Bowling trophies that have collected dust from decades past litter the interior of Mont Clare Shoe Repair (7181 W. Grand Ave.), a family-owned business tucked away in the city's far Northwest Side Mont Clare community. The business is celebrating its 75th year in the location, a testament to the family values and sense of pride felt in the largely Italian and Polish community. The shop gets a steady stream of local regulars, but many have no idea that places like this even exists.
That could change if Rob Jackson has anything to do with it.
Jackson, 23, has embarked on a mission to visit all 77 Chicago "community areas," about one each week, and spend a maximum of $50 per trip as part of his brainchild 77Chicago. The of Bronzeville resident wanted to find a way to discover all of the beauty that is Chicago and get friends and perfect strangers to come along for the ride.
"It's hard to drag people out of their own neighborhood," Jackson said. "People have said things like, ‘Oh, let me know when you're doing Wrigleyville or Lincoln Park,' but there's so much more to the city than just the few places people normally go to."
After visiting the city's official website, cityofchicago.org, Jackson randomly began choosing areas to visit. By Week 6 of the project, he'd already found some surprising gems that the city has to offer.
"In Auburn-Gresham, we went to Yassa's (716 E. 79thSt.), an authentic African restaurant. I used to think you had to go up to Devon or further north to get good African cuisine, but there's a place right on the South Side. We also found a great archery range (Archery Bow Range Chicago, 1757 N. Kimball) in Humboldt Park. Who knew there was an archery range in the city?"
Jackson is chronicling the experience through journaling and also on the project's Tumblr page (77Chicago.tumblr.com), giving those who don't have an opportunity to participate the chance to catch up on each week's events and plan for the following week if they'd like to attend. So far, those who have gone out on a trek with Jackson give the project a thumbs-up.
"It breaks down misconceptions that there are only certain areas of Chicago where you can have a good time," said Cela Sutton, 25 of Wicker Park, who visited Mont Clare with Jackson.
The project is open to everyone, and Jackson said he expects there will be more interest in the coming months.
"Right now it's cold out, but I'm expecting a lot more people to join along in the warmer months," he said. "There's so much to learn from a cultural perspective--how people live, what the buildings look like, how the buildings have changed--it's a lot. "
Jackson said he has discovered through his project that although the ethnic and racial makeup of neighborhoods may change, much stays the same.
"There are a lot of the same values and principles from place to place, even though at first people may seem different," he said.
Having taken finance and economics classes at Florida A&M University, as well as working in the banking industry, Jackson hopes 77Chicago will grow into something that creates a positive economic impact for local businesses and, after he's completed his rounds in the city, even expands to the suburbs.
" It's interesting how far $20 will get you downtown as opposed to other neighborhoods, like Chatham," he said. "I feel like this could make a really positive mark on small business, even if you just get 10 people at a time coming in to spend. "
He said partnering with local restaurants and shops for a possible 77Chicago discount might be in the works down the line.
Jackson said he's made a few sacrifices by giving up running some errands on his weekends and even offering to pick up people who'd like to go on his neighborhood visits but don't have cars, but he said it's all worth it in the long run.
"I would definitely go on another 77Chicago outing," Sutton said. "It opens me up to parts of the city that don't get as much attention but may perhaps have quite a few hidden gems."
Jackson agreed, that it will become a catalyst for true Chicago pride and unity.
"I want people to form relationships with cool people, learn from each other and have a good time," he said. "If somebody walks away from this with just learning one thing or meeting one new person, then the project has done its job."
Anthony Roberts is a RedEye special contributor.
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