Thursday, February 28, 2008

March Madness of the community kind

Almost four years ago, I bought a house in the Back of the Yards/Garfield Boulevard area with the help of Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago. Partly in gratitude, partly to make new friends in my new neighborhood, I joined their local advisory board.

Tonight's board meeting was one of the best I've been to in a long time. Though home sales are in a slump, our numbers are better this year than they were last year, largely because we were without a local director in the office. I'd like to give a big shout-out to our new neighborhood director, Emilio Carrasquillo, for his tireless dedication and visible presence in the neighborhood. It's his drive and persistence that have brought in homebuyers and increasing numbers of homeowners looking to avoid foreclosure.

Our board is also regaining energy. Before I arrived, NHS was a strong presence at local CAPS meetings. Staff and board members had worked hard and successfully to reduce crime and get problem buildings out of the hands of criminals, turning them into newly rehabbed, owner-occupied homes. Their work made news, including this story from December 2003. But everything has a life cycle, and the NHS-CAPS relationship withered a bit in later years, with changing staff and board members.

When I joined the board, I was told one of my responsibilities was to attend my local beat meeting. Frankly, I was willing, but not too excited about it. First, I know schools and kids a lot better than I know beats and cops, and my years teaching alternative high school have left me with some concern that "fighting crime" can all too easily turn into locking up our kids, not helping them grow. But I made a promise to go and have tried to keep it.

Our local beat meeting has struggled, too--there was also a leadership void there, and we're still working on having the district formally recognize the new local leadership. City cuts in CAPS community liaisons have also really hurt the grassroots organizing that gets people to the meeting.

But at tonight's NHS meeting, people were ready to get up and try again. So we've created our own form of "March Madness"--next month, all seven or so of us will go to each other's beat meetings to see what we can learn from each other. There are three of us in the same beat who are going to work together to make sure we have our end of the meeting organized--agendas, recruitment. Then, we'll put pressure on our district to start sending us the same officers more consistently, giving us better updates on responses to our tips and requests from one meeting to the next. Another board member is planning to revive his local block club; we've got his back, and maybe watching him will help some of the rest of us (like me) see what we can do on our own blocks.

To top it all off, Emilio and at least one, maybe even two of my fellow board members will be joining me at the NCP Getting It Done Conference on March 26 and 27.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

New site pitches West Haven retail space

The thing about the digital revolution is that new things keep coming every day, and while that isn't always comfortable, I am often pleasantly surprised by some ingenious new application of new-media tools to serve community development goals.

For instance, I was elated the other day when I clicked through on a link sent to me by Mike Quinlan, program manager for the West Haven Revitalization Initiative. He had just launched the new West Haven Now web site for the Near West Side Community Development Corporation, and on that site I found property listings and photos for retail spaces along West Madison Street and Western Avenue, an area that has changed almost completely since I worked on the neighborhood's first quality-of-life plan in 2000.

The site showed me how the 2400 block of West Madison (photo above) is filling in with new condo-over-store buildings, and gave me the heads up that the Sweet Dreams Cafe will be opening soon in the historic "skyscraper" on the northwest corner of Madison and Western (photo right).

Other new buildings are at 28 S. Western, 115-125 S. Western, 2000 West Warren and elsewhere. These areas were once known for the Rockwell Gardens and Henry Horner Homes public housing developments, both of which are being redeveloped as mixed-income communities.

The West Haven site is the second I've seen that is very consciously trying to attract retailers to once-forgotten corners of the inner city. The other is the Quad Communities Development Corporation site, whose directory section is filled with hundreds of listings of existing businesses as well as available commercial properties, complete with photos. The group has already lined up more than $80 million in new development along the Cottage Grove corridor, and just announced a $12 million loan program to spruce up existing properties.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Bringing parents Into school planning

photo credit: Chicago Center for Urban Life and Culture blog

Every two years, all Chicago Public Schools prepare school improvement plans, known as SIPAAAs (School Improvement Plan for Advancing Student Achievement). The latest round of plans are due in early April. Getting parents involved in the planning can be a challenge.

Last week at Orozco Elementary in Pilsen, Principal Coralia Barraza, home-school coordinator Teresa Fraga and other staff were eager to show me how they are bringing parents into the process. They translate SIPAAA documents into Spanish and get small groups of parents together to discuss what's working, what needs work, and who and how the work will get done. They use charts to keep track of parent input, and Barraza painstakingly translates their work into English for inclusion in the SIPAA.

But getting to this level of parental participation was built on many other activities that bring parents into the school building, such as workshops to teach parents, many of whom didn't go to school in the United States, how to help their children do a science fair project. Man, I wish my local grammar school had workshops like that!

