Almost overnight, Eric Williams became a cultural force in Hyde Park. That's thanks largely to his shop the Silver Room and its Sound System Block Party, the massive festival that grew from his retail, arts, and events business.
The musician and artist showcase, which began in 2003 and returns to downtown Hyde Park Saturday for the third year since it moved from Wicker Park, is expected to attract about 40,000 people, rivaling the Chosen Few DJs Picnic and Festival as the most buzzed-about annual event among black Chicago millennials and Gen Xers.
Included is a basketball tournament and a scrimmage for street culture entrepreneur Bobbito Garcia’s Full Court 21; a yoga session at CorePower Yoga; a free film festival (Carmen Jones, Mahogany, and Daughters of the Dust will screen); and an after party at the Promontory.
Although the event is about more than Williams' chief expertise as a jeweler, silver—it was built on community outreach and social engagement, as well as commerce—there’s still a pretty penny involved. The block party has an economic impact of $1.5 million, according to a commissioned report. Last year’s event (which had singer-songwriter Solange as a draw with a show at the Promontory, one of the 11 satellite sites) drew about 30,000 people, doubling the 15,000 from 2016.
This is year 15 for the party, and the first since Williams completed a year-long fellowship at Harvard meant to help him expand his business. Williams says he launched the block party while serving as a leader at the chamber of commerce in Wicker Park. When his calls for a more diverse roster of entertainment at that neighborhood's festival, Wicker Park Fest, fell on deaf ears, he launched his own. His own store, the Silver Room, had been based there since 1997.
“It’s a majority black and brown city and a neighborhood that supposedly is diverse, and this arts fair doesn’t have any black or brown performers?" he says. "So I started my own thing with all different kinds of music and folks performing.”
The first block party went off in an alley and drew about 300 people. It grew to about 8,000 before Williams got fed up with the increasingly homogeneous Wicker Park—not to mention rising rents brought about by gentrification—and headed south.
The Silver Room didn’t produce a block party in 2015; but Williams was quick to delve into development within Hyde Park. His store averages about 20 events a month there—everything from language classes to political discussions to fashion event—with about 70 percent of the programming being led by community groups. After Williams produced a three-day pop-up art event with Rob McKay in 2016, the two partnered to open the Connect art gallery.He also runs a monthly flea market during the summer.
Williams credits the Silver Room's new location with the festival's ballooning turnout. The event pulls a 75-percent black crowd today, up from 50 percent before it moved. “Most of our customers were from the South Side, and I didn’t realize it,” he says. “The South Side is very dense, and now people had this event in their own backyard. We deserve to have quality events like people on the North Side do. You have 100 festivals on the north side. We’ve got two."
To that end, the block party is all ages. “You have babies out there. You have teens out there with their parents who are in their 30s and 40s. You have grandparents,” Williams says. “We program it for everybody.” There's plenty of house music played at the festival, but also jazz and blues and rock and salsa. “We have everything you can think of,” Williams says.
It’s an event real estate professional and social media strategist Marki Lemons-Rhyal anticipates annually. “If you’re from the South Side of Chicago or you’re a house head, then you come here. You’re going to see people you haven’t seen in a year,” she says. “There’s going to be a sense of community enjoyment. You know and feel safe in the environment. And you’re going to network.”
Neighborhood stores saw a 20- to 50-percent increase in sales during last year's festival, according to its economic impact report.
Jewelry vendor Mashallah Ghouleh of Pilsen-based Mashallah Inc. was happily overwhelmed last year. “There was hardly any space to walk,” she says. “And the crowd was giving off incredible positive energy.” She says it was likely the highest grossing one-day event at which she’s vended. The booth was so busy that regular patrons emailed her afterward to say they couldn’t get in.
“It just filled me with so much joy to see how excited people were for us vendors to be there," she says. "How aware Chicago was as a whole of what the handmade arts do for our community."