Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Broadband, Narrow Minds

I've been on this Earth and around this town long enough that virulent sourness about what sounds to my ears like positive lifting up of poor people and communities of color rarely surprises me too much.

Even so, I had a hard time swallowing the anger expressed in many of the comments following the Chicago Tribune's article about Mayor Daley's Dec. 21 announcement about the city's attempt to seek federal stimulus funding for a technology initiative in five neighborhoods that are part of LISC/Chicago's New Communities Program.

This will provide broadband Internet access, installation of public computer terminals, and technology education in Auburn Gresham, Englewood, Chicago Lawn, Pilsen and Humboldt Park, which research has shown have a relative lack of this increasingly vital 21st century infrastructure.

A bit more over the top than most, but not a whole lot more, was this screed by someone billed as "steadfast14":

I love how the first "Smart Communities" are most likely populated by some of the dumbest people in the city. What is the high school graduation rate for the people living in the first "Smart Communities?" How many have obtained college or professional degrees? I am sure Englewood has a disproportionately high concentration of MENSA members.

Isn't it great when you see a something that you have to pay for yourself given to those who haven't worked to enjoy it? Isn't even better when those same recipients come from the area of the city where much of the crime comes from and where the inhabitants use a disproportionately high amount of state services others are forced to pay for? Now parts of the city where you don't dare walk alone at night will have high speed internet access, on your dime. Brilliant!!!

(You can read them all here while they last, if you haven't already heard enough. Or, you can find links to the Tribune's and other news organizations' stories here.)

I will refrain here from any snarky reference to steadfast14's education level or likelihood of MENSA membership, but does it occur to him/her that increased access to job boards like or Craigslist might provide a path to employment for "those who haven't worked" -- who, by the way, are pretty numerous in communities of many stripes right now?

Does steadfast14 stop to think that the increased access to computers and skills they provide might provide hope for young people who might otherwise be tempted by the quick bucks that, indeed, cause certain communities to face disproportionate amounts of crime?

That the vast majority of people from these communities don't participate in that crime, and that many are trying to build communities where they can "dare walk alone at night"?

Would he/she really prefer, even if statistics back up the claim (and no references are provided) that residents of these communities continue to "use a disproportionately high amount of state services ... on your dime?"

Does the status quo better fit steadfast14's definition of "Brilliant!!!"?

Or, is it Smarter to provide infrastructure and supports to "teach a man to fish," 21st century-style?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Changing the Face of Science, One Neighborhood at a Time

I've blogged here before about the idea of community science workshops where neighborhood kids and families could go mess around, build rockets, and so forth. Earlier today my friend Gabrielle Lyon took the idea a few steps farther in an op-ed piece on the Huffington Post. Gabe is the co-founder of Project Exploration, which expands access to science by
connecting minority youth and girls with scientists and creating opportunities for youth to explore scientific problems alongside them. Project Exploration is one of Elev8 Chicago's extended-day providers. Their Sisters4Science program is going great guns with middle school girls at Reavis Elementary and Perspectives Calumet Middle School. For a taste of what they are all about, read the article here.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Couple Links

I thought these unrelated links would be of some interest to the Community Beat community:

* National syndicated columnist Neal Peirce of Washington Post Writers Group covered innovative methods to combat youth violence, with a nod toward Chicago's CeaseFire program.

* The MacArthur Foundation has posted a video of Adolfo Carrion, urban affairs director for the Obama White House, giving an address to LISC/Chicago's recent "Chicago Rising" gathering.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Marquette Students Tour the "Information Neighborhood"

Tomorrow afternoon, Trib columnist Clarence Page will visit Marquette Elementary to talk with middle schoolers about the news business and why news is important. About 150 6th-graders have been gearing up for the visit by studying a curriculum developed by the News Literacy Project. Last week Chicago coordinator Peter Adams told me about one of their activities--exploring the "information neighborhoods" in a newspaper--page one, metro, sports, advertising inserts. "We go through and talk about who produced this, what its goal is, things like that," to better understand the relationship between advertisers, reporters and the paper as a whole.

Last Friday students examined digital and viral media hoaxes to learn more about what a reliable source is. I know firsthand the worth of activities like this. Back in 2006, my neighbor Daniel, then 12 years old, stopped me on the street and said, "Mark Ecko tagged Air Force One."

"What?" I responded, shocked.

"Yeah, he tagged it. It's on You Tube," Daniel told me. So we went in my house and watched the video. (You can see it here.) It was so well done it had me going for a minute. Then we looked for reliable news stories about his feat and quickly discovered it was a very clever fake--he rented a Boeing jet and painted it to look like Air Force One. According to Ecko's own website, the fake was so good it had the military double-checking whether anyone had been on the runway to shoot it.

