South Willis neighborhood creates togetherness in a time of isolation

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The intersection of Green St. and Willis Ave. on Google Street View, last updated in October 2015.

With the South Willis area relying heavily on community-centered events and interactions, the coronavirus pandemic has made it difficult for neighbors to interact and participate in activities like they have in the past. 

Despite these challenges, they have found a way to come together in an even stronger way during these unprecedented times. 

“I think we have become stronger as a neighborhood because everyone walks around more now, you constantly hear kids playing with each other all the time in people’s front and back yards,” says South Willis resident Valleri Robinson. “Everyone has been very strict in terms of social distancing, but we have managed to have a couple bonfires and outdoor birthday parties.”

Robinson is a professor in the theater department at the University of Illinois, and has lived in her South Willis house for about 10 years. She describes the neighborhood as predominantly white and middle class, and one with a lot of historical character through old and beautiful houses. While the pandemic has stopped them from holding their annual block party, residents have resorted to new ways of connection and togetherness. 

“We have created three neighborhood book clubs, where residents will come together and sit on each other’s lawns,” Robinson says. There is a teen section, older resident section, and kids section, which Robinson’s daughter runs herself. She said this club is a great way for kids to come together during this hard time and have something to do instead of sitting inside all day. 

A map of the South Willis neighborhood provided by the City of Champaign’s website. It runs along a few blocks of Prospect Ave., from John St. to Springfield Ave.

South Willis Neighborhood is a small, relatively quiet neighborhood that sits near the Clark Park area in Champaign. It is home to both professors at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as well as other working-class families and young professionals. 

The neighborhood association for South Willis was founded by University of Illinois professor Tom O’Rourke 36 years ago, who used his background in community health and interest in neighborhood building to transform a nine-block area into an immersive, community-centered area now known as the South Willis neighborhood.

According to CityData, a website that takes data from a variety of government and private sources to create detailed profiles for cities, the neighborhood is an even mix of households. Families make up 53% of all households and non-families make up the rest. At 66%, the area’s residents are predominantly white, and Black residents account for 15%.

Compared to other areas in Champaign, South Willis is relatively wealthier and safer, as the average median household income of South Willis as of 2017 was $62,955 compared to the $43,785 of Champaign as a whole. The median gross rent in the area is $1,015, which is also higher than the Champaign average of $870.

One of the aspects of South Willis that has made it so attractive to new residents over the past few years has been the opening of new small businesses and community-minded event spaces. Prairie Zen Center is located on the corner of Green and Prospect and is a space in the community designed for members to come together to practice zen and study Dharma

Founded in 1993, Prairie Zen Center’s guiding teacher is Elihu Genmyo Smith, the first Dharma Heir of Charlotte Joko Beck and co-founder of the Ordinary Mind Zen School. Six years ago, Smith semi-retired, and Ed Mushin Russell was made his successor. Russell has been going to the center since 1999, and credits the center in finding his love and joy for the practice.

“I had been interested in Buddhism and practiced on my own in small groups but didn’t know the zen center existed until I found it by accident,” Russell says. He liked it so much that he became a regular member, and worked his way up to becoming an attendant and finally practice leader. 

The inside of Prairie Zen Center, located at 515 S. Prospect in Champaign. Photo from its Facebook page.

Their regular schedule includes weekly sessions, workshops, and Sesshin six times a year, which is a period of intensive meditation in a Zen monastery. Due to the pandemic, however, all practices have been moved online, creating a complete transformation in the way residents must take on Zen. 

Russell says that the pandemic has transformed the way that the center operates, but not necessarily in a bad way:

“It has its positives and negatives, I wouldn’t say it’s harder but it’s different. You don’t have physical face to face interaction, and it’s just not the same atmosphere as in person.” 

While the new circumstances have forced the center to go completely online, it has created a new sense of community, bringing together people from all over the U.S. that may not have been able to participate. Russell credits this new way of practicing zen as a newfound sense of appreciation for the community, as they can connect past and present residents of the area. Even Elihu Genmyo Smith, semi- retired founding teacher who has moved to California, is able to join sessions now that they are virtual, something that has meant a lot to the center and community as a whole.

Prairie Zen Center operates on a membership donation basis, where the recommended level of support for local members is $40 or more per month, and for non-local, remote members it is $25 or more per month. This is a suggested donation, however, and anyone can be considered a member regardless of the ability to contribute.

“Membership is a loose term,” said Russell. “Participants vary by level, there are no set rules about contributions and people are invited to donate whatever they feel is appropriate.”

The South Willis neighborhood is a relatively safe area compared to the rest of Champaign, with only two recorded crimes in 2020 according to One of these was a Motor Vehicle Theft on the 500 Block of South Willis, and a Battery Assault on the corner of Springfield and Prospect. Crime is not something residents are particularly worried about, as this has been a relative non-issue over the past few years. 

As a neighborhood full of families and university employees, community has always been key in creating a safe and welcoming place for people of all backgrounds to live according to Robinson.

“With the holidays coming up and not many people traveling, we definitely plan on holding more socially distant events like bonfires in the future,” Robinson says. “We want to create a sense of togetherness, and find a way to make sure that no one ever feels isolated.”

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  1. John F. Bramfeld

    We lived on South Willis Street from 1990 to 2017 and never heard of the South Willis Neighborhood.