In the early 1960s, the Ecumenical Institute moved into an abandoned seminary in Chicago’s East Garfield neighborhood in order to facilitate ‘a model community’ in which all members cared for each other, regardless of economic circumstances. While Fifth Avenue is an obscure diagonal street on Chicago’s west side, the name “Fifth City” originated from the Institute’s goal to reconceive the nature of community organization and development. To go beyond the four geographic “cities” composing the urban setting of downtown, inner city, neighborhoods and suburbs in order to empower citizens. 5th City aimed to be a replicable demonstration of the capacity of local people to transform their own communities.
“Rebirth of the Human City” described the process: “Community residents began meeting in a dilapidated basement, patiently covering blackboards with lists upon lists of the community’s problems and the possible solutions…. The decision to build 5th City gave birth to songs and rituals and to the Iron Man.”
This statue still stands today as a witness to those residents who decided to drive their very lives like stakes into the ground of the city and take responsibility for its rebirth. Plans are being proposed to refurbish the Iron Man Plaza at Jackson & Homan.
Ruth Carter was a dynamic teacher and director of the Fifth City Preschool, the first 5th City project, chosen to address the “victim image.” The following is an excerpt, written in 2000 from the book The Circle of Life.
“In the early 1960s, I was a mother with small children, and I was eager for them to have the best chance in life. I shared that concern with others in my neighborhood, and we decided to do something about it. We heard that there was an idea to organize some kind of day care in our neighborhood, and we were invited to be a part of it. We worked with the staff of the Ecumenical Institute to develop the curriculum.We knew that our kids were smart and that with help, we could be teachers. In those days, there were no books to tell us how to set up a school for infants and toddlers. This was all before Headstart and there were not even guidelines for care for three and four year olds. We wanted to care for all the children, so we created our own road map.
After all this hard work and fun focused on our own kids, you can imagine how surprised we were when we were asked to come to New York City to give our advice to a group that was planning a new television show. We went and had a wonderful time telling those folks what we had done with small kids and how we had done it. Their show became “Sesame Street.”
Working with a whole family methodology, the Fifth City Preschool continues to provide excellent quality care. With a current enrollment of 60 children, the Preschool is regenerating the next generation of community leaders.
On May 4, 2017, the Institute of Cultural Affairs [ICA] had the privilege of hosting a performance of My Soul Cries Out: Stop! This grassroots play seeks to spark community transformation throughout Chicago. It was written, directed and produced by Denise Gathings, a Chicago Police Officer and lifelong resident of the Fifth City neighborhood. She is the daughter of Ruth Carter and the multi-talented cast are descendants of Ruth.The stories in Gathings’ play draw directly from her day-to-day interactions with local youth as a community police officer. The raw, powerful scenes authentically capture the pressures on the street that too often build to violence and its painful aftermath. There performing and singing in ICA’s GreenRise 5th City room were Ruth Carter’s legacy of community leadership.
The play closes with the hymn I Shall Wear A Crown by Thomas Whitfield:
I shall wear a crown.
When it’s all over
I shall see His face
When it’s all over
I’m going to put on my robe, tell the story how I made it over
An inspiring story and play for which Ruth can be proud.