Upgrades on Chicago Avenue to bring the “Soul City Corridor” vision closer to reality — Free Spirit Media – The Real Chi

The area within Austin designated as the “Soul City Corridor” (Credit: City of Chicago)
A quaint but active stretch of commerce and residences along Chicago Avenue can expect a major facelift soon thanks to a large investment from the city’s INVEST South/West initiative. 
The renovations will bring the stretch of Chicago Avenue from Austin Boulevard to Cicero Avenue closer to its vision as the “Soul City Corridor” – a commercial strip of Black businesses dedicated to the education around and support of this cultural community within Chicago. 
As part of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s INVEST South/West project, this project has been in the works behind the scenes since April 2021. A more detailed plan has since been released outlining the vision of this investment and project. Lightfoot’s office and Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) announced these plans through a series of public meetings, surveys, and focus groups which took place throughout autumn of last year. 
The details of the project will continue to be finalized through next summer, with the goal of starting renovations at the end of 2022. In total, the city is investing $21 million in the hopes that a greener, more visually appealing and pedestrian-friendly street will promote a safer, more engaged and connected local community. 
The planned upgrades will include tree planters, benches, trash cans, more pedestrian-friendly sidewalks and crosswalks. 
A “Soul City Corridor” gateway arch will be added at each end of the stretch, similar to archways in Old Town and Chinatown. Within this, the street will aim for an integrated visual aesthetic, achieved through unifying the look of awnings and facades of storefronts along Chicago Avenue.
The vision for this new Chicago Avenue has been pioneered by Austin African American Business Network and Association director Malcolm Crawford, an Austin resident and entrepreneur, who a few years ago began to ask himself “if the city can have Greektown, Chinatown, and Boystown and Little Italy … where do we go to experience the African American culture?” Having just bought property and started a business on Chicago Avenue, Crawford found the answer right in his backyard. 
“We can finally have a place where all of the cultures converge to experience the greatness of the African American experience,” said Crawford.
Visualization of the planned renovations along Chicago Avenue (Credit: City of Chicago) 
CDOT will be significantly involved in these renovations, especially those related to traffic safety, crosswalked, and improved bus stops. The new bus stops will include benches, boarding islands, and weather-protected glass enclosures for waiting commuters.
On August 24, CDOT held the first of a series of public meetings where Austin residents could submit input on the proposed renovations. Austin Weekly News reported recaps of the meetings that suggest residents want open areas with a modern or artistic feel, parking, and also a desire to make the street more pedestrian-friendly.
Also being considered are bus stop amenities, crosswalk safety features, plazas and parklets for pedestrians. 
The wants and needs from the Austin community are basic, as Crawford points out: sit-down restaurants, coffee shops, community areas that have been missing for years. 
In a phone interview, Crawford said he is satisfied with the city’s promise, but notes that it comes after years of “embedded disinvestment on this side of town.” Although he feels the changes are long overdue, he has an overall air of cautious optimism. 
The Soul City Corridor is one of 12 commercial strips being supported by Mayor Lightfoot’s INVEST South/West program, which in total will invest $750 million into business corridors on the city’s South and West Sides. 
Austin residents can also look forward to the renovation of the historic and stately, but long-abandoned Laramie State Bank which has sat in dilapidation on the Northwest corner of W. Chicago Avenue and N. Laramie Avenue for decades. Now, there are plans to turn it into a blues music museum, to which Crawford says he is “tickled pink.”
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