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They Gotta Have Art/War of Independents

A $1.4 million cultural center for west-side kids is almost a reality

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By Ben Joravsky

For the last three years Fred Matthews has had a dream--almost an obsession. He's wanted to build an arts and education center for kids on the west side, where traditionally there's been a dearth of cultural programming.

He came up with an audacious plan, but Matthews, the executive director of the Duncan YMCA at Roosevelt and Morgan, is on the verge of pulling it off.

"This is all about giving kids a chance to develop their creative talents," says Matthews. "Art transforms lives; it shows kids a side of themselves they never knew existed. We want to give them a greater chance to express their voices. And we're so close."

On the surface Matthews seems an unlikely leader for this charge. Born and raised in Louisiana, his only involvement with the arts was when as an undergraduate he took a bit part in a Southern University student production of the Lorraine Hansberry classic A Raisin in the Sun.

"I was Beneatha's boyfriend, George Murchison," says Matthews. "I knew I never was going to be a professional actor, but being in that play stuck with me for a long time. It showed me I could take a challenge to do something different."

He graduated from college in 1962, got married, and, after two years in the army, moved to Chicago, where he went to work for the YMCA. In 1985 he was named executive director of the Duncan branch.

At that time the neighborhoods west and north of Duncan were starting to boom. The expansion of the University of Illinois had sparked the development of relatively upscale condominiums and town houses. That development, however, ended at Roosevelt Road, near the ABLA CHA housing complex, where many of Duncan's members lived. "I wanted the Y to connect both sides of Roosevelt--to be a bridge," says Matthews. "I wanted to use all the resources the community had to offer."

Within a few years he added U. of I. president Jim Stukel to his board, which already included Donald Lord, chairman of Chernin's Shoes. They forged a partnership with students and faculty at Saint Ignatius, the Catholic high school across the street from the Y.

"Unlike most Ys, we don't have a pool or a gym, so we use the university's," says Matthews. "We got student volunteers from Saint Ignatius; they built the Daniel and Ada Rice park, which we use for our summer day camp."

In the early 1990s Matthews and administrative director Mary Irvin started planning the arts center. "We were thinking about who we are and what we want to be," he says. "There are already places for sports, but what about the arts? I know there's hidden talent here, but who's going to develop it?"

They put together an impressive array of influential corporate, academic, and philanthropic sponsors and managed to raise $1 million. They're now entering the final stretch of an aggressive fund-raising campaign and need to come up with another $400,000. Come summer, if all goes well, construction of an 8,000-square-foot addition to the back of the Duncan Y will begin. Starting next year the new space will be used to expand the Y's curriculum in art, music, dance, theater, fiction, poetry, and biography.

Irvin thinks the arts offer a chance for young black kids, particularly girls, to seize control of their lives. "So many kids don't know what they want in life because a lot of the options have never been presented to them," she says. "These kids don't know the connection between arts and education and building self-esteem through self-expression. Their lives are awakening in ways they don't understand. But in the world around them, all they see is the guy on the corner saying, 'Hey, baby, let me talk to you.' They end up pregnant at age 13.

"But we're saying, 'Take that same awakening and channel it into something for yourself. Channel it into a writing class or dance class. You can write about how you feel. If you want someone to hold you, express that in the movement of your dance. Express it for yourself, not for someone else.' I see so many women tied to the tube, watching stupid soap operas when they can learn about tragedies and opera. You got to break free from all the chains people have wrapped you in."

Matthews and Irvin got the support of Tino Mantella, president of the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago, and joined the National Writer's Voice, a New York-based Y organization that helped them bring such famous authors and poets to the Duncan Y as Ntozake Shange, Sandra Cisneros, and Allen Ginsberg for fund-raisers and workshops. "Ken Kesey came twice, once in '93 and again last November," says Matthews. "He read from his works and answered questions about his bus and Jerry Garcia. It raised money and our profile among people who had never heard of us."

They also worked a deal with the Dance Center of Columbia College enabling them to hire Malik Bernard, a dance instructor, and with Don McQuay, a graphic artist who will teach a class on writing and illustrating comic books.