If people like me, who've worked in news, and even the Pentagon are doing double-takes at a video hoax, how is a 12-year-old supposed to know it's not true? That's what the News Literacy Project hopes to teach--the skills to separate the fact from the fiction, opinion and advertising that dominate the media landscape, especially in new media. It's great work, and more Chicago schools are looking to get on board in 2010. For more about the News LIteracy Project and tomorrow's event, check out this article on the LISC/Chicago website.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Life After 2016

Well, Chicagoans, by now you know we didn't get the bid. But take heart, we've made a splash on the world stage and we're still a great city to come and visit, or to be a tourist in your own town. Mark you calendars for October 10, when the Burnham Plan Centennial will sponsor a new round of community showcase tours.

Our friend Mandy Burrell Booth at Metropolitan Planning Commission put it well, writing in a Facebook status update: "It's time to move on. The Olympics were just one opportunity of many to reinvest in Chicago neighborhoods that are ripe for redevelopment." You can see her take on the neighborhoods here.

On Worldview today, Jerome McDonnell asked, "Does Chicago need a Carnival to spice things up?" But I think we're plenty spicy as it is. This weekend I expect to visit the Little VIllage Arts Fest and stop by Delicias Mexicanas for a Mexican hot dog--with bacon. Mmmm...bacon...mmmm....Gotta love the Hog Butcher to the World, whether or not the IOC loved us enough this time.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Bringing Retail to Underserved Neighborhoods

In case you missed it, LISC/Chicago was featured in a September 1 WBEZ story about "retail leakage" on Chicago's South Side. YOu can check it out here. The lack of retail on the South Side is a well-known phenomenon; what isn't so well-known--and what LISC regularly points out--is that South Side and other city low-income communities have more spending power than suburbs full of retailers.

The piece also features the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation's efforts to lure in retailers. One of their promotions, the annual 79th Street Renaissance Festival, is coming up next weekend. It's a great opportunity to check out a great neighborhood.

In a related story on the same issue, The Chicago Reporter takes a look at the West Haven neighborhood and how longtime efforts to lure in retail only took off when whites began to return to the area. Earnest Gates and the Near West Side Community Development Corporation are featured.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Gardens Take the Prize in Great Places Contest

The voting has just begun for the "What Makes Your Place Great" contest that Mike Quinlan alerted us to in an earlier post, but the winner – or rather a category of winners – is already clear from the 40 entries in the photo-and-essay contest. It's gardens, and I don't mean formal places like Millennium Park or any of the other very nice park spaces that people nominated.

The "great places" that one-fifth of the entries reflect are community-oriented gardens built and maintained and enjoyed by local residents, from the Hoxie Prairie Garden at 106th and Hoxie to the Waters School Garden (photo above) to the Thomas Street Community Garden. Click through the photos and you'll discover eight special spots including the Gingko Organic Gardens near Wrigley Field, the River Park in Geneva, the Heavenly Garden of Bush and a NeighborSpace plot at 2227 N. Monticello. And of course there's the nomination that Mike wants you to vote for, the West Haven Garden tended by local teens. (Vote here.)

Riverwalks and park spaces were also nominated, but in my mind the gardens represent something much more powerful than a a municipal greenspace, however nicely trimmed and decked out with professional landscaping it might be. As the essays point out, the community gardens foster ownership, creativity, exercise, friendships and of course that miracle of miracles, growing something beautiful or delicious from a tiny seed.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Growing Home on CLTV

There was a nice clip on CLTV recently featuring Growing Home's urban farm at 58th and Wood St. Check it out:


Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Win a Free Bike!

If you, like me, missed Open Streets last Saturday, you might still want to take your shot at winning a free bicycle. Bicycling Magazine will be giving away free bikes on August 14. To enter the contest, all you have to do is submit a very short essay about how a new bike could change your life. You can submit your essay here.

Bicycling's Lois Moss sent a message today saying she had gathered a number of entries from women during Open Streets, but not so many from men. Fellas, it's not too late to step up. Good luck to all.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

More Hoops in More Hoods

While B-Ball on the Block is taking Little Village by storm, Back of the Yards is also getting in on the basketball action. Over at the Neighborhood Sports Chicago web site, Cristobal Martinez has a report with photos from last Friday night's action at 48th and Marshfield. This is the first year Back of the Yards has had a full-scale Hoops in the Hood Friday night basketball league with food, fun and introductions to service agencies visiting different blocks all summer long.

Speaking as a neighborhood resident, I'm delighted to see this getting off the ground in Back of the Yards. I was out there myself last Friday night and can say firsthand that it was a lot of fun and clearly a new experience for kids and families. Many of the kids couldn't believe they could just go up and get a hot dog, an icie or a bag of popcorn for free. Neighbors not just from the target block but from a three-block radius stopped by. Some of the kids on my own block played for a team sponsored by the UNION Impact Center. Part of the point of the effort is to bridge the various divisions of the neighborhood--race, ethnicity, language, gang territories--and I'm very proud that my neighbors on the UNION Impact team were part of one of the few where a diverse group of kids were playing on the same team.

