Re-generation and Re-storying with the Sweet Water Foundation

community members seated in front of a small outdoor structure; a bright green lawn surrounds them. Courtesy of the Sweet Water Foundation.

We explore “The Commonwealth,” a Regenerative Neighborhood Development built by the Sweet Water Foundation with Chicago’s South Side communities.

Foreclosed homes into public art galleries. Vacant lots into public parks. Neglect into justice. 

In the face of redlining and municipal disinvestment, the Sweet Water Foundation (SWF) has worked within its neighborhood—at the nexus of Englewood and Washington Park on Chicago’s South Side—to turn what was once considered by many a no-man’s land into a vibrant model for Regenerative Neighborhood Development. Among its bounties: a community farm spanning a full city block, a hand-raised timber frame pavilion for community events known as the Thought Barn, and the historic Civic Arts Church now returning to its origins as a space for spirituality, creativity, and safety, especially for the Black community. 

We asked SWF’s Executive Director Emmanuel Pratt and Chief Operating Officer Jia Lok Pratt to guide us through the culmination of their work—an ever-evolving, four-block corridor known as “The Commonwealth,” which for the community is serving as a means of craftsmanship, nourishment, imagination, and play. 

The Commonwealth is an incredibly dynamic space, spanning multiple blocks, with an active farm, live performances, cultural events, community workshops, and even public tours. What does the name The Commonwealth mean? And how does it reflect the local community? 

The Commonwealth is a play on words, history, meaning, reason, and intention to unpack the question of value. Fundamentally, we call into question what is “common,” which is compounded with core questions about who or what defines “wealth,” and why and for whom? Where do food, health, education, love, nature, play, and all of the things that are essential to humanity factor in the equation of “wealth,” and how are they valued? Simply put, The Commonwealth reflects a space of “common wealth” that is based upon principles of public trust. The name was selected to articulate what Sweet Water Foundation is building through its practice of Regenerative Neighborhood Development.  

For SWF, the reclamation of the term “commonwealth” is rooted in a radical imagination—daring to dream of what is not only possible but what needs to be moving forward for generations yet to come. 

Since 2014, the “Humans of Sweet Water” have cultivated The Commonwealth, a dynamic site that is a direct response to the hollowing-out of urban communities. Every aspect of The Commonwealth is cultivating trust through new forms of publics created with the specific intent to reexamine labor, the value of work, education, and material life cycles. 

When you introduce the work of the Sweet Water Foundation and the history of the neighborhood, as you did in a presentation on Sweet Water’s 2022 “Communiversity,” you discuss an “ecology of absence.” What does this phrase mean? How does it help explain what’s happened in the neighborhood? 

At the nexus of Englewood and Washington Park, The Commonwealth is spatially and temporally situated within the epicenter of Chicago’s intersecting histories of the Great Migration, urban renewal, redlining, white flight, and disinvestment. Historical Sanborn maps show us that the neighborhood was once densely packed with family homes. Today, the area reflects a rural population density, with 79% of the parcels sitting vacant, 58% of which are owned by the City of Chicago.  

The prescriptive pathology of redlining and other racist and degenerative policies and practices have created a constructed ecology of absence that is seen all throughout Chicago’s South and West Sides and in similar communities (race/class/demographic) across the nation.  

The SWF Community Farm and Thought Barn, for example, are situated on the remains of the former Moseley School for Social Reform, one of the worst schools in the history of Chicago, which became known as a direct pipeline to prison. After the school’s closing, the building was transformed into a homeless shelter, which accelerated the patterns of rapid disinvestment and decline of the neighborhood. The fate of the Moseley School is similar to that of the neighborhood itself. After generations of municipal neglect, predatory lending practices, and increased waves of foreclosure, the neighborhood was hollowed out and its structures demolished. 

Compounded by several decades of loss of population, dramatic increases of foreclosure and unemployment, and continued demolition of existing housing stock and buildings in the surrounding area, the area quickly became understood as a no-man’s land, left neglected with no plans for redevelopment. As such, the 5700 block of Perry Avenue and much of the surrounding area sat vacant, “blighted,” and deeply scarred by a constructed ecology of absence.  

By 2014, the neighborhood had been reduced to a hole—almost completely devoid of buildings and with a rural population density that is all too familiar across Chicago’s South and West Sides and in urban communities nationwide. 

It feels like The Commonwealth is a result of seeing value in places institutions chose to ignore or disinvest in. What were some of those places? What are they now? How do people use them? 

