Despite the handful of businesses near the intersection of South Grand Avenue East and 11th Street – restaurants, a beauty supply store, a furniture shop – the sidewalks are mostly empty on an average weekday afternoon.
Dominic Watson imagines a different future for the area known as South Town and the east side at large. "People want the east side to look like the west side or any other part of town," said Watson, president and CEO of the Springfield Black Chamber of Commerce. "If that means investment in infrastructure, beautification efforts, as well as redevelopment projects, that's what they're willing to champion." Watson wants to work with the community to develop three buildings on the block that could include entertainment, activity and class space, plus a business innovation hub.
Much of the conversation about what the east side lacks revolves around access – access to good jobs, quality education, transportation and more, Watson said, hence the name for his idea, Community Access Project (CAP) 1908. "We need to listen to the community, and they're going to guide us and tell us what they want to see long term," Watson said.
The Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln highlighted community-led investment on the east side as one of its priorities for The Next 10 Community Visioning plan, an initiative with a steering committee Watson is a member of, aimed at building an equitable and prosperous Springfield. The east side "has been the most ignored part of our community for a very long time," said John Stremsterfer, the foundation's CEO and president. "We need to focus on this area of the community that maybe needs the most support to grow and prosper."
In addition to naming CAP 1908 as a "promising idea," Next 10 also highlights preserving historic properties, such as the Judge Taylor House and Firehouse No. 5. The Lincoln-era Taylor building once hosted a school for Black children modeled after the Tuskegee Institute. Firehouse No. 5 was once the only firehouse in town where African Americans could serve.
Similarly, Watson said the project's name, CAP 1908, is an acknowledgment of the 1908 Race Riot, the massacre of Black residents that sparked the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "(By) not looking at all the history of Springfield, not just being the Land of Lincoln, but also acknowledging all the negative as well as a lot of the other positive things outside of Lincoln, we're doing ourselves a disservice," Watson said.
Elected officials and community leaders have long made promises of investment and revitalization of the east side. And some progress has been made in making more economic development tools available. The Springfield City Council expanded the boundaries of the Far East Side Tax Increment Financing (TIF) District in 2019 to include South Town. TIF money has been used for infrastructure improvements and grants to spruce up owner-occupied homes. The council also created a grant program for minority-owned businesses and homeowners funded with tax money from the sale of recreational marijuana. Still, it's going to take partnership between city and county leaders, funders and, most importantly, residents, to reverse decades of segregation and disinvestment, Watson said.
Calvin Pitts' construction company, Bringing Others New Empowerment (BONE) LLC, and the Southtown Construction Training Program occupy the one-story brick building just east of the South Town Theater. The program trains people to launch careers in the building trades.
When he started the program in 2013, Pitts said he had a chance to locate on the west side, but turned it down. He grew up on the east side and had a lot of relationships there. "I wanted to get back to the community where there's people that look like I do," he said. "And the people that I wanted to serve within that area."
Pitts said he doesn't "bank on" many promises from politicians or organizations about revitalizing the neighborhood, referencing a visit in past years from a former governor. "After the visit and the news press, I wasn't able to get a phone call through to make things happen."
Still, he's cautiously optimistic about the renewed commitment and interest in South Town. Harold's Chicken, a Chicago-based chain of fried-chicken restaurants, moved in next door to the training center last year. Pitts said he's seen more foot traffic since then.
Down the block, Court Dickason's family has run Madison Furniture Store since the 1930s. He can remember when the block was bustling. "It was a city within a city," he said. Dickason said he's looking forward to retiring soon. He owns the building, and said he could either rent it out as a warehouse or sell it for the redevelopment Watson is planning. Dickason said he'd prefer to contribute to revitalization of the neighborhood. "I'd rather go with (Watson), and see this thing go. My grandparents would have been thrilled."
In the Next 10 plan, the City of Springfield is listed as the "champion" responsible for east side development priority. Julia Frevert, city spokesperson, said Springfield is planning to redevelop vacant and dilapidated properties into affordable housing, and is looking to partner with Pitts for that work. The city also recently received $80,000 from the state's marijuana sales tax for economic and community development planning on the east and north sides of the city, where rates of gun violence, poverty and unemployment are highest. Watson wants to ensure that residents are at the heart of these plans. "There needs to be that consistent partnership that we haven't seen in the past, and (that's) led by the community."
Mary Hansen is a reporter for NPR Illinois in Springfield.