Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Auburn-Gresham's Litter-Free Zone Keeps on Bagging

One of the more frustrating parts of being a South Side Chicagoan is lack of access to recycling. I speak from experience. As a South Sider without a car, it's been impossible for me to get recycling to a drop-off station, and now the city's much-criticized Blue Bag program has been discontinued, with only a handful of neighborhoods involved in the new Blue Cart recycling effort.

Things would be much better if I lived even further south, in Auburn Gresham. Last spring the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation kicked off a one-square-mile Litter Free Zone, which includes both door-to-door and curbside recycling. They got way ahead of the city's curve, which had Auburn Gresham slated to begin recycling until 2011. So far they've collected more than 65,000 pounds of recyclable materials.

According to this recent article at the GADC website, the Shedd Aquarium came down for a visit and is thinking about how to take the idea and work it into their own community partnerships.

Perhaps there some wisdom in here for the Obama administration to consider when thinking about green-collar jobs and neighborhoods.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Note to Transition Team: Hire Local to Weatherize

While scientists are celebrating one of their own getting the top spot at the U.S. Department of Energy, folks in Chicago are thinking about how Obama's promise to promote weatherization could benefit neighborhoods.

Late last week I spoke with Angela Hurlock of Claretian Associates, who wanted to know how to suggest to Team Obama while they're thinking globally about reducing energy use, they might want to start acting locally by training a corps of neighbors to help neighbors weatherize those 1 million homes a year.

Angela and many of her friends and neighbors in South Chicago are very interested in "green-collar" jobs and promoting energy efficiency and sustainability around the neighborhood. Recently, more than 30 neighbors came together to learn about LEED certification for homes and neighborhoods. They want to know how to make their existing homes greener, especially by reducing water and energy use.

Watch for an upcoming story on the New Communities Program web site about what they're learning.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Power of Five Challenge Bonus: Colby Luckenbill @ Colby Gallery

I'm going to give Colby Luckenbill of Colby Gallery the last word on Pilsen, art and community. In addition to running a gallery of international stature, Colby serves as a community rep on the Cooper Elementary Local School Council. She's been living in Pilsen for five years now.

Of her space, she said, "It's more of a salon-style gallery. It encourages civic activity and brainstorming, networking and inspiration." That was true. I engaged in more conversations with strangers about the art there than anywhere else. And I met a Little Village artist, Carolina I. Reyes, who was showing her own work in the Little Village Art Fest the next day.

Colby has been involved with Pilsen Open Studios since its inception. Although her gallery has shown works from many Latin American and especially Mexican artists, in 2005 she hosted a major retrospective of a German artist. "He was in his 80s and flew over for the show. It's a cultural exchange, showing local artists and artists from around the world. Art helps to connect the heart and the head. We need that in all aspects of life."

Like many of the artists I spoke with, she thought the open studios was a refreshing contrast to the more formalized and highly structured arts scene in East Pilsen, which is dominated by real estate mogul John Podmajersky, who made a conscious decision to rent his buildings to artists years ago in an effort to revitalize the area. While his plan has succeeded, some find the East Pilsen arts scene too controlled and too organized from the top down. "Here on the west side we think of it as one place. It's all Pilsen. It's open. It's artist-run. This has a certain kind of soul."

Power of Five Challenge #5: A Public Private Place

Much as Placemaking Chicago likes to stress accessibility being important to making a place, I think lots of us who like to ramble around Chicago want to know the cool hideaways, the spots somewhat off the beaten track.

The photo above is from one such hideaway. The Art House Studio in Pilsen is closer to the historic Heart of Italy strip at 24th and Oakley than it is to the bustling gallery scene along 18th east and west of Ashland. Outside it looks like just another pretty Chicago two-flat, but then you look in the garden apartment and see colors everywhere, like this:

The Art House is a space shared by Brazilian women artists living and working in Pilsen. Artist Patricia Peixoto says in addition to being part of events like Pilsen Open Studios, they have had their neighbors over for informal parties in the summertime. In this way, the Art House becomes both a hub for the immediate area and a bridge in and out of the neighborhood.

In October, Peixoto and longtime friend and colleague Magda Dejose showed off The White Garden, a set of peephole installations exploring femininity, and a set of paintings commemorating the 100th anniversary of Japanese immigration to Brazil. Like Colibri Gallery, the Art House hosts an event every fourth Saturday of the month. Theirs is an afternoon opening from 1 to 4 p.m. If you wanted to make a day of it, you could stitch a visit to their gallery together with a couple more great places, like stops at Tianguis and Golden Age, followed by a break at Cafe Mestizo and a leisurely dinner at Mundial Cocina Mestiza to keep you occupied until the fandango.

And that, my friends, is placemaking at its finest.

P.S. Since I cheated and gave you the same place twice earlier, I'm going to add a 5b with another space so you do get to see five cool Pilsen locales in this series. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Power of Five Challenge #4: Golden Age Gallery

Pilsen's Golden Age Gallery, co-owned by Marco Kane Braunschweiler and Martine Syms, showcases experimental music and limited-edition art books. The photo above shows the pair (center and right) with a customer (left) during Pilsen Open Studios. Earlier in the weekend, an entire busload of Northern Illinois University students stopped in on a tour.

Golden Age has been open a little more than a year now and was featured in the Chicago Reader in September. Artists themselves, Braunshweiler and Syms wanted to create a space featuring interesting yet affordable imports and hard-to-get items.

Their unusual blend of inexpensive retail items and high-end artworks gives artists wider exposure than they might receive in a traditional gallery setting. "As a retail store, we have really high volume compared to a gallery. We have 500 items. A gallery might only have 10 items," said Braunsweiler. "When we started last year it was really well received, and it's only getting better. The greater mission of this store is to develop an emerging artists' network."

Braunschweiler and Syms flexed their networking muscles from the get-go by consulting with Tianguis' Irasema Salinas on potential storefronts before settling on their current West 18th Street location. In addition to running Golden Age in Pilsen, they also live in the neighborhood.

"West Pilsen is a really nice place, especially right now. So many new things are happening and so many young people are coming, and yet it's such an established art center, with all the murals and the museum. West Pilsen is evolving in a really natural and beautiful way."

I asked Braunschweiler to comment on the relationship between the presence of artists in a neighborhood and the likelihood that neighborhood would be gentrified sooner or later. In response, he made the point that most artists are not wealthy, and steep rises in rents and property taxes force them to move, too. "That's the big ruse: artists benefit from gentrification," he noted.

"I think neighborhoods change. It's inevitable Pilsen will not be in 10 years what it is now," Braunschweiler added. The real problem is institutionalized racism. Gentrification is an aspect of that. The most important thing now is to open a dialogue. That's why we're trying to be a part of the Pilsen art world."

For more about Golden Age and its owners, see this interview.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Power of Five Challenge #3: Roberto Ferreyra @ Colbri Gallery

OK, I cheated, sort of. Colibri Gallery is the same place twice, but for a different reason each time. And that's a key part of what placemaking is all about. As Placemaking Chicago puts it, "What makes some places succeed while others fail? In part, it is having a variety of things to do in one spot." Colibri Gallery has taken that idea to heart.

On the fourth Saturday of each month, the gallery becomes dance hall and jam session in one. Ferreyra and at least half a dozen musical friends play drums, violin and a variety of guitars, including small ones popular in the Mexican states of Jalisco and Veracruz. It's the monthly fandango, featuring traditional Mexican music but not limited to that style. For example, Colombian folk music and Cuban Jose Marti's "Guantanamera," made famous by Pete Seeger here in the U.S. were on the ticket both times I've stopped by. UPDATE: This month the fandango will be taking a break for the holidays.

