Friday, May 30, 2008

Columbia journalism students jump in

I had the pleasure of giving a guest lecture Thursday in Suzanne McBride's Community News class at Columbia College. The seven students in the intensive summer course were just getting started on reporting from neighborhoods often not covered by the major media outlets. In other words, the types of neighborhoods involved with the New Communities Program.

We talked about the hard edge of history in Chicago's working-class neighborhoods, where enormous factories once provided brutal but much-wanted jobs for hundreds of thousands of immigrants. Jobs that are mostly gone now. We discussed the racial segregation that first hemmed in the African-American population, and later resulted in white flight and the social catastrophe of Chicago's public housing high-rises, a piece of history that the young students had never seen. And we covered the rapid influx of Latinos – and the gentrification that is following in some neighborhoods.

Which brought us to the present day and to the students' assignments in South Chicago, Little Village, Auburn Gresham and a couple more.

The students will be posting at Columbia's (formerly Creating Community Connections), which has already made some headway on covering communities other than Wrigleyville. I was encouraged that these students, at least, seemed quite interested in the neighborhoods that made this city great. Stay tuned for links to their stories.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Who owns Humboldt Park?

Forty years ago, it seemed people could not move fast enough to get out of Humboldt Park. Those were the days of arsons and people fleeing urban areas, not just in Chicago but around the country--when social scientists were predicting "the death of the cities."

Bickerdike Redevelopment Corp. was started in part to help good folks--hard working class folks, as a presidential candidate might say, who wanted to stay in their community. Today Bickerdike is still helping the same kinds of folks to stay in the community, but now instead of mass flight and resulting devaluation of homes, it's the opposite sort of pressure to get out: people with more money who want to move in to the area.

A snapshot from that debate: a video from Humboldt Park No Se Vende / Humboldt Park is not for sale, by Humboldt Park Participatory Democracy Project, Joe Zekas from Yo Chicago, part of the New Homes magazine publishing group, saying he's "disgusted" and some down the middle commentary from Justin Massa of MoveSmart (who happens to work on fair housing issues, as well).

Fair warning, the video is 10 minutes long.

The blogfest on this topic seems to revolve around whether it's OK for Puerto Rican folks in the neighborhood to say keep the yuppies out to keep the neighborhood true to its cultural heritage, or whether that violates the spirit or letter of fair housing laws.

The flipside of strong neighborhoods in Chicago is sometimes de facto segregation, right--thank you Robert Putnam (blog)? For me rhetoric aside we ought to be able to agree that folks who want to leave an urban community, can leave, while folks who want to stay, should have available all the resources that are practical to be able to stay--like affordable rental & homeownership options.

Folks can disagree about what's the right amount and intensity of such programs, but I hope that in this day and age we can also all agree that they need to be in the mix, and that development needs to strike some balance between growth and holding on to the cultural traditions that help to form a community in the first place. I think I'll just say: keep talking, folks!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Shrinking the food desert

There's a new farmers market on 61st and Dorchester in Woodlawn. It bustled with shoppers, the beets were fresh and going fast and the nine vendors nearly sold out of everything. This is one great step toward building healthier communities, especially because of the scarcity of fresh produce in this area. We can't wait to see how this market grows. Enjoy the sights and sounds!

Click here to view it full size.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The potential of a new web site

Lynda Jones (right) keeps track of the discussion in the Health and Wellness group.

Lynda Jones presented the brand-new Washington Park NCP web site today to about 65 participants at the neighborhood's third community planning meeting. The site went live late yesterday after about a month of intensive work loading stories, photos, maps, directory listings and calendar items.

As program manager for Washington Park NCP, Lynda jumped right into the decision-making process on the web site, sorting and editing and making decisions about what content would be most useful for users. That's a big trick to web site creation: it's not really a technical job, though there are always glitches and tricks that you have to get past. Building a web site is fundamentally about presenting information, and to do it well, you have to make choices.

Lynda and the leaders of Washington Park NCP have a nice tight focus for the site. First, it will be the central repository for information about the Washington Park planning process -- meeting reports, lists of goals, and drafts of strategies and programs as they are developed. Second, it will be a "neighborhood portal" where residents and others can learn about who's doing what. That includes business and organization listings, of which there are more than 100 already, a calendar of events, stories and plenty of photos about what's going on this summer and beyond.

Today's meeting provided a preview of what's to come. At the youth and education breakout group, Torrey Barrett of the K.L.E.O. Community Center told about how on a recent Friday afternoon, the organization's staff decided to do a barbecue for themselves to celebrate the weekend. They started cooking outdoors "and 20 or 30 kids showed up and asked if they could have some food, so we sent someone to the grocery store for more food and ended up spending five hours out there with the kids, talking and hanging out."

The breakout group liked the possibilities here, and suggested a summer schedule of "corner actions" that would have different organizations and churches sponsoring barbecues on Friday nights, but not just for themselves. All groups would be invited to round up kids from the local corner or anywhere else and bring 'em on over. Their families would be invited, too, and once there the hosting organization could promote its programs and meet others with similar goals.

"Collectively, we've probably got enough things going to keep the youth busy all summer long," said Barrett.

