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The Church and Dodge Neighborhood Advisory Council (NAC) met with about 50 members of the community at 7 p.m. on Feb. 19 at Evanston Township High School for the first of what its directors said they hoped would be many meetings about the future of Boocoo Cultural Center at 1823 Church St. The building is kitty-corner from ETHS and at the intersection of the City’s Second and Fifth Wars.
Clarence Weaver, president of the NAC board, said he and many others have given time, thought and heart to how best to reinvent the center that offered to many teens, children and adults, especially in the Fifth Ward, a place to learn and practice music, dance and recording, how to grow food, and just to meet up with others in a healthy environment.
Boocoo closed just before Christmas last year, after more than a year of financial troubles. Its owner, Daniel Cheifetz, appears to be ready to give up the Boocoo building, said Mr. Weaver. NAC is one of several groups, he added, interested in the site they call, as a working name, “The Corner,” though some participants expressed a dislike for the name.
Other parties are also interested in the Boocoo site. Bobby Burns of We Want to Live attended the Feb. 19 meeting. His group “has put in a bid” for the Boocoo building, according to its website, wewanttolive.org.
The board of NAC, Mr. Weaver said, “wants that location to have a ring to it that’s better than what it is today,” and wants the new entity to offer even more than Boocoo provided. He said the board of directors, composed of four black members and four white members, may agree or disagree, but “all have the community at heart.
“1823 is not a white solution or a black solution,” he said.
“It’s a multicultural solution.”
Christine Wolf, vice president for marketing and communications of NAC, spoke about the violence in Evanston that has grown in the past years, and in particular about Dajae Coleman, whose murder in 2012 hit many hard. She introduced a group of students who attended the meeting as part of the high school’s community service program.
Ms. Wolf said NAC’s mission is to “get as many established [non-profit] groups into the building as possible.” Among the “partnerships made or in process” are ETHS; Big Brothers Big Sisters; Common Threads Foundation; Northwestern University’s LEND program; the Moran Center, Rex’s Place; Options for Youth; the McGaw Y; Youth Job Center and Evanston Community Foundation.
NAC Acting Executive Director Kristin Yates Thomas spoke briefly about potential programming. Sally Mabadi, who heads NAC’s fundraising and hiring committee. Ms. Mabadi answered questions about the potential purchase of the building, programming and outreach.
“We have a budget and a plan [to purchase the property],” Ms. Mabadi said. “We want to know we have the support of the community and the City before we take it to the next step.”
Ms. Mabadi said NAC wants to continue the same programs and offer support programs as well. To do this they have “a long-term vision” and “management that is nonprofit and knowledgeable in reaching out.” She said that NAC is a different group from Boocoo.
Dusty Ballard, Boocoo’s gardening expert, rose to say that “a lot of good was done there,” to which Mr. Weaver agreed: The difference in their vision and that of others, he said, was “no reflection on individuals or the way the existing entity was run.”
When former School District 65 Board member Jerome Summers asked, “How will it reach out to parts of the community that don’t feel welcome to come out here?” Mr. Weaver asked in turn, “How can we do that? This will be a monthly discussion. We will be asking you what you want to do” and how it can be done. … We need to hear from people in the community.”
Ms. Maibadi asked those present to discuss in groups what programming they would like to see, what couold be done to more effectively support the neighborhood, and what barriers to success they could identify.
Many people said they wanted the music, drumming, dance, sound recording programs to continue and even expand. Other suggestions included fitness classes, SAT and ACT preparation classes, health awareness and nutrition, quilting, public speaking, independent living, arts career counseling, entrepreneurial workshops.
Marketing and distribution of information were issues that came up consistently.
Not enough publicity, lack of marketing, unimposing signage, people said, have prevented people from getting interested in or even knowing about the cultural center, those in attendance said. Some said they needed more information about what Boocoo had done in the past so they could better speak to change.
“Lack of information was a barrier,” said Rebecca Groble. “We didn’t know what Boocoo even was.”
Miah Logan, a fitness trainer and consultant at Fleetwood Jourdain, strongly suggested more publicity. She said, “I never got an ad. I only ever heard about anything on Face Book.”
A LED marquee, like the one at ETHS, was suggested by at least two tables. Seth D. Himrod, director of Evanston Junior Wildkits Football said, “We need tours. … Walk people through with their kids. Show them – don’t just talk to them.”
Rabang Phillips, one of the several ETHS teens who formed a discussion table, said they wanted to see the facility expand.
When Mr. Weaver opened up the floor, he was asked about the involvement of the Second and Fifth Ward aldermen. He said both Ald. Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, and Ald. Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, are “very informed” and added that Mr. Braithwaite had said that, as the cultural center is in Ald. Holmes’s ward, he would “follow her lead.”
Mr. Weaver said the NAC would meet again in four to six weeks. He said, “We have to get to know each other in order to be effective.”
The target date for reopening BooCoo, or The Corner, is September, he said.
The Neighborhood Advisory Council website is www.cornerevanston.com . NAC’s board may also be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Information on Boocoo Cultural Center can be found at boocoo.org.
Boocoo, the beloved but beleaguered cultural center at the corner of Church and Dodge, held a benefit concert on Feb. 16 at the Unitarian Church of Evanston, 1330 Ridge Ave. The proceeds, amounting to about $1,100, will go to Boocoo’s instructors and staff, who have had to focus on private students and finding new jobs since Boocoo effectively closed on Christmas Eve 2013. Among the performers were the Dave Williams Jazz Trio, Tim O’Donnell Blues, Phaze II Dance (the Eric Delgado Crew) and African Rhythms Dance (Jen Halman Troup), instructors themselves at Boocoo.
“When Boocoo had to close due to unexpected financial issues, instructors and staff suffered some loss in income,” said administrator Alicia O. Hempfling. “We [found] we could continue some group activities – African dance, tango, drumming, break dance practice – but not the full amount as before.
“Break dance instructor Eric Delgado is very involved in hip hop culture and in trying to [extend to his students] the positive side. … Ensemble instructor Tim O’Donnell still has his ensemble meetings here. He’s been so great with kids and events at Boocoo.” She paused before continuing. “The staff and instructors are so dedicated to the mission of bringing arts and music to this community – they put so much of themselves into it. They have volunteered their own resources and time to bring these experiences to people.”
Ms. Hempfling said, “It’s unknown what form Boocoo will return in.” But she was clear about the important role Boocoo has played in Evanston – and about her hope and expectation that it will be back.