A statue of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson is illuminated by sunlight at the opening ceremony of Mahalia Jackson Court on West 79th Street on Sept. 2, 2022.

$5.5 million grant aims to expand tourism in 12 more underrepresented neighborhoods

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The South Side of Chicago is often overlooked, stigmatized or simply ignored, said Nedra Sims Fears, executive director of the Greater Chatham Initiative. But in the past year, Chatham’s hidden gems and its unique culture have been uplifted, attracting visitors from all over the city.

“Our goal is to let people know that we are a competitive neighborhood and it has been successful,” Fears said. “It is one of the few Black neighborhoods where our population and homeownership went up in the last decade.”

In Little Village, dubbed the Mexico of the Midwest, the Manuel Perez Jr. Memorial Plaza, where locals often hang out, was renovated last year with a fresh mural, seating and signage. Through the summer, local vendors hosted a market every Sunday, attracting new shoppers.

That is in part thanks to the Neighborhood Strategy Team of Choose Chicago, the city’s official destination marketing organization. The Neighborhood Strategy Team launched in 2021 to invest in neighborhood tourism by providing resources and tools to community organizations from neighborhoods that are typically underserved but whose cultures are key to Chicago’s rich diversity.

This year, Choose Chicago was awarded $5.5 million more by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events to strengthen and expand the program, adding 12 new community areas, making a total of 30 neighborhoods that will benefit from the efforts to promote tourism.

The program’s new communities include Auburn Gresham, Austin, Back of the Yards, Englewood, Lincoln Park, Lincoln Square, New City, North Center, North Lawndale, Roseland, South Chicago and Hyde Park. The original neighborhoods in the program include Uptown, Bronzeville, Albany Park, Humboldt Park, Pullman, Little Village, South Shore, Chinatown, West Ridge, West Town, Logan Square, Rogers Park, Pilsen, Chatham, Lakeview, Woodlawn, Belmont-Cragin and Beverly.

The grant, provided by the American Rescue Plan Act funds, will allow Choose Chicago to boost its comprehensive tourism marketing strategy, which positions Chicago and its neighborhoods as prime destinations for residents and visitors, said Rob Fojtik, vice president of neighborhood strategies. The program will be the largest and most comprehensive such neighborhood program in the country, he said.

The funds help create an equity-based investment strategy that catalyzes a sustainable economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The culture and vibrancy of Chicago can be found beyond our traditional tourist locations,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statement. “Each of our 77 unique neighborhoods is home to rich histories, world-class cuisine, and entertainment that tourists should experience. I’m continually grateful for ARPA funding that allows us to continue our equitable economic recovery by supporting our neighborhoods and the local organizations who uplift them.”

People gather for the opening ceremony of Mahalia Jackson Court on West 79th Street on Sept. 2, 2022, in Chicago.

In Chatham, there are more new faces at the Mahalia Jackson Court at 1 E. 79th St., said Fears. She has seen a gradual increase in visitors, but the Greater Chatham Initiative also uses a tracking system that indicates visitors went from nearly 3,000 in 2021 to nearly 7,000 in 2022.

“We appreciate how Choose Chicago marketing has brought more visitors to Mahalia Jackson Court,” Fears said. The program helped Sims’ organization turn the vacant building into a plaza, provided photography and tools to create a website to promote it.

For Blanca Soto, the neighborhood program has not only helped beautify Little Village, it has also boosted community morale by focusing on and promoting its vibrant culture, rich Mexican cuisine, and its art, and shifted focus from the violence and crime that outsiders tend to hear about.

“I want to make sure that Little Village is on the map, that it is a destination spot for those who visit Chicago,” Soto said. “Every neighborhood is unique, and this gives them opportunity to showcase and highlight their beauty that they won’t find in Lincoln Park or downtown.”

Soto hopes that the expansion of the grant can continue to change the negative image of neighborhoods such as Back of the Yards and Englewood.

“Those neighborhoods are key to the richness and beauty of Chicago,” Soto said.

Neighborhood partnerships have included sponsorship for local organizations’ events and the Chicago Alfresco program that created outdoor dining areas. In Little Village, the program helped the Mexican Independence Parade made a comeback in September, Soto said.

Manuel Perez Jr. Memorial Plaza is seen here in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood on Jan. 20, 2023.

Over the last two years, the Choose Chicago team conducted more than 20 listening sessions to identify community needs and provide solutions and resources that empower stakeholders in various neighborhoods.

“We really do look at it as a way to highlight the good and help change that narrative for sure,” Fojtik said.

The funding will help with initiatives such as listening sessions and help content creators showcase things to do in each neighborhood. This includes working with local businesses and attractions.

There is also a neighborhood cleanup initiative that contracts with landscaping and street cleaning services.

Choose Chicago will expand its free professional food photography to help small businesses market themselves. It will also continue to install better signage for participating neighborhoods.

“Chicago’s neighborhoods are key to our authenticity as a city for locals and visitors,” said Rhonda McFarland, executive director of the Quad Communities Development Corporation in Bronzeville. “When done properly, neighborhood tourism can bring substantial benefits and add to the vibrancy of our neighborhoods.”

Soto said that as the program expands, she hopes that one day there can be trolleys taking visitors from neighborhood to neighborhood.

larodriguez@chicagotribune.com



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