Until recently, the vacant lot at 75th Street and Stewart Avenue on Chicago’s South Side was full of weeds and trash, and it was marked by a history of violence. Now, with the help of the Cook County Land Bank Authority (CCLBA), the same lot is being transformed into a school and community resource center by a group of neighbors who have been fighting to end violence.
Since 2015, MASK (Mothers/ Men Against Senseless Killings) has occupied the corner of 75th and Stewart daily, grilling meals, playing music, and playing games as a way to prevent violence by building trust and community. In 2017, the Cook County Land Bank Authority donated a lot on the same block to MASK, establishing a permanent home for the group.
“Getting the deed from the Land Bank to the lot at 75th and Stewart allowed MASK to expand its work to combat violence and build community at the corner where we started in 2014, which was the site of the senseless and tragic murder of Lucille Barnes,” says Tamar Manasseh, founder of MASK. “We went from being squatters on the sidewalk with a couple of grills to pouring concrete and building our On The Block Academy.”
On the Block Academy is part of MASK’s work to create a safer environment by meeting residents’ basic needs, like child care, schooling, and food security. The project originally began two years ago to fill the vacuum created by the closing of a public high school. MASK built the school out of shipping containers on the lot acquired through CCLBA, and opened in March 2020 when the COVID-19 crisis hit and Chicago Public Schools switched to remote learning.
During the spring semester, the school helped essential workers who were suddenly without childcare and parents struggling to work from home while teaching their children.
This summer, MASK is focused on helping students who need reading and math instruction to prepare for the fall semester. MASK volunteers created a “study buddy” program that connects students to remote tutors and have secured 125 laptops. They are looking to obtain 200 more laptops and additional volunteer tutors.
As a volunteer-run organization with a small budget, donations and help from community resources like CCLBA are transformative for MASK.
“We believe in building communities block by block,” Manasseh says. “The Land Bank is in an ideal position to help with this work, taking a problem and turning it into a solution. We’re not developers, and we don’t have a lot of money. Finding another location for this community would have been impossible without their help.”
The Cook County Land Bank Authority is a unit of the Cook County government that works to turn vacant land and abandoned buildings into reliable and sustainable community assets. CCLBA relies on no tax dollars, rather it is funded primarily with grants, contributions, and revenues from transactions. It focuses especially on working with small development companies run by people of color and women.
“CCLBA advocates for community re-investment in a way that is consistent with the goals of local stakeholders like MASK,” says Robert Rose, executive director of the Cook County Land Bank Authority. “Projects like the transformation of the vacant lot at 75th Street and Stewart Avenue help reverse neighborhood despair and stabilize disinvested communities. By promoting the re-development and reuse of abandoned and vacant properties, we can reverse neighborhood despair and help build safer communities.”
On the Block Academy construction is scheduled to be complete by the end of 2020.
According to Manasseh, MASK plans to build more pop-up schools and other community assets as part of their continued fight against violence.
“Owning this property means we aren’t going anywhere,” Manasseh said. “We are here to stay. Instead of trash and weeds, the lot is a symbol of hope the community can see every day.”