EDGEBROOK — Kevin Kendzior would hold his breath as he bicycled through the underpass at LeHigh, Kinuza and Hiawatha avenues after dropping his now 6-year-old daughter Anna off at pre-school.
"You never knew what you were going to get when you went through there," Kendzior said, adding that sometimes lights would be smashed or the walls marked with graffiti. Other times he would pass teens using the underpass as a place to get drunk with their friends, Kendzior said.
But after a three-year effort, the underpass is no longer a path to be avoided or rushed through but a landmark that links the Edgebrook, Wildwood and North Edgebrook communities with a mixed-media mosaic mural designed to transport residents back in time through the area's history.
"The mural is a reflection of what it looks like when a community comes together and decides what they want their community to look like," said Jac Charlier, one of the project coordinators.
Several hundred people Saturday celebrated the completion of the mural's first phase, heaping praise on the 30 teens who did the bulk of the work on the mixed-media mural.
The teens were hired to work on the mural by Green Star Movement, a nonprofit organization that has worked with schools and neighborhoods to create public art projects throughout the city, and After School Matters.
Suzy Claeys, 15, of Sauganash, said she learned a lot, had fun and made friends while working on the mural, which was her first job.
"But most importantly, we got paid," Claeys said, prompting laughter from the crowd sipping coffee and snacking on muffins and pastries. "But really, it was amazing. The mural was just a drawing when we got here and we brought it to life."
Jonathan Russell, 15, said the work of bringing the Hiawatha Express train to life was monotonous, but ultimately rewarding.
"It feels amazing to be a part of something that will last for a long time," Russell said. "I had never done anything like this."
Dozens of community members also worked on the first phase of the mural, which depicts the Hiawatha Express train, which once traveled the Metra tracks above the underpass, with the Chicago skyline in the background. The other side of the 118-foot long and 10-foot high mural pays homage to the area's lush vegetation and wildlife.
"My favorite is the flowers," Anna Kendzior, 6, said. "I like how they are sparkly and three-dimensional."
Organizers hope to complete the final two phases of mural next summer, which is almost three times as long as the completed part of the mural. The first phase cost $55,000 — and all but $9,000 was covered by Green Star Movement.
Once it is completed, the 450-foot long underpass will be covered with a mural made of mosaic, sculpture and photographs using a French art technique known as bricolage to craft a three-dimensional covering. It walls vary in height from 3 feet to 14 feet.
One portion of the next phase of the mural will depict the 1943 opening of the underpass, which allows residents to cross the train tracks and avoid busy Devon Avenue.
The mural will also honor the area's earliest settlers, members of the Potawatomi tribe of Native Americans.