"I know where my students are coming from because I was there myself," says McQuay. "I grew up in Stateway Gardens and went to Dunbar High School. I was the kind of kid who loved drawing, who used to sit at my kitchen table copying pictures out of comic books. The most influential artist for me was Jack Kirby, who created the Fantastic Four. The problem with Kirby was that he couldn't draw black people. I never thought about it until one day I was in an art show at Dunbar and a guy said to me, 'You don't know how to draw black people.' I realized he was right. After that I started concentrating on relating my talents to who I was and where I came from."

McQuay recently published his own comic book, The Circle Unleashed, based on the adventures of John, a 159-year-old former slave who fights in the Civil War with U.S. Colonel Robert Gould Shaw's famous 54th Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Shaw and his soldiers were killed in the battle at Fort Wagner, but in McQuay's comic book, John survives only to be captured by space aliens. The Circle Unleashed has become a hit at comic book conventions, and McQuay plans a sequel.

"Most of these kids have talent. Most of them are doing it just like I did: copying the comic books at their kitchen table," he says. "The point is to get kids to explore their own universe of characters so they can see that what they know has importance."

In preparation for the expanded center the Y surveyed seventh graders from nearby schools. "We found out that they were interested in radio programming and video production and writing," says Jennifer Amdur Spitz, who conducted the survey. "And they want to write on computers."

As a result the Y plans to expand many of the writing programs it already offers. Sterling Plumpp will teach poetry and Frances Callaway Parks, a professor at Chicago State University, will offer a course for adults called "The Autobiographical Essay."

They've also hired poet Julie Parson-Nesbitt to direct a writing program. "I think writing is so popular among kids because it gives them a way to define themselves," says Parson-Nesbitt, whose latest collection of poetry, Finders, will be published this spring. "We are constantly being defined by society, which tells teenagers, 'This is who you are.' Well, we're giving them an opportunity to define themselves. And I think they'll go for it in a big way."

War of Independents

Almost as soon as veteran west-side Congressman Cardiss Collins announced she wouldn't seek reelection, the warhorses lined up to run in the March 19 Democratic primary. Among them were aldermen Ed Smith, Percy Giles, and Dorothy Tillman as well as Cook County commissioners Danny Davis and Bobbie Steele--most of whom are strong independents who have fought the good fight for years.

Lost in the hoopla of the big names was a 31-year-old corporate lawyer named Sam Mendenhall, whose candidacy symbolizes the changes in west-side politics over the last few years. He's an independent running not so much against the machine (if such a beast still exists) as against all the other independents who came before him.

"My campaign, like Jesse Jackson Jr.'s, is the start of a new generation in black politics," says Mendenhall. "When people say it's a crowded field, I tell them, 'No, there are only two candidates: new leadership or business as usual.' People are tired of career politicians."

It's hard to imagine Danny Davis being called a career politician, particularly if you're old enough to remember those daunting days of the 1970s when Davis courageously waged war against all the thugs and bullies of the west-side machine. In many ways his 1979 aldermanic triumph was a precursor to Harold Washington's mayoral victory in 1983.

But that's ancient history to the new generation. To them, Davis--like Smith and Steele and Tillman--is just another politician. "Danny's run for Congress three times, and he's run for mayor," says Mendenhall. "Politics has been his career."

In contrast, Mendenhall's never run for anything before. The seventh of 11 children, he was raised in public housing (LeClaire Courts) and educated in public schools. He spent two years in the army after high school, went to UIC, and emerged from law school to work for Winston & Strawn, whose partners include former governor Jim Thompson, former U.S. prosecutor Dan Webb, and other Republican power brokers.

"I admire Jim Thompson and Dan Webb, but we don't espouse the same fiscal or social policies," Mendenhall says. "The only reason I'm working there is that it's one of the best law firms in the country, and I've been taught to go for the best. Had I gone to the public defender's office I would not have made the money to buy my parents a house to get them out of public housing."

Mendenhall says he doesn't think older voters will be offended by his challenge. "I'll always respect the elder statesmen in our community. People like Danny Davis paved the way for me in the 60s so I could go to school and move on to work for a corporate firm. But you always have a changing of the guard, a passing of the torch. Older people in the district support my candidacy. They understand it's time for the young to come forward."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo / Lloyd DeGrane.

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