After midnight, people carried out a wooden stand to dance on. The dance involved lots of complex rhythmic footwork. To me it looked a little like tap. A beginner got out there with her friend and they did a simple pattern I tried to keep up with from my seat. For another take on the fandango, click here.

Unfortunately, I don't have any audio of this fandango to share, but I can highly recommend Sones de Mexico as Pilsen and Chicago's finest traditional Mexican folk ensemble. About this time last year, they were featured on NPR when their album Es Tierra Es Tuya (This Land Is Your Land) was nominated for Best Folk Album. On their own web site, you can listen to a clip of "Huapango Club Remix," which gives you a bit of the flavor of what you might hear on a Saturday night at Colibri.

Colibri Gallery's fandango will resume on the fourth Saturday of January, 2009. Suggested donation is $8. Sometimes there's a raffle of nice art, too. Hope to see you there sometime!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Power challenge: What's your number?

Okay, Maureen Kelleher, if your intent with those Power of Five posts about Pilsen artists was to get us to wonder what you're talking about, it worked.

But I'm confused.

When I went to, I found out what the idea meant, except that they call it the Power of 10. Twice as good as your version?

Whatever the number, it's a terrific concept: that a "place" has to be more than one popular attraction or person or landmark, but a whole collection of things that make people want to be there. I've started tallying it up for my home community of Rogers Park and we've got Power of 100 up here -- No, Power of 1,000! – but come to think of it so do most neighborhoods.

I like it. And I wonder if the NCP neighborhoods might start creating attractive Google or Yahoo maps with photos and locations, showing their powers to the world.

New life blooms in Washington Park

One remarkable thing about the final planning "summit" in Washington Park on Saturday morning was that the big room at St. Edmund's Church was almost full by 9:30 a.m. despite two inches of fresh snow outside. Another was that after a full year of sometimes-contentious planning meetings – and at least six detailed rewrites of the evolving plan – the crowd was as enthusiastic as ever. These 50 people and about 170 other participants had gotten to know each other across the months of talking, touring and debating the future of their community.

And they were feeling pretty good about the whole darn thing.

The meeting itself was almost perfunctory. After Alderman Willie Cochran welcomed the crowd and cracked a few jokes, community leaders ran through the high points of the plan and then declared the formal part of the meeting over. But there was "Willie's Chili" in crock pots on a table in back, and flowering bulbs in decorative pots for everyone to take home, and sign-up sheets for each of the strategy areas.

People talked, committed themselves on the sign-up sheets, talked some more, took photos and promoted their latest programs. They did business, talked about the economy and wished each other a happy holiday.

They hung together for more than an hour talking about all the things that people in a healthy community talk about, and to me, that's a pretty clear sign that the planning process worked. Now the hard work of implementation can begin.

Read Richard Muhammad's full report on the Washington Park NCP web site. Also thanks to Richard for the photos.

Power of Five Challenge #2: Montserrat Alsina @ Colibri Gallery

(Photo: Visitors at Colibri Gallery during Pilsen Open Studios. The woman on the left holds this year's "passport.")

Printmaker, dancer, performance artist and community-builder Montserrat Alsina was instrumental in organizing this year's Pilsen Open Studios. One of her bright ideas was to create a "passport" -- a small booklet which visitors could take with them and have the artists sign or stamp. Visitors were encouraged to tear out the last page of the passport with their comments and put it in a raffle to win free art classes, a t-shirt or a print.

Though the idea was to use this as a carrot to draw young people--the passports were distributed at three local schools before the weekend event--older folks used it, too. "When I was going on the bus, I saw the grownups were getting really into it! They were going up to the artists and getting their signatures," she said.

The studio/gallery space she shares with her husband, Roberto Ferreyra, was the starting point for this year's tour. The gallery features not only their own prints and drawings but also work from Mexican artists with whom they have arranged an exchange program.

As the weekend wound down, Alsina observed they had met the goal of drawing more local residents. "I'm seeing more people from the community." Though often artists' communities are associated with a rise in property taxes and changing neighborhoods, she and other West Pilsen artists see their role as based in the existing community. "We want to keep people here and the children here and the taxes down. There's a lot of things that can be done in the community."

It's tough to raise Pilsen's profile in a positive way without accelerating gentrification, but it can be done by building community from the inside out. "You take the risk that more people will want to move this way and it will change us. If we stay together as artists and communicate more with the Latino community, I think we can encourage people to stay here."

For more information about Alsina, check out this post from art pilsen.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Power of Five Challenge #1: Giselle Mercier @ Tianguis

It took a little longer than I intended, but here's a snippet from artist Giselle Mercier, whose studio is upstairs from Tianguis, a fabulous cafe featuring fine teas and contemporary Latina/o literature you won't always find elsewhere. The store is also a cosponsor of the amazing bilingual spoken word showcase, Proyecto Latina, which will celebrate the start of its fourth year on January 19. Tianguis is very convenient, located right across the street from the entrance to the Pink Line's Damen Avenue stop.

Mercier is both a teaching and a working artist. A graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago, she now teaches there and at Columbia College. Mercier's own artistic work is grounded in her experience coming to the United States from Panama in the early 1980s. She often reuses the same objects in piece after piece. Thus, while each of her altarpieces or installations may not be permanent,the objects that make them up live on in her work over time. "I do a lot of work that has to do with rebuilding memory," she said. "If you become displaced, objects can give you back roots."

Mercier had a great time showing her work at Tianguis during Pilsen Open Studios. While we chatted over cups of tea, Tianguis' owner Irasema Salinas introduced Mercier to new friends. An old friend of Mercier's also stopped by, halting our interview for a long, welcoming hug. "It's been really great," said Mercier. "People have been asking lots of questions, being very open about their compliments."

Tianguis got its start as two foldout tables at an Open Studios location in 2005 and has supported the event ever since. But this year, the double whammy of Pilsen Open Studios and the Little Village Arts Fest in the same weekend was too much. "Having Little Village and Pilsen in the same weekend is tough. You can't do both," said Salinas. And she wanted to, since she's lived in Little Village all her life.

Giselle Mercier and Tianguis are the first installment in the Power of Five Placemaking Challenge, inspired by Placemaking Chicago.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Auburn Gresham's Rising Star: Ronnie Mosley

Ronnie Mosley, pictured here in his prom tux, is a young man of many talents. Now a senior at Simeon High School, he's been an intern with the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation and served on the planning team for Elev8 at Perspectives-Calumet Middle School. He's also received an award from the National Foundation for Youth Entrepreneurship. (Photo credit: Carlos Nelson.)

This week, Catalyst Chicago published an interview with Ronnie in his role as an honorary student member of the Chicago Board of Education. He shadows board president Rufus Williams, attends board meetings, and will soon sit down with his fellow honorary student members to craft an action agenda and bring it to the board by June 2009. Check out his take on funding, safety and health as they relate to Chicago schools, among other issues, by clicking here.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Neighborhoods, Social Capital and Schools Part II

Today's Chicago Schools Policy Luncheon featured students from Orr High School talking about the effects of last year's decision to "turnaround" Orr by putting all the adults' jobs up for grabs. Last year was the fourth time in a decade Orr has faced wholesale restructuring. So far, none of these efforts have showed lasting academic improvement for students.

