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Ravenswood Vacant Lot Attracts Picnickers in Bid to Transform Empty Space

By Patty Wetli | August 18, 2014 12:04pm
 Ravenswood Community Council competed in the city's place making challenge by throwing a picnic in a vacant lot.
Old Space New Tricks
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RAVENSWOOD — Residents typically avoid the vacant lot at Wilson and Ravenswood, just west of the Metra tracks, but the promise of free ice cream and popcorn proved a powerful draw during a recent "growing spaces" event hosted by the Ravenswood Community Council.

In June, Chicago's Metropolitan Planning Council challenged neighborhood organizations to teach an "old space new tricks" and transform a "lonely" or vacant space into a gathering place. RCC was among the 18 groups that answered the call.

Though much of the Ravenswood corridor is thriving — a hub for artists, craft brewers, shops and light manufacturing alike — a handful of spots remain stubbornly uninviting, according to RCC's executive director Megan Bunimovich.

 Ravenswood Community Council participated in a place making challenge to transform this vacant lot into a gathering space.
Ravenswood Community Council participated in a place making challenge to transform this vacant lot into a gathering space.
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Facebook/Ravenswood Community Council

"I don't know if it's impeding development but foot traffic avoids it at night," she said of the vacant lot RCC opted to "activate" for the challenge.

The council identified a half-dozen potential spaces for the challenge, settling on the Wilson/Ravenswood lot because it offered the opportunity to throw a picnic outdoors, Bunimovich said.

RCC set up tents, tables and chairs in the lot last Friday, provided snacks and free lemonade (courtesy of neighboring business River Valley Farmer's Table), and collaborated with Lillstreet ArtReach on an art project — all in keeping with the planning council's instructions to "stick with simple and inexpensive ideas" in developing "a one-day program to enliven your space."

"It's been a blast," said Derek Spencer, who works at Midwest Pesticide Action Center, 4611 W. Ravenswood Ave.

His co-worker Katie Kokkas said she and her colleagues have been frustrated by the lack of available spaces to simply sit outside during their lunch hour.

"We've had a nice mild summer and there's nowhere to go," she said. "Our idea was to convert this into a parklet."

RCC posted a pair of chalkboards, where residents could write down their thoughts about what sort of business or activity they'd like to see occupy the vacant lot.

Farmers market was one of the most popular comments, along with a skate park, food truck meet-up spot and even a Crossfit gym.

"A lot of our neighborhood used to be like this," Shawna Schwalb said of the empty lot. "It's really changed. It would be great to have a community garden where everyone could come to gather."

The challenge culminates in September, with the announcement of which organizations' place making efforts have earned them one of three $1,000 grants sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield.

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