Metropolis

It’s Hard to Make America More Fun When There Are So Many Guns

A girl paints at a table on the 75th Street boardwalk in Chicago.
Better than a parking space. Greater Chatham Initative

On June 7, the MacArthur Foundation bestowed its “Creative Placemaking” award to the 75th Street Boardwalk, a project on Chicago’s South Side. Even in a year of constant improvisation, this project stood out: Its lime-green promenade, replete with picnic tables and play areas, was built from the plywood that boarded up the city’s storefronts during the unrest that followed the murder of George Floyd. From the material that defined the city at its most tense and guarded moment, when the drawbridges were lifted over the Chicago River like a medieval moat, had come an architectural invitation. At the heart of the city’s Black South Side, the symbol of that painful summer had been built into a place for people to gather.

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Five days later, with the Chicago Police Department warding off traffic as hundreds of Black Chicagoans partied along the street after dark, a pair of gunmen opened fire, wounding nine and killing a 29-year-old mom, Kimfier Miles.

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“The success of the boardwalk was a siren’s call,” Nedra Sims Fears told me. Fears is the director of the Greater Chatham Initiative, the local group that took the lead on redesigning the street. Small afternoon block festivals had evolved into thousand-strong impromptu pop-up parties organized on social media. Now, she says, she is hearing a depressing message from some neighbors: “People are coming to the boardwalk, so we need to take the boardwalk down.”

In some ways, what happened on 75th Street tells a larger story. The past year has provoked a sea change in American public space, and not just in physical terms. Social norms also changed, as police relaxed their supervision of outdoor hangouts. Open container citations dropped; public pot smoking became commonplace; fireworks were launched in such numbers that neighbors suspected a CIA psy-op. At various points, the line between outdoor dining and full-fledged street party blurred.

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None of that happened evenly: Gatherings of Black Americans, whether in protest or in revelry, have still been met with aggressive policing. Several festive Black gatherings over the past year have been met by militarized cops, notably this March in Miami Beach, when police used pepper balls to disperse spring breakers. The dynamic was also in play in New York’s Washington Square Park this month, where police have aggressively chased away crowds that are conspicuously younger and more diverse than the park’s wealthy surroundings.

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In Chicago, it’s not just that 75th Street is exceptionally lively in contrast to nearby struggling commercial strips. Its vitality is the flipside of larger retail flight on the city’s South Side, which tens of thousands of Black residents have left for the suburbs and the South in the past few decades. The businesses on 75th Street don’t just draw from the neighboring blocks, as they did during the area’s heyday in the 1960s and ’70s, but from neighborhoods much further afield. Black (and some white) families come from miles around for delicacies like Lem’s Barbecue and Brown Sugar Bakery. They are regional attractions.

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Tables and chairs on the 75th Street Boardwalk in Chicago.
Better than a parking space. Greater Chatham Initiative
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Last summer, in an effort to help the strip recover from the lockdowns, Chicago City Planning Commissioner Maurice Cox coordinated an effort to make 75th Street a more fun place to hang out. This was a good fit: Cox came to Chicago from Detroit with a mandate from Mayor Lori Lightfoot to enhance public space and encourage investment on the city’s South and West Sides. When I spoke to him last summer for a story, he said the goal was for “people gathering to do outdoor activities to have a safe space on the street to signal to everyone, ‘Hey Chicago, we’re back open.’”

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It worked. The phalanx of parklets, with their chairs and windowbox plants, turned a fast-moving thoroughfare into a neighborhood social space. These installations, designed by the Chicago landscape architect Ernie Wong, of Site Design, were a place to have a slice of cake or a rum and coke, a spot you’d run into old friends or even the local alderman, who frequents the block’s 60-year-old bar. Together with the exercise bikes down the block, wheeled from the studio onto the sidewalk for evening classes, the “boardwalk” gave this stretch of sidewalk that uncanny, joyful feeling of a block turned inside-out. On a handful of sunny Saturdays, it was something more: An afternoon activity festival, with bands, dancing, games, and arts and crafts. The project also won a Charter Award from the Congress for New Urbanism.

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On the first weekend in June, the boardwalk was a real party: Hundreds and hundreds of young people showed up after sunset and turned the whole road into a jam-packed plaza. “They had 75th St last night looking like Vegas. No shooting, no fighting,” wrote the popular Instagram account Chicago Media Takeout. “I have no complaints, let’s normalize black outings with no violence,” the Chicago rapper Donny Konz chimed in.

The Chicago police largely stood by and let the party go on. “The police are trying to be friendly, because they’ve been accused of so much,” said Jaidah Wilson Turnbow, who runs Frances’ Cocktail Lounge and spoke with the police before last weekend. “They’re trying to keep down negative actions towards people of color. They’re not breaking the law; they’re not fighting.”

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Derrick Rowe, an ex-cop who runs the deli across the street, said the vibe had him fondly thinking back to when he was a kid. He and his friends didn’t have social media to get the word out, but they’d still go down to Stony Island Avenue on their motorcycles to hang out. “The first couple of nights, it was nice!” he said of the late-night parties on 75th Street. “My experience, I was happy to see all these people and no violence, I was like, ‘Great, this is perfect!’” After the hardship of 2020, the South Side deserved a bit of Bourbon Street in 2021.

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Then, last weekend, things were going much the same when two men with guns opened fire on a group of revelers on the sidewalk. So far there is no known motive, and no arrests have been made.

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Now, 75th Street finds itself in the familiar bind of a Black neighborhood in an American city in 2021, stuck between unwinding after a brutal year and bracing against the rising toll of gun violence. It’s a sad reminder that even as America strives to relax the police grip on public conduct, guns are so common that the possibility of violence is as much a fixture of our public spaces as seats, lights, and music. That’s not a problem that’s limited to the South Side of Chicago, but it is one that weighs on people there. “Everyone was confident that it was chill last week, and maybe we can go out and kick it this time. And maybe this is the summer that we can really chill,” the victim’s cousin, Takita Miles told the Chicago Sun-Times. “But it wasn’t like that.”

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This week, Lori Lightfoot was on 75th Street decrying the violence. It seems unlikely the organizers of pop-up parties on the South Side will urge people to come back to 75th Street this weekend. But it would be a real loss if neighbors end up turning against the boardwalk because it proved to be so popular.

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Nedra Sims Fears thinks it’s unlikely that the boardwalk is going anywhere. The violence was an aberration, she observed. The shooting is not proof that the South Side is too dangerous to have its own Bourbon Street. Instead, she said, it shows how badly South Siders want something like that, the freeform party that comes with music and dancing on a summer street at night. That energy deserves an outlet, even if this little commercial strip in a residential neighborhood isn’t the perfect solution. “We wanted to activate the space,” she reflected, “but not at 2 a.m. in the morning.” It remains to be seen what will happen with the 75th Street crowds. But wouldn’t it be nice if there was someplace just like it, to go and party in peace?

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