The North Lawndale Employment Network (NLEN) supports residents returning from incarceration and others who face the day-to-day financial hardships of poverty by providing pathways to economic prosperity. When an abandoned former bank building in the North Lawndale neighborhood became available, the nonprofit organization seized the opportunity to relocate all their programming under one roof, providing a place of gathering and growth for the whole community.
The 20,000-sf structure was originally designed for security, with thick walls, few windows, and perimeter fencing. Now, new windows, a one-story glass addition, and multiple green spaces transform the opaque façade and infuse the site with a sense of transparency and welcome. A new entrance plaza, converted from a former parking lot, is populated with native plantings, ample seating, and offers much-needed community green space.
On the first floor, the glass addition houses seating for the Beelove Café, which offers local coffee and healthy fresh foods for sale through a partnership with another local nonprofit. The café serves as a central gathering place and a common space between the building’s programs, including a community bank tenant that provides collaborative financial literacy programs for NLEN’s clients. A dedicated space for community events, including town halls, yoga classes, and live music, opens onto to a private walled peace garden. Upstairs, administrative offices, conference rooms, and training rooms surround a photo mural commemorating Martin Luther King Jr.’s time in North Lawndale.
While the former bank hid its treasures, NLEN celebrates its most important asset, its clients, by showcasing them working for its social enterprise, Sweet Beginnings, at the center of its campus. With honey harvested from their urban apiaries, clients package homegrown honey products in full view of inspired visitors, proving that the opportunity to change is not only possible, it is already happening, and worth the investment.