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Uptown's American Indian Center Plans Move After 50 Years

By David Byrnes | March 16, 2015 5:52am
 People eat inside the American Indian Center of Chicago.
People eat inside the American Indian Center of Chicago.
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DNAinfo/David Byrnes

UPTOWN — After some 50 years at its Uptown location, the American Indian Center of Chicago has to move, officials told DNAinfo Chicago.

The building, a former Masonic temple at 1630 W. Wilson Ave., is aging faster than the organization, with its limited staff and funds, can maintain it, officials said. This winter, the center's heating system broke down, leaving workers and clients in the cold.

The center was founded in 1953 by members of the American Indian community in Chicago and the American Friends Service Committee after federal laws went into effect designed to move people off reservations. Using government and private funding, it has continued to provide social services and fellowship at its Wilson Avenue location since the building was acquired in 1966.

 Uptown residents browse the American Indian Center's food pantry.
Uptown residents browse the American Indian Center's food pantry.
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DNAinfo/David Byrnes

According to volunteer coordinator Joshua Negron, the lack of heat in much of the building this winter hindered the center’s ability to provide services to the community and reduced the number of people who came for those services.

“We’ve reached a point where we’re almost being held back by the building,” center director Andrew Johnson said. “It’s affecting our ability to serve Chicago’s native population."

Johnson said services were not suspended this winter, but that was only due to the efforts of a dedicated staff and volunteers.

“I’m amazed by the resilience and dedication of the staff here,” he said. “When it got cold, they’d come in and be working with coats and gloves.”

Now that the worst of winter appears to be over, however, Johnson said he and other leaders at the center can’t continue to rely on the dedication of volunteers.

With the heating system potentially costing as much as $120,000 to repair, and other problems with the aging facility bound to arise in the future, the time has come for the center to find a new home. Officials plan to either sell the building to a developer or give it to another community group when they move.

“It’s official,” Johnson said. “We’re looking for a new space.”

The move to a new location is expected to cost $6 million to $10 million, and center leaders are contacting federal, state, county and city offices for grants. Help by private donors and corporate sponsors also is being sought.

Center officials said the new location must be accessible by car and public transit and be within city limits. Most important, said Johnson, the center must own the property and land outright.

“Almost always, when I start a session I say, ‘You’re on Indian land,’” Johnson said. "It is very important for us to maintain this. We must own" the land and property, he said.

Johnson also said he would like the new location to feature more cultural heritage programs, such as language and sport programs for youths, and more exhibits on Native American art.

With the heating system still broken, it’s important that the move happen before next winter, he said.

Some Uptown residents who make use of the center’s services — such as a weekly flea market, a Thursday food pantry and a Wednesday senior lunch — are concerned that a new location may be too difficult to reach.

Others, such as Lorie Carter, said they’ll follow the center wherever it goes, despite their affection for the current location.

“I’ve been coming [to the center] for over 17 years,” she said. “I love the location we got right here. … But if I need it, I will" follow the center to its new location, Carter said.

While the details of the move are worked out — including a community conference on the subject scheduled for March 28 — the normal spring efforts of the center, such as after-school programs, will go on as planned.

But, as Negron said, “Things are still sluggish.”

“We’ve been established here for 62 years,” added Johnson. “And we want to go someplace that will last another 62 years, or 1,000 and 62 years.”

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