Apr 23rd 2024

From West Side to South Side

Chicago’s motto, Urbs in Horto—City in a Garden, rings true, with hundreds of parks, trails, and open spaces dotting the city. For some, however, Chicago’s picturesque, landscaped boulevard system, created over a century ago to spur development along what was then the city’s perimeter, has become a barrier beneath its bright green facade.

Today, a majority of those historic streets are in disenfranchised neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West sides, and Illinois Institute of Technology College of Architecture Jeanne and John Rowe Fellow Rogelio Cadena has mixed feelings on their effects in the communities he grew up in, such as the Logan Square neighborhood.

“Not that long ago, Logan Square was a dangerous, violent place. The boulevard was a division or barrier between rival gangs,” Cadena says. “Now, with gentrification, the boulevards in Logan Square have become farmer’s markets and a benefit to the newest community members.”

As a Rowe fellow, Cadena is teaching at the college while pursuing a funded research project intended to advance the study of the built environment. “[Community research] allows us to address the boulevard system’s current underutilization, consider the city’s evolving socioeconomic and racial/color lines, and recommend an inclusive framework that connects and supports neighborhood and city constituents at both the macro and microscales of the city,” Cadena says.

Recreating a sense of community and comfort in conjunction with local stakeholders and organizations is key to turning the barriers into a blessing. “In discussions with activists, I realized the need to create a coalition of organizers along the boulevards. A coalition could look at a process-inclusionary framework, generate funding, and address the other needs to specific areas,” Cadena says.

Overflowing events and festivals can bring neighbors together by occasionally closing the roadways to vehicles. However, these events alone cannot reactivate the boulevard. Small, semi-permanent structures to shelter local sellers could be a first step to reactivating the boulevards outside of occasional events. Cadena is looking at other alternatives like food pantry structures and other projects that operate as community assets.

As a kickstarter to the research, Cadena is using much of his Rowe Fellow research funds to create events on the boulevard rather than an exhibition on his research. The upcoming event named Piñatas on the Boulevard, at the intersection of the Back of the Yards, Brighton Park, and Gage Park neighborhoods, is Cadena and the community’s local push for a revitalized boulevard.

While the fellowship ends in spring 2025, Cadena will continue his push to reinvigorate and energize the boulevards of Chicago. “I see this work in a 10-year timeline, so even after my time at IIT, I’ll still focus on neighborhoods along the boulevard system,” he says.