Everyone was invited to join a demonstration of the new Creative Movement class starting in February. Photo by Heidi Randhava

The Evanston community has many reasons to celebrate the newly renovated Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center at 1655 Foster St. The renovation is an investment in the care and preservation of Evanston’s oldest community center, a place that embodies our local history and inspires a sense of belonging to a greater community.

The completed upgrades add a refreshing “wow” factor to the facility. There is also expanded programming with new offerings such as creative movement and juggling. Residents were invited to see the center’s new look and enjoy an afternoon of music, food and games at an open house and ribbon cutting ceremony hosted by the City on Jan. 11.

“It’s always felt welcoming but it didn’t really look welcoming. You’ve always come here and you felt good, but now it looks like it feels. We are truly a nine-ward center. Everyone in Evanston uses this building – seniors, children, all ethnicities,” said recreation manager Kenneth Cherry during an informal game of volleyball at the open house.

Fleetwood-Jourdain has welcomed residents since 1956, when it opened under the name Foster Community Center. The center is also home to Evanston’s oldest senior organization, Foster Senior Club, formed in 1957.

The appeal and function of the facility have been enhanced by new flooring in the auditorium area, painting, a reconstructed staircase and circular lighting in the lobby, a kitchen makeover, carpeting in the game room, ADA upgrades such as a new registration window and serving window, and new furniture. A sectional sofa adds warmth and color to the open, bright and airy feel of the renovated spaces.

A new gym floor in the Keith Allen Smith Memorial Gymnasium will be installed this summer and ready for use by September.

The project was supported with $440,000 in funding from the City’s Good Neighbor Fund, in partnership with Northwestern University. The City contracted with the Chicago nonprofit Designs 4 Dignity and Central Rug and Carpet in Evanston to complete the project.

“This is the second most used community center in Evanston and I’m glad to see Northwestern University and the City investing in this facility,” said Mayor Stephen Hagerty.

The remodeled kitchen was a focal point, appreciated by City of Evanston program supervisor Marchelle Bonner, who prepared hot dogs, served with chips, cookies and beverages. Food was free at the event.

Program coordinator Jeron Dorsey and assistant program coordinator Briana Jenkins were recently promoted to their positions, having been long-term staff members at the facility.

“I think the space as it’s set up now, it allows us more opportunities and it’s more inviting for community members to come in and enjoy the programming,” said Mr. Dorsey.

The center offers many ways to stay active in the winter months.

“We look forward to welcoming back roller skating, which is something that’s in demand for our residents,” Fifth Ward Alderman Robin Rue Simmons told guests at the full-house event.

Beyond bricks and mortar, the renovation of Fleetwood-Jourdain represents a commitment to preserving a place that represents a larger story about the history of Evanston’s African American community, one that needs to be shared. For many who knew the facility as Foster Community Center in the 50s, 60s and 70s, it felt like home.

Oliver Ruff, a retired educator and Evanston community leader, began his elementary school education at what was then the all-black Foster School at 2010 Dewey Ave., just across the street from the community center.

“Foster Center, now Fleetwood, was basically the recreation center for blacks. It was strategically important for my childhood development and community relationships. Members became a surrogate father for me; I did not have a father in my home. The key to feeling a part of something is how relevant it is to you in terms of relationships and appreciation. If it’s not relevant to you, no matter how grand the facility is, it means nothing,” Mr. Ruff told the RoundTable.

He believes the funds for the renovation of Fleetwood-Jourdain were well spent, and necessary.

“I’m very happy that renovations took place at Fleetwood-Jourdain. They were long overdue. It’s about time that monies are spent on upgrades that are beneficial to the relevancy of the center, and not just for maintenance and necessities. After seeing all the funds being expended for Robert Crown, I’m happy to see a small portion of money from the City being placed in Fleetwood-Jourdain,” said Mr. Ruff.

The center was so named in 1982 in honor of Homer Fleetwood, a former director of the center; and Edwin A. Jourdain Jr., Evanston’s first black alderman, elected in 1931, who was instrumental in establishing the complex.

Mr. Ruff said he felt fortunate to have known both Mr. Fleetwood and Mr. Jourdain, who was his cousin through marriage.

“They fought through and overcame some racial discrimination. They had to go through many obstacles while doing so many things for us as youngsters and for our future. They endured, and they did,” said Mr. Ruff.

In “How to Reinvent Historic Preservation,” author Amanda Kolson Hurley writes, “The new preservation movement cares about neighborhoods as much as individual buildings. … It looks beyond architecture for reasons why a place resonates, often finding them in social history.”

Foster Community Center and Foster School were closely tied by location and the demographics of the populations they served. After the community center opened in 1956, Foster School students could walk across the street after school to participate in sports, arts and crafts, and social activities at the center. It was a place where black residents felt a sense of community at a time when they were marginalized by discrimination in education, housing and jobs. Families in Evanston’s Fifth Ward had a neighborhood school and community center in close proximity for a decade.

In his article, “The Role of Foster School in the Implementation of School District 65’s desegregation plan in 1967 and Its Closing in 1979,” published in the RoundTable, Larry Gavin writes that Foster School remained an all-black school in 1966, two years after a citizen’s committee appointed by the School Board recommended that the District explore ways to desegregate its schools, and 12 years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

When Foster School was closed as a neighborhood school in 1967 as part of the District’s desegregation plan, it became a magnet school open to the entire district, and was later named Martin Luther King, Jr. Experimental Laboratory School, where about 75% of students were white. The school was closed altogether in 1979, and the building is currently owned by Family Focus social service organization.

Ironically, Foster School began with a 100% white student body in 1905.  It had become an all-black school by 1945, as a result of the discriminatory practice of redlining. Evanston’s history of redlining is outlined in “Exhibit Shows History of Segregation and Redlining in Evanston,” by Larry Gavin, also published in the RoundTable. 

The “Undesign the Redline” exhibit featured in the article includes panels prepared by founder and executive director of Shorefront Legacy Center Dino Robinson, mapping out how real estate practices segregated black households “into a triangular area of the City, essentially bounded by the canal on the north and west, the Metra tracks on the east, and Church Street on the South.”

Redlining, along with a school desegregation plan that put the burden of busing on the black community, have left Evanston’s 5th Ward without a neighborhood school for more than 50 years.

The story of Foster School spotlights the fact that there is much work yet to be done. The story of Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center is a reminder of what can be done.

Today, many people whose lives have been shaped by their experiences at Fleetwood-Jourdain have children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren who attend programs there. The center’s revitalized spaces pay homage to Homer Fleetwood and Edwin B. Jourdain, Jr., and many others like them who, as Mr. Ruff said, “Endured and did” to create a better future for Evanston’s youth.

Heidi Randhava is an award winning reporter who has a deep commitment to community engagement and service. She has written for the Evanston RoundTable since 2016.