Cultural center creating beauty in unlikely places

Creating beauty in unlikely places is one of the goals of a unique Chicago charity. (WLS)
May 11, 2014 10:20:12 AM PDT
Creating beauty in unlikely places is one of the goals of a unique Chicago charity. On the Near Northwest Side is a center of Puerto Rican life in the city where a forgotten urban space has received a facelift and is ready to inspire in the name of the hero it honors.

Designs 4 Dignity organizes designers and builders for projects that bring beauty to people who often have to do without. The Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center has been an institution in Chicago's Puerto Rican community since 1971.

"If you think about a child or adult who doesn't have art in their life they are sort of living in bondage because art is designed to free the mind and once the mind is free all things are possible," said Luis Bermudez, SRSBCC executive director.

Segundo Ruiz Belvis believed in the true potential of slaves on Spanish-owned islands in the 18th century. He was a Puerto Rican patriot and member of the secret abolitionist society that bought and freed slave children particularly of African descent. Creating a safe place in tough circumstances for the flowering of the human mind is the kind of reform he'd likely have supported.

"We wanted to bring that spirit that hero who fought to free people," Bermudez said.

Rebuilding what used to look like a gravel pit took over a year and involved $135,000 worth of donated supplies and materials, 800 pro bono hours from architects, craftsmen and designers - and three volunteer service days for the finishing touches.

"Being able to create this project that provides access to arts and culture in a neighborhood and demographic where maybe they can't afford to, see a show or play," said Jennifer Sobecki, Designs 4 Dignity executive director. "It is creating equal access. The value is immeasurable."

These children of the working poor, as Bermudez calls them, now have a safe harbor to dream.

"When they actually come in they walk through this space and they see the theatre you can see their imagination and their ideas start to go through their heads," Sobecki said. "So now my job is to nurture that. You want to put on a hip hop show? Let's figure it out. You want to do spoken word? Ok let's figure it out."

Gang bangers have noticed too and have not tagged the facade out of respect. Bermudez talked of one encounter.

"He kind of came in and said, 'Who is this, who is this guy?' And I am explaining these are heroes of Puerto Rico, this is what he did. He says, 'Ok hang on a second,' and he took off and I thought, 'Ok, that's the end of it, maybe he doesn't want to hear any more.' He brought his son. He brought his son, 'tell my son all of this, I want my son to hear this,' and his son has been coming.

"We are growing something here. Designs 4 Dignity has helped us plant these seeds and we have changed this neighborhood forever."

Designs 4 Dignity has completed several such projects in the last few years. Their fundraiser, The Spirit of Design Awards, takes place Thursday, May 8.

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