Here's the quote of the day, from senior Antwan Ward, which sparked spontaneous applause:

"I think that the reason why the school has been turned around so many times is because of the community. There’s nothing being done in the community to help that community grow. If you don’t put anything positive in a community then the negative things in the community is going to seep into the school around it. And if you don’t put anything positive in the neighborhood, it doesn’t matter how many times you turn the school over; you’re going to get the same results each and every time."

Five Chicago neighborhoods and schools are now working together to put more positive resources in both places through Elev8. Thanks to Elev8, students at all five schools are getting better nutrition, free shots and physicals and new after-school programming. Reavis Elementary in North Kenwood had standing-room-only parent presence at a showcase of summer program activities last August. Marquette Elementary in Chicago Lawn has teachers making home visits to schools. Perspectives Calumet Middle School is working to promote student safety and reduce gang participation, and Ames Middle School is pioneering age-appropriate sex education for early teens.

For more on Elev8, check out this Catalyst Chicago story from September.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Englewood's Viaduct

I just happened upon this cool post over at the Windy Citizen, featuring Growing Home and the viaduct right next to it. Last summer I went up on that viaduct with some neighbor kids and had a great time. Unfortunately, the poster encountered a pack of stray dogs. Fortunately, everything turned out OK.

Last summer when I went up there I thought of the Bloomingdale Trail. Oh, for the day when the Bloomingdale Trail is done and Englewood is safe enough to think about a similar park.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

CommunityCollab gets 300+ members

The first version of CommunityCollab (beta in techspeak), the professional social network for community developers and organizers, launched October 21.

You can create a profile and start using CommunityCollab right now.

We presented the site at the recent LISC staff meeting, in Philadelphia, and Enterprise Conference, in Baltimore, and got lots of interest. More than 330 have signed up and another 40 have filled out forms indicating their interest in participating.

The Collab currently contains:
— A directory of people working to make communities better. You can find others like yourself, filtered by areas of expertise, city, or organization.
Work updates. Read what other professionals are doing and tell others what you are up to. Compare notes, ask questions, give advice, find someone to collaborate with... whatever you find useful.
Google Maps, which help give a feeling of who's doing what, where.
— The ability to send messages to other members.

Over the next few months we will be adding many more features. How this site evolves, and its value, will depend on how you use it and your feedback. Have fun, and spread the word!

What's Community Organizing? Humboldt Knows

Those who jeered at the mention of community organizing at last summer’s Republican National Convention – and the many more watching on television who weren’t quite sure what Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin were talking about – would have received quite an eye-opener the evening of Oct. 22 at LISC/Chicago New Communities Program lead agency Bickerdike Redevelopment Corp.

About 65 key stakeholders from the NCP planning process in Humboldt Park –- ranging from the West Humboldt Park Family and Community Development Council, to the East Humboldt Park Block Club, to the Chicago Police Department -- gathered to celebrate the release of a so-called “mini-update” of their quality-of-life plan, a year in the making.

But there was nothing “mini” about it. NCP director Mayra Hernandez of Bickerdike recounted what Humboldt Park, a veritable poster child of an organized community, has to show for its efforts: more than $1.4 million in funding during the first five years and another $800,000 in the past 15 or so months, leveraging $46 million overall for projects like a community land trust and a prisoner re-entry initiative.

Joy Aruguete, executive director of Bickerdike, said the document, subtitled “The Next Five Years: Raising the Stakes,” contains both new projects and those carried over. “We have more lead agencies and partners,” she said, with 60 organizations and more than 90 participants. “We are blessed to have a wealth of resources in the community. So many of you have come to the table, and it shows.”

The cover of the new plan features before-and-after depictions of two projects that have gone from rendering to reality. The plan contains community context and history, the task force vision and structure, and a breakdown of the seven strategies and 57 projects.

“People have been really impressed with our [subcommittee] structure. It’s helped our ability to cross-germinate projects and ideas,” Aruguete said. “We have all these projects in here [broken out individually], but so many of our projects are interconnected. … There’s a lot of cross-pollination and cross-utilization.”

A representative of the MacArthur Foundation recently told her that the Humboldt Park effort “is doing exactly what NCP set out to do,” she recalled. “In these very difficult economic times … resources are very precious. Funders are making decisions every day about who to lob off and who to keep on. NCP has kept Humboldt Park organizations on the radar screen in a very positive way.”

The original plan, developed in 2003-04 and titled “Staking Our Claim,” brought together more than 40 organizations and featured more than 50 projects to complete over a five-year period. Three years into its implementation, with the MacArthur Foundation pledging another $26 million for five years for NCP, Humboldt Park reconvened beginning in October 2007.

The task force spent the next several months deciding which projects to keep, which to discard (because they had either been completed or were no longer priorities), and which new priorities should be added. Having assisted staff at Bickerdike and other task force agencies in writing both the original plan and this update, I know that many more ideas were left on the cutting-room floor -- but some of those will still move forward, even if not officially part of the plan.

“What happens if you’ve already done 70 percent of the projects in your plan?” Aruguete said during the kickoff meeting a year ago. “We’re getting together -- not to recreate -- but we have to update this plan and expand it.”

The new plan retains the same vision and seven strategies as the first version of “Staking Our Claim,” although the task force adjusted the priority of strategies based on the results of a “bucket exercise,” during which task force participants placed “Humboldt Park” dollars into containers for each strategy. Youth programming reached the top of the list, where improving local schools had been considered the highest priority.

Among the projects completed or in progress from the first plan were several affordable and special needs housing projects, the “Bickerbikes” youth employment and fitness program, the Center for Working Families, the First Community Land Trust of Chicago, the Community of Wellness healthcare coordination efforts, and the Building Community Through the Arts task force and resulting series of projects.

During the rollout celebration, Aruguete noted that many of the original plan’s projects continued moving forward. “We didn’t stop and say, ‘Excuse us while we plan,’ ” she said.

Among projects yet to be completed were a five-year vocational high school, HIV/AIDS reduction programs, new child-care services, employer-assisted housing, and a Minority/Latino Contractors Association. New ideas included an artist live-work space, training opportunities for “green collar” environmentally oriented jobs, a free trolley system, and “Fun in the Park” activities on Sundays.

Hernandez invited those in attendance at the rollout to continue participating in the subcommittees as they turn to project implementation, as well as suggesting potential partners or funding streams to flesh out various projects. “This is important because going forward will be about how we collaborate,” she said. “Don’t think of yourself as a silo. We have enough resources to go around.”

The promise of those resources is what brought together sometimes contentious forces in the community in the first place -- but while they may have come for the grant money, they're staying -- at least in part -- because they like being part of a larger, organized whole that's much more than the sum of its parts.

As Sarah Palin might say, "Oh, you betcha!"

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Placemaking in Theory and Practice

The Metropolitan Planning Council recently came out with a new guide to an old concept. "Placemaking" is a term that has been around since the 1970s in architecture circles to talk about how people and space together create community. At Placemaking Chicago, a website created by MPC in partnership with New York's Project for Public Spaces, you can check out a step-by-step guide to creating great places in your neighborhood and case studies of neighborhood groups in the process of creating cool spaces like the Bloomingdale Trail.

Placemaking Chicago talks about "the power of 10" in a thought-provoking way here:

A great place needs to have at least 10 things to do in it or 10 reasons to be there. But, don't get fixated on a particular number. It's really a matter of offering a variety of things to do in one spot—whose quality as a place then becomes more than the sum of its parts.

