Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks

Twelfth Night

July 14

August 14, 2016

Touring to neighborhood parks across the city
by William Shakespeare
directed and adapted by Kirsten Kelly

How Shakespeare Is Helping South Chicago Transform Its Image

by Joe Ward for DNA Info 

Before it hosts upward of a thousand people Sunday for a performance of a beloved Shakespeare play, South Chicago is transforming its commercial district into a hamlet honoring the Bard. Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks kicks off at Navy Pier and then heading to South Chicago on Sunday for a performance of "Twelfth Night" at Steelworkers Park.

It will mark the second consecutive year the former steel mill turned park hosts a Shakespeare event, and organizers are hoping it is the biggest and most well-attended performance for the second straight year.

To ensure that outcome, community organizers and business owners have turned South Chicago's Commercial Avenue into a billboard for the event. Many businesses along the commercial corridor in South Chicago have hung signs and posters advertising the play. Some businesses have even temporarily changed their name, like Davis Shoes calling itself "The Taming of the Shoe," a play on the title of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew.

Now in its fourth year, Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks will visit 19 neighborhood parks in all corners of the city. But South Chicago might embrace the event more than just about any other neighborhood, as local leaders look to help transform the former industrial neighborhood into an entertainment and commercial destination on the Far Southeast Side.

"It's a big deal for us," said Dan Lira, executive director of the local chamber of commerce. "We're doing everything we can to get the word out locally."

Bernard Shannon, owner of Bernard's Wear in South Chicago, is shown next to a poster in his shop advertising Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks.

Their efforts have so far been rewarded. Last year's event at Steelworkers Park saw more than 500 people attend. This year, Steelworkers Park is expected to host more than 1,000 people, Lira said.

As it looks to revitalize its downtrodden commercial corridor, South Chicago is hoping to capitalize on the increased traffic from events like Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks. "It's an opportunity for us to get our name out," said Bernard Shannon, who owns Bernard's Wear, 9017 S. Commercial Ave. "People realize it's still viable down here. They just have to come out."

South Chicago, celebrating its 180th birthday this summer, is the former home of three steel mills and the blue-collar workers who staffed the sites. But the last of the plants closed in 1992, and the exodus of well-paying jobs has hurt residents as well as the mom and pop store owners who serve the neighborhood. Lira and other community leaders have been working with the University of Illinois-Chicago to help draft a revitalization plan to help transform Commercial Avenue into a proper business district. They think cultural attractions like Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks can play a major role in helping the area.

The area has embraced the event unlike any other, Lira said. He said a local pizza place gives a flier for the event with every pizza it delivers, and the McDonald's hands a flier out to every customer at the drive-thru window. A sign hanging in a South Chicago laundromat advertises the upcoming Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks performance at Steelworkers Park. Businesses have hung signs with Shakespeare quotes that relate in some way to the business. Shannon's clothing store has a sign saying "The apparel oft proclaims the man," a quote from Shakespeare's Hamlet. "We tried to get creative with it and really make it our own," Lira said of the marketing campaign.

Bonnie Dinell helps run Steel City Furniture, a business that has been on Commercial Avenue for more than 50 years. Dinell said businesses like hers can prosper from cultural events like street fares, but not every neighborhood has the funds and the ability to host such events. So they make do in other ways. 

South Chicago was not one of the city parks selected to host a movie night, so the neighborhood got together in June to host a screening of "Blues Brothers" in the McDonald's parking lot on Commercial Avenue. It's all a way of promoting the community as a place to live, work and, of course, shop.

"People need to be comfortable in their shopping areas," Dinell said. "Having fun makes people comfortable."

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