Youth organization plans to move into Boocoo space

Edward Cox, Assistant Web Editor

A youth organization has signed a purchase agreement to move into the space formerly occupied by Boocoo Cultural Center and Cafe.

We Want To Live spokesman Bobby Burns said the volunteer-run group hopes to move into the space, 1823 Church St., in September. We Want To Live hopes to partner with two other groups interested in the property to create youth initiatives, Burns said. The organization has been engaging youth in Evanston since around 2009, volunteer Lonnie Wilson said.

Wilson, a social worker who helped create the center, said the group aims to engage the community, which is the same foundation Boocoo was built on. The center fell apart under financial stress and poor leadership decisions, Wilson said. Boocoo has had to suspend some of its programs since December 2013. 

“I think it became kind of bourgeois and ‘bougie,’ and the African American community didn’t respond to it the way it should have,” Wilson said.

The approximately 3,000 square-foot space at the Boocoo Cultural Center building, which is kitty-corner from Evanston Township High School, will serve as an area for youth activities, Burns said. The existing cafe inside the building will be the centerpiece of a “Battle of the Chef” competition in which chefs from Chicago culinary schools will compete for a six- to 12-month residency at the building. The organization will present an internship plan to ETHS, which will bring students to work in the building’s cafe, Burns said. 

In the program, the organization may partner with culinary schools such as Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Chicago and Kendall College.

Burns said he plans to make We Want To Live a nonprofit that aligns with the youth-oriented mission of Boocoo. Although most nonprofits are adult-led, Burns said he hopes to give youth leadership positions through the business. For example, youth could be in charge of leading a peace campaign, he said.

We Want To Live is in the process of connecting with nonprofit and for-profit organizations in Evanston and the Chicago area, Wilson said. The store has been in touch with the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Building Performance Institute.

Burns said he is considering contacting the city for financial aid as the group progresses in fundraising within the community.  We Want To Live will implement four Evanston150 initiatives, such as developing a viable youth work force and creating an eco-friendly city. At the business, youth will learn the full scope of the food making process, from harvesting to serving it to customers, Burns said.

There are about 12 volunteers who work for We Want To Live, Wilson said. The organization administrators will be volunteering 30 to 40 hours every week at the organization.

We Want To Live’s plan to find a permanent location comes after property owner Daniel Cheifetz got caught up in the recession, economic development coordinator Paul Zalmezak said. Cheifetz had invested in the Church Street Village and the property on Church Street and Darrow Avenue.

“It think it is important whatever business move forward with does a good job engaging the community,” Zalmezak said.

In addition to making the space a hub for youth education, Burns said he also hopes to transform it into an entertainment venue that attracts talent such as Chance the Rapper and poet Malcolm London.

“In the evening and weekends, we want the space to be buzzing and rocking. We want to bring in top talent,” Burns said.

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