In recent years the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council has gone through some transition in leadership and focus, and "Hoops" is helping the council raise its profile in the neighborhood in a new and positive way. Martinez's story quoted BYNC executive director Craig Chico giving a key stat to measure the impact to date: "If you want to measure our success with a number, we've served over 600 hot dogs each week."

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Youth Noise: B-Ball on the Block Is Back

Got an email from Cesar Nuñez this morning turning me on to a $500 fundraising challenge for Beyond the Ball, the group that's using basketball and soccer to bring youth onto the streets on Friday evenings in Little Village and North Lawndale.

BBall on the Block has been going for three years now and it's great to see that they're still innovating – adding soccer, for instance – and that they've connected with Youth Noise and Nike on this fundraiser. They need another 32,600 clicks to get that $500, and you can click all you want, so get on over there and help make it happen.

Trina Chiasson, Chicago blogger for Youth Noise Play City, caught some great quotes in that video above. Here's one of them:

"I grew up in this neighborhood, I've seen a lot of violence and poor choices," says Ken Alvarado, soccer director. "And then just getting older, you see that there aren't that many opportunities to escape those places."

BBall on the Block provides that opportunity: "You know you're safe, you know there is nothing to worry about, we have food, you have nice people working here too, so it's just a blessing for the community. And I'm definitely taking it as a blessing for myself as well."

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

What's a Portal? Pilsen Shows the Way

Mayor Daley was in Pilsen yesterday promoting "digital excellence," but what does that mean? The hope is that in the four demonstration communities of Pilsen, Englewood, Chicago Lawn and Auburn Gresham, use of digital tools and the internet will become commonplace for residents young and old, well-off and poor. It won't be easy because so many residents lack broadband access and don't have experience with on-line tools, but that's all included in the digital excellence plans that the communities are beginning to implement.

One thing is certain. A community will use the web more if there is relevant local content that is of value to residents, businesses and other stakeholders, and that's where the Pilsen Portal comes in.

Launched last week and still in beta form, the portal is intended to be a place where many, many local people contribute content, find content, and comment about what others are putting up. Already about 20 beta users have signed on as contributors and they're starting to fill up the calendar and the directory (check out the listing for Studio One Tattoos). Jaime Guzmán, on organizer for the project, is putting his videography skills to work profiling local businesses (Kristoffer's Cafe) and even the churches are getting involved putting up the schedules of masses and kermeses (summer festivals).

A dynamic community-created web portal won't bring digital excellence all by itself. But my hunch is that if the portal can engage scores of local people in the telling of the Pilsen story, circa 2009, that will be an important step on the road. And once Pilsen does it, others will follow.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Planting Seeds of Health in Humboldt Park

I just love the idea of urban farming. I can't think of a better way to use our city's empty lots than to plant gardens in them. Chad Bliss and his crew teach teens about farming, sustainable agriculture and healthy living, all while giving them that needed summer job. What's not to love?

Produced by Tu Multimedia.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Contest: "What Makes your Place Great"?

Placemaking Chicago is having a neat little contest for the best photo/250 word essay on what makes your place great. I love little contests like this and want to encourage other entrants. For more info, click here. Here was our submittal:

West Haven is a proud community on the Near West Side. Over the summer a group of students from Crane High School are working to restore our community garden. Led by their high school teacher, the garden will be dedicated to a local community hero of ours, Mable Manning. Mable helped save our community from being wiped out in the 1980s for a new NFL stadium.

What makes our place great are all of the community members working hard to improve West Haven everyday. We got together to create a quality-of-life plan called West Haven: Rising Like the Phoenix and are now in the process of implementing this plan. The community garden is adjacent to our library (the Mable Manning Public Library) and runs along our cultural corridor. Touhy-Herbert Park, the Boys and Girls Club and Major Adams Community Committee are all down the street.

The students responsible for all of the hard work are responsible for the garden design as well. Many of the design principals that Projects for Public Spaces advocates for are taken advantage of. Flower beds, vegetable beds and even benches will be part of a good garden made great with helping hands.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Report on the Economy, via the Hair Salon

There's a price war going among the hair salons and barber shops on Clark Street in Rogers Park, and that's bad news for Alicia, the woman who's been cutting my hair for the last 10 years.

When I stopped in at La Bella Unisex today, she got right to the point. Business is bad. It's not just that people have lost jobs and are pinching pennies; it's the price competition. The place right next door has a big sign in the window: Hair Cut $5. And there's another down the street charging the same amount.

I asked how anyone can make money charging only $5. They can't. With storefronts renting for $1,200 a month, she said, even if you could fill the chairs all day long it would be hard to make it. And the chairs are rarely full.

Alicia asked when I thought the economy would turn around. I told her I've been working on a foreclosure-response project and the experts aren't optimistic; they are worried, in fact, that things could get much worse in some areas as the hundreds of boarded and abandoned buildings trigger a free-fall in what's left of the market.

Why a free fall? Alicia's husband had good work for years doing construction on condominium conversions. But no work lately. Her son, just out of high school, is an apprentice at an auto repair shop on Jarvis. It's a good opportunity but the pay isn't there. And her own business is way down. She's nervous about the family scraping together enough money to pay the mortgage on their own condominium . . . and it's a good bet that the people working next door, at $5 a cut, are having similar troubles.

