Former Cabrini-Green residents, and lifelong friends, Marques “MeRk” Elliston and Dr. Cher’Don Reynolds, are spearheading a mission to revitalize, reclaim, and preserve the building most recently known as the Stranger’s Home Missionary Baptist Church. 

The vision for the hopefully soon-to-be Cabrini Art House is to change the vacant building into a place of business, a creative hub and art gallery for artists, as well as a market with vending opportunities for local entrepreneurs. The duo also plans to restore the historical mural that lies underneath the now whitewashed outer walls. Already in the market for a new creative space, the local church was a no-brainer for Chicago native Elliston.

Elliston is a marketing strategist and music executive as well as the founder of Dsgnrz Creative Agency. “I know this place, I walked past this place plenty of times growing up,” Elliston told TheTRiiBE.

Located at 617 W. Evergreen Ave, at the intersection of Clybourn Avenue and Larrabee Street, the building has been vacant for many years. The structure has started to show signs of deterioration, due to neglect, much like the history of the now demolished Cabrini-Green projects. “It hasn’t operated as a church in over 20 years at this point,” Elliston said. 

Known as Chicago’s “Sistine Chapel,” this is no ordinary church, but an influential piece of Chicago’s cultural landscape. A relic of what used to be a bustling Cabrini-Green community, this house of worship used to be home to Willam Walker’s legendary mural, “All of Mankind.” 

Created in 1972, this mural was a beautiful depiction of people of all races, holding hands in unity, as well as an ode to the Black family, and Black leaders. During the 60s, 70s, and 80s, Walker painted or contributed to many murals around Chicago, many of them featuring a theme based in unity and strength in community. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Walker moved to Chicago early in life, attending the Columbus Gallery of Art in Chicago, now Columbia College. Walker was also one of the founders of the Organization for Black American Culture, a committee of Black creatives assembled during the Civil Rights era.

Aerial view of the gentrification happening around the landmark that will soon to be Cabrini Art House. Photo provided by Miguel of MC.IMG.
An aerial view shows the gentrification that has taken place around the upcoming Cabrini Art House. Photo provided by Miguel of MC.IMG.

Unfortunately, the demolition of Cabrini-Green, which started in 2000 and was completed in 2011, displaced thousands of low income residents. The whitewashing and destruction of the community’s murals shortly followed, in efforts to make the property “desirable for new ownership,” Elliston told TheTRiiBE. 

This was especially concerning to Elliston’s partner on the project, and life long friend, former Cabrini-Green resident, Dr. Cher’Don Reynolds. Reynolds, who now resides in Atlanta, Ga, is a community leader, advocate, entrepreneur, and speaker. She is also the CEO of She Prints It, her branding and promotional company. 

Reynolds moved to Atlanta in 2000 to attend Clark Atlanta University, the same year the demolition of Cabrini-Green began. Her roots are deeply ingrained in the community, with some of her family members staying in the projects until 2011, when the demolition was completed.

“I’ve always known it to be a place of community, love, support and resource my entire life,” she told TheTRiiBE. “Even when I was a part of the era where they were convincing us that it was this infamous dead place that you wanted to get out of,” she said.

A “dead place” is far from how Reynolds and Elliston remember the area. In their youth, they often passed the church in its original glory. Back then the mural wasn’t deemed anything special. “It wasn’t this standout thing,” Elliston said. “But as the neighborhood deplenished, it started to just stick out and stand taller because there was nothing else around.”

The mural represented togetherness and unity within the community, much like Walker’s other murals. Reynolds says this concept has been wildly misrepresented to the rest of the world, especially when discussing the Black family structure in the projects.  

“There is this false narrative that we don’t have mothers and fathers in the homes, you know, full family unions, that we don’t come together and support each other. And that’s all the things that the mural represented, but again, it just represented our everyday lives,” she said.

Both successful creatives in their own right, Reynolds and Elliston take on what might be their toughest venture ever, obtaining this building from the current owner, real estate investor and businessman Marc Bortz.

“We understand that it took a lot of work for them to take our homes away from us. So we’re patient with the process, and know that it’s gonna take some legwork to get our home back,” said Reynolds.

Marques "MeRk" Elliston and Dr. Cher'Don Reynolds the creators of Cabrini Art House.
The historic location that will become Cabrini Art House, located at the intersection of Clybourn Avenue and Larrabee Street, has been vacant for many years. Photo provided by Miguel of MC.IMG.

The duo is well aware of the obstacles ahead and are staying open to any reasonable ideas that might lead to eventually saving this space.

According to Elliston, “There’s no real interest in him [the owner] selling the building, because it’s on the tax rolls as a church. And churches don’t pay taxes,” he explained. Elliston admitted, “It’s essentially us making him an offer he can’t refuse, which is totally up to his discretion.”

To try and help with the process, Elliston and Reynolds have assembled what they described as a “dream team” of preservers. Organizations like the All Mankind Coalition, National Public Housing Museum, Art on Sedgwick and Bustling Spaces have all joined the cause, lending their support. “It’s gonna take even more than that to pull this off,” Elliston added.

The project has gained traction, with the church recently being added to Preservation Chicago’s 2024 list of Chicago’s most endangered sites. In 2021, Preservation Chicago helped secure landmark status for the home of Emmett Till, a route which might prove to be useful for the Cabrini Art Project. 

Elliston and Reynolds will continue to raise funds to purchase the building, but the sale remains at the discretion of the current owner, Bortz. 

“This is not just the story of Cabrini,” Reynolds declared. “This is the story of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people who have been removed from their homes, and told that the memories of their childhood don’t matter. We’re doing this for all of those people around the world.”

You can help secure the building by donating to the Cabrini Art House cause at:

https://cabriniarthouse.com/

is a culture correspondent with The TRiiBE.