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Overhead view of the Arts Lawn in Washington Park, Chicago. Photo credit: On the Real.

Arts + Public Life´s Arts Lawn: An Equitable Transit-Oriented Project for Washington Park

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Guest article courtesy of Alfredo Nieves-Moreno, Ph.D.* 

In the heart of Washington Park, the University of Chicago’s Arts + Public Life (APL) initiative marked a significant milestone on October 7, 2023, with the grand opening of the Arts Lawn. This transformative outdoor space underscores a commitment to equitable transit-oriented development (ETOD).

The Arts Lawn is the fourth and newest venue on the Arts Block, contributing nearly one acre of beautiful green space to the Washington Park neighborhood and reinforcing access to the arts through public transit. Far beyond a mere green space, the Arts Lawn is a testament to the transformative power of community arts engagement, cultural stewardship, and sustainable design. This dynamic space, adjacent to the Green Line Performing Arts Center and the Garfield CTA Green Line train station, stands as a symbol of co-creation and inclusivity, emphasizing the vital intersection of arts, community, and accessibility.

Overhead view of the Arts Lawn in Washington Park, Chicago. Photo credit: On the Real.
Overhead view of the Arts Lawn in Washington Park, Chicago. Photo credit: On the Real.

The Arts Lawn Grand Opening

During the grand opening this past fall, Arts + Public Life welcomed over 1,500 community members, civic leaders, and university officials to celebrate its establishment. The outdoor festivities featured electrifying performances, world premieres, and an arts marketplace showcasing the talent of 28 South Side creative entrepreneurs.

Cherita Chavers, founder of Beauty Marked Vintage and a vendor at the Vends + Vibes arts marketplace, expressed her excitement and stated, “The event exuded joy, creativity, and happiness, leaving us eagerly anticipating future gatherings in this new communal space. What made this grand opening truly exceptional was its heartwarming focus on the community, with vibrant vendors and captivating performances coming together to celebrate our shared creativity and spirit. This is an event that will forever hold a special place in our memories.” 

Alexis Burr, of Alexis Burr Art, selling art at Arts Lawn grand opening. Photo credit: Anjali Pinto.

Kori Coleman from D-Composed, a long-time partner and collaborator of APL and the South Side Home Movie Project (SSHMP) shared that “we got our start on the Arts Block 6 years ago when we first introduced Chicago to this new Black chamber music series called D-Composed … Today, we welcome a new chapter of our history with the opening of the Arts Lawn … Our work is impossible without our partners, and we’re grateful to our partners at Arts + Public Life for providing a platform and a space that amplifies our work. The Arts Lawn will become a vital resource for artists, and D-Composed is grateful to be a part of this history and legacy.”

A Decade-Long Journey

The Arts Lawn’s origins trace back ten years when Arts + Public Life assumed cultural stewardship of the Arts Block. This vibrant collection of cultural and commercial spaces along Garfield Boulevard involved extensive collaborations and conversations with community partners, University of Chicago officials, practicing artists, and city representatives.

These conversations led APL to open the Green Line Performing Arts Center in 2018 so that emerging and established South Side artists had another local opportunity to perform their works to South Side audiences. This was also a response to learning about so many artists wanting to perform for audiences with more familiarity and connection to their creative material.

From this perspective, the Arts Lawn represents an additional connection to the cultural legacy of Garfield Boulevard and the Washington Park neighborhood, paying homage to the artistic legacy woven through this corridor and the South Side of Chicago. The overall project planning began in late 2020, with remediation in fall 2021, construction starting in summer 2022, and the grand opening hosted on October 7, 2023.

A Tapestry of Access and Inclusion

For APL, access to the arts through public transit advances equity for South Side residents. Designed to be accessible and inviting, the Arts Lawn breaks away from traditional norms by intentionally removing physical and perceived barriers. It features no fences — a symbolic gesture encouraging everyone to engage with the rich tapestry of historical and cultural production that has thrived in this community for decades.

The Arts Lawn’s proximity to the CTA Garfield Green Line train station expands accessibility and invitation by serving as a verdant buffer, gracefully bridging the residential neighborhood with the bustling 55th/Garfield corridor. This strategic placement not only enhances the accessibility of the arts but also transforms the transit hub into a cultural nexus. The result is a harmonious blend of community vibrancy, artistic enrichment, and equitable urban development — a demonstration of the transformative power of integrating the arts into the fabric of transit-oriented planning.