Since I had such a great time at Pilsen Open Studios back in October, I've decided to create my own Power of Five challenge and tell you all about five great artists I met in five great spaces during the tour. (And I won't count the earlier post about Victor Montanez, just to raise the bar.) First up: Giselle Mercier showing her stuff at Tianguis.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

From Nicole Jones, a plea to shop local

One of the best small-business promoters I know is Nicole Jones, the super-networker who opened the Sensual Steps Shoe Salon on Cottage Grove in Bronzeville. Now she's promoting more than her own business via an e-newsletter about shopping locally. Here it is:

"Our newly elected President, Barack Obama, has set a new standard in the lives of all Americans. It is time for us to rise and change our beliefs, habits, and attitudes. As a small business owner, I can't help but ponder why six small businesses in my community have failed over the past six months. People often profess the importance of African American owned businesses and diversification of products and services, yet when businesses are developed, many individuals continue patronizing the same stores instead of taking an extra drive, walking a few blocks, or visiting a new area to support local business owners. If African American owned businesses do not have consistent customers and clients, how can their businesses thrive or even survive?

"Our communities can not afford to have any local businesses fail. When this happens, neighborhoods are adversely affected. People should have the pleasure and privilege of living, dining, shopping, and entertaining in their neighborhoods. Businesses should provide professional, efficient, and quality products and services. It is our obligation and responsibility to Shop Local First. Do we invest the tax dollars back into our own neighborhoods, or do we give revenue to other communities to help them prosper? The decision is ours, and so are the consequences.

"Let us stand together and start implementing positive changes that begin with our thinking. Why continue to take tax revenue from your neighborhood? Why complain about the lack of local businesses while traveling outside the community to make purchases? Invest in the businesses that benefit your neighborhoods, and reap the benefits of that investment. Change lives by building stronger, more viable, and sustainable communities. Make a difference and support community-based businesses. Be a part of the store at a time. It starts with a simple concept: Shop Local First.

"God Bless....Nicole Jones"

Businesses that need your support:

Shoe Stores
Sensual Steps, 4518 S. Cottage Grove,773-548-3338
Divine Sole, 3708 S. Indiana Ave., 773-548-7653
House of Sole, 1237 S. Michigan Ave., 312-834-0909
Kamryn B's, 8301 S. Ashland Ave., 773-881-3296

Art Establishments
Fai'es Art Institute, 4317 S. Cottage Grove, 773-268-2889
Gallery Guichard, 3521 S. King Dr., 773-373-8000

Kiwi Boutique, 1015 S. Western Ave., 312-421-3322
Ms. Catwalk, 2042 N. Damen Ave., 773-235-2750
Goree Shop, 1122 East 47th St., 773-393-3580
Agriculture, 532 East 43rd St., 773-538-5500

Café's and Bistros
Bronzeville Coffee, 528 East 43rd St., 773-536-0494
Ain't She Sweet Café, 4532 S. Cottage Grove, 773-373-3530
Zaleski & Horvath, 1126 E. 47th St., 773-538-7372
Hidden Pearl Art Café, 1060 E. 47th St., 773-285-1211

She also provided this link to

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Three more shot dead; something isn't working

I have a well-practiced line about urban violence that goes something like this: a healthy community, one that truly engages its youth in positive activities and that has a solid network of job and training opportunities for adults, that community will be able to reduce the brutal street killings that mark a less-healthy place, a place where people are angry and lack any real hope for their own future.

But with the gun violence continuing every day in the very neighborhoods where we work to build those healthier systems, I'm having trouble getting those words out of my mouth.

On Monday and Tuesday, a man was killed and a teenager injured in a Southeast Side shooting; a 28-year-old died after being shot in West Humboldt Park; and another man, 22, was killed in North Lawndale. These are cold-blooded murders -- one man walking up to another and shooting him dead.

So when I was repeating my theories about healthier communities to my mother the other day, I had to stop and back up: Either I'm just plain wrong or the efforts underway in the New Communities Program neighborhoods are just not big enough, not good enough, not widespread enough to combat what one of my colleagues has called "a culture of thuggery."

In neighborhoods where one man shoots another for taking a cigar dropped outside of a West Side club, existing efforts are clearly not enough. Getting guns off the street is part of the answer, yes, but at heart this is a human and societal problem, a deep wound in the urban heart that we have not yet learned how to heal.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Creative (and tasty) fundraising in Logan Square

"Times are tough," writes Elena Hernandez of Logan Square Neighborhood Association, "and any contribution helps."

It was one of the most appetizing fundraising pitches I've ever heard. The Dine Local for LSNA campaign sets aside four weeknights when local restaurants will donate 15 to 20 percent of their proceeds to LSNA, the 46-year-old organization serving Logan Square and the Lathrop Homes.

These are some interesting eateries, from the Ecuadorian La Humita (photo) to the Mexican/Cuban El Cid. Great incentive to get together some friends or family and have a nice meal.

Tuesday, Nov 11
Lunch - Atlas Cafe, 3028 W. Armitage Ave. (773) 227-0022 , open at 11 am
El Cid 2, 2645 N. Kedzie Ave. 773-395-0505 open at 9 am
Dinner - Atlas Cafe, 3028 W. Armitage Ave. (773) 227-0022 open until 10pm
La Humita, 3466 N. Pulaski Rd. (773) 794-9672 from 5 to 10 pm. Reservations recommended.
Fonda Del Mar, 3749 W. Fullerton Ave. (773) 489-3748 from 5 to 9pm. Reservations recommended.
Tuesday, Nov 18
Dinner - Cafe Bolero, 2252 N. Western Ave. 773-227-9000 from 5 to 11 pm. Reservations recommended.
La Humita, Fonda Del Mar (see above listings)
Thursdays, Nov 13 and 20
Lunch - Cherubs Café, 2524 W. Fullerton Ave. 773-235-8103
Dinner - La Humita, Fonda Del Mar (see above)

Recycle your cell phone, too
LSNA will also benefit from any old or broken cell phones, blackberries, pagers, or PDAs, including batteries and all of their related accessories. When you bring them to the LSNA office or one of the Community Learning Centers, Collective Good ( will give LSNA 30 cents to $30 per item. Learn more.

Emerging Arts in Little Village

Rather like siblings, the adjoining communities of Little Village and Pilsen are sometimes pigeonholed. With bustling 26th Street at its heart, Little Village is all business; neighboring Pilsen's National Museum of Mexican Art and wealth of galleries make it the artsy one.

Also like siblings, sometimes neighborhoods have to break out of those neat little boxes. A new artists' collective, Villarte, is doing just that by showcasing the vibrant emerging arts scene in Little Village. They got a big boost during the Little Village Arts Fest, held the third weekend in October, when storefronts and apartments around the neighborhood hung giant banners to welcome visitors. One storefront owner along 25th Street is even donating the use of his space for an entire year as a gallery. It's pictured above.

On opening night at Cafe Catedral, the festival's hub, young patrons sporting tattoos and piercings mingled with older folks and children. While visual arts were prominent, spoken word, theater, a book signing and even skateboarding were among the weekend's highlights.

It was fun walking the streets and finding the stop-sign banners everywhere from Cafe Catedral to Henry Cervantes' walk-up apartment, where he showed off some of his paintings to family and friends on Saturday night.

Arts for a cause also played a role. Photos of the megamarches to support immigrant and worker rights filled up a wall of the cafe. On Saturday, Victor Cortés signed copies of his new book, La Marcha, which also chronicled the movement. Throughout the weekend, members of the Colectivo la UVA. sold handcrafted jewelry and displayed photography of their neighborhood.

