlawn community: to reiterate cultural identity, improve community self-esteem, and emphasize the importance of education.
The “Woodlawn Works” project got its start back in 2013 when the Woodlawn Residents Association received an allocation of $250,000 from the Ward’s participatory budget and chose to invest the money in improving the lighting and sidewalks under the viaducts in an effort to ensure that the Metra stations remain open. Members of the Woodlawn Resident’s Association, nicknamed the “Block Club,” spent the next year and a half planning the final mural component and sifting through layers of bureaucracy, meeting every quarter in the basement of Christ the King Catholic Church on 64th and Woodlawn.
“It’s one big social experiment,” said Woodlawn resident Dawanda Asberry, “You never know what a little bit of color will do under a dark, yucky viaduct.”
Asberry and her husband Kenneth have been actively involved in this project from the get-go. Originally from Andersonville, the Asberrys have lived in Woodlawn for the past ten years and are regulars at Block Club meetings.
“Reality is, the South Side is challenged,” Dawand said, “Unfortunately, the media doesn’t really help. There’s no shooting right now, right? But that’s what you see. That’s what you hear. It creates a false sense of depression and cloud over the community that’s not necessarily true.”
While a single mural may not dissipate the cloud overnight, the colors, patterns, and images taking shape on the concrete are a welcome change. Already, viewers can see references to Adinkra symbols—vibrant, geometric West African tribal designs embodying particular proverbs. The artists also plan to integrate visual allusions to the Dutch settlers of Woodlawn and pay tribute to deceased black soldiers, many of whom are buried in Oak Woods Cemetery, located across from the viaduct. Towards the end of the painting process, the artists even hope to paint on some URL addresses, adding an interactive element to the seemingly static scene.
In an effort to incorporate younger community members’ ideas into these designs, the Woodlawn Residents Association reached out to Hyde Park Academy, a high school on 62nd Street. Artists visited the school at the end of last year and asked students what they wanted to see on the murals. The students provided many sketches—mostly abstract works—that will be featured on the westernmost panel of the southern wall.
Students have been participating in this project far beyond the planning stage. Residents and even a handful of University of Chicago students stopped by the viaducts this past weekend to help paint for an hour or two, filling in design outlines with blocks of color. With continued support from the community, the Woodlawn Resident’s Association predicts that the mural will be complete within a month, weather willing.
Kenneth Asberry reflected on what the completion of this project might mean for Woodlawn: “There are plenty of parts of Woodlawn where you can walk around and nobody’s trying to kill you. You know the South Side goes to 160th, so if you say something’s on the South Side, what does that mean? For us, that’s the difference: we’re creating some light. That’s the best thing to do—start small and create some light. Start with the viaducts, start with the murals, fix the lights, and let people know that you can actually get something done.”
The historic Christ the King Catholic Church—the one where the Block Club held their “Woodlawn Works” planning meetings for over a year—went up in flames three weeks ago. While the church, which was already undergoing a renovation process following a previous fire, is severely damaged, the work that began in its basement has emerged just two blocks south. Here, visions of hope, history, and strength now grace the dark underbelly of the steel rails.