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Emmanuel Pratt

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Photograph by David Kasnic

The Neighborhood Builder

Emmanuel Pratt

How did Emmanuel Pratt and his nonprofit convert four rundown blocks in Englewood and Washington Park into a fertile community resource called the Commons?

“Urban acupuncture,” says Pratt, the cofounder and executive director of the Sweet Water Foundation. Meaning: You locate specific pain points, and you provide relief.

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So if those blocks contain two weedy, vacant acres on Perry Avenue, turn them into a verdant community farm. That cracked, half-finished sidewalk? Perfect site for a weekly farmers’ market. Those dilapidated houses? Renovate them as a community hub for meetings, workshops, retreats, and cooking demonstrations, and add an art gallery and live-work spaces. And if you can provide more than a dozen jobs and apprenticeships along the way — plus a dozen more seasonal fellowships each year for artists and scholars from the University of Chicago, Harvard, and elsewhere — all the better.

Pratt didn’t grow up in Englewood or even Chicago, but the native of Richmond, Virginia, spent his childhood amid the same sorts of empty lots and foreclosed homes he works near today. To be sure, he could have parlayed his Ivy League degrees in architecture and urban design into a career in the private sector. But he says he had other dreams from the start. What were they?

“This,” he says, gesturing at the Commons. “Going from blight to light.”

Pratt cofounded the Sweet Water Foundation in 2009, and for the first few years, he dedicated the organization to using aquaponics and agriculture as vehicles for teaching STEAM skills to hundreds of students in Chicago and Milwaukee. In 2013, when the City of Chicago asked Sweet Water what it could do with an Englewood site where a previous agricultural initiative had failed, Pratt expanded its operations, and within a couple of years, the four-block Commons was born. He would like to expand it to 10 blocks.

In September, Pratt got some news that should help: He’s been awarded a $625,000 MacArthur “genius” grant. He hasn’t decided yet how he’s going to spend the no-strings-attached gift, but among the possible beneficiaries is a new Sweet Water initiative for creating affordable and ecologically sustainable housing.

What Sweet Water represents, in Pratt’s estimation, is a fresh approach to equitable neighborhood renewal that is 100 percent hands-on. “You have to be on the ground,” he says. That’s where he plans to stay.

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