Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Three things I like about CNDA

Every February in Chicago, community development practitioners and developers and bankers and city officials come together for a giant awards ceremony and cocktail party known as the Chicago Neighborhood Development Awards.

I'll be there this year, on Thursday, Feb. 7, for three very good reasons:

1. The awards honor six individuals or groups for the work they've done, ranging from bricks-and-mortar developments to outstanding leadership or strategy. Short videos stir up the emotions and the applause is heartfelt. Those are good people on that stage.

2. This 14th awards ceremony is doing away with the usual pre-awards panel discussion and going instead with Second City. The comedy troupe will perform "an original and comical retrospective of the people, places, events, and issues that have shaped community development in Chicago over the last four decades. It's a humorous mirror of our victories, our foibles and just how we appear to the world around us."

3. I enjoy having drinks with 1,400 of my closest friends.

The improv starts at 3 p.m., awards at 4:30 and reception at 6 p.m., all at the Hyatt Regency, 151 E. Wacker Drive. Tickets are $50 and you can register on-line here. Or purchase at the door for $55.

I'll see you there.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Each One Teach One: College workshop in Back of the Yards

On Saturday, January 5, 68 high school students, college students and their parents gathered in the basement of the Immaculate Heart of Mary church hall at 46th and Ashland to learn about college admissions and financial aid. The workshop was the latest in a series of efforts by college students and recent graduates who are part of Holy Cross/Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish to encourage younger students in the neighborhood to plan for college.

Like many lower-income Chicago neighborhoods, Back of the Yards has very few college students and college graduates living in the area. Many students in our community are the first in their families to even consider college. Many also lack US citizenship or the proper residency status to be eligible for federal grants and loans for college, one huge barrier on top of all the other challenges they face in preparing for higher education. It's easy for high school students here to get discouraged and think college is not for them. But thanks to the efforts of the Holy Cross/IHM college group and others, this picture is beginning to change.

Three years ago, the parish hosted a gathering of current college students in the neighborhood. That meeting grew into a group of students and recent graduates who met monthly to plan service activities and develop ways to educate more local youth about college and how to get there. Since then, the group has regularly held a workshop for neighborhood students in grades 6-8 at the Peace and Education Coalition student summits, held in the fall and spring. This year, the group wanted to move into work with high school juniors and seniors and their parents.

The January workshop featured a video about three recent college graduates from the parish and their stories of how they made it to and through school. One of them paid for college without access to federal financial aid by doing two years at City Colleges before transferring to more-expensive UIC, plus starting his own business. Afterwards, table groups were encouraged to write down their questions about college admissions, financial aid and academic and student life. These questions formed the basis for a panel discussion with admissions and financial aid officers from local colleges and universities. The college group web site has a page with scholarship information, including both a link to the federal student aid form and a directory of scholarship money for undocumented students.

The workshop organizers assembled an outstanding panel, many of whom stuck around long afterwards to talk one-on-one with students. Panel members were:

Mirna Garcia, financial aid counselor at DePaul University
Erasto Martinez, admissions counselor at Loyola University of Chicago
Ramona Meza, youth coach for Instituto del Progreso Latino's Escalera Program
Christian Yanez, director of Hispanic/Latino student affairs, Northeastern University
Greg Michie, professor at Illinois State University
Nancy Serrano, school and community relations liaison for the Chicago teacher education pipeline and partnerships, Illinois State University.

Students and parents who attended really appreciated the opportunity to ask questions and get answers. "It did give us a basic understanding of the steps to get into college and about financial aid," said Jazmin Panfilo, a senior at Holy Trinity High School who has applied to UIC and wants to become a teacher. "I think it was great."

"There were more people than we expected, so that was really good," said Jesse Iniguez, a recent graduate of UIC and a member of the college student group at Holy Cross/IHM. "It gives us hope."

