West Siders look to turn blues heritage into tourist attraction

June 12, 2017
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West Side musicians, activists and residents gathered last week to discuss how to promote blues tourism in Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park.

The “West Side has got a worldwide reputation for blues,” Bonni McKeown, a longtime advocate and educator for the homegrown music, told about 20 people at Gone Again Travel &Tours last Wednesday to brainstorm ideas on how the West Side can capitalize on its music heritage to drive the economy and create jobs.

“Those people from Mississippi and Alabama brought this very rhythmic, soulful version of blues with them during the Second Great Migration,” McKeown said. “And that’s what makes our West Side special.”

But that heritage is not being recognized, McKeown said.

The West Side has been left out, agreed Janice Monti, a blues tour organizer who hosts blues symposia at Dominican University, adding the city has invested little, if anything, in showcasing the area as an arts and culture destination.

“It’s really important to understand right now that Chicago has taken its time to get on the blues tourism,” she said. “But my biggest concern is they’re only focused on the tourism market Downtown.”

There’s a multi-million dollar museum planned for 25 E. Washington St, just a few blocks away from Millennium Park.

The 50,000-square-foot Chicago Blues Experience museum, set to open in 2019, will feature the culture and history of blues through interactive technology, and include a 150-seat venue for live performance.

“I don’t see the city really taking a stand to make sure the communities that need it most are brought into this kind of initiatives,” Monti said.

The museum is going to attract a huge number of tourists nationally and internationally, she said.

“But after they spend two hours in the museum, how are you getting them go someplace other than Kingston Mines? And how are you getting the West Side musicians a chance to perform, either in that venue or in their communities?”

The West Side has never lacked blues musicians. But they have fewer opportunities to perform and make money, partly due to insufficient community support, said Larry Taylor, 62, a blues singer and drummer.

“There’s a lot of great musicians right over here,” Taylor said, referring to the West Side. But many of them feel discouraged because it’s hard to get by.

“The way they feel about the situation is that nobody really cares,” he said, noting sometimes West Side artists make just $50 a show.

The Garfield Park resident said there used to be plenty of venues on the West Side where musicians could play, especially along Roosevelt Road.

Monti, who’s been doing field research in Memphis, where the economy was turned around by its blues tourism over the past decade, said the approach of combining arts and business is what communities like Austin could replicate.

“They built a museum complex in the most economically blighted area in Memphis,” she said. “They turned rundown houses into a community center that is enriching the streets there, not downtown.”

Memphis’ museums and entertainment district have attracted tourists all over the world, Monti added.

Carol G. Johnson, a member of West Side Historical Preservation Society, said Chicago’s neighborhoods should build their own museum to showcase their unique culture and history.

The West Side Historical Preservation Society has talked to a couple of West Side aldermen about acquiring property for a museum, which, Johnson said, would include all the histories of the area – the blues in particular.

“I think the timing is right,” said the Austin High School alumni, who has lived in the neighborhood more than 45 years. “We have numerous resources in Austin, from Madison to Chicago Avenue.”

Earlier this year, the group conducted an online survey to determine if people want a museum on the West Side, and the response was overwhelmingly yes.

Crystal Dyer, owner of Gone Again Travel & Tours, said it’s necessary to rebrand the entire West Side in a more positive light.

“I lost my grandson to senseless gun violence right here in this community five years ago,” said Dyer, who’s lived in Austin more than 30 years.

She founded the first black-owned travel agency on Chicago Avenue – three blocks from where her grandson was fatally shot.

Dyer would like to see a Austin create its own cultural center on Chicago Avenue.

“I have friends all over the country, and all they see is the negative news about Austin,” she said. “But they’re a lot of historic buildings out there.”

State Rep. Camille Y. Lilly, chairwoman of the Illinois House Museums, Arts & Cultural Enhancement Committee, said she has been pushing for programing and funding initiatives that showcase the talents of citizens, particularly on Chicago’s West Side.

“Illinois is moving and pushing the arts forward, and making sure that we understand that this is the economic engine for the West Side.” Lilly said.

“When we took the arts out of many of the schools and blocks of the city, our young people no longer can tap into that,” Lilly said. “They have to make it up as they go.”

“That’s why we have some of the violence that’s going on in our communities. Because our young people are searching and searching in the wrong places.”

“Once we really tap into this, you will see people patronize theaters, concerts and blues clubs here,” she said. “And if you connect the blues history to the blues talents, it can go all over the city.”

Rep. La Shawn K. Ford, vice chairman of the Illinois House Tourism and Hospitality Committee, said the cure to the crime and violence on Chicago’s West Side is to support the communities that are trying to make a difference.

“Once you bring in the vibrancy, crime goes down,” Ford said. “You fight it by replacing it.”

He plans to host a follow-up meeting July 12 from 6 to 8 p.m. at Dyer’s travel agency, 5940 W. Chicago Ave.

Taylor, the musician, hopes the group’s efforts will pay off.

“The blues is the roots of all of music, from hip hop to gospel,” he said. “I want to see the communities more evolved with the arts, and I want to see more works for our musicians.”

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