In deeply segregated Chicago, the races don’t always play well together. White folk socialize North, Black people hang South and West, Latino and Asian celebrate in other territory. We don’t go to the same parties. Sometimes, we don’t even party the same way.
Today’s turbulent Chicago needs places with music, art, culture and just plain fun to bind us. Places that connect the disconnected, stir the melting pot, where race doesn’t matter.
We need an epiphany, to help demolish our racial and ethnic divides.
I recently toured the Epiphany Center for the Arts, formerly the Church of the Epiphany.
The historic church was built in 1885 at 201 S. Ashland Avenue, in ornate, Richardson Romanesque style, fashioned from stone blocks imported from Lake Superior. Over the years, its congregation dwindled. It closed in 2011.
Kimberly Rachal and David Chase, a multi-racial wife/husband team, have resurrected and transformed the church and its adjoining campus located on what they call “the artsy end of the West Loop.”
Epiphany. “It’s almost an explosive kind of a word, right? I mean, it can be life-changing,” Chase said.
The 42,000 square foot, multi-level complex includes three music venues, art galleries, studios, a café, outdoor courtyard and patio, and a commercial and catering kitchen.
On the outside, the converted church is flanked with massive, decorative stone arches and columns; inside, its rooms are adorned with antique, stained-glass windows, mosaics and terra cotta, revived with love and ambition.
Its mission is “to bring Chicago together,” Chase said. “Not just in terms of programming, but racial, ethnic, age … and we’re centrally located, and our programing is such that in the arts, we are driven to support women, people of color, the LGBT community and the disability culture.”
Chase, who is white, is a real estate developer and transplant from Kohler, Wisconsin. Rachal, a designer, is a Chicago-born African American. They were married at the church in 1996 and live across the street.
Built by wealthy social register types of the Episcopal faith, the church is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The wake for Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison Sr., who was assassinated in 1893, was held there.
During the civil rights movement, it was “The People’s Church,” hosting regular meetings of the Black Panthers. In 1969, slain Black Panther Party leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were memorialized there.
The $15 million acquisition and redevelopment project took five years. The center officially opened in September 2020, at the height of the pandemic. It was soon forced to shut down.
It reopened in March, at just the right time.
“The timeliness of what we’re doing is something that we could not have imagined,” Rachal said. “With everything that’s happened, with the pandemic, which happened with George Floyd and Black Lives Matter, a protest and uprising, and just the climate overall in our country and around the world.”
The singular arts center is “an outlet,” she added. “We’ve had people say, ‘We have been locked in for an entire year,’ and they’re walking through the door saying, ‘Oh my God, thank you, thank you, thank you.’”
The center presents a sprawling series of music performances, exhibits, educational programs, and offers space for weddings and galas.
It collaborates with nonprofits, museums, artists and activists to produce an eclectic panoply of offerings that explore everything from house music to LGBTQ rights, to gun violence, to mental health therapy.
The pandemic has widened and deepened Chicago’s inequities. Epiphanies can bring joyous, safe spaces to heal, play, and see each other, in peace.
Follow Laura Washington on Twitter @mediadervish
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