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At its July 10 meeting the City’s Preservation Commission passed a motion to move the Weissbourd-Holmes Family Focus Building at 2010 Dewey Ave. toward designation as a historic landmark. The next step will be for the Commission to create a report that will recommend landmark designation. Though the vote was unanimous, there was discussion not only of the building’s historic significance, but also the challenge of maintaining it.
Dino Robinson, founder and director of Shorefront, which collects, preserves and educates people about Black history on Chicago’s suburban North Shore, nominated the building for landmark status and was the first to speak at the July 10 meeting. In an interview with the RoundTable, Mr. Robinson said that he has conducted almost 100 interviews with 5th Ward community members and that in those interviews no one has failed to mention Family Focus, Martin Luther King, Jr. Laboratory School or Foster School.
“I’d like to see the building become an anchor of a conservation district. Living within a three-block radius were people that went on to have local and national impact,” said Mr. Robinson. He mentioned jazz legend Junior Mance; Dorothy Hadley, who married an Ethiopian prince and was a war correspondent; and Golden Globe-nominated actress Tina Lifford. He said that the broader significance of the Commission’s vote is recognizing the community for its historic presence.
Mr. Robinson also talked about what could happen with the building, about the potential for government and private funding, potential for a profit-nonprofit model and community focused use of the space. “The vibe I’m getting from community members is that they want Family Focus to stay and others to come . . . Shorefront was approached in the past about moving back into the space,” said Mr. Robinson.
Fifth Ward Alderman Robin Rue Simmons said she is pleased with the support of the Commission. She said that it is the wish of the community and that an extensive number of signatures and comments have been gathered, that citizens have provided public comment at both Commission meetings at which the building was discussed.
“The historic significance is not up for debate in any community. Residents educated in the building have become significant in communities and industries that reach beyond Evanston. I couldn’t be more encouraged and confident that it will pass,” said Ald. Rue Simmons. “Family Focus has committed to continue in Evanston. I came up through Family Focus . . . my mother attended Foster School, and I attended Family Focus programming, I have relatives that have worked in the building, and it has been an important resource for thousands of residents. The building should stay in the hands of the community.”
Ald. Rue Simmons said that she does not believe the sale of the building will reduce the capacity and quality of Family Focus programs, and that she respects that the Family Focus business model focuses on the integrity of their programming, not on maintenance of buildings. She said she wants to see it continue to be a hub for social services and community work, for recreation, enrichment and empowerment.
“I hope it will help to fill the void of a 5th Ward school and would like to see enterprise there as well. A commercial kitchen could help food entrepreneurs in the community that are lacking the means to grow their businesses . . . The theater could be renovated and be a vibrant source of arts. The growing and rich community garden could expand, and with a commercial kitchen could provide experiences,” said Ald. Rue Simmons.
She said she is pro-development and for new business and innovation and that “what’s great about the landmark policy is that innovation and improvements can be made inside the building, that [the designation] doesn’t limit creativity in thinking about the use of the building.”
Merri Ex, President and CEO of the larger Family Focus organization, which has a number of sites throughout Chicagoland, said “The Evanston Community is very important to Family Focus because it’s where we started . . . However, we can’t afford to maintain the building. We went to the previous mayor and to this one. We have seven centers and this is the only one we own. The money we get in those [other centers] goes to programs more than maintenance. We want that in Evanston.”
Ms. Ex said that Family Focus donors do not want to pay for renovation of a building and that while the City has been very generous with funding that it also understands that Family Focus cannot afford to maintain the building. “We don’t yet know how the landmark decision will impact the potential sale going forward, but we’re in conversation with Friends of the Community of Foster School. To us a win-win would be for the community group to purchase the building. We would love to stay there and rent. We want to give the message that we’re committed to serving the Evanston community. We were just awarded funds from the state to serve more of the 0-3 [year] population, and have a number of key local partners, like the Evanston Community Foundation, Cradle to Career, the Y, the YW . . . We’re working with community – including the Friends of Foster School group, but also others to find the best way forward.”
“I returned to Evanston to raise my children,” said Ald. Rue Simmons. “I had support from Delores Holmes, Mr. [James] Burton [long-time Family Focus employee], Lonnie Wilson [who worked on projects with Family Focus] and Joann Avery – who has been there 30 years, still today.” She said she had been in Family Focus programming when it was located on Church Street and that she remembers the excitement when the Foster School building was acquired. “I felt like it belonged to me. Having a place to go. I want young people to have what I had . . . We went there when we got out of school, stayed for dinner that was provided, and received cultural enrichment, scholastic support, human services. Those services continue today. It’s a building that has had substantial impact in the community.”