“Aux”some: The Aux will help drive inclusive economic recovery in Evanston.
$6M redevelopment will transform vacant factory into high quality commercial space for Black-owned businesses focused on community wellness.
This evening will be sunny and warm, perfect for a gathering at an empty, 16,000-square-foot former warehouse on Washington Street off Pitner, site of a revolutionary project on the cusp of Evanston’s 2nd and 9th wards.
And you should be there.
Because all of Evanston is invited to “plug in” from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at 2223 Washington Street, future home of The Aux, a vibrant hub of 10+ Black-owned businesses dedicated to community health and wellness for all Evanstonians. The Aux will transform an abandoned property into a core of community connection and an engine of equitable economic growth for historically marginalized residents.
You’ll get to meet the business owners and find out how you can support this project, which has quietly raised $1 million to date on the way to its $6 million goal.
The Aux -- named for a sound system’s AUXiliary cord because the project is about the power of plugging in to wellness and to each other -- will house a laundry-cafe, a gym, services to support mental, physical, and financial health, a meditation and yoga area, a podcast studio, a natural juice bar, hair salon, catering company, an edible urban outdoor garden, and more, all surrounding an open multi-use space Ikun, a Yoruba word meaning ‘center.’
Sunshine Enterprises, which serves rising, under-resourced entrepreneurs throughout the Chicago area by helping them start and grow their businesses, will partner with the Aux to coach and help finance entrepreneurs who aren’t quite ready for a permanent spot and help contribute to a healthy line of small business tenants for The Aux’s pop-up market spaces.
I’m so excited about this development because some of the most energetic and dedicated Evanston women I know (and a Chicago guy) -- people who are 110 percent committed to the wellbeing of Black Evanstonians and to connecting and uplifting all Evanstonians -- are the driving force behind it.
Tosha Wilson is one of those people.
“Evanston is the right place for this project because we ‘talk the talk,’ but we have yet to see what that could really look like,” said Wilson, Aux co-developer along with Tiffini Holmes, Jacqui White, Gabori Partee Sr., and Lori Laser.
“We’re ahead of the game when it comes to progressive thinking, though often we find ourselves back in the same place. This is something tangible, now. It will change the narrative of what real equity looks like and how Black-owned businesses can succeed.”
Wilson and Jacqui White, cousins who were born and raised in the 1600 block of Florence Ave., are co-owners of The Laundry Cafe-Evanston (TLC), one of the businesses that will anchor The Aux, a one-floor building with a community garden surrounding the property.
TLC will provide self-service laundry in a modern, welcoming space where families can eat, sip, study, and ... take a load off.
“Laundry is a necessity for all of us, and a lot of people in our community don’t have access to it,” Wilson said. “I think we miss the importance of something so simple that many of us do every day. But some kids miss school because their clothes aren’t clean.”
At TLC, she said, people will be able to spend time over a cup of coffee in the cafe talking to people they otherwise may not meet. They’ll have access to wifi, a children’s learning space, and a small stage for community programs. And, they can access the other businesses and services while they wait as their clothes wash and dry.
“The Aux is going to be a place where you can come and get things done and connect to other people who are getting things done,” said Jacqui White. “It’s all about business owners connecting and leaning on each other and community members doing the same. Feeding off each other, uplifting each other,” she said.
One of those businesses is Well Beings Chicago, LLC., a company that Aux co-developers and business partners Tiffini Holmes and Gabori Partee founded that provides a full-range of health and wellness services to support total mind, body, and spirit.
“We’ll be a multi-faceted company,” Partee, a fitness instructor, explains. “We specialize in fitness, wellness coaching, cognitive-behavioral therapy. We’ll have yoga and pilates classes, and retreats focused around financial success. With my expertise in fitness and Tiffini’s as a wellness coach, together we’ll provide what it takes to be a healthier person.”
Black-owned businesses have a small footprint in Evanston, and entrepreneurs of color face significant challenges accessing quality commercial space and the capital needed to launch a business. The pandemic has added unprecedented economic strain, and entrepreneurs of color nationwide have been disproportionately impacted throughout the ongoing economic hardship.
The Aux brings a renovated commercial space dedicated to 10 small businesses of color and is expected to provide more than 30 jobs while promoting wellness for all of Evanston and inclusive pathways to community wealth at an inviting location.