As Alicia finished up with the razor, trimming the wild hairs off my ears, a man walked in and asked "How much for a haircut?"

"Ten dollars for a normal haircut," Alicia replied, sizing up the potential client. She hesitated a split second, then added, "and if you need just a simple cut, five dollars."

"Yes, just a simple cut," he replied.

So that's the view from Clark Street, where people are hurting.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Community Forums This Week on New School Proposals

As usual, the Chicago Public Schools is holding public meetings on an important topic with no advance warning. This week, 11 meetings are being held in neighborhoods around the city regarding proposed new schools that would be part of Renaissance 2010, the mayor's initiative to create 100 new schools. Whatever you think about this initiative, which has sparked plenty of controversy, if your neighborhood is potentially getting a new school, you might want to hear what the designers have in mind.

Three meetings were held yesterday--I'm sorry I didn't catch this sooner. Here's the complete list of meetings this week:

South Chicago, Villa Guadalupe, 3201 E. 91st St., Tuesday July 7, 6-8p.m.
Rogers Park, Rogers Park Public Library, 6907 N. Clark St., Tuesday July 7, 6-8 p.m.
West Town/Humboldt Park, Erie Charter School, 2510 W. Cortez, Tuesday July 7, 6-8 p.m.
Austin/North Lawndale, Austin Public Library, 5615 W. Race, Wednesday July 8, 6-8 p.m.
Pilsen, Lozano Public Library, 1805 S. Loomis, Wednesday July 8, 6-8 p.m.
Southwest, Garfield Ridge neighborhood, Archer Heights Public Library, 5055 S. Archer, Wednesday July 8, 6-8 p.m.
Englewood, Rust Memorial Church, 6400 S. Stewart, Thursday July 9, 6-7:30 p.m.
North Center/Northwest, Irving Park YMCA, 4251 W. Irving Park Road, Thursday July 9, 7-8:30 p.m.
Kenwood/Grand Boulevard, Little Black Pearl Art and Design Center, 1060 E. 47th St., Thursday July 9, 6-8 p.m.
Far South, Washington Heights, Roseland neighborhoods, Glenwood (suburb), Neighborhood Housing Services, 11005 S. Michigan, Thursday July 9, 6-8 p.m.
Riverdale, Chicago Housing Authority, 951 E. 130th St., Saturday, July 11, 10 a.m.-noon.

Just to be clear, these forums will present preliminary proposals for new schools that, if approved, would open in the 2010-2011 school year. The 32 design teams presenting "school design frameworks" this week must submit full proposals by August 10 and will go through further review after that time. The winners will probably be announced in early 2010.

For somewhat more information, you can read the full press release here.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Open Streets Is Back, but New York Ups the Ante

Remember Sunday Parkways, that experiment last fall that closed down Chicago boulevards to cars and opened them up to thousands of cyclists, pedestrians and skaters? It's back. Renamed Open Streets, it will take place this year on Saturday, August 1, across 7.5 miles of wide-open roads through five communities: Logan Square, Humboldt Park, East Garfield Park, North Lawndale and Little Village.

Like last year, neighborhood groups and others will sponsor activities along the route, from exercise stations to dance and music performances. I rode one of last year's two Sunday-morning events and it was a blast, so much fun that complete strangers spent a lot of time greeting each other and talking.

Still, I had to grumble this morning when I read in the New York Times that that other city will shut down 6.9 miles of Manhattan for THREE Saturday-morning events and sponsor DOZENS of additional "Weekend Walks" in the boroughs. This is the same city that has put benches and chairs and bike paths on a traffic-free Broadway, changing completely the atmosphere (literally) on that once-chaotic street.

So let's get out there and have fun on August 1 in Chicago, and then figure out what it takes to catch up to other cities (Quito, Ecuador; Bogotá, Colombia; Guadalajara, Mexico; Portland, Oregon) that are making us look bad.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Remembering Wanda White Gills

News came through today that Wanda White Gills, a longtime contributor to the improvement of Chicago communities, has passed away after a long battle with cancer.

I had the pleasure of working with Wanda back in the 1980s when she was with the Community Workshop on Economic Development, and was thrilled to work with her again in 2004 and 2005 in Englewood, where she brought 600 different people into a remarkable series of meetings that resulted in Teamwork Englewood's 2005 quality-of-life plan.

Pierre Clark, who participated in that process, passed along the sad news:
"Wanda White Gills was the best facilitator and collaborative consensus builder I've worked with in 30 years in community development, bar none. I will miss her and I know she will be missed as a friend, colleague, guiding light and visionary.

