In Chicago, can art unite a divided neighborhood?

Martha Irvine
Associated Press

Chicago — Charlie Branda is not an artist. When she opened an art studio on a stretch of asphalt known as Sedgwick Street, the 53-year-old mom and former commercial banker simply wanted to get to know her neighbors and to connect two sides of a thoroughfare that divides black and white, haves and have-nots.

“The way it is now isn’t the way it has to be,” she remembers thinking.

Branda had lived for years in and around Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood when she, her husband and two children moved into a red-brick house on the east, and wealthier, side of Sedgwick in 2008.

Initially, she joined with her neighbors to demand that the city, police and absentee landlords do something about drug-dealing and occasional gunfire in the neighborhood. But she also spent a lot of time walking around, ignoring those who advised her to stay on “her side” of the street.

“Hello!” she’d chirp, smiling as she greeted strangers from Marshall Field Garden Apartments, a subsidized complex on the west side of Sedgwick.

Then in 2013, a young African-American father was fatally shot while on his way to buy diapers, just steps from the Brandas’ home. Some residents were ready to move, and at least one family eventually did. But Branda couldn’t shake the idea that she didn’t even know the family that had lost a loved one.

“She saw us as neighbors,” says Adell Thomas, a longtime resident of Marshall Field and president of its tenants’ association.

Branda had been reading a book — “Make the Impossible Possible” by William Strickland Jr., a community activist in Pittsburgh who credits a high school art teacher with helping him find his way in life. She kept thinking about an image Strickland described: a ball of clay and how “you can make a miracle with your hands,” she recalls.

She began telling people about her vision for a neighborhood art studio, and eventually presented the idea at community meetings. Thomas was inspired and quickly decided: “I want to be part of that.” As she got to know Branda, Thomas was surprised to learn she’d grown up in Anchorage, Alaska, with a single mom and modest means. Branda, meanwhile, saw a bit of her tough yet compassionate mom in Thomas.

A board was formed, and in October 2015, the first Art on Sedgwick studio opened in a tiny storefront across the street from Marshall Field Garden Apartments. That day, neighbors stopped to write on a large chalkboard outside the studio that had rows of the unfinished sentence, “Before I die, I want to ______.”

“Do Art,” one girl wrote. And so it began.

Last year, an effort known informally as “the kite project” brought together sixth-graders from Catherine Cook and Manierre Elementary, a public school tucked behind the Marshall Field apartments. The kids were paired off and instructed to interview one another, asking questions like: “What do you dream about?” ”Do you think about dying?” ”Are you scared?”

“A group of white kids and black kids playing together — you really don’t see that nowadays,” marveled Manierre student Eric Evans.

With each art show, class and community event, more people have trickled into Art on Sedgwick. One Saturday each month, a faithful group of adults from varied backgrounds gathers at the studio for a “Sip and Paint,” a chance to do art, chat and drink a little wine. Branda and Thomas, now friends, often take part.

“In some ways, I feel like we’ve accomplished so much in terms of building community and maybe changing the discussion,” Branda says. “On the other hand, I feel like we’ve just barely scratched the surface.”