Best of all, lots of young people got to show off their talents, like graffiti artist and stenciler, "Blis," shown here creating her trademark tag.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Neighborhoods, Social Capital and Schools

Principal Michael Johnson of Reavis Elementary, shown here with some 6th-graders, is working hard to create cohesion among his staff and build bridges between his school and its neighborhood. According to research discussed at the kickoff of this year's School Policy Luncheon series, he's on the right track.

The Consortium on Chicago School Research says that trust within schools is "the heat in the oven" that accelerates school improvement and ultimately academic gains for kids. Further, according to their regular surveys, trust between principals, teachers and parents has been slowly rising systemwide. "These might not be dramatic changes, but they are changes in the right direction," researcher Penny Bender Sebring told a capacity crowd at the Union League Club on Wednesday.

What may be getting less attention as policymakers focus more narrowly on the classroom is the importance of trust beyond school walls, or social capital. Social capital comes in two flavors: bonding, which helps people within the same community relate to each other and solve internal problems; and bridging, which helps people network across communities to get resources and information they couldn't access otherwise.

Consortium researchers classified Chicago's public elementary schools into seven different categories. The "truly disadvantaged" were those in African-American neighborhoods with a median income below $20,000 per year. It won't surprise anyone that very few schools in those neighborhoods had the kinds of internal supports, including trust, that lead to student success. It also won't surprise anyone that even fewer schools in neighborhoods with high incidences of child abuse and neglect had the internal climate to help children succeed. Meanwhile, mediocre schools in high-social-capital neighborhoods can coast a bit internally and their students still make gains.

However, this fact might surprise you: Chicago's "truly disadvantaged" schools are producing better-than-expected academic gains for their students given the low social capital around them. This could mean it's time to look at how to support and connect to the neighborhood outside the school.

That's exactly what Michael Johnson is doing right now at Reavis, with the help of Elev8, a new initiative supported by New York-based Atlantic Philanthropies and a group of Chicago funders. For more about Elev8, see this story from Catalyst Chicago.

As noted researcher Charles Payne put it on Wednesday, "Social capital matters. Social capital is differentially distributed by race. The impact of social capital is greatest for the neediest kids."

Payne also had a couple of cautionary words for Chicago Public Schools leadership. Two hot topics around town are the district's efforts to turn around low-performing schools by replacing principals and entire faculties in one fell swoop and the rapid replication of a select group of charter schools. Though Payne applauded the sense of urgency around school improvement that fuels both these strategies, he cautioned that they do collateral damage to social capital where it is sorely needed.

"We need to respect the desire to get good fast," yet also "beware that doing this may destroy the trust that makes good things good."

For example, he had heard of a turnaround school where "some kids came back boiling mad. Every teacher they knew was gone. It was not their school. How do we do this in a way that minimizes damage to social capital in a place where social capital is already limited?"

Meanwhile, he's encouraged by the strong relationships building at Urban Prep–"that's something special going on"–and worried that a push for them to open new campuses too soon may endanger the trust that has been built there. "Now, doggone! These relationships have been developed with great trust and care over time. You spread those relationships over three campuses? How do you do that? I hope people are staying up at night worrying about that."

In urban school reform, the challenge has always been to "balance urgency with complexity. The least well understood part of complexity has been the power of social capital."

Let's hope Michael Johnson and other practitioners can shed light on this by their example.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Party on 18th Street

As Chicago Artists Month draws to a close, I wanted to share some great stories from Saturday night of Pilsen Open Studios, held the weekend of October 17-19. The sixth annual artist-organized event kept 18th Street hopping well into the night, thanks to some unofficial piggyback events as well as official gallery openings on the tour. The vintage thrift store Knee Deep cracked me up--they had about five pieces of art on the wall and a few dozen young hipsters out back drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. Hey, any excuse for a party, right?

The Casa de la Cultura Carlos Cortez had food, a live singer and a guy passing out cans of Miller from a garbage bag while visitors admired the works on the walls. "If everybody has a number, we're zero," joked Victor Montañez, pictured above with one of his paintings. However, their convenient location next door to Number 23, the APO Community Center, kept the foot traffic coming.

Victor wasn't too concerned about making it in the gallery scene. "To hell with galleries. My art doesn't belong in galleries. They say don't touch. They mean people wear black. They whisper," he said, as two women got up to dance to a cumbia blaring from the speakers. Others joined them, and the singer called for a friend next door to come dance with one of the women. The couple tore up the floor to applause and cheers.

After a ten year break from painting, Victor returned to it recently with his signature rebel spirit. He now paints panels that can be shifted around to reveal different images. "I think the 21st century is all about alternatives and options," he said, noting that while other art forms have opened up ways for the viewer to manipulate the work, painting has largely remained static. "It's the last stronghold of tyrants. I am trying to shake up the establishment by saying there's a new way to paint. I wanted to put some authority in the hands of the spectator."

Victor put down his Tecate to show how his panels work. Here's the same set of panels grouped two different ways:

Though Victor's career has taken turns into politics and education, "the one thing I've always been is an artist," he told me. "I'm not gonna let people dictate I'm not an artist because I'm not in galleries. What makes you an artist is whether you follow an artistic vision."

"Like you," he pointed out. "Some people might say to you, 'It's not real because it's not a paper.' It's a whole new world out there. Cybernews is where it's at. Paper, you wrap it up and throw it out."

Outside, a number of artists were showing in the Del Sol Realty offices across the street, and a group of young people had collected on the front steps. I stopped to talk with Erica Sanchez, a young woman from Little Village who was getting inspired by all the creative activity around her. She's a guitarist who's played in the Little Village punk scene, but lately she's "kinda slacked off." Now, she says, "Maybe I'll grow some balls and start doing something. It makes me kinda wanna get out there."

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Chicago Children's Zone?

There's exciting work going on in Harlem that connects to both education and community development. The Harlem Children's Zone has developed a network of programs for children and families from zero through high school. Paul Tough's new book, Whatever It Takes, chronicles the work, especially the struggles the nonprofit had with its charter middle school. Tough came to town last week and we had an opportunity to talk about whether this effort might be replicated, especially under an Obama administration.

District 299
's Alexander Russo summed up our conversation nicely: Kelleher asks Tough whether HCZ could work in Chicago, what it would take, and how many people are really being served by the program. Why HCZ uses non-union charters and whether the model requires a "superhero" to work.

To read the interview in its entirety, click here and scroll back up to the beginning of the thread. It's sparking some discussion over there; feel free to contribute or to post your thoughts here.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Three neighborhoods. No cars.

Chicagoans on bicycles, skates and sneakers will take to the streets this weekend for the second Sunday Parkways event as portions of the city's boulevard system are closed to auto traffic. The first such event on October 5 was a huge success with thousands of happy participants and this Sunday's version – running through East Garfield Park, North Lawndale and Little Village – is bound to be just as good.

It's from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday. See the route here.

Brooklyn videographer Nicholas Whitaker talked to several of the event's organizers and posted his piece on Vimeo, which is where I found it this morning. It features Jaime de Leon and Cristina Bronsing of Little Village Community Development Corp. and Adolfo Hernandez of the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, who talk about the civic benefits that such events have brought to cities in Latin America.

Chicago Sunday Parkways from Nicholas Whitaker on Vimeo.

For more videos of ciclovia events in Chicago; Bogota, Colombia; Quito, Ecuador; and Guadalajara, Mexico, check out

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

600 vacant units at Lathrop Homes. Why?

Residents of the Lathrop Homes along with Logan Square community leaders will hold a rally Thursday afternoon to ask the Chicago Housing Authority why 600 units of the 900-unit Lathrop Homes development have been allowed to remain vacant when thousands of Chicago families need good affordable housing.