"Wanda was Economic Development Director to three Chicago mayors, Executive Director of the Community Workshop On Economic Development, President of the Women's Self-Employment Project, Director of Teamwork Englewood NCP, Founding Board Member Of The Annenberg Challenge Grant process, architect of the Chicago Empowerment Zone process, third in command at the CHA during the early Transformation days, wife to Professor Doug Gills of UIC, mom to Scott and RD, grandmom, and a great friend and colleague of many of us in community development and community empowerment circles . . . (she) made her transition on Wednesday, June 25, after a long battle with cancer.

"Her homegoing ceremony will be Friday, July 3, 2009, at 1 p.m. at Progressive Community Center, 56 East 48th Street, (Wabash and 48th Street), Chicago, Illinois 60653."
What I remember quite vividly was the atmosphere in the big room at 815 W. 63rd Street, at Teamwork Englewood's office, when Wanda White Gills was working her magic. Englewood leaders and residents had been through plenty of planning processes before that one, and most of those plans had resulted in nothing much, but Wanda got people talking, let the angry ones speak their minds, treated every person and every idea with respect, left time before and after each meeting for people to talk to each other, and always urged everyone to come back to the next meeting and bring their friends and neighbors. And they did, month after month, until a splintered community had come together around common goals and created a sense of hope and spirit that hadn't exist before.

That's what Wanda White Gills was capable of. It's a rare and special talent. I know I am one of many who admired very much her contributions to our city.

Photo is from March 19, 2005 Englewood Youth and Young Adult Summit, during the report-back session when youth told a panel of adult leaders their concerns and hopes for the community.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Residuals in motion

One worthwhile area of reporting might be the thinking behind the switch of the cycling and swimming venues between Douglas and Washington Parks. Seems a neighborhood like North Lawndale (Douglas Pk.) could have used pools more than a velodrome. And wha's this talk about "moving" pools to other parks after 2016. How does one "move" a swimming pool?

Photo of swimmer at Crane Tech Prep High School during Spring Into Sports, by Eric Young Smith.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Pilsen's Big Sound, Strong Culture

On a Tuesday afternoon, the blair of trumpets and strumming of guitars flood the halls of Cooper Elementary School in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood. It's time for mariachi class led by Victor and Jose Yahvi Pichardo, a father-son team with a wealth of Mexican music experience (Victor's Band, Los Sones de Mexico, was nominated for a Latin Grammy in 2008). The class is held twice a week and any student is welcome to join. These young students have a deep commitment to the music they play--and whether or not they are of Mexican decent, they are preserving their neighborhood's culture by learning the mariachi tradition. This program is supported by LISC Chicago's Elev8 program. Produced by Tu Multimedia.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Umoja University Trains School Leaders as Community Change Agents

Twelve years ago, less than 10 percent of graduates from North Lawndale's Manley High School went on to college. Last Friday, the Chicago Tribune reported that "all but a few" of Manley's 142 graduating seniors had been accepted to college.

Much of the credit for this achievement goes to the Umoja Student Development Corporation. Umoja provides pathways for students to learn about college and careers and builds the relationships with them needed to help them move forward after graduation. (I wrote about one of them here back in 2003.) Students working with Umoja not only develop postsecondary plans; they follow through. Umoja contacted 139 of last year's Manley grads and found 68 percent of them had enrolled as college freshmen: 64 percent of that group are going back for a second year.

In the last few years, Umoja has been expanding its efforts beyond Manley, to south and southwest side schools like Gage Park, Carver, Dyett and ACE Tech Charter. This summer, teachers and school leadership teams who want to learn more about how Umoja has "changed the way the school does business" (as the Tribune put it), are invited to sign up for four days of workshops and planning known as Umoja University. The workshops will be held at Dominican University from July 27-31. Interested individual teachers are invited to sign up for one or more morning workshops; school teams are encouraged to sign up for the full five days, and will have dedicated time in the afternoons to develop plans for their own school aided by Umoja facilitators.

Why am I telling you about this on a community development blog? Because one of the best ways to strengthen a community is to increase the education level of its members. According to the Trib article, less than 10 percent of adults in North Lawndale currently hold a bachelor's degree. Umoja has been working diligently to plant the seeds that will increase that number down the road, and I think they have something to share with teachers and principals who share that goal.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Welcome to Our Neighborhoods!

How do you convey the excitement and hard work that goes into making neighborhoods stronger?

We've tried a lot of different ways over the seven years of the New Communities Program, and probably the closest we've come is in the new video below by Sarahmaria Gomez and Alex Fledderjohn of TuMultimedia.