It is amidst this multigenerational hollowing-out of a neighborhood that Sweet Water Foundation has worked to cultivate a whole from a hole. Whereas bounded rationality sees emptiness and no value, we see possibility.  

Municipal neglect gave rise to the opportunity to practice a new method of neighborhood development applied through a usufructuary lens—the right to the use and profits of the property of another without damaging it. 

In 2014, Sweet Water Foundation was granted right of access to a full city block of public land zoned for urban farming and an adjacent foreclosed home. With zero public funding, the Foundation began canvassing the streets to meet those in the community who remained—the elders and families still standing as anchors of stability and hope. This was the first act of a new method of neighborhood development that has come to be known as Regenerative Neighborhood Development. Deeply rooted in theory and grounded in the values of the “essential economy,” Regenerative Neighborhood Development requires, as preconditions, lived experience within the community, consistent and daily presence over time, and hands-on labor. Examples of Regenerative Neighborhood Development have included: 

  • vacant lots-to-a public park: RND Park and Meeting House
  • a foreclosed house-to-public school: Think-Do House
  • a vacant house-to-public gallery: [Re]Construction House
  • an abandoned church-to-public art center: Civic Arts Church 

What do you know about the history of the Civic Arts Church building? How did that history shape the way the community has transformed the space? 

The church is one out of 11 buildings standing on a city block that had 50 buildings in 1949. Nearly everything surrounding it—the people, the properties, the businesses—was erased by a constructed ecology of absence, but this building remains.  

The abandoned building at 5810 South Lafayette Avenue was originally constructed around 1900 as a single-family home. By 1920, the building was transformed into a church, with a 20-foot addition to the west. As a Black church, the structure became a gathering place and destination for members of the African American community as the neighborhood became increasingly Black. The footprint of the church grew again by 1940 with the continued increase of its congregation. However, as redlining practices became more formalized and explicitly practiced, the values of the houses in the community continued to depreciate, impacting the stability of the neighborhood. By the late 1950s, the advent of the Dan Ryan Highway bifurcated the neighborhood, and select families moved and/or were moved away. By the 1960s into the 1970s, the neighborhood began to lose its population through a combination of members of the community moving away and increased fires. By the 1980s into the 1990s, the church had lost most of its congregation, and the building became a shell of its former self.  

In 2022, the structure was officially reopened to the community as Civic Arts Church, a beacon of community design and cultural celebration. Renovation of the church revealed clear evidence that parishioners tried to care for the building, making modifications and add-ons in an attempt to maintain and even upgrade the building for the community despite limited resources and uphill battles. 

Today, with the regenerative artistic practice and historical and cultural preservation at its core, the Civic Arts Church is emerging as its own unique architectural space for re-rooting via “RE-Generation, RE-Mediation, and RE-Membering: The Art and Science of Life”—a living, emergent, and participatory community engagement series that will inform the first two years of programming and exhibitions at Civic Arts Church. 

You’ve made the point that Sweet Water projects involve not only a process of re-construction, but a process of re-storying too. What does it mean to re-story? Is this idea universal or specific to SWF’s community? 

While the media relentlessly portrays the South and West Sides of Chicago as war zones with little to no positivity or hope, we and countless other “solutionaries” are building the new story. We are re-storying our lives by creating a new story of regeneration and “chaord” (the balance of chaos and order).

We gather and share our life stories, our dreams, and visions of new homes and markets that provide places to work and sell our produce—spaces for families to gather, share across cultures, and heal. We speak of new ways to nurture our neighborhood. Abandoned lots, buildings, and warehouses do not represent a blight of disintegrating land upon the urban landscape—but instead are re-envisioned as restorable projects and possible financial and community investments. Working together, we discuss opportunities for learning new skills, creating new small businesses, building better schools, and reviving vital organs for community life that can emerge over time. 

The work of Sweet Water is not confined to one location. The “Humans of Sweet Water” carry this dream work, thinking, and doing across the country. Others also see and become attracted to what is happening here. This, after all, is the function of powerful art-making and creative activity. It calls out from the hidden, forgotten, truncated depths within hearts, minds, and souls. It awakens those who dare to wonder, to see, and to learn how to seed their own vibrant expressions of life. And those who are called to just stop by—the teachers, planners, architects, preachers, neighbors, or homeless—are all invited to see something different, to grow new stories in old communities and to become “solutionaries” who will dare seed new ideas. Those outside the community are now beginning to surrender their fearful images and see something hopeful. The sacred laborers from within the garden are calling us all into something far larger than Sweet Water. What we are seeing here is just how giving and forgiving the universe really is.