It's a good question to ask. The low-rise development, at Diversey and the Chicago River on the eastern edge of Logan Square, is the city’s most diverse public housing community. It has housed a blend of African-American, Latino and white families – both low-income and working class – for nearly 50 years. And in a neighborhood with rising rents and condo conversions due to gentrification, it's a potentially valuable resource for families that need an affordable place to live.

That's why the Lathrop Leadership Team, Lathrop Local Advisory Council and Logan Square Neighborhood Association will call on the CHA to put 300 of the development’s 600 vacant units back into service by 2010.

“Keeping these units empty, in the midst of a housing crisis, is a terrible waste,” says Cynthia Scott, a member of the Lathrop Leadership Team. “Leasing 300 units would help families avoid homelessness and reduce the crime and maintenance problems that come with vacancies.”

At 4 p.m., residents and community leaders will march through Lathrop Homes, starting at the corner of Clybourn, Wellington (3000 N) & Leavitt (2200 W). At 5 p.m. (just in time for the local TV news), participants will gather outside one of the vacant homes on Leavitt just north of Diversey Parkway.

When the CHA began its Plan for Transformation in 1999, it put Lathrop on the back burner, listing its future as “to be determined.” Nine years later, there is still no plan to revitalize the development. But since 1999, the CHA has barred Lathrop’s manager from leasing units after families move out. As a result, the number of vacancies has soared to more than 600.

Thanks to Logan Square Neighborhood Association's Tami Love for passing on this information. A resident vision for Lathrop is here. For more information, contact Tami Love, 773-549-2525, x 1 or John McDermott, 773-384-4370 x38 or 773-617-3949 (cell).

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Action from two ends of the spectrum

"Do a hundred things at once" is a maxim of comprehensive community development, and it came to mind as two very different event announcements came across my desk:

Gun control – St. Sabina Parish will hold a third rally at The Thompson Center to ask legislators to enact Common Sense Gun Laws on Wednesday, October 22, 2008, from 11 am to noon. If you need a ride to the rally, contact the Rectory at 773-483-4300 for a seat on the bus, which will leave at 10 am.

Green spaceFriends of the Bloomingdale Trail will dedicate and improve a new greenspace adjacent to the future trail at 1811 N. Albany on Saturday, Oct. 25th. Volunteers will be planting flower bulbs, cleaning up and celebrating the new community space, called Albany-Whipple Park. Food and refreshment will be provided and there will be pumpkin decorating for the kids. So bring the family and some gloves if you want to help dig.

Is one approach more important than the other? Or do the two ultimately work together to create stronger communities?

Friday, October 17, 2008

Illinois Settlement Helps Homeowners

Maybe I'm just out of it, but it took me until this morning to learn that on October 6, Attorney General Lisa Madigan reached a settlement with Bank of America, which acquired notorious mortgage lender Countrywide earlier this year. Among other benefits, the settlement will stop Countrywide's pay-option ARM loans from putting homeowners in the position of increasing the principal owed on their house even as they make payments ("negative amortization"). Her office says 11,000 Illinois homeowners should benefit.

Here's the gist from her office's press release:

As part of this landmark agreement, Countrywide agreed to implement a range of homeowner relief programs and to drastically modify its future lending practices. Specifically, Countrywide agreed to:

* Suspend foreclosures on the riskiest loans to determine if borrowers qualify for modification.
* Establish a Foreclosure Relief Fund of $8.5 million for borrowers in subprime and pay-option ARM loans who lost their homes due to early payment default or default at the time the interest rate reset. Early payment default is a strong indication that the loan was not underwritten properly and that the homeowner couldn’t afford the loan from the beginning.
* Help homeowners through a $1 million relocation assistance program, which will provide payments to homeowners who cannot qualify for a loan modification. The funds will help borrowers relocate if necessary.
* Waive loan modification fees and late fees.
* Waive prepayment penalties on subprime and pay-option ARM loans owned by Countrywide.
* Pay $1.7 million for the costs incurred in Madigan’s investigation, eliminating taxpayer expense.

Let's get the word out in the neighborhoods to help stop the bleeding from the foreclosure crisis.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Art shows indicate neighborhood strengths

From the evidence at archaeological sites and art museums around the world, one might conclude that arts and culture are outgrowths of strong and healthy societies: that it takes a thriving and culturally advanced community to foster a high level of creative output among its residents.

If that is true, some Chicago neighborhoods might be stronger than traditional economic and social measures suggest. The arts are thriving across the South and West Sides, and this weekend the evidence will be on display in South Chicago, East Garfield Park, Little Village and Pilsen.

It's all part of the citywide Chicago Artists Month, but what impresses me is how individuals and organizations in neighborhoods have very consciously cultivated and promoted and participated in the creation of art by local residents -- and in public gatherings that honor that creative work.

So my hat is off to the organizers of these events:

Garfield Park: Alpha Bruton alerted me to this exhibition, part of the Phantom Gallery series.

Fred Owens, Helen Jones Myers, Vivian Vissar, Jamin Jadda, Gabriel Patti, Kat Silverstein, Nancy Zook, Students from Chicago Christian Academy, Loveitta Simpkins, Dewitt Quayim

Garfield Park Market Place (just north of the Garfield Park Conservatory on Central Park Avenue)
Friday, Oct. 17, 2008, noon to 8 p.m. Reception 5 to 8 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 18 and 19, noon to 5 p.m.
Learn more at

South Chicago: Claretian Associates is promoting a whole series of events including a gallery in their own office space, a knitting workshop at Villa Guadalupe, cartooning for kids and a performance by the 63rd Street Drummers.

Friday, October 17
Knitting Basics by Marisa Arevalo of Studio KOI
Villa Guadalupe
3201 E. 91st Street
6:15pm - 7:15pm
Participants must bring their own supplies or project.

Saturday, October 18 Saturday, October 18
Sweetest Day for Artists, Performers, and Musicians by The 63rd Street Drummers with Ms. Yakiri, Flo Mills, and Artist Friends Pilgrim Baptist Church 3235 E. 91st Street 2pm - 4pm

For the full schedule, go here:

Little Village Arts Fest:
Villarte, an emerging arts coalition in Little Village, organized two days of free art exhibits, performances and workshops that kick off Friday night, October 17, from 6 to 10 p.m. in the Second Federal Savings parking lot at 25th Place and Pulaski. Get the official map and program at Catedral Cafe (2500 S. Christiana) or download it here.

Pilsen Open Studios:
Bigger than ever, this Saturday and Sunday event features dozens of artists and locations throughout the neighborhood (see map below by Salvador Jimenez). Many of the artists will be at the kickoff from 5 to 10 p.m. Friday, Oct. 17, at Prospectus Art Gallery, 1220 W. 18th Street.

By any measure, that's a pretty convincing display of cultural strength, don't you think?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

'Our children and future are dying'

Gun protest at the Thompson Center. Photos by Gordon Walek.

When word came through about the latest killing of a Chicago teenager – the gun death on Sunday of Julian High School senior Kiyanna Salter on a CTA bus – it hit me as it always does, with sadness and anger that the affected families and communities must absorb this terrible hurt and somehow move on.

For the people around that young person, the pain must be debilitating. How can it not create a feeling of helplessness? The senseless killing of a child knocks down whole networks of people and institutions, or at least slows them down in whatever work or progress they might have been making. It ripples through classrooms. It travels down blocks and through neighborhoods and within families. It is personal.

