The long-awaited opening of Auburn Gresham’s Healthy Lifestyle Hub, a four-story epicenter of resources serving the Far Southwest Side community, brings more than tangible services – it brings hope – to a historically-disinvested neighborhood. Before its unveiling in November 2022, residents had little to no access to an immediate care center, dentistry, mental healthcare, or even a bank. Now, community members have all that and more contained in a single hub sitting on 79th Street, the neighborhood’s once-bustling commercial corridor.

Each set of resources will fill a specific, present need in the Auburn Gresham community. One of the Hub’s resident organizations, the UIC Neighborhood Center, was designed to fill several – by offering numerous academic, entrepreneurial, and healthcare programs.

On floor three of the Healthy Lifestyle Hub, you’ll find one of two UIC Neighborhood Centers – a University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) collaborative community project created to support local stakeholders through strategic programs and services, equity-based interventions, and community-based research. While the Hub’s Neighborhood Center works in partnership with Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation (United Way of Metro Chicago’s lead Neighborhood Network community partner), the other serves the Lawndale neighborhood on the West Side. Both hold the same goals: To address systemic disparities, increase Black enrollment and retention at UIC and other higher-ed institutions, and serve as a partner to catalyze economic development.

Planning for Auburn Gresham’s UIC Neighborhood Center

Community voices, and community-based solutions, are foundational to the Neighborhood Center. Keith Lewis, UIC’s senior director of community collaboration, said the first step in deciding what programming to provide was to ask two questions: What do you need, and what do you expect from an engaged university in your neighborhood? In summer 2021, a virtual retreat with around 60 stakeholders from Auburn Gresham, Lawndale, and UIC convened to address these questions. And a document created from that event serves as the Neighborhood Center’s blueprint.

“Our whole thinking was, we don’t come in to create something new or start a new perspective, which I think is typically the connotation or association with universities,” said Lewis. “But how do we really support what already exists?”

The Neighborhood Center’s buildout in Auburn Gresham’s Healthy Lifestyle Hub finished in June and opened its doors in September. Current and future programming will center around four focus areas: education, entrepreneurship & workforce development, safety & housing, and research.

Lewis said one of their key strategies is intervening early in a person’s life with any kind of support.

“We want to start even before early childhood, before the baby has even been born – what does it mean to support good maternal health?” Lewis said. “That then translates and advances into other stages, providing support in schools and other settings for those families and children. We really have this cradle-to-thriving-adult scope.”

A Holistic Approach to Supporting the Community

One of the first workshops offered in the Neighborhood Center are conducted regularly by BA NIA Inc, a reproductive justice and health-based organization and a part of the 2022-2024 cohort of United Way’s United Neighborhoods Equity Fund, which supports small, BIPOC-led organizations on Chicago’s South and West Sides and in the south suburban region. The group workshops will focus on prenatal education, infant massage, and childbirth education.

Other examples include a nutrition education, breast cancer awareness and survivorship support training offered by Advocates for Community Wellness, and monthly workshops provided to Leo Catholic High School students by different UIC departments, including the urban health program and office of financial aid.

Lewis believes that UIC – Chicago’s largest public research university – planting roots in the Auburn Gresham community will have a transformative impact.

“Really, this is where UIC needs to be,” he said. “You have to have these major institutions that make these types of big, long-term investments and put their stake in communities that have been traditionally disinvested in.”

Above all, the Neighborhood Center hopes to serve as a shared community space, just like the rest of the Healthy Lifestyle Hub, where Auburn Gresham residents can learn, connect, and thrive.

“I always said to my team, we don’t want this to be a ghost town,” Lewis said. “We want it to be like this all the time. We want this to be a bustling space.”

2021 UIC Neighborhood Center Final Retreat Summary + Recommendations
Anticipation Grows for the Opening of UIC Neighborhood Offices in Auburn Gresham and North Lawndale, University of Illinois Chicago
Office of Community Collaboration, University of Illinois Chicago

Story and photos by Tate Samata