Meet the 2018 Loeb Fellows: Eric Williams

Meet the 2018 Loeb Fellows: Eric Williams


Hello. My name is Eric Williams. I’m the owner of Silver
Room, which John introduced. It is a retail space,
but it’s much more than that, which I’m
still trying to figure out the exact words to
tell people what it is in a short amount of time. Hopefully by the end of the
year I’ll figure this out. So I was thinking about how
to tell the story of the store and what we do, and I just
kept coming back to history. And I can’t really
tell the story of what we’re doing
now without giving you a little bit of background
history of myself. So I’ll try and make
this as fast as possible. So here we go. So I’m from a town
called Robins, Illinois. It’s about three miles south of
Chicago, but it’s very rural. It’s like Mississippi– so no
street lights, no sidewalks, poor infrastructure. So that was my first
taste of the kind of like seeing the haves and
have-nots, living in Robbins. My second slide, actually,
is one of the most important slides, and this
was my first taste of community, which was our
church, like many people who grow up in especially
small towns. The church was the
first place I really saw the power of music,
the first place I saw the power of
spirit overtake people to a point where they fall out. And I remember as a little
kid remembering, wow, this is interesting. I want to be able to
have that power someday, using music and just the
spirit of the church. So here is the
third slide, which is my dad, which, wow, he
looks like me; I look like him. That’s really crazy. So my father actually worked
at a factory for a long time, and he opened up a
bar in a small town. And that was my
first job, actually, was working at his bar. And it taught me a
lot about, again, music, people coming together,
community engagement, the struggles of small business. And I learned a lot of
lessons at my father’s bar. This building is
very important to me. This is the Robbins
Community Center, which again, like small towns,
we had a church, we had a bar, and a little community center. This is where I learned
how to play basketball. This is where I
had my first party. This is where I
had my first job, that government-sponsored
program. And later, my mom was actually
laid to rest at this building, too, so had a lot
of importance to me. So as I was growing
up, I was really getting into music
from my father’s bar, and my sisters were into music. And it just became a
big part of my life. And my uncle, his name
is Ronnie Boykins– he was a bass player for Sun Ra. I don’t know if you
know who Sun Ra is. So Sun Ra would
come by the house. I didn’t know who
this weird guy was. And my grandmother used to call
it just crazy, way out music, she called it. But I mean, I
remember the music– can you hear? OK. I remember the music, again,
was just always planned and just became a
big part of my life. And on top of the music
was his fashion choices, which were kind of way out. They were kind of way out. But I thought it
was kind of cool. So this is me. When I turned 14, 15, I
mean, the music thing just kept– it was just in me,
and I wanted to be a DJ. House music in Chicago in
the 80s was a big deal, and I wanted to be a part of it. So I went and got some
turntables and I started practicing, and that building
I talked about before is where I had my first party. This was the most interesting
project researching this. I found all this old stuff. I’m just laughing at this. So you see my name was
Eric Erotic Williams. That was my DJ name,
which is really funny. I think this was ’86, ’87. I remember this party,
because nobody came. Literally nobody came. [laughter] And I learned a lot of
lessons which later on I kept them up here. So again, the music
thing was in my heart, and I started going
out a lot to parties. And that’s kind of where
my life took a real turn. Because growing up
in a small town, being bused to another
community and trying to navigate these two different places– and like a lot of
people, you don’t really feel a part of any place. But when I came here,
it didn’t matter. Everyone was the same– old, young, gay, straight,
what color you were. It didn’t really matter. The music was what
kept us together. So I just really, really
got into the music. So I wanted to play something
for you real quick, if I can. My technology is horrible. I’m sorry. Real quick, I’m
going to find this. Just to play it, yeah. Oh, it’s invisible. That makes it real
hard, doesn’t it. It’s not about the space itself. It’s about the
community that’s inside the space that helps you
bring you back to that moment. When you, a DJ, and
everybody involved, it was you and them
against the world, and we survived together. [house music playing] Anyway, I just
wanted to play that, because I was one of those
