Renew 312, a nonprofit that a group of Oak Park and Austin activists organized to tackle the “invisible line” between the two communities, is looking for volunteers to help clean up major Austin commercial corridors on May 8, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. 

Volunteers will meet at Austin Park, 5951 W. Lake St., across the street from Chef Daddy’s soul food restaurant, 5944 W. Lake St.

The clean-up will cover the portions of Chicago Avenue, Madison Street and Lake Street, between Central Avenue and Austin Boulevard, with organizers potentially adding Washington Boulevard if there are enough volunteers. 

Renew 312 Co-president Shawn Netisingha, of Oak Park, said that the cleanup will touch on all of the major goals of her organization: do something good for the Austin community, support Austin businesses, and give Oak Park and Austin residents who might otherwise never meet a chance to get to know each other. Renew 312 was founded in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. 

“We realized that there are a lot of people in Oak Park who wanted to do something, but didn’t know what to do,” Netisingha said. 

The group was originally more of a grassroots movement, she said. When Renew 312 became a nonprofit, Netisingha and Danielle Dengel, of Austin, became co-presidents.

While she currently lives in Oak Park, she said she grew up on the West Side and knows just how wide the gulf between the communities is.

“I was born and raised on the West Side and I never realized how Oak Park was close to me, because it seemed like millions of miles away,” Netisingha said.

She pointed to many disparities between the communities, especially when it comes to access to fresh groceries. 

“Oak Park is opening up a seventh grocery store and there’s a food desert across the street [on the other side of Austin Boulevard], and we need to acknowledge the reality of it,” Netisingha said.

Netisingha said that everything Renew 312 does seeks to break those long-standing patterns of racial and economic inequity. 

“We’re creating spaces that acknowledge that an invisible line separates, segregates the communities. We want to create platforms where people can get to know each other,” she said. 

“This is about so much more than cleaning up; it has to do with providing the space for us to get to know each other and the space for two communities to acknowledge racism and segregation, and things that we can do as Oak Park residents to strengthen Austin.”

Highlighting Austin business, Netisingha said, is a major part of that goal. Renew 312’s major long-term priority is to support commercial development along Chicago Avenue corridor both in Austin and Oak Park, with the goal of creating a vibrant commercial area between Laramie Avenue and Ridgeland Avenue.

After the clean-up, volunteers will reconvene at Austin Park and Netisingha said that she hopes that volunteers will stick around.

“After it ends, we invite people back to the starting point and then they can go to Chef Danny’s and order something,” she said “We want to give everyone a chance to just communicate and build relationships.”

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Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Growing Community Media newspapers in 2012, then from 2015...