By Dorothy Tucker, Carol Thompson, and Samah Assad
CHICAGO (CBS) — Two years into the pandemic and the virus continues taking a toll on Black communities more than any other. More than half of COVID-19 deaths in January 2022 (52%) so far have been Black Chicagoans. That’s the same percentage as at the very beginning back in April 2020. Community and faith leaders say the disparity seen in their communities reflect decades of disinvestment. One organization, the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation (GAGDC) is trying to change that.
“This is the Auburn Gresham Healthy Lifestyle Hub,” said Carlos Nelson, the CEO of GAGDC, as he proudly showed CBS 2 the renderings for what the space will soon look like.
“This is a 60,000 Square foot building. This building has sat vacant for more than a quarter of a century. We are bringing this building back to life,” said Nelson.
The long vacant building near the corner of Halsted and 79th streets was the home of the Rusnak Bros. Furniture Store and Showroom from 1926 until 1974. Then the Illinois Department of Public Aid took up residence there from the late 1970s to around 2000. Construction is now well underway for the new Healthy Lifestyle Hub.
Auburn Gresham was the community that logged the first COVID-related death in Illinois. Since then, more than 2,800 Black Chicagoans have lost their lives to the virus. Many Black communities face the same struggles as Auburn Gresham, including, according to Nelson less “access to quality healthcare or any healthcare for that matter.”
But soon people who live in Auburn Gresham and neighboring southside communities like Englewood and Chatham will have better access to the best healthcare.
“This is where the pharmacy will be,” said Nelson, standing in the middle of construction. The new independently owned pharmacy will be located on the first floor.
Upstairs there will be even more health services for the body and mind.
“The entire building though is trauma informed design, even to the color paint that was utilized to paint the stairwell. We worked with the University of Illinois Health Systems and their Office of Community Engagement and neighborhood health partnerships. And so the design of the health center, the way people move around the building, is all based on kind of a trauma informed design,” said Nelson.
On the second floor, “We have a full-service health center … about 12 medical exam rooms. You also have eight dental exam rooms,” said Nelson.
And, on the third floor, “What we’re hoping to build out here … the Women’s Health suite to address prenatal and postnatal care. UI Health has done a number of needs assessments and and [there’s] high rates of infant mortality in this community,” said Nelson.
He expects the health center to be very busy. “The health center in the first year alone expects to see nearly 30,000 patients,” he said.
Nelson’s vision includes providing more resources than just healthcare. A new Bank of America branch will open on the first floor. A locally owned sit-down restaurant will open just across the lobby from the bank.
“The idea is that this first floor is the space that invites the community in,” said Nelson.
“Also a unique aspect of this building will be the fact that we will have a concierge we’re calling this person a community concierge. So, you come in, you’re looking not only for what’s in this building but if you want to know where the nearest Subway shop is or access to the Metra station, this community concierge, which will be a full time position, will be a person to answer all those questions,” said Nelson.
Another part of the building taking shape is funded by one of Chicago’s sports teams.
“This is the grand Community Room, which will seat up to 100 individuals. The Bears provided funds for this space and the high-tech teaching kitchen,” said Nelson, who happens to be one of the biggest Bears fans.
“We’re working with the Chicago Bears marketing and branding department because of their investment.”
The teaching kitchen will also live stream classes for those who can’t participate in person. In all, the Bears say their investment in the Healthy Lifestyle Hub totals $611,000.
Nelson also sees the hub as a community job creator. “We’re working very closely with Leo High school next door so that their students at Leo can be employed at these tenants whether you’re the bank, the restaurant, etc.”
GAGDC offices will also move to this building and provide things like free home repairs for seniors and “there’s education and youth development, tutoring services on the fourth floor as well,” said Nelson.
The development of this building got off the ground when GAGDC won the inaugural Chicago Prize 2020 from the Pritzker Traubert Foundation. The Prize provided $10 million toward the project. Additional funding came through Chicago’s INVEST South/West program and businesses like Kohler are donating products.
“So it really is a joint effort to revive the community and give the community access to the types of the quality health care services and wealth building services … that communities like ours deserve,” said Nelson.
The Hub is expected to open in the summer of 2022.