By Zeki Salah, Facilitator, Mutual Aid Collaborative

The first annual Sukkah Design Festival was held on October 9-16, showcasing North Lawndale’s Jewish history and providing social services to the community. Reshorna Fitzpatrick, 2019 Chicago Peace Fellow and Executive Pastor of the Stone Temple Baptist Church, was a member of the organizing committee, which included community-based organizations and design firms. These groups brought the community together to explore the history of North Lawndale through collaborative design projects and built relationships centered around social justice. 

Pastor Reshorna became involved with the Sukkah Design project through her work with the Lawndale Pop-up Spot, a museum housed in a shipping container created by Chelsea Ridley, Jonathan Kelley, and members of the North Lawndale neighborhood. They built the Lawndale Pop-up Spot on a lot owned by Stone Temple Baptist Church, now called the Love Blooms Here Plaza. The Lawndale Pop-Up Spot explores the history of North Lawndale through rotating community-designed exhibits. Given the history between Pastor Reshorna and the Lawndale Pop-up Spot, she gave an enthusiastic yes when Jonathan and Kelly proposed the Sukkah Design Festival. They held the festival from October 9th to October 16th on the Love Blooms Here Plaza, across the street from Stone Temple Baptist Church. The main attraction for the event was a series of Sukkahs which aimed to promote social justice and explore cultural legacy through design.

The Sukkah Design fest created three Sukkahs, temporary outdoor structures, to celebrate the Jewish holiday, Sukkot. Sukkot celebrates the end of harvest time and involves the creation of Sukkahs where community members can gather, eat, and spend time with one another. The festival split participants into three teams. Each team included a Chicago-based design firm and a community-based organization that collaborated to design a Sukkah with a social justice element.

The Young Men’s Educational Network (YMEN) partnered with the firm Human Scale to put together a “Giving Sukkah,” where people could receive food and flowers grown by the community. Community-grown food and flowers are a staple of the Love Blooms Here plaza, which has also housed community gardens designed by Pastor Reshorna and another 2020 Chicago Peace Fellow, Annamaria Leon. The Giving Sukkah has now moved to YMEN’s headquarters on Pulaski Boulevard.  

Stone Temple Baptist Church worked with the firm New Office to design a micro-museum that explores the history of Stone Temple from 1926 to the present day. The exhibit examines the various stages the building went through as both a synagogue and a church. Current community members were also involved in its design as the team explored what residents love about North Lawndale. Through interviews and community input, the team brought the present neighborhood into conversation with its history. 

Men Making a Difference and Open Books – North Lawndale Reads partnered with the Chicago Design Office and Made In Englewood. Together they created an inter-generational “book nook,” which acted as a free library. This Sukkah also served as a space where people of all ages could come together to read or play games. Collectively, all three Sukkahs tackled the issue of food accessibility, explored community assets, and built relationships between people in North Lawndale. Each Sukkah functioned as a hub for discussions, music, and food before they relocated to more permanent sites.

Programming at the Sukkah Design Festival brought members of the North Lawndale community together through meals and conversations about their neighborhood. Food was often a central element of the celebration: Stone Temple held their weekly “Soup for the Soul” food drive within the festival grounds, and various faith-based organizations partnered to organize interfaith dinners throughout the week. Pastor Reshorna noted that “nothing brings people together more than food,” a sentiment that inspired a community clean-up event in which participants celebrated their work picking up trash with a free meal and conversation about environmental justice. 

As people gathered around food, festival organizers worked to draw their attention toward the built environment surrounding them. Community organizations gave tours of various Peace Parks in North Lawndale which aim to reactivate vacant lots. The architects and designers of the Sukkahs also held guided tours during Open House Chicago, a city-wide architectural festival. The Sukkah Design Fest inspired conversations about how the built environment can impact issues such as segregation and resource shortages. By gathering the community around food and leading discussions about their neighborhood, the Festival aimed to build new partnerships between designers, faith leaders, and community activists to address these problems.

The Sukkah Design Fest built relationships amongst residents in North Lawndale and connected them to different organizations around the city as they planned music, food, and cultural programming. Architects, community members, and community organizations all came together to unite diverse groups of people that would have otherwise not likely come into contact with one another. Sukkot is a holiday associated with food, gathering, and the harvest. The festival used these themes to encourage North Lawndale’s predominantly Black population to explore their neighborhood’s Jewish history alongside traditions of fellowship and kinship. These relationship-building events provided opportunities for residents to make a difference in their community and plan social justice projects from the ground up.

By uniting a diverse range of actors and facilitating collaboration, the Sukkah Design Festival provided valuable assets to an underserved community and empowered residents. The Stone Temple Baptist Church would like to make the Sukkah they designed alongside New Office a permanent mini-exhibition within the church. The exhibit would memorialize the cooperation achieved through Black and Jewish communities through the design festival and preserve a valuable historical artifact to North Lawndale. Stone Temple is currently collecting donations to help fund the installation of the mini-exhibit.