Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Sold-Out Neighborhood Tours Deliver the Goods

It seemed like a good idea, that neighborhood groups should get involved in the Burnham Centennial's Bold Plans Big Dreams program and put on tours of their often-unseen communities.

And it was. On Saturday, May 16, six neighborhoods led sold-out bus and walking tours in South Chicago, Bronzeville, Pilsen, Albany Park, Auburn Gresham and West Ridge. Reports are flowing in and it appears that both participants and tour guides had a ball. Here's some of the commentary:

Indian snacks -- Dorothie Shah reports that the West Ridge tour spent more than an hour in small groups, walking into shops along Devon Avenue and chatting with the owners or sales clerks. They sampled jalebis and other snacks at Royal Sweets, met the owner of the Sahil Sari shop and talked with Mafat Patel, founder of the Patel retail and wholesale food empire.

Pilsen culture – Tour leader Alex Morales focused on the neighborhood's history of activism and organizing but also pointed out the local attractions, and considered it a sign of success that people wished there had been time to get inside the National Museum of Mexican Art and spend some time shopping and eating on 18th Street. He wants them coming back (and spending money when they do).

Bronzeville development – This tour attracted guests from Canada, the south suburbs, the University of Chicago and the Field Museum, and "all were amazed by the amount and quality of development" in the area, says Bernita Johnson Gabriel of Quad Communities Development Corp. Even better, "all said they would recommend the tour to others."

South Chicago discoveries – The way Jackie Samuel tells it, visitors to the former steel mill district were absolutely charmed by the tour guides and the unexpected sites along the way, including the spectacular view from St. Michael's Church, the local gardens and the big ore walls at the former U.S. Steel site.

It wasn't obvious to Samuel and others, when the training and hard work of developing these tours got started a few months ago, just what the benefits might be, especially since most of these neighborhoods have a lot of rough edges and unfinished business.

The first training session, in fact, was on a day when three youth were gunned downed in broad daylight in South Chicago. "I left the meeting so happy and then this senseless act of violence just hit our hearts so deeply," Samuel recounts. "I questioned if we were doing the right thing by showcasing the community. (But) I realized that so much hard work has been put in place over the past 10 years that I could not let a group of thugs steal our communities' thunder. When we started doing the research it clearly pointed out that we have a story to tell, with all of our lumps and bumps."

Download brochures and maps for each tour here.

Photos are of the Pilsen and West Ridge practice tours, by Vince Michael.

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