The Orozco folks also passed on a tip they've learned from neighboring Walsh Elementary: schedule short meetings for parents to help with the SIPAAA right after school starts, when some parents may be able to stay for half an hour to give input.

Fundamentally, Orozco has a core of involved parents who step up as needed and who pass the word through the community to recruit parents or spread information quickly. It's clear Teresa Fraga's deep roots in the community--she's been there nearly 40 years, I think--were instrumental in building that network.

There's so much complaining in school quarters about parents not being involved, it is very refreshing to find examples where they are. If you have such examples, or tips on how schools can do a better job of tapping into parental energy and expertise, please leave a comment and share your knowledge.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

2008 LISC Heroes

Leading up to LISC's Getting it Done Conferencin March, we thought we'd showcase some of our community heroes.  Enjoy this audio slideshow produced by Tu Multimedia.  Please turn up your volume!

Please click here to view the slideshow full-size.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Teens spread the word about school health clinics

Little Village/Lawndale High School opened its health clinic last fall, to much fanfare. Getting there was quite a job and took many partners, from CITGO to Alivio Medical Center to the Little Village Community Development Corporation.

One of the side benefits of the organizing last year to prepare for the clinic is that LVCDC organizer Christina Bronsing got to know two Little Village/Lawndale students who wanted to learn more about health and make a difference. Lupe Alvarez and Eric Cerda both joined the Illinois Coalition for School Health Centers' Youth Advisory Board and lobbied in Springfield last year for more money to support clinics like theirs.

"My dad has diabetes. ... I started getting interested in health problems," Lupe told me. She wants to become a nurse and has learned more about health conditions from serving on the youth board. Through their activities, "we were able to discuss what we really thought with adults."

Eric joined the youth board to grow as a leader. "If I helped people learn more about the health center, it would probably be good experience for me. It would be a good way to showcase my leadership skills," he said. So far, his strategy has worked out just as he planned--he introduced the clinic to hundreds of people at its grand opening in October.

Both Eric and Lupe are also getting a chance to hone their media skills. They're part of a youth team developing a call-in show for CAN-TV that will teach more teens how they can get a school-based health center in their neighborhood. The show will air on CAN-TV Channel 21 on February 26 at 3:30 p.m. The call-in number is 312-738-1060.

For more on how the Little Village/Lawndale school health clinic is being received by students and teachers, see this story on the New Communities Program web site.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Reach of community development

Last Thursday's Chicago Neighborhood Development Awards -- the first I've attended in nearly five years of "scribing" for LISC's New Communities Program, I'm embarrassed to admit -- brought home the reach of the community development field in Chicago for me in a way that nothing else quite has to date.

Patrick Barry's earlier post here about having drinks with 1,400 of his closest friends was no joke - the ballroom at the Hyatt where the awards ceremony took place held more than 100 tables, and if not everyone quite knew everyone, the sense of familiarity and the friendly buzz of coming together around a shared purpose were both palpable.

The fact that the people in that room included Mayor Daley -- who interrupted a visit with the Secretary General of the United Nations to give the keynote lecture -- and the long roster of aldermen and city department heads showed the field's steadily growing clout.

And LISC/Chicago's Andy Mooney made a one-off reference to the possibility that clout could grow considerably later this year, when he mentioned that "one of our own" could be elected president of the United States. Andy's reference to Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's candidacy did not just refer to Obama's quarter-century-long ties to Chicago, but his work as a community organizer in the 1980s.

Whatever your preference in the remaining Democratic primaries, or in the general election in the fall, it's hard not to think that having "one of our own" rise this far thus far is a noteworthy development in and of itself for Chicago's communities.

Friday, February 8, 2008

CNDA report: And the winners are . . .

Carlos Nelson (with his children) won the Norman Bobins Leadership Award.

The best neighborhood development work in Chicago was honored last night at the Chicago Neighborhood Development Awards. A reported crowd of 1,400 turned out for the event, which featured a seriously funny show by Second City followed by the awards and the best cocktail party networking event in town, at least for the community development crowd.

And here's who won:

Lawndale Christian Development Corporation received The Chicago Community Trust Outstanding Community Strategy of the Year award.

Center on Halsted, the new home of the Horizons Community Service Center, received The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Award for Outstanding Non-Profit Real Estate Project.

Chicago GreenWorks received the Outstanding For-Profit Neighborhood Real Estate Project Award for the Rancho Verde industrial park built for Christy Webber Landscapes and other landscaping companies.

The St. Leo's Campus for Veterans in Auburn Gresham earned the Special Recognition Award.

The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Awards for Architectural Excellence in Community Design went to:

First Place: Landon Bone Baker Architects for La Casa Norte's Solid Ground Supportive Housing Building in Humboldt Park, a residential and service center for 16 homeless teens.