If you want to track how this idea plays out, visit the web site at With information from enough neighborhood residents and institutions, the web site could become a binding force as the community plans (and implements) its future.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Wanted: CDC for Third Ward

Last Wednesday I had the opportunity to attend a symposium at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration about how to revitalize a community without gentrifying it and displacing existing residents. Breakout sessions looked at questions like:

  • Why is my child's school closing? Is there a connection between school closings and gentrification in North Lawndale?
  • How have community organizations in Austin worked to help residents stay in their neighborhood?
  • How do city and other governmental policies affect housing and economic development? What's politics got to do with it?
  • How can community development help grow people's strengths and social resources?

I attended the session on government and how policy plays into development issues. We looked at the situation in Lathrop Homes, where the Logan Square Neighborhood Association has been working with residents to develop an alternative to the CHA Plan for Transformation process. Organizer John McDermott compared the Plan for Transformation to a set menu that doesn't fit everyone's nutritional needs. He noted that because Lathrop is so close to expensive neighborhoods like Bucktown and Roscoe Village, building market-rate homes there would only cater to the wealthiest residents of Chicago.

Instead, residents want to see Lathrop become one-third public housing, one-third affordable rental, and one-third affordable homeownership, to give existing residents the opportunity to "move up" in income without having to move out of their home community to buy a house. Alderman Manny Flores has publicly supported the plan, which is still under discussion with CHA.

Another guest in the session was Third Ward Alderman Pat Dowell, who spoke candidly about the challenge of managing development in a ward that ranges from "White Castle to White House" in demographics and mindset. A big question she faces is how to build homes for families earning $50,000 a year or less. (If you don't know Ald. Dowell, this profile from The Windy Citizen does a good job of capturing her unassuming style and thoughtful approach to her ward.)

She's working on an affordable homeownership project in Fuller Park, where homes would sell for between $160,000 and $190,000. But the median household income in Fuller Park as of 2000 was only $18, 412, putting those homes out of reach for many current residents. Also in 2000, about 30 percent of the neighborhood's homeowners were paying 40 percent or more of their income to keep their homes.

During the session I asked her if her ward had been able to take advantage of New Homes for Chicago, a city program which builds single-family homes, condos and two-flats for moderate-income buyers. Dowell said she'd like to bring in that program, but right now there's no active community development corporation to do the construction work. (The fastest way to find out more about New Homes for Chicago is to put it in Google. I tried to paste in the long and complex link from the City of Chicago web site, but it didn't work.)

I wonder if any of those bright-eyed social work graduate students have buddies in business school they could partner with to start up their own CDC. Social entrepreneurs, opportunity may await you in Chicago's Third Ward.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

South Chicago--best NCP food site?

Great opportunity today to meet with staff from Claretian Associates in South Chicago today (and of course to eat at Cocula afterward. What NCP neighborhood has the best food, do you all think?)

We talked about communications of course, and came up with a few next steps that are probably boring to everyone else (even for a blog entry). They are gearing up to change their web site over to template with help from Webitects. Also, if you do not know about it yet, they are planning a Green Summit for the neighborhood at the end of May--watch for more info on it coming up.

One thing we discussed was that while adding communications tasks (such as an e-newsletter, a more frequently refreshed Web site, some kind of print newsletter, managing back-end tasks like a database--theirs has grown from 300 to 500 in the past couple months, BTW) can be a pain in the neck, some of these are twofer activities. That is, refreshing the Web site frequently can make it easier to do the e-newsletter, for example--or vice versa. So maybe it's not so bad to add all that stuff to the to-do list (Wonder what Monica from LSNA thinks about this). In theory, at least--we'll check back in in a few months to see if it works out in practice!

Artists as neighborhood assets

For the last decade or so, the arrival of artists in a gritty neighborhood has generally meant one thing: real estate developers were not too far behind. A classic example is the case of Wicker Park, once a scruffy neighborhood that became hip after attracting a slew of arts and music professionals, and now rivals Lincoln Park in home prices and general chi-chiness. The irony, of course, is many of the artists who once called Wicker Park home have now been priced out.

At the same time artists are seeking ways to live and work affordably, some neighborhoods are courting artists as community assets. Earlier this week, WBEZ aired a segment about artists in search of live/work space and featured the Chicago Lawn and Woodlawn neighborhoods as welcoming places for them.

Artists looking to find or keep a place to live got tips recently at the Creative Chicago Expo, which held workshops on buying a home, finding live/work or commercial space and preventing foreclosure. The expo also offered tips on how to get arts-related gigs with schools and win public art commissions, which help artists make money by helping schools and neighborhoods.

One local effort I know that has done much to integrate artists into the life of a particular community, is Voice of the City, which networks artists and community organization to produce art and arts education in Logan Square.

But I wonder how to interrupt the dynamic of artists arrive, put the neighborhood "on the map" to wealthier outsiders, then wind up unable to afford to stay. There's a national effort to answer this question: Leveraging Investments in Creativity, or LINC, which operates in Chicago and 13 other cities around the U.S>

As Adele Fleet Bacow wrote for the Chicago Artists Resource web site:

We recognize that in many communities, artists are being forced to become "developers by default," particularly in markets with high housing costs, limited supply of space, and/or areas where the space does not meet their unique needs. LINC is working to help artists find accessible information and support, to answer complex questions related to the development of affordable space.

I'll be interested to know what they find out. In the mean time, readers, if you have stories to share of artists who have been assets to their neighborhoods or creative ways artists have found to integrate into neighborhoods without sparking Wicker Parkian gentrification, post your comments here.