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Meet Eric Williams of The Silver Room in Hyde Park

Today we’d like to introduce you to Eric Williams.

So, before we jump into specific questions about the business, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
At my core, I am a retailer and a social entrepreneur. Some years ago, I fell into urban planning because I saw a need in my community. There was a void for a space that could be used as a platform for the arts. The Silver Room is both a retail space and a launching venue for creatives. It is a public space that functions as an incubator for artists and a venue for arts education, community-based arts projects, exhibitions, performances, and talks. For more than 20 years, The Silver Room—a merger of entrepreneurship, arts, and culture—has been my direct response to the spatial gap in artistic study and performance on the South and West sides of Chicago. My path to getting here was winding–I spent time peddling tee shirts on the street corner, I studied finance, I DJed and planned parties. I feel like The Silver Room is the intersection of all those things and more. And I’m using what I’ve learned and built to help others create their own version of happiness and economic freedom.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Not at all. Business is volatile and The Silver Room has faced its share of ups and downs. When creating and building our signature event The Sound System Block Party, we’ve often struggled getting space and convincing communities that a space for celebration and joy of a large group of people of color is valuable.

I’ve always felt a strong tension between my plans and my finances, but we get creative and when we keep working, good things seem to happen! The Silver Room was located in Wicker Park, which has undergone a lot of changes in the 17 years or so that we were there. I knew that if we changed our brand to fit the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, we could stay in business, but I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t give up what The Silver Room stands for and who we serve. So we found a new community. We’ve been able to lean farther into our conscious, Black & Brown and arts centered brand because Hyde Park and the surrounding communities reinforce that. As a result, we’ve seen more community events, new partnerships, increase in sales and vendors and a huge outpouring of support for the Sound System Block Party. The struggles don’t stop us, but they do illuminate the best path forward.

The Silver Room – what should we know? What do you guys do best? What sets you apart from the competition?
The primary focus of my life’s work has been using the arts as a vehicle to bring together people from different communities. When I started as an entrepreneur, I was throwing parties in abandoned warehouses, organizing block parties in alleys, turning closed-off public streets into dance halls, converting empty storefronts into pop-up art galleries, and transforming vacant building exteriors and abandoned lots into movie theaters. Then enter The Silver Room, a brick and mortar retail space that also functions as a community hub. We sell jewelry, accessories and clothing for socially conscious, fashion forward Chicagoans.

For the past two decades, I’ve shaped my practice to be responsive to my core constituency’s needs, addressing social issues around disenfranchisement in communities of color by providing space, support, and programming. People love what we do. When people say, “The first art exhibition I ever had was in your store,” or “The first piece of jewelry I sold was in your store,” that makes it all worth it.

What moment in your career do you look back most fondly on?
There are a few things I’m proud of. The Sound System Block Party has become a real happening in Chicago and we’ve managed to keep control and maintain the block party feel without giving in to corporate sponsorships. This year we host 30,000 visitors and created $1.2 million in estimated economic engagement in the Hyde Park community and for the vendors and partnered brands. This is a big deal to me. In addition, we launched our first arts festival last fall called CONNECT which sought to create space for south side based and artists of color. This festival led to a permanent gallery space under The Silver Room brand. But maybe one of my proudest moments was at this year’s Harper Court Jazz series, a partnership we have with The University of Chicago and Harper Court. I remember putting all the work, scrambling around with the logistics of the day and really feeling worn out by the time the show kicked off. But I looked over throughout the crowd and was so touched to see what we’d created. There were college kids rubbing elbows with young families with babies running around rubbing elbows with older South side folks dressed to the nines. They were all enjoying the space together and enjoying the music. I seek to create spaces like this, where people from all walks of life can come together authentically, even for just an evening. I hope those evenings ripple into other areas of life. Spaces like that are rare; I’m incredibly proud to create them.

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