Second Place: Stanley Tigerman for the new home of Pacific Garden Mission, which can provide food and shelter for 1,000 men and women a day.

Third Place: Murphy/Jahn for Mercy Housing Lakefront's Margot and Harold Schiff Residences, which provides energy-efficient housing for low-income residents.

The Driehaus Awards are now 10 years old, and in a fitting tribute, Richard H. Driehaus himself won the Friend of the Neighborhoods Award.

And last but not least, the new Norman Bobins Leadership Award honoring emerging community development leaders went to Carlos Nelson, executive director of the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation.

Englewood's Jean Carter-Hill is keeping busy

The nice thing about the Chicago Neighborhood Development Awards is that, with more than 1,000 community-oriented people in the room, you're almost guaranteed to make some good connections.

I was lucky enough to see Jean Carter-Hill, executive director of Imagine Englewood If, and she had some interesting news. Her organization is working with 31 students from local high schools on a journalism program led by Columbia College. The students are reporting and writing stories and getting ready for a trip to Washington, D.C., where they'll get an up-close look at the workings of Congress. Some of the students are involved with radio and video work, also.

I'm biased, but it seems to me that training young writers makes a whole lot of sense.

The other news from Jean was that she had been honored earlier that day at the Friends of the Parks Annual Meeting and Awards Luncheon, for her work converting vacant lots into community gardens. The award went to individuals and organizations that have most significantly contributed to the improvement of Chicago's parks and forest preserves in 2007.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

YMCA promotes itself, and families pour in

U.S. Steel's mighty South Works in the South Chicago neighborhood once employed 20,000 people, but the mill has been shuttered since the 1980s, which means "old residents moved out, new people moved in and neighbors no longer knew each other," according to South Chicago's recently published quality-of-life plan. That's one reason the plan calls for creation of "free and regular teen-specific and family-friendly activities," a message that the South Chicago YMCA has taken quite seriously.

In December, the Y partnered with the New Communities Program lead agency, Claretian Associates, to kick off implementation of the plan with a free family day including food, Santa Claus and plenty of activities.
Four hundred fifty people turned out.

Shelly Butler, the Y's director, followed it up with a creative schedule of programs to acquaint newcomers with the Y's facilities, and the families kept on coming. They must have liked what they found there, because by Feb. 5 the South Chicago YMCA, at 3039 East 91st Street, had 212 new memberships, nearly tripling Butler's goal of 75. She said it was the highest number of new memberships in the local association.

What's the secret? Good promotion, including the video below, good partnerships to spread the word within the community, and most of all good programming, like the following lined up in February:

Parents Night Out, Feb. 8, when parents can leave their 7- to 15-year-olds at the Y for $5, or $8 if they aren't members. On the two school holidays February 12 and 18, the Y is offering "No School, Chill at the Pool," for kids at that tricky middle age of 10 to 15. Free for members, $5 for non-members. And on Feb. 22 there's a Family Swim Night, again free for members. For more details or to learn about membership, call the Y at 773-721-9100.

Here's the video, made by Jackie Samuel at Claretian Associates.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

"Phantom Gallery" comes to East Garfield

Out west on Madison Street in East Garfield Park, the local chamber of commerce is mounting a community development two-fer called a Phantom Gallery.

Here's how it works. Local businesses, empty storefronts and other locales are recruited into a program that turns them into temporary art galleries. Local artists get some nice exposure, the stores and the street gain a colorful new look, and residents have a chance to see some artwork in their own neighborhood. Wait, that's a three-fer.

Anyway, it's been done on Commercial Avenue in South Chicago and in Rogers Park and other 'hoods, and this week it debuts in East Garfield with a VIP reception (you're a Very Important Person if you attend) on on Saturday, February 9, from 4 to 8 p.m. at the Supper Club Chicago, 2715 W. Madison Street, with a showcase, refreshments and live music.

The exhibit runs from 1 to 4 p.m. each day from Friday, Feb. 8 through Sunday, Feb. 10 at eight locations:

Arthur Swirgon, LTD, Antiques and Modern Art, 320 S. Sacramento
Class Hair Salon, 2446 W. Madison
Legler Public Library, 115 S. Pulaski
Divine Home Remodeling, 115 S. Francisco
Clark Construction, 2421 W. Madison
Clark Construction, 2423 W. Madison
Art Exhibit Location, 3439 W. Madison
Switching Station Artist Lofts, 15 S. Homan

Call 777.722.6650 or 773-638-1217 x 3 for more information, or check out samples of the artists' work at

The Phantom Gallery is sponsored by the Greater Garfield Park Chamber of Commerce, the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance and others. It was organized by East Garfield artist Alpha Bruton. The event is one of many activities that are part of the Madison Revitalization Initiative.