22nd July 2017

Dr Danielle Kizaire (Co-founder)
Leroy Kennedy (Former director of community affairs and outreach programs at IIT)

Meeting with Bronzeville Urban Development

Today I met Dr Danielle Kizaire, co-founder of Bronzeville Urban Development (BUD), a not-for-profit that has spent the last 12 years trying to turn the disused Kenwood line embankment into a community asset. BUD initially proposed a combination of urban agriculture and renewable technology on top of the embankment, turning the former electric substation building into a battery bank for the solar arrays. Unfortunately the cost of solar technology back then was prohibitive, not to mention the complexity of acquiring the site itself, which was passed around between numerous railroad companies in the late twentieth century, and eventually sold to a private landowner.

However, recently the winds have changed. The landowner is donating the embankment to BUD, and though the process of title changes has been arduous, the exchange is finally underway. Right now, the focus is on introducing a solar array to the embankment at the alpha site, adjoining the derelict electric substation, and the urban agriculture initiative will follow in due course, at ground level. She and her co-founder (now husband) Charles Sutton have established a strong network of board members, and contacts in organisations and departments key to the realisation of the project. I have been asked to produce a couple of visualisations for a key meeting with Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle on the coming Wednesday, so must get to work!

Some design choices to note:

  • Access to the microgrid on the Kenwood embankment will be through the old station entrances, which are currently bricked-up. This is great – it’s the low cost option, and it makes sense for circulation on the infrastructure to continue as it was originally intended.
  • Danielle is keen to turn the substation and the section of the Kenwood line behind it into an attractive community hub, with additional murals along the embankment, and perhaps an adjoining urban theatre where movies are projected onto the concrete. This was exactly the pop-up event I had thought about trying to organise before I knew that BUD existed – I now hope to collaborate with them to see a picnic or movie night happen, and to get local residents talking about the site.
  • The jury is in on the big question of connection or disconnection – i.e. whether bridges are reintroduced to reconnect the embankment sections. Much to the relief of several high profile but unnameable people, the segments will remain disconnected and will not become another rail-to-trail park. Gentrification of the sort that has been seen in Logan Square adjoining the Bloomingdale trail (The 606) is therefore very unlikely.

In a happy coincidence, one of the contacts that the SECC recommended I speak to just happened to be sitting at the table across from Danielle and I, in the Seven Ten bowling alley restaurant. Leroy Kennedy was director of community affairs and outreach programs at IIT for 27 years, and just recently retired from his position, though he was quick to tell me has hasn’t retired from the community and sits on three local boards. He recommended a number of academics at IIT that I should speak to about future strategies for vacant plot reuse in post-industrial neighbourhoods.