What gave me hope was seeing so many young people in college or recent graduates creating a path for others to follow. I think the best part of the day was the icebreaker, when high school students had to find someone in the room who had: traveled abroad, gone to graduate school, been in a college fraternity, etc., etc. With all the talent in that room, it wasn't hard to find at least one person for each category.

It inspires me to see a core group of young adults who grew up in the neighborhood proving it is possible to finish high school, go on to college and make a good life for yourself. Not only that, but these young adults are committed to sharing their experiences and knowledge with the next generation of high school students and their families. The two primary organizers of this event were Jose Alonso, a Northwestern grad who recently finished his law degree at Loyola, and Fabian Garcia, who earned a bachelor's in computer engineering from UIC. Great job!

Friday, January 25, 2008

Is condo bust good for some 'hoods?

In my neighborhood of Rogers Park, the recent condo boom transformed whole blocks of formerly affordable (and often run-down) apartment buildings. A survey by Lakefront CDC counted 3,600 condo units created or converted since 2003, and my own walks around the neighborhood suggest the long-term numbers are much higher.

Is this a good thing? For Rogers Park and other hot 'hoods -- Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Pilsen, Albany Park -- the gut renovations and Euro kitchens will extend the lives of hundreds of courtyard buildings, six-flats and corner buildings. With millions invested by developers, and shops and restaurants following the money into the neighborhoods, these areas have a good shot at long-term stability.

That's mostly good, especially if the alternative is losing buildings to decay and demolition.

But thousands of renters have had to move -- and not just down the block, because those buildings are turning too. Next door on Pratt Avenue, we watched two corner buildings shift from rental to condo with 100 percent displacement. Down the block, condos took over a 60-unit string of courtyards that had been well-kept and affordable for decades -- housing many families who sent kids to nearby Kilmer School. The new occupants are noticeably younger, richer and whiter.

Not such a good thing. Which is why I've been heartened to see that the condo market is collapsing -- witness the auctions and extended sales periods -- and that in Rogers Park, at least, some buildings are being renovated for rental, not sale. One building at Pratt and Sheridan has all the characteristics of a condo conversion, from balconies to duplex units, but the sign says "Now renting."

Of course rents will be higher on the renovated buildings, but the slowdown in conversions means Rogers Park, and other places, can take a breather. Kids can stay in the school they've been attending, families can avoid the disruption of finding a new neighborhood, and the diversity that makes such neighborhoods interesting and healthy can be sustained and nurtured for a few more years.

good, no question about it.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Neighborhood tours announced for conference

Five neighborhood tours have been announced for the March 26-27 community development conference in Chicago. The two-day meeting, Getting It Done: New Tools for Communities, will be hosted by 16 Chicago neighborhoods that have planned, launched and executed the nation's largest demonstration in comprehensive community development, the New Communities Program (NCP).

The gathering will bring together hundreds of street-level experts in everything from youth programming and safety to retail development and health care. Chicago practitioners will be joined by counterparts from other cities around the nation that are launching similar comprehensive community development programs.

Below are details of the five tours. Find the full conference schedule and more information here.

Learn how the Logan Square Neighborhood Association built a nationally recognized program of parent and community involvement at school-based "community learning centers" that offer afternoon and evening programming.

St. Leonard's Ministries explains how it helps former prisoners re-enter the community through training, supportive housing and attention to basic needs. Includes discussion with program participants and tour of the Michael Barlow Center and its food-service training kitchen.

Visit the Instituto del Progreso Latino , which offers comprehensive bi-lingual programming ranging from adult education and immigration services to financial counseling and employment services at its Center for Working Families.

The Cottage Grove Revitalization Initiative combines student-created artworks, CleanSlate beautification crews, city investments and aggressive retail recruitment – and it is getting results. Hosted by Quad Communities Development Corporation and Little Black Pearl Art & Design Center .

