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Jazz Musician To Buy Back His Childhood Block

Patches not covered by debris were coated with thick moss. Weeds grew uncontrollably through the ground, nestling in every crack in the aging tarmac.

Mario Abney, who had flown into town from New Orleans that day, stood outside his car and looked at the deserted neighborhood that lay before him. He remembered how it had been. He could still hear the kids playing and their mothers chatting. The smell of each family’s food wafting from house to house was in his nostrils. It was as real as it had ever been. And yet, it was just a memory of something gone by. This place, a block on 15221 Lexington in Harvey, Illinois, was his home as a child. Now, although he still recognized it, it was something unrecognizable.

He could not bear to look at it for too long. The level of neglect and devastation had not been expected. With a last look, he got back in his car and traveled back to his brother’s apartment, where he was staying.

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As he traveled back home, he thought about how far he had come since growing up on those streets. From a poor family, he now had found success as a jazz musician in New Orleans. But he had not been successful despite his upbringing. He was successful because of it. His mother and those wonderful people in that community had made him the person he was today.

That night, he confronted his brother, who was running for Alderman in the 2nd Ward of Harvey, where the block was located.

“How did it get like that?” he asked, almost pleading. “How has no one done something about it? We can't let it be like this. That’s our memory of our mom and it can’t be left that way.”

His brother shrugged helplessly, “I know. I hate it too, but there’s just no money in the community. No money being put into it.”“Well, then I guess we’ll just have to find our own money. We’ll start something, a non-profit organization, something to get the funding together. Surely you know someone who can help us?” No, I really don’t.

“Wait I think I know someone,” said Mario, “Doc Jones, he’s a distant uncle. He’s the chairman of a national organization International Jazz Day AZ Foundation based in Phoenix Arizona. Their mission is to build affordable for creative artists. Affordable housing is his thing. If you wanna try and get some funding into the area, he’s, our guy. He’ll know the rules and regulations. “We’ll call him tomorrow if you like.”His brother smiled, “I can hardly wait that long.”

The next day, Mario called Doc Jones, who talked him through the process of buying back the properties from their owners.

“Do I need to get a license?” asked Mario, eager.

“Before we do anything,” Doc explained, “we need to find out who has the deeds to each house in the block. Any that are condemned we can buy back and renovate. But it’ll cost a lot of money.”

Mario wasn’t put off, “If we need to buy the hood, let's buy the hood. I ain’t letting it stay like that.

Doc liked his enthusiasm, “It’s like any beautiful project. They all begin with a dream and a plan. The rest comes later.”

From there, the two men discussed how they’d do it all. Buying up an entire block and converting it to its former self was a huge task. It needed money, organization, publicity, practical skill, and no doubt some luck.

The first difficult decision for Mario was about his career. He was doing well in New Orleans, making his name on the jazz scene. New Orleans had become his home, where he earned a living. But he was willing to put that aside. He moved home, back to Harvey, and stayed with his brother. Music would have to wait. It wasn’t possible for him to hold two passions at once and, for now, the block project was the most important one.

Quickly, with Doc’s help, a housing development company was established. Jazz Town USA Harvey, they named it. Between Doc and Mario, they had come up with an idea for the renovated united to become an affordable place for young creative artists to live. Since Mario had a place in his heart for jazz musicians specifically, the name Jazz Town USA was chosen.

The company was not-for-profit, with 501-C3 status... Any money raised would be put towards buying the units. Its aim was to put together an investment group with one simple goal: “Buy Back The Hood”. This became the goal and the slogan of the organization.

Throughout all this time, the houses remained vacant. Each day, they fell into further disrepair, needing more work. The weeds grew longer. More trash found its way onto the floor. It got further and further away from what Mario remembered as a young child.

Like Doc had said, the start of everything is a dream and a plan. Mario had that, and soon after everything else started to follow. Other musicians, knowing about the issues in Harvey, and liking the idea of supporting young creatives, became interested in the project.

The more interest Mario got from other musicians, the more an idea came into his head. What if musicians and music could help raise awareness of the block’s problems? He and others could play concerts, raising money and attention for the cause. It did not take long for him to pull a band together. They called themselves the Windy City Ramblers. 

Their first concert, yet to take place, will be on 15221 Lexington, the block that all the attention is on. It will be the first major step on a momentous journey to clearing up the lot. In the meantime, Mario waited for the deeds on his mother’s house. When they are received, work will begin. Walls will be knocked down. Structures can be examined. Renovations can start immediately.

Everything begins with a dream and a plan. Mario’s dream and plan are one and the same. Buy Back The Hood.




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