people in that crowd, dancing. So I mean, I still
get chills thinking about the time and the music. It just was like the best
time of my life, because you can go and be yourself. And again, it was a
big impact for me, because I didn’t really
know that until I started going out to
these places, which my mom didn’t always know. So she had other plans for me. So I was a decent student. And again, this is
the late 80s, and they were trying to get young
black men, in particular, to go to business school. And they told me if I picked
up a major in business I can go to school for free. So they gave me a
list of five majors. I think it was accounting, econ,
business management, finance, marketing. I said, which one
makes the most money? They said, finance. I said, OK, I’ll
be a finance major. So I was a finance major,
and so I did that for– I went to school for finance. I graduated. I got a degree. I was a broker for a
short period of time, but I kept going to these clubs. And it was just kind of just
pulling, just kept pulling me. So meanwhile, while I was in
school, I was down the street from Maxwell Street, if
any of you know Chicago. I went to UIC. It’s, like, two blocks
from Maxwell Street. So I had to make
money in school, so after class I would
go and buy t-shirts. And I would sell them
to my classmates, and I would go on the train and
sell them and socks, et cetera, et cetera. And that life became
very exciting to me, because the people
were interesting and they were non-conformist. They didn’t really care about
living in this world everyone else wanted to live in, and
I kind of enjoyed that, too. So now I’m navigating nightclub
world and the street peddling world. So this is Wicker
Park in the early 90s. Wicker Park is a neighborhood
that is gentrified. At the time I moved in, it was
probably the beginnings of it. Much like many neighborhoods,
big, huge spaces, artists. We could throw parties
there, cheap rent– you name it. So that’s where I found my
home, because, again, it was this world of nonconformists. And I settled in there. And eight years of
street peddling, selling stuff on the streets and
traveling, got a little tiring. So I found a space and I opened
up this place called The Silver Room. It was an ode to my father’s
bar called The Blue Room. I was selling silver. I was going back and forth,
traveling around the country, selling– you name it, I was selling it– legal stuff. So yeah, I opened this space
up, and it was a small shop. And it was my way to
make a little money and not have to go back into the
grind of the financial world, which I didn’t like at all. Meanwhile, I was still doing
these street festivals, and I just didn’t like the ones
that I was seeing in Chicago. I didn’t like the music,
I didn’t like the food, I didn’t like some
of the people. So I decided to start
my own fest, which was a block party, which
literally that’s actually an alley. So that’s an alley. My house is upstairs. So I said, you know
what, I’m going to call some friends over. We’re going to set up a
little small stage and DJ and play music and get
the community to come out. And so this was actually
our first block party. So yeah, we probably had
100 some people came out. I was actually pretty happy. We had a stage with cinder
blocks and milk crates, and we had a great time. People went to the
alley and danced. Actually, I remember
going to the alderman and asking him for the permit. He said, this is an alley. I said, yeah, I know. He said, I never gave
a permit for an alley. I said, well, this
will be the first one. And he was like, OK. So we had a party in the alley. I remember the night. I was like, wow, this is beauty. I mean, an alley is an
ugly place for most people, and we made it beautiful. And I remember that. That was another
lesson I learned. So we kept doing
these block parties. We kept engaging the
community, and this is the crowd from last year. So last year was 30,000 people. So over the course of 14
years, we grew from 200 people to 30,000 people, and it’s
been the same formula, the same energy. It’s friends, it’s family, it’s
music, it’s culture, it’s art, it’s just having a good time. And I’ve never
wavered from that, and now we have a lot of people. We’ve got to figure
out how to get people into the same
footprint next year, which maybe I can have you
guys help me figure that out. So thinking about the store,
its impact on community wasn’t something I was thinking
about when I first opened. I was just trying
to make some money. But having this
space, I’ve met so many artists, which this is
my ode to my artist t-shirts. And I realized that having
a space that I thought was just the retail space,
it soon became much more. It became an art gallery
for my artist friends. It became a place to do poetry
readings for my poet friends. It became a dance
