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Decorative board-ups: A tool in the battle against the vacancy epidemic

The Neighborhood Foundation has been installing painted panels on abandoned buildings for nearly two decades.

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The boarded-up storefront on the northwest corner of Chicago and Drake not long ago looked like many of Chicago's other 18,000 abandoned buildings. The plywood sheets covering its sidewalk-facing windows were a reminder of the commercial blight in this stretch of Humboldt Park. Today, the place remains vacant, but as vacant buildings go, it's indisputably more pleasant looking. The exterior greets passersby with a cheery trompe-l'œil bakery scene that seems like an artist's rough rendering of a Parisian cafe complete with tables topped by baguette loaves, pastries, and flowers.

The "decorative board-up" is the result of a partnership between the West Humboldt Park Development Council, the body that oversees the special tax district established for the area's uplift, and the Neighborhood Foundation, a Bridgeport-based nonprofit that fits buildings with painted panels to give forsaken spots the appearance of vibrancy. The organization's president, Christopher Toepfer, says this more attractive method of securing uninhabited residences and businesses has proven to decrease the chance of break-in and vandalism, and may even attract the interest and investment necessary to save the structure from demolition.

"The big issue with a board-up is that no one wants to live next to one," the 51-year-old says. "Community groups renovate houses but they don't sell because they're sitting next to vacant buildings."

Since launching the Neighborhood Foundation in 1995, Toepfer has completed some 800 decorative board-ups in more than 20 cities across the country, a list that includes the Ramova and Uptown theaters here in Chicago. Last August, Toepfer jazzed up the entrance of Muddy Waters' former home at 4339 S. Lake Park with a pair of pink flamingo paintings over the doors. In April, the group covered a former bank at 71st and Jeffrey with boards depicting the South Shore Cultural Center, Forest Preserve bike trails, and a quaint lakefront beach. The organization is currently handling cover-up on some empty historic row houses in Pullman.

Toepfer believes the painted boards have the power to curb the epidemic effect of broken windows on an area. "If you have one vacant building it tends to spread," he says. "So if you can put your finger in the dike, so to speak, you can save an entire block."

Don't know what that place is? whatthehell@chicagoreader.com

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