This is the first half of a longer piece they created as a "thank you" tribute to Jonathan Fanton, the president of the MacArthur Foundation. It captures the voices of neighborhood residents talking about:
  • a community garden on Maypole Avenue in East Garfield Park;
  • the South Chicago Art Center;
  • a mural in North Lawndale;
  • the La Estancia development in Humboldt Park;
  • a mariachi band at Cooper School in Pilsen;
  • the Oakwood Shores mixed-income development in Quad Communities;
  • the West Haven Giants baseball team;
  • the Little Village Boxing Gym; and
  • the foreclosure prevention efforts in Chicago Lawn.
All that in five minutes! I think the reason it works so well is because the work it represents is so genuine and real.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Channing Reddit, Social Justice Class of 09, One of Eight to Win Roosevelt Scholarship

Yesterday's Chicago Sun-Times reported that eight students from The School of Social Justice, one of four small schools within Little Village Lawndale High School, had been awarded full four-year scholarships worth $80,000 to Roosevelt University. Channing Reddit, singing a duet in the photo above as part of a play honoring Black History Month, was among them. Channing, an accomplished singer and pianist, told me he plans to major in music education. He has already spent a fair amount of time at Roosevelt, from orientation when he first arrived as a freshman to a writing course he took on campus last summer, staying overnight.

As an 8th-grader at Mason Elementary in North Lawndale, Channing originally thought he would apply to Curie High School. Having sung and played piano in church since he was very young, he liked Curie's music program and strong academic reputation. But when he heard there was a new high school opening nearby, he was so intrigued he changed his mind. “It was brand-new. I wanted to be in the history of the school as one of the first graduates,” he said.

Channing's 8th-grade dream came true last Friday night. When he and his classmates crossed the stage, they made history as members of the first graduating class of Little Village Lawndale High School. Hunger striker Manuelita Garcia, who helped push the Chicago Board of Education to make good on their promise to build a new high school in Little Village, spoke during their commencement ceremony.

Students coming to Little Village Lawndale choose which of the four small schools they wish to attend: Social Justice, MAS (Multicultural Arts School), Infinity Math & Science Academy, or World Language Academy. Soon after Channing chose Social Justice, he discovered that Roosevelt University had pledged to award scholarships covering tuition, room and board to any student in Social Justice's first two graduating classes with at least a 3.0 GPA and an ACT score of 20. “From the very beginning I knew I was going to do that." Always an honors student, ”I knew it would be easy for me to meet the requirement," he said. He graduated with a 4.0 and earned the 20 after just one retake.

Though Channing says it was easy for him, statistics say it's generally pretty tough for young African-American men like him to make it through both high school and college. Recent research shows that for every 100 African American boys who start ninth grade in Chicago's public high schools, only about 11 will hold a bachelor's degree ten years later.

Not only has Channing made huge strides in beating those odds, he's helped his peers along the way. He has a circle of friends who, like him, are African American young men on track to graduate from high school, some of whom joined him for lunch or stopped by his table while I interviewed him earlier this year. “I'm always helping all of them when they need help with their work.”

Channing added that Social Justice has made a big difference in his friends' likelihood of graduating. If they had gone to a different school, he said, it was unlikely they would all have made it with him. “Other schools seem like they don't care about their students that much. This one does.”

UPDATED 6/10: I received word from Katherine Hogan, English department chair at Social Justice, that of the original 85 students who entered as freshmen, 66 graduated last Friday night, and 50 of them have been accepted to postsecondary programs. Hogan says six more students are expected to graduate in August.

Full disclosure: I taught briefly at Social Justice High School back in 2006 and had the privilege of meeting Channing when he was in my advisory (homeroom). We had not kept in touch until I talked with him this spring about his postgraduate plans.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Are Volunteers Enough to Cover the 'Hoods?

Community Beat got some good press today from Mike Doyle at ChicagoSphere, the new blog-about-blogs at the Trib's just-launched Chicago Now web site. "Community Beat has covered topics you might not find on other community news sites or local blogs," Doyle said, calling it a "great effort." Well, thanks.

Doyle then offers a spirited defense of citizen journalism, which I had "rejected" as "unsustainable and unprofessional" in an email exchange with him. I didn't mean any offense. I just don't think volunteerism is an adequate replacement for professional news gathering, editing and distribution, and it certainly isn't happening on the scale needed to keep communities and cities (and nations) healthy.

Case in point: The CTA on Wednesday released its Screen 3 report on the Red Line Extension Alternatives Analysis Study, which has been analyzing options for high-capacity transit service south of 95th Street. Guess what? After much public input, the CTA recommends a rail extension that snakes west on I-57 and then south along the Union Pacific Railroad through Roseland and all the way to Altgeld Gardens at 130th Street.

You didn't see that in the newspapers? Neither did I. With their staffs gutted, there aren't enough reporters to send to meetings, and I guess those who are left don't have time to check the CTA web site, which is where I found a detailed presentation about the route selection. All I found when searching Google News was a short Sun-Times story saying that a meeting was taking place again tonight (but not telling the news), and a WBEZ piece that at least mentioned the preferred route.

We can't depend on volunteers to provide this type of information, though it would be nice. But community organizations can play a big role here: keeping track of what's happening and sharing it with their residents and neighbors. We've seen it working very well among different New Communities Program lead agencies (LSNA, GAGDC, NWSCDC, TRP) and there's no reason that many more can't get into the game.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

More Audio Tours from Curie High Students

A couple of weeks ago, we presented four audio "tours" by seniors at Curie Metro High School, each providing a peek into special places that those students shared with their listeners. Here are five more. Tell us what you think.