studio, a fashion runway. You name it, we
started to do it. So this is actually talking
about the block party from this year and
the impact it had– not just the cultural impact,
but the economic impact. So I can fast forward that one. So we commissioned this
company to do a study. So I can really say, yes, we
had a good time, we had fun, but this was an actual
impact in the community. So $1.5 million just from this
party, just from this idea. That’s vendors who made money. That is hotels. That’s restaurateurs. That is artists. So I had a big impact
on the neighborhood. And the last few
years, I’ve been thinking about this more
like, yes, it’s a party. But the economic impact
is not just short-lived. It’s actually long
term, because people think that they can
actually have agency to do things in the
neighborhood now. But before they maybe didn’t
believe that they could. So community engagement,
community involvement– I mean, that’s kind of
what I’m about right now. That’s what the store is about. It’s a retail space. We sell jewelry, we sell
watches and really cool stuff. But equally as
important to me is how can I get other folks
involved in what I’m doing, in what we’re doing. So these are the five areas
I could try and focus on. And this kind of came
out of the people. We had this space, and then
people would come here and say, hey, can I do a
class, language class, can we do a story night, just
a chance to get people together and talk to one another,
which is something we kind of take for granted. Food just is a big thing now. We live in neighborhoods in
the south side of Chicago that don’t have fresh food,
so we talk about those issues also. So anyway, so these
are the things that we kind of focus
on in the store and also the business aspect. Obviously, we have artists
in the store who sell things and they make money, so
that’s a huge part of it. This is something I actually did
last year, because after I left here the first time,
I was like, wow, I don’t think about
what my business is. So I asked the customers
to tell me what it is. And so about 50 people
came out and told us what it meant to them. So that’s actually my
daughter, the top right. So here we are. I’m here. I’m trying to figure out
what this space means. It’s more than a retail space. What are we going to
be doing in the future? And right now, I
think my main focus is, how do I take the energy
and the spirit of the store and use it outside
of this space. So one of the things
that I got commissioned to do from the
University of Chicago– it was called Connect. I called it Connect. It was basically using
seven empty storefronts on the south side, and we
turned them into art galleries. So I got seven curators
to do different spaces. So that’s me. I hurt my back,
actually, with that. That was a piece
this artist made out of these plastic little
pieces and made a whale. So one of my favorite
things– we had a lot of kids come and do art in this space. But from that space, we were
given a permanent space. So we have an art
gallery now, too. It’s called Connect. So that’s just an example
of “temporary urbanism,” which I didn’t even know
that word until I get here– urban ephemera. But yeah, this is
something that I was asked to do for the elders. A lot of people in the
neighborhood are 65 and older. So we did a ’50s-’60s dance,
and so they came out and had a great time. And this guy was– I love this dude. John, you got a
jacket like this? So yeah, so these guys were
just really, really cool cats. And actually, from that,
we took the photographs and did an art
show and sold that. And from the money
we made from that, we did a Halloween
pop-up play in the store. So we’re kind of
trying to figure out how to make all the stuff work. So 15 minutes– I think this is
actually my last video. Where are we at? Where are we at? Not bad, right, Sally? Where are we at? So this actually is from the
block party from this year. [electronic music playing] I just wanted to
show you that video. I think it’s important there’s
other views of Chicago. We get a bad rap for
all the bad stuff. And it does happen, but
there’s mostly this. And I just wanted you to
know that that happens. So my last slide would be– here we go. So this was actually last May. We had a busy month. So if you look at some of the
stuff that we were doing– story nights. We had pop-up shows, a lot of
temporary urbanism happening. [laughter] So for me right now,
I’m here to figure out how I can do more
of this and how it can be scaled in
other neighborhoods, how we can take some of the energy
and the spirit of what we’re doing in and kind of grow it. So that’s kind of what
I’m trying to figure out– maybe a nonprofit,
some consulting things. I’ll tell you in May. So anyway, thank you. [applause]

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