Take a trip to densely populated La Villita (Little Village), where a university, corporate sponsor and local public schools are working with Little Village Community Development Corporation to develop a dormitory for student teachers working in the community – plus a new community center and park.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A basement full of hope...

Let me tell you a little story about something huge happening in Chicago's La Villita (Little Village.)

If you haven't walked down W. 26th St. on a Sunday afternoon, don't boast yourself a Chicagoan quite yet. The storefront windows showcase everything from fine ostrich-skin cowboy boots to lace-layered quinceañera dresses. People are always out, no matter what the weather--residents love getting together over a big, traditional meal in the many restaurants lining the streets. In my opinion, as a multimedia journalist, the sights and sounds don't get any better than this.

Some of the best stories I've encountered in my career have been found in those nooks and crannies that most people overlook, or that don't know exist. Maybe because they don't have neon-lit storefronts or music blaring from outdoor speakers.

Chicago Youth Boxing was literally built from the bottom up.

Photo by Alex Fledderjohn

My partner, Alex Fledderjohn, and I have been documenting the construction of this boxing gym since it was just a dark, empty basement in La Villita Community Church.

Robert Ramos is head of the effort, and his dedication to the project is unwavering. We were there for the opening of the gym, where hundreds gathered for a boxing demo (fought upstairs, where the church holds services no less!). We also caught him on those days when he'd text-message his volunteer troops for a flyering campaign, and he and his son were the only ones who showed up. Such is the life of a man with a dream. Oh, and he's not getting paid to do this.

Photo by Alex Fledderjohn

Ramos is now starting up an after-school boxing program for kids in the area. When he was teen, he found a better-way-of-life in the kick boxing gym. He wants the same for the kids of Little Village.

The video with the full story will be finished in a few weeks. Stay tuned!

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Neighborhood saves view of historic mural

Humboldt Park residents who fought since 2003 to preserve the view of a historic mural are just one step away from a permanent victory. As reported by Jeanette Almeda in the January 13, 2008, Chicago Tribune, the Near North Neighborhood Network plans to purchase the land adjacent to the mural, at 2425 W. North Avenue, and turn it into a park.

A new mixed-use condominium building was being built on the site in 2004, slowly obscuring the "La Crucifixion de Don Pedro Albizu Campos" mural, which represents Puerto Rican history. NNNN and teens from Batey Youth mounted protests and convinced the local alderman to stop construction. The city condemned the property and will sell the parcel to the network for $1.

Photos courtesy Batey Urbano

"The city used tax-increment financing to pay $478,000 for condemnation of the parcel and has returned $325,000 to the TIF through open-space impact fees," wrote Almeda. "The fees are collected from developers of new residential units and can be used for public open space, Planning Department spokesman Peter Scales said last week."

"Aside from the land discount, the city also will cover $50,000 of the estimated $67,000 landscaping cost for the park," the story said. "The project will add trees, benches and a wooden shelter around the mural."

LSNA web site makes Chicago mag's "best"

The Logan Square Neighborhood Association's web site at lsna.net is one of the best web sites in Chicago, according to the cover story in Chicago Magazine 's February issue. The site offers newsletters, calendar items, job and volunteer listings and policy papers, the magazine says, to help readers "keep abreast of this diverse and still changing community."

Not mentioned is that the site, edited by LSNA's Monica Garreton, includes a bilingual button to flip much of the text over to Spanish translations, deep directories of local organizations and businesses, and regular news stories that reflect the organization's advocacy work in affordable housing, immigration, education and other issues important to the neighborhood's mostly Latino families. The site is one of 10 created by New Communities Program lead agencies to provide "portals" for community information. Congrats to LSNA!

Other sites on the list include Alexander Russo's District299.com, a long-running source of news and commentary about the Chicago Public Schools, now hosted on the Catalyst Chicago web site; MarshfieldTattler.blogspot.com, a journal of community life in Back of the Yards; and ChicagoLatinoNetwork.com, which helps Latino professionals keep up with events and meetings.