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Level UP: inside Chicago's mall-based teen makerspace




Level UP Chicago's mallbased teen maker space

In 1947, the Tucker Car Corporation opened shop at the Dodge Chicago Plant, the one-time world's largest building located on the city's southwest side, a stone's throw from Midway Airport. Half a decade before, construction workers lovingly nicknamed the site "Hitler's Headache," a title it earned for being the birthplace of most of the engines for World War II's B-29 bombers. After Tucker's notoriously brief tenure, Ford took over, again devoting the massive structure to the construction of military aircraft, this time for the Korean War. Look to the left of the entrance when you arrive at Level UP's subterranean storefront, and you'll spot a model of Tucker's 1948 Sedan sitting atop a glass case. Jackie Moore keeps the little burgundy Tucker "Torpedo" for some small sense of history of the space her program occupies. "You know they made these right here," she explains, holding a plastic version of Tucker's stillborn dream. "All 51 of them."

Level UP is located in the basement beneath the food court of the Ford City Mall, a sprawling shopping center that opened up on the lot in 1965, borrowing its name from the third car company to take up residence here. Once upon a time, these underground tunnels housed cafeterias and machine classes for factory workers. These days, however, this particular wing stands more as a testament to the state of the American shopping mall in the early 21st century. Down here, there's a hairstylist and shop devoted to eastern herbal remedies, but not much else to speak of beyond employee locker rooms and several empty storefronts. Moore apologizes for the mess when we first arrive. It's clearly a well-loved space, with various tools of the trade scattered all over the tables and floor. Nearly every wall in the converted storefront is papered with writing -- charts, diagrams and instructions for tinkering with electronics.

In the middle of the space is a strange four-wheeled vehicle, with exposed circuitry and a small chute with a spinning wheel that sends Frisbees flying at high speeds. On a nearby table sits a huge orange Pac-Man-shaped cutout on wheels and a nearly finished CNC machine. There are a number of deconstructed Roomba-like iRobot open-source platforms, including two that serve as the base for anthropomorphic banana and grape characters built from PVC piping that are, admittedly, a bit worse for wear. Toward the front, beneath the Tucker Torpedo, is a glass case loaded with trophies and certificates from competitions with names like Botball, all testaments to the work that goes on here. Jackie Moore has devoted this space and her life to teaching kids how to build robots.

Filed under: Robots

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