Community members gather for the Arts Lawn grand opening. Photo credit: Anjali Pinto.

In addition, the Arts Lawn is a few steps away from the historic first Green Line “L” station in Chicago, built for the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1892 on Garfield Boulevard in Washington Park, and now managed by APL as the L1 Creative Business Accelerator and Retail Shop. Commuters, whether heading home or to the vibrant Arts Lawn or any of the Arts Block venues, can interact with art daily and participate in this area’s emerging creative economy.

As a remediated green space, the Arts Lawn further contributes significantly to environmental justice in Washington Park, a historically redlined neighborhood that is 91.7% African American, with a median household income of less than $25,000 as of 2022, according to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP).

A growing body of research, including a study co-authored by an international group of multidisciplinary researchers and Marc G. Berman, director of UChicago’s Environmental Neuroscience Lab, is connecting natural green spaces to benefits in mental health. Additionally, the Arts Lawn integrates a green infrastructure network that allows the site to absorb every drop of rainwater, easing the burden on our city’s already overstressed underground sewer systems.

Core Values Driving the Arts Lawn Design

The design of the Arts Lawn was guided by APL’s core values related to the redevelopment of the Arts Block, including:

  • Accessibility
  • Respect for history
  • Centering people of color, and
  • Promoting self-determination

These values ensure the project prioritizes open invitation, ecological and humanistic restoration, cultural recognition, and a sense of belonging within the local community.

Involving Youth in the Arts Lawn Design Process

A performance by Kuumba Lynx echoes the footwork-inspired circular design of the pavilion. Photo credit: Anjali Pinto

Along with these driving values, the Arts Lawn’s design reflects youth involvement through APL’s Design Apprenticeship Program (DAP). Engaging teens in the design process of the Arts Lawn’s performance pavilion ensured their voices were central to the project. The pavilion, featuring circles inspired by footwork, and state-of-the-art audiovisual technology, serves as a safe haven for young people, promoting joy and expression.

Community Arts Engagement as the Synergy

Recognizing the impact of remediation and construction during the development of the Arts Lawn, APL transformed opaque fencing into an outdoor gallery. Artists Rose Blouin and Edo were selected through an open call and jury process, with their works installed along Garfield Boulevard temporary construction fencing. This successful project has led to further exhibitions and collaborations, highlighting the synergy between art and community engagement.

On the other hand, APL invited several community members to co-curate a series of film stills from the South Side Home Movie Project archive displayed along the western construction fence. The display, titled “What Love Looks Like in Public,” included a link to a special playlist created by DJ Rae Chardonnay for viewers to listen to as they viewed the works.

You can read more about the outdoor gallery and listen to the playlist by clicking here.

Phased Programming to Allow for Versatility

To maximize the Arts Lawn’s potential, public programming will roll out in three phases over the next few years:

  • In 2024, the first season of programming will debut signature APL programs in a beautiful outdoor setting.
  • In 2025, APL will invite community partners to join us in co-creating experiences for our neighbors and audiences.
  • In 2026, APL will accept public requests and ideas for the use of the Arts Lawn.

The phased approach allows for a thoughtful assessment of the space’s utilization, ensuring it caters to the diverse interests and needs of the community.

More Than a Green Space

Arts + Public Life’s Arts Lawn is more than a green space; it’s a living testament to equitable transit-oriented development. By embracing accessibility, honoring cultural legacies, and involving the community at every stage, Arts + Public Life has supported a process of inclusive urban planning.

As the Arts Lawn continues to evolve, it promises to be a beacon of shared stewardship, reflecting the interconnected and diverse cultural tapestry of Washington Park. The development of the Arts Lawn reaffirms the University of Chicago and APL’s commitment to partnership and engagement, ensuring a holistic approach from conception and design to programming, care, and preservation.

Alfredo Nieves professional headshot

Alfredo Nieves-Moreno, Ph.D.
Deputy Director of Arts + Public Life at the University of Chicago
and Elevated Chicago Steering Committee member

*Arts + Public Life staff collaborated in the writing of this article.

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