Street Level Youth Media Burns Down

The project that was initiated by Inigo Manglano-Ovalle during the 1993 seminal Culture in Action program.

Fire displaces youth media makers and residents
West Town's Street Level planning next moves


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At least four West Town residents and a prominent youth media organization based in the neighborhood have been displaced following a major fire at 1856 W. Chicago early Sunday morning.

No one was hurt in the blaze, which drew at least 100 firefighters and multiple trucks to the block. Firefighters saved one woman from the third floor of the building, said department spokesman Richard Ricardo. He did not immediately know its cause.

The fire has left Street Level Youth Media, based in the building since 1997, with an unexpected challenge. Manwah Lee, executive director of the organization, said the space is unusable. Staffers are currently sifting through the wreckage.

"It's not only a resource for young people, but a resource for the community," Lee said. "It's a great loss for all of us."

She estimated a minimum loss of $150,000 in production equipment, computers, office supplies and furniture.

The group's programming has been affected. An after-school initiative called Neutral Ground-which offered a computer lab, free Internet access and drew an average of 35 students a day to the building's storefront-is shuttered. A lab used for math tutoring and community events is ruined.

Other programs are continuing elsewhere. An audio and radio production course have relocated to a nearby music studio. Programs run at various Chicago Public Schools locations haven't been affected either, Lee said.

Lee said the organization is trying to determine if they'll be able to reopen on in their longtime location on Chicago Avenue or whether the organization will move elsewhere.

"We're optimistic about moving forward and rebuilding," Lee said.

Street Level Youth Media was founded in West Town in 1993 and provides media and technology education for young people from across the city. A fall course schedule posted online shows radio, audio and television production classes, and even a DJ workshop. The group has a bevy of partnerships with various non-profits, public schools, city agencies and arts organizations.

Paul Tereul, a director at Columbia College's Center for Community Arts Partnerships and a co-founder of Street Level, said the group has an important place in the youth media scene in Chicago. The group opened one of Chicago's first free internet cafes back in the 1990s, he said, and teachers from the organization have spun off new groups like Co-op Image and Free Spirit Media.

"It's going to take help and effort of a lot of people out there," he said. "It's more than just material things burned. The youth in hood do not have a center to go."

Lee said after clean-up and salvage, Street Level will approach funders and supporters about grants and next steps. Those wishing to contribute to the organization can mail donations to 1856 W. Chicago or call Lee at 773-862-5331. Their Web site,, has an online donation option.

"It's definitely one of the biggest challenges," the group has faced, Lee said. "It's hard to compare this to anything else."