The Aux, Partee says, will be a destination no-one ever imagined or saw coming, with so many Black and women-owned businesses under one roof working for the wellness of the community.
Other businesses that will call The Aux home are:
-- 4 Suns Fresh Juice, owned by Gabriella Walker;
-- Embrace Your Crown - Beauty Salon, Lash & Beard Bar, owned by Tosha's sister, Tiffany Wilson;
-- Chef Q Kitchen and Gardens, Teertsemasesottehg catering, owned by Ibraheem Quis; and
-- The Growing Season, a meditation and self-awareness studio that will partner with local practitioners and national organizations to bring mindfulness programming to The Aux.
From left: Gabriella Walker; Tiffany Wilson; Chef Q; and Lori Laser.
Lori Laser, a Glencoe resident, graduate of the Engaged Mindfulness Institute, and founder of The Growing Season, conceptualized the project after spending time teaching meditation and mindfulness at Curt's Cafe, Youth & Opportunity United, and CNE - Childcare Network of Evanston.
“There’s so much darkness and compounded suffering in the world, and most of the time we’re paralyzed. Human beings built these structures, this darkness. But we can also be the light,” Lori said.
“I have financial resources, I’m connected, and I have time. It’s not magic,” she said. “It’s stepping up.”
She founded The Growing Season to disrupt systemic barriers and to foster community wellness, with an understanding that health builds from where we live, learn, work, and play. Through the Growing Season, Laser is the lead donor to The Aux.
Through curiosity and by happenstance, said Laser, she met commercial redeveloper Juli Kaufmann, whose Milwaukee company, Fix Development, has won awards for partnering with communities to create real estate projects with a positive cultural, social, environmental, and economic impact.
The Aux drew its inspiration from Fix Development’s Sherman Phoenix, a vibrant hub in Milwaukee’s Central City that transformed a BMO Bank building damaged by fire during civil unrest in 2016 into a home for more than 25 Black-owned businesses.
Fix Development operates as a for-benefit organization — an emerging term being used to describe businesses that generate earned income but give top priority to an explicit social mission.
The driving force behind that business model is Fix Development’s dedication to a quadruple bottom line philosophy. This means each project’s return on investment is balanced from social, environmental and cultural perspectives — as well as financially.
Together, the women reached out to a wide variety of Evanston residents.
“I didn’t know what was really needed,” Laser said. “I thought, let’s see who rises up, which people have a great desire to make a difference in their community and want to bring their talents forward to imagine something. And these guys came forward. With Juli’s roadmap and guidance, The Aux is really being built from the ground up.
City Council Members 2nd Ward Ald. Peter Braithwaite and Cicely L. Fleming, 9th Ward Alderwoman, both welcome the redevelopment to the area.
"I’m excited that these small businesses will be coming to the 2nd Ward, especially at a time when it's critical that we all focus on an equitable economic recovery," said Braithwaite.
Fleming pointed to the strength of Evanston’s Black women. “The Aux is a celebration of their vision, determination, and hustle,” she said. “It’s an opportunity for our city to tangibly support the equity and diversity we profess.”
Tosha Wilson says the community seems to agree.
“I've heard nothing but positivity,” she said. “We’re being pulled in from a lot of places and you can tell people want to be a part of this, because they're asking for meetings with us. Everyone seems to be in love with the idea.”
She says her father, Lonnie Wilson, a fourth-generation Evanston resident and lifelong activist describes The Aux as a place “where life happens;” where by just stopping by, you can plug into its energy and spirit.
And Lonnie is immensely proud of his daughters.
“I must have done something right in raising my daughters as I see The Aux reflect the cultural love of my grandparents William Logan and Rose Powell," he said.
As for Gabori Partee, who grew up on Chicago’s south side, he likens The Aux to his childhood memories of the Sears Tower.
“I would ride my bike to the nearest hill on my street and look at it. It was the one building where I felt that if I got there, I would open up and be the type of person I wanted to be," he said.
"I would take the best of me to the Sears Tower when I got to visit it. The Aux is my version of that: we bring our best, and we connect with everything that’s good about who we are as people.”
Join me this evening and meet the entrepreneurs who’ll open their doors as soon as the building has been renovated.
Click here to donate.