The collection of mini-parks and lime-green benches that line the curbs along West 75th Street drew the attention of national urban design experts last fall and reenergized Chatham’s “Restaurant Row” into a South Side social scene.
Since the 75th Street Boardwalk was installed in September, it has received multiple national awards for design and planning, and businesses along the strip reported boosts in sales during events hosted by the Greater Chatham Initiative. Vice President Kamala Harris even dropped by for a slice of cake from the Brown Sugar Bakery in April and commented on the business’ bright green booths, owner Stephanie Hart said.
“The boardwalk is special. Kamala Harris is someone who has spent time in Black communities all over the country,” Hart said. “She noticed it was something different.”
But then two months later, the boardwalk got unwanted attention.
On the morning of June 12, a pair of masked gunmen stepped out of an alley near the neighborhood’s most famous establishment, Lem’s Bar-B-Q, and opened fire into a crowd of hundreds that had gathered for an impromptu block party. Kimfier Miles, a 29-year-old mother of three, was killed and nine others were wounded.
Soon, rumors circulated that the boardwalk would be torn down. But that won’t be happening.
By the end of the month, organizers will remove the plywood “parklets” so they can be replaced with portable units for the seasonal “Boardwalk 2.0,” Nedra Sims-Fears, executive director of the Greater Chatham Initiative, said.
“We are bringing the boardwalk back,” Fears Sims said. “We cannot let it be the case that we say ‘Too many people are coming to the boardwalk, so the boardwalk needs to go away.'”
Local businesses and the GCI hosted family-friendly weekend events boosted sales amid the pandemic malaise. But after hours, nighttime throngs of hundreds descended on 75th Street, creating a free-form party that included massive portable speakers, outdoor grills, coolers of drinks and a distinct Mardi Gras vibe.
For weeks in the early spring and summer, the gatherings were raucous, but safe. A popular Instagram account featured a picture of a crowd clogging the street on June 6 with the caption: “They had 75th St last night looking like Vegas. No shooting, no fighting. #ChicagoIsOpen #SummerTimeChi“
Carmen Lemons, whose family has operated Lem’s Bar-B-Q, at 311 E 75th St., since the late 1960s, grew concerned by the crowds. Lem’s always has line of customers during business hours — which used to extend to 3 a.m.– and has never had seating for diners. Allowing massive, late-night gatherings was inviting chaos, Lemons said.
“In this day and time, it’s not safe to have a crowd like that. It’s a chance for something bad to happen,” she said. “Please don’t say I am against the boardwalk. But we’re not the North Side. Very seldom do people eat at the curbside on the South Side.”
Marlon Mitchell, whose family has operated Frances’ Cocktail Lounge next door to Lem’s for more than 50 years, said that a more watchful police presence has prevented similar crowds from forming as they did before the shooting. He believes that the gatherings could have been made manageable.
“Police are here now, they’re involved,” Mitchell said. “But they were three or four weeks too late.”
The 75th Boardwalk was a pilot of sorts for the city’s Chicago Al Fresco program, which offered funding for restaurants and businesses in working-class neighborhoods on the South and West sides to install or expand outdoor dining and community space, said Robert Fotjick, senior director of neighborhood strategy for Choose Chicago.
The Al Fresco program will bring similar portable parklets to Little Village, South Shore, Belmont-Cragin and other neighborhoods that have higher levels of violent crime, and that’s by design, Fotjick said. The same neighborhoods could benefit from outdoor spaces that foster community, he said.
“[After the shooting], there was never any thought of pulling back on our side,” Fotjick said about the 75th Street Boardwalk. “Unfortunately, gun violence is a reality in Chicago and other major cities….We need to find ways to create vibrancy in those communities.”