The Cleanest Neighbor in the World
We spy on Ana Romero's neighbor, who never stops sweeping

King Plaza
Angela Griden provides a tour of Martin Luther King Plaza on the West Side.

Quidditch in Marquette Park
A full game of Harry Potter Quidditch, Chicago style, by Kathryn Kaye.

Whiz Kids Learning Center
Lamar Smith wants you to hear the laughter on 67th and California.

Environmental Justice
Come inside the Little Village Environmental Justice Center and see youth in action, by Xochitl Sandoval.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Running for the Health of It--19th Annual Alivio Y Salud Run for Health in Pilsen

“We’ve been training for months to run the 5K,” said Armando Rodriguez, an eighth grader at Orozco Community Academy in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. “Today our training is getting put to the test.”

On Saturday, no less than 1,000 athletes and spectators of all ages shrugged off the drizzly weather to participate in the 19th Annual Alivio Y Salud Run for Health in Pilsen. The 5K Run, 5K Kids Run and the 2 Mile Walk and Kids Dash drew a healthy crowd, most were family members of area-school children there to compete.

Robert Reznar, coach of Orzoco’s Running Club, began training 75 kids for this race in February. The club meets after school two times a week.

“I think for a lot of kids it’s a social thing, so there’s no tryout for the kids, said Reznar. “They can just come on out and have a good time with their friends and get a good workout.”

Reznar, who is also the health and fitness teacher at Orozco, says sports activities like the running club are essential to students well being. The school has a high incidence of student obesity, a problem he partially attributes to gang problems in the area. “The neighborhood is a little dangerous, so parents are reluctant to let their kids outside during the day to play," said Reznar. “We’re trying to use our programming to teach them how important it is to take care of their health at an early age.”

The months of training paid off, as five of Reznar’s students placed in the top 10 in their age divisions. Rodriguez won 10th place in his division.

“My favorite part about running is the challenge, [our coaches] challenge us a lot,” he said. “They make us sprint and run for 30 minutes, which I thought I couldn’t do. It was a great challenge for me and I overcame it.”

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

In Little Village, Rapid Response to a Shooting

I've heard a lot over the years about how CeaseFire uses its street networks to mount rapid responses to violence to help minimize or even prevent further incidents and retaliations. Below is a close-up look at how it actually gets done.

This is an excerpt from an email sent today by Michael Rodríguez, the violence prevention director at Enlace Chicago (formerly Little Village Community Development Corporation).

"On Wednesday of last week just before 2:30 p.m., three of our Enlace-CeaseFire staff were in the New Life Church van driven by our Enlace-Safety Net Works staff member. They were on the way to drop a young person off and head to a Community Schools cookout at Eli Whitney school, with all the cookout materials in the rear of the van.

"As they were heading west on 26th Street they witnessed a young man who had been shot lying on the ground. They jumped to action and took the young man, shot twice in the arm and the stomach, to Mt. Sinai Hospital where he was treated in their trauma unit and underwent surgery immediately. Just a few hours later, while at the Eli Whitney cookout, we heard five retaliatory gun shots. The shooting occurred on Harding and 31st with two young men shot in the leg.

"In response to these shootings, Enlace-CeaseFire Little Village organized a rally where about 150 members of the community, friends from other CeaseFire locations, and members of the Violence Prevention Collaborative came together in prayer for peace. I just learned that also in attendance was the young man shot on 26th and Central Park.

"We would like to thank the following organizations for contributing on the day:
  • New Life Church
  • YMCA Street Intervention Program
  • Alderman Ricardo Muñoz (22nd Ward)
  • CeaseFire Brighton Park, Humboldt Park, Lawndale and other areas
  • SER, Jobs for Progress
  • Beyond the Ball
  • Little Village Environmental Justice Organization
  • Enlace Chicago CeaseFire, Safety Net Works, and other staff

"Rep. Mendoza sent her well wishes while she was in Springfield. Also 10th District Commander Ruiz called yesterday to thank us for our efforts. During an Enlace CeaseFire meeting yesterday we recommitted to increasing our efforts in the area to Stop the Shootings, Stop the Killings; please be on the lookout for future actions and please remember to refer to us the most troubled youth for mentorship.

"One last thought is that these things happen very quickly and word does not get out as fast as we would like. For a few of you this might be the first time hearing about this. We will be setting up a mass text list to assist in getting word out quickly in addition to our email efforts.

"Also, one last pitch ;) CeaseFire is not in the state budget currently. If you plan on being in Springfield , or have a call planned already, or now have something to call about, please urge legislators (particularly in the Senate) to support HB 4431 introduced by Yarbrough and Mendoza, which would fund CeaseFire . . . Please call Senator John Cullerton, (217) 782-2728, and your home district senator."

So there you have it: the brutal, heartbreaking and sometimes exhilarating work of building safer communities. My hat is off to those involved in the day-to-day struggle.

