Six Corners Association meets with Illinois Main Street communitites


The Six Corners Association met with students and directors of Illinois Main Street communities as part of its summer training program and held a panel discussion about engaging the arts to build thriving neighborhoods on June 18 at the Filament Theater, 4041 N. Milwaukee Ave.

The building, which also houses the association, the Inside Out Art Studio and the National Veterans Art Museum, was used as example of how artists and community groups can come together and help revitalize a neighborhood from both cultural and economic standpoints.

The discussion was used as a case study and training for students and volunteers from the Main Street program about how to recruit art businesses and groups to neighborhoods.

The panel featured Alderman John Arena (45th), Cyd Smillie of Arts Alive Chicago and Julie Ritchey of the Filament Theater, with Levi Moore of the National Veterans Art Museum serving as the moderator.

The Six Corners shopping district was designated an official Main Street community in 2012. The program, which is administered by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity’s Office of Regional Economic Development, offers technical assistance and training in how to revitalize commercial districts.

The program is part of the National Main Street Program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation Main Street Center.

The program uses an approach that works to revitalize a community through organization, promotion, design and economic restructuring.

Smillie said that artists are adaptable tenants who can turn an empty space into a community resource. "They are used to working at odd hours, long hours, and bringing everything in their tool box," she said. "Their creative energy is infectious, and it inspires others to tap it and use that creative energy."

Arena said that the arts form an economic engine that brings billions of dollars to communities around the country.

Arena said that an important aspect of the Main Street program is the design and promotion portion of the model. He said that when he became alderman, one of the first things that he attempted to do is to create a more attractive environment in the neighborhood by painting empty storefronts.

"The fundamental strategy was to create community identifiers so people can catalog what we did so that they come back," Arena said. "It’s one of the biggest challenges from an economic development standpoint that you have is to catch people’s attention so that they retain it."

Arena said that he tried to emphasize the building’s addresses so that they are noticeable as people drive through the ward. "So big bold letters that are brightly painted and freshly done engages," he said. "But even if you don’t do that, the simple act of being on the street and painting a boarded up window and all of a sudden there is a conversation that’s waiting to be had."

Smillie said that when her group, formerly called Arts Alive 45, started working on the neighborhood "our area was not even on the map."

"Chicago had a ton of promotional materials, bicycle maps, transportation maps, favorite stops south of us and east of us and then just pointing toward O’Hare airport," Smillie said. "We didn’t exist. To develop your identity we branded Six Corners and have adopted a turquoise color, we got the banners and we painted some benches.

"You have to look at it as an advertising campaign, and you have to look at it for let’s not imitate what they are doing but let’s highlight what we are doing."

Ritchey said that when the theater, which was formed in 2006, was looking for a space it had worked on a show in the area and they were surprised at how many people were supportive.

"It was our first time working in this neighborhood, and from just talking to people and sharing what we were about, hearing what the neighborhood was about, we knew that there was a strong values alignment in addition to just a need for more art programming and getting more people out here," Ritchey said. "We weren’t really just looking for space, but we were looking to be a part of the community to help make the neighborhood culturally significant and interesting."

Arena also discussed the importance of having a special service area in Six Corners area ago.

"I think this area wouldn’t be where it is today without that kind of commitment, and it’s a commitment on a number of levels," Arena said. "First you have to get the SSA created, and in order to do that you have to convince people who are paying property taxes in the city of Chicago, which wherever you are the property taxes are too high, to contribute.

Arena said that it with a tool like the special service area, area business leaders take ownership of the neighborhood, "and that’s kind of what Main Street is all about."

"Ten years ago Jefferson Park, which is the next intersection with a shopping district, had the same choice to make (to create an SSA) and they decided not to do it, and I don’t have the near kind of focus or opportunity that’s going on out there as opposed to what’s going on here."

Ritchey said that working with groups such as the business community association helps with the type of programs that the theater wants to create.

"Having a sense of what the neighborhood’s priorities are helps us structure our programming in a way that is aligned with the neighborhood calendar," Ritchey said. "We have a smaller organization so we have to make sure that we are not producing a show on the same weekend when there is a huge street fair."

The panelists also talked about taking risks when trying to revitalize a neighborhood.

"Failure is only failure if you don’t learn something from it, so if you continue to do things that you are doing and you are trying to hold on to what was and what you had and think that somehow it will come back through some external force that you have no control over, that’s failure in my mind," Arena said.

"One of the failings of chambers is that they go through the growth process of doing the same old thing and saying that we’re sustaining ourselves but we’re not growing ourselves, that’s a very common thing in the other chambers that I have that needs work," Arena said.

"The program itself does a lot of things because you are taking care of all the businesses," Arena said. "If you design it well, promote it well, engineering it well in terms of the economic development process, you will come up with something."

Arena also discussed the importance of changing people’s behaviors when revitalizing an area. He said that most people take the same route when driving home and that in order to change people’s behavior patterns you have to challenge their routines.

"That’s the level of how fixed we are in our patterns and how hard it is to create awareness that something is different to force people out of their patterns," Arena said. "Our biggest concern right now is that we created a lot of buzz and it is incredibly hard to push people out of those comfort zones.

"Our biggest challenge in the next couple of years is not to say we have done it but where are the people? If you do not go out and grab them by the neck and drag them here any way we can, then we won’t see progress and it will stall."

Smillie said that the association also has worked with other community groups on creating murals under viaducts that act as community entrances and identifiers.

The Jefferson Park Chamber of Commerce also is considering implementing the Main Street program. The program has been used in about 2,000 communities in the country and has produced about $54 billion in investment, creating 450,000 jobs and resulting in the rehabilitation of more than 229,000 buildings, according to the chamber.