And so it hurts even more to learn that Kiyanna Salter was a cousin of Southwest Organizing Project organizer Rabbi Joshua Salter, who works on safety issues on the Southwest Side. The death touched that neighborhood, too.

But violence can also galvanize responses, and two came across my desk today.

First, the Sun-Times reported that Chicago schools CEO Arne Duncan refused to accept an anti-violence award from the Illinois Coalition Against Handgun Violence. He cited the eight students killed in the first month of the school year, and left the award on the table. "I don't feel I can accept this award, not quite yet," he said. "I don't feel I've earned it."

Second, I heard from Ernie Sanders in Auburn Gresham, who alerted me to a gun-control protest planned by members of St. Sabina Parish at 11 a.m. this Friday, October 10, at the Thompson Center. This is a return visit after a similar rally on September 24 (photos) and obviously just as needed.

Below, the notice of the protest. The second paragraph packs a punch.

"Our Children and Future are Dying"

"In response to 3 more of our children being killed due to gun violence we will meet on Friday at The Thompson Center from 11am to 12pm.

"It is still our mission to have "Common Sense Gun Laws" enacted in this state. This school year, 2008-2009, has already seen Chicago Public Schools lose 11 students. Understand we have only completed one month of school, and we have lost 1/3 of a classroom.

"Please help us get the word out, raise awareness, and put an end to the destruction of our children, our future. If you need to ride the bus to the rally please call the Rectory at 773-483-4300, the bus will be leaving the church at 10 am."

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Strolling and rolling on Sunday morning

A family enjoys the car-free boulevard. Photos by Gordon Walek.

Chicago launched Sunday Parkways this morning and thousands came out on their bikes and on foot to enjoy traffic-free boulevards in Logan Square, Humboldt Park and East Garfield Park.

I've been viewing videos about these ciclovia events in other cities and they seem to be a transformative opportunity for our city. Imagine thousands of people, including many families with young children, strolling and rolling down the streets and stopping to chat with others -- all in a big-city environment. It feels good.

And it happened this morning in Chicago for the first time. When I arrived at the Humboldt Park Boat House, a techno beat was booming from loudspeakers and two dozen people -- including many children -- were following three instructors doing a kick-boxing exercise. Others stood around straddling their bikes or chatting with each other. Smiling.

"I'm elated right now," said Miguel Morales of Community Organizing for Obesity Prevention in Humboldt Park, who helped organize the activities. The Greater Humboldt Park Community of Wellness had sponsored two earlier En Movimiento events in the park this summer, but this worked even better because it brought so many people to the park, he said.

Farther south I ran into Rishona Taylor of the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance. She was happy that the second event, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Oct. 26, will cover the same East Garfield territory but run south this time through North Lawndale and Little Village. See the route here. "I learned a few things," she said, "like next time we're going to cluster the activities a bit more" because the crowds prompt even more people to stop and participate.

A story in this morning's Tribune quotes the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation's Adolfo Hernandez, who says that if this year's events are a success we may do more of them next year. Let's make sure our political leaders and neighborhood organizations realize that we want these events and we want them more often -- every week or at least twice a month during the warm months, so that they become a routine for many thousands of Chicagoans.

Do you have photos or video of Sunday Parkways? Please share it with others by joining the new site and posting there (or linking via YouTube or Flickr). Thanks.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

An experiment in global networking

Photo by Gordon Walek

A group of Chicagoans traveled to Quito, Ecuador, two weeks ago to learn about the Latin American phenomenon of ciclovias, the closing of city roads on Sundays to open them up for cyclists, pedestrians and healthy family activities.

Thousands turn out for these events in Quito; Bogota, Colombia; Guadalajara, Mexico; and other cities, and this weekend Chicago is getting in on the action with its first Sunday Parkways event, running from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on five miles of the city's boulevard system. See the route here.

How do you learn more about how these things work? Going to Quito for the Third Annual conference of the Ciclovias Unidas de Las Americas was a great way to start. I'm told that the Chicago contingent of community leaders, biking activists, police and city officials got some seat-of-the-pants experience on borrowed bikes, and made plenty of new contacts. (The trip was funded by the MacArthur Foundation's International Connections Fund, for this very purpose.)

But we want to keep things going, so we've launched a global networking experiment with a web site that allows anyone who wants to join in and post related videos, photos, discussion and questions. Check it out here, and please sign up and start contributing, including your impressions and videos or photos from the Sunday Parkways events on Oct. 5 and 26. Join us.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Taking Science to the Streets

These young men from Reavis Elementary spent their summer learning to make model amusement park rides, among other interesting activities. It was an engaging way to learn something about engineering and maybe a little physics, too.

Putting science activities into after-school and summer programs is a growing trend. Test pressures on elementary schools have focused teachers very narrowly on reading and math. Chicago high schools are strapped for the time to do real lab work. Last year, After School Matters piloted a science37 program in two high schools, Lindblom and Foreman, and is looking for more school partners.

Last week, Chicago hosted the first national conference on science outside school hours. Lots of museum educators were there, from Chicago and around the country. One thread of the discussion was how to reach the people who don't come to museums.

One idea from elsewhere that struck me as applicable here in Chicago was the community science workshops being run in different parts of California. How would you like your neighborhood to have a sciencemobile like Fresno's? It's a mobile lab with tools, materials and 10 Internet workstations that travels around the city giving people a chance to make cool things and learn the science behind them. In 2007, the sciencemobile served 50,000 people.

Fresno, Watsonville, Oakland and other California communities also have dedicated spaces with materials, tools and smart staff to help kids and families build projects of their own design. Part of what makes them special is they're located in the neighborhoods where the people are. Many are run through park districts and have line-item funding in city budgets. For more on how community science workshops operate, see this article.

These community science workshops got their start almost 20 years ago in one man's garage in San Francisco's Mission District. After expanding across California, in 2001 the National Science Foundation awarded a grant to help them scale up across the country. You can now find community science workshops in Boston, Houston, Miami, Newark, New Orleans and Washington, DC.

I think Chicago could use some, too. Don't you?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Growing Home Featured in Chicago Reporter

The latest issue of the Chicago Reporter has an article on the lack of access to organic produce in African-American neighborhoods. It leads with the exception to this pattern: Growing Home's work in Englewood. It also talks about efforts to open an organic grocery store on Chicago's West Side.

“It’s easier to find a semi-automatic weapon in our communities than it is to find a tomato, much less an organic tomato,” said LaDonna Redmond, an Austin-based food activist now working on a project to open an organic grocery story in West Garfield Park in Spring 2009.

On Huffington Post's newish Chicago page, Mari Gallagher explains more about food deserts and the challenges grocers face. Good reading.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Soggy Tourists in Our Own Town

Last Saturday, 21 of us braved the record-breaking rain for the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation's Veggie Bike and Dine event. The event raised money for CBF and for NeighborSpace, which manages land for community gardens across Chicago. The event wound through a number of NCP neighborhoods and got me thinking about the potential for events like this to help neighborhoods snag more tourists in their own town.

We met up in Pilsen, at the Xochiquetzal Peace Garden, created by Whittier School. Signs in English and Spanish pointed out herbs like manzanilla/chamomile. Soy Organic, Pilsen's only organic grocery store, provided a yummy breakfast shake to rev up our metabolisms. We came from Ukrainian Village, West Loop, Oak Park and even the south suburbs, just to name a few.

It wasn't too wet on our way from Pilsen to North Lawndale, by way of Little Village and the Farragut High School parking lot. We arrived in time to watch our snack being made at the Green Youth Farm at 3539 W. Ogden, near the Pink Line Central Park stop. There we had salsa fresh from the garden: red and yellow tomatoes, garlic, cucumber all picked and chopped before our eyes. Teen tour guides from Manley and Collins Academy high schools showed us what they'd been growing all summer in the extensive network of tall raised beds built back in 2005. The salsa was the best I've had all summer, hands down.

Afterwards, we were treated to a special tour of a recently redone community garden nearby. At this point, it was pouring pretty hard and my vision narrowed to the bike in front of me, so I still don't know where in North Lawndale we ended up, but we got to see a newly paved garden featuring pear trees with fruit ready to pick.

Later, we biked through giant puddles in Garfield Park and admired the Conservatory's demonstration gardens. Finally, we visited El Yunque Community Garden in Humboldt Park and Frankie Machine Garden in Ukrainian Village. In the end, we all dried out and enjoyed vegan pizzas at Crust: Eat Real.

All the way along, people on the street cheered and waved at the sight of the soggy cyclists. We had plenty of room for guests at the afterparty, since about half the bikers didn't show, so some of the stalwart community gardeners who turned out to show us their work came and joined us for pizza.

Events like these, whether a 12-mile bike tour or a chamber of commerce restaurant crawl, really help outsiders get the feel of a neighborhood. Here's to sunnier days and more bikers in the group next year!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The value of community events

Exercise time at En Movimiento in Humboldt Park.
Photos by Eric Young Smith.

As summer fades, a brief reflection what value comes from all the summer festivals, b-ball tournaments and events like En Movimiento, the fitness-fests put on by the Greater Humboldt Park Community of Wellness.

What value? First, the street time allows people to run into people they know, touch base, catch up on news and information that must pump like blood through a community to maintain its health. Second, the crowds create, in most cases, a safe and invigorating environment where many types of people can mix and maybe get to know each other a bit, even if only from a distance. At the Glenwood Arts Festival the other weekend in Rogers Park, the crowd was remarkably diverse and more than a bit rough around the edges. It was a pleasure to be part of that scene.

And that's number three: Public events provide a bridge from one month or year to the next, offering opportunities for members of a community to come together over time. At that arts fest my wife and I spoke to a couple we've known for 25 years – not friends, really, but committed neighbors – and our occasional chats at block parties or street events provide a continuity that is important and affirming. We are long-term partners, after all, in the health of our neighborhood.

Finally, when I watched the teenage boys and girls sauntering off the school buses at the Hoops in the Hood Cross-City Finals on August 23, I couldn't help but think about what it meant to them to be traveling across the city to an unknown park to represent their neighborhood in a sporting event. The younger kids were clearly pumped up, excited and laughing; the older teens showed their intensity with tough "game faces" that only slowly broke open to smiles later, out on the court and after the games. Those young people will remember that event for a long time to come.

On that note, there are a few more opportunities to catch some of this action. This weekend, on 79th Street at Racine, check out the Third Annual 79th Street Renaissance Festival sponsored by the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corp. It will be their biggest and best to date. And on October 5 and 26, the Sunday Parkways program will debut with boulevards closed to traffic so that neighbors can bike, walk or just hang out, being together. My wife and I will be there on our tandem.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Not to be missed: Hoops in the Hood Finals

A terrific example of community development in action will be on display this Saturday afternoon at Seward Park in Chicago (401 W. Division at Orleans) when youth and adults from seven neighborhoods come together for the 2008 Hoops in the Hood Cross-City Finals, a basketball program that is about so much more than sports.

Hoops is a direct response to violence on the streets of our city. It is a structured, well-organized way to engage local kids and young adults in a safe and nurturing environment, on the very streets where they might feel unsafe at other times or under different circumstances. The Resurrection Project in Pilsen started its Friday night basketball league 10 years ago, setting up courts on different blocks each week, and in the past two years the concept has spread to a network of seven neighborhoods.

Teams will fight it out for trophies after an opening ceremony at 1 p.m., with the first-round games at 1:30 in three divisions: peewee (ages 8 to 10), minor (11 to 14) and major (15 to 19). Semi-final and final rounds will be followed by the championship game at 4 p.m.

About 400 participants will come from West Haven, Little Village, Pilsen, North Lawndale, Humboldt Park, Englewood and Logan Square. There'll be food, arts and crafts, and plenty of good feeling as kids and adults come together from across gang lines, neighborhoods and cultures. The Chicago Police Department is a key partner across all the leagues and will be on the scene as usual.

The photos here are from last year's tournament and were taken by Juan Francisco Hernandez; the video below, by Sarahmaria Gomez and Alex Fledderjohn of TuMultimedia, gives a great overview of what the league is all about. (View a higher quality version here.)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

What makes a good community web site?

Community development veteran Jim Capraro asked me recently what the key functional components would be for a community-oriented web site. It depends on your budget and goals, of course, but some elements seem essential to me.

Easy content management – Any site these days ought to be easy to update with little in the way of technical skills and no “coding” or html necessary. You want to be able to go in, make some changes, upload some material, and go live, right now. This type of site typically runs off of an underlying database, so that you can put material into the database and then choose where and how you use it on the site.

Calendar – Seems obvious? This is for neighborhood events, meetings, public hearings, and the like.

Flexible news and program spaces – Every neighborhood and organization is different, but most have the same need to provide information about their place or their services that is organized in a useful way, so that people can find what they need. The Grassroots tool that we use in Chicago, from Webitects, has two tabs that each can include multiple subjects, and each of those in turn can hold more categories of info. Most NCP groups call one tab “news” and the other “our programs” or “our community.” A new site being developed by the Greater Humboldt Park Community of Wellness will name one of the tabs “health areas,” with eight types of health issues beneath the tab.

Directory – Basically a database that can be loaded up with existing Excel files or with individual listings added as you go, the directory should allow multiple categories so that you could list, for instance, staff contacts, partner organizations, churches, local businesses (by type of business), and any other group that you think people might be looking up. Google or Yahoo maps can be tied to the address field so that the category and the individual listings are mapped automatically.

Gorgeous photos — A good web site should allow you to display images of people, places and events in the neighborhood, starting on the home page and then in articles, program sections and even the calendar. It’s up to you to capture or collect great photos, but the site should allow you to use them in a way that makes people say “Nice!” when they arrive on the page.

Changing home page – You want the ability to display some of this material on the home page – not in a static way, because then the site always looks the same – but with new lead photos, new headlines, and new calendar items. The content management system should allow you to move material to the home page or to a “landing page” elsewhere on the site, and then later let the the article live forever in some deep corner of the site, where it will always be accessible via Google and logical navigation.

Search – And that leads to the final core element: a good site-level search engine. As your site matures over a year or more of updates, it will contain hundreds of items. You want readers (and your own people) to be able to put a few words in the search box and quickly find that story they remember seeing, or that factoid that they seek.

There are a number of ways to get to some of these features, and I’ll cover some compelling new options in a future post, from inexpensive “blogs on steroids” to powerful ning sites that incorporate social networking. But right now, the only place I know that offers the whole package is the Grassroots template, which is in use on 12 sites in Chicago and just starting to roll out nationally via the LISC network. Here are some examples:, which promotes the Auburn Gresham neighborhood, the Logan Square Neighborhood Assn.'s advocacy-oriented, bilingual site, which has a deep business directory and some detailed "extended listings", the Pilsen site that uses short news and informational items to get a lot of info across.

Know of other tools that can provide these kinds of capabilities? Please let us know in a comment.