Friday, May 22, 2009

From Dirty, Noisy Naples, Lessons for Chicago

First impressions, arriving in 2,700-year-old Naples in southern Italy, are of a worn-out and poor city where most vertical surfaces, including trains and ancient buildings, are covered with graffiti.

But those were only first impressions.

Turns out this tightly packed metropolis of three million people, while struggling mightily with unemployment, bureaucracy and a long relationship with the Mob, has done what great cities do: create beauty and order and art.

There are lessons here for Chicago or any other city about the kinds of energy, investment and civic life that can counteract more negative forces.

1. Active street life. All day and into the night, the streets were jammed with people of all ages, talking and gesturing and walking together as Italians do. When there are hundreds or thousands of people strolling and sitting and shopping, the environment tends to be fairly safe.

2. Organized activities. Fliers pasted on walls invited residents to community meetings to discuss plans for cleaning up the streets and addressing problems at empty buildings. Other posters announced a trip to the capital in Rome to demand jobs for the unemployed. Those marchers shut down traffic while we watched.

3. Public transit. Unlike Chicago, Naples has a unified transit system that allows 90 minutes of free transfers between the two subway routes, buses, funiculars and suburban trains. Some vehicles were old and covered with graffiti, but service was frequent even on the suburban lines. And the city is building two major subway extensions, while Chicago can't raise the funds for basic maintenance.

4. Respect for history. The center of Naples is a UNESCO World Heritage site filled with 16th Century housing, monumental government buildings and the occasional castle. It's more or less intact, and there's a commitment to keep it that way. Those new subway lines, in fact, are years behind schedule because the excavations revealed 2nd Century palaces and a Roman temple. We saw archeologists in the pits working with brushes and measuring tapes (photo below) to uncover treasures that will be incorporated into the stations.

5. Urban farming. From the train to Pompei we saw scores of tiny farm plots and hoophouses growing zucchini, tomatoes, flowers and other produce for local markets. The farms filled most every piece of vacant land between apartment buildings and along the tracks.

I'm not saying everything is lovely. This is the city where garbage was piled to the second floors during last year's strike by the Mob-controlled trash haulers. There's dog crap on the sidewalks, the scooters are smelly and loud, and the day after we left town, a Mob assasination took place on a major downtown street.

That's bad, but the weekend we came home to Chicago there were nine killings and 13 wounded on our streets. Maybe we could learn a few things from those Napolitani. The food is good, too.

Photos by Pam Barry.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

And Now, Audio Tours by High School Seniors

There's hope for the journalism business, I'd say, after listening to the latest work of seniors in the Curie Youth Radio class at Curie Metro High School on the Southwest Side. Teacher Sarah Levine asked students to find and describe something interesting in their neighborhoods. After lots of editing and re-recording, they delivered unique and compelling pieces.

Here are the first four. Turn up your volume and take a listen. We'll publish more soon.

Joining the Marines
Saying Goodbye on 56th and Fairfield, by Miguel Lopez.

Family Dollar Burns Down
Kurt Swan recounts the fire at Family Dollar, 79th and California.

World's Finest Chocolate Outlet Store
Come taste the deliciousness at this strip mall on Pulaski, by Steven Gallardo.

Chicago Comics
A visit to Belmont, for the Hulk in all of us, by Mariah Steward.

Sold-Out Neighborhood Tours Deliver the Goods

It seemed like a good idea, that neighborhood groups should get involved in the Burnham Centennial's Bold Plans Big Dreams program and put on tours of their often-unseen communities.

And it was. On Saturday, May 16, six neighborhoods led sold-out bus and walking tours in South Chicago, Bronzeville, Pilsen, Albany Park, Auburn Gresham and West Ridge. Reports are flowing in and it appears that both participants and tour guides had a ball. Here's some of the commentary:

Indian snacks -- Dorothie Shah reports that the West Ridge tour spent more than an hour in small groups, walking into shops along Devon Avenue and chatting with the owners or sales clerks. They sampled jalebis and other snacks at Royal Sweets, met the owner of the Sahil Sari shop and talked with Mafat Patel, founder of the Patel retail and wholesale food empire.

Pilsen culture – Tour leader Alex Morales focused on the neighborhood's history of activism and organizing but also pointed out the local attractions, and considered it a sign of success that people wished there had been time to get inside the National Museum of Mexican Art and spend some time shopping and eating on 18th Street. He wants them coming back (and spending money when they do).

Bronzeville development – This tour attracted guests from Canada, the south suburbs, the University of Chicago and the Field Museum, and "all were amazed by the amount and quality of development" in the area, says Bernita Johnson Gabriel of Quad Communities Development Corp. Even better, "all said they would recommend the tour to others."

South Chicago discoveries – The way Jackie Samuel tells it, visitors to the former steel mill district were absolutely charmed by the tour guides and the unexpected sites along the way, including the spectacular view from St. Michael's Church, the local gardens and the big ore walls at the former U.S. Steel site.

It wasn't obvious to Samuel and others, when the training and hard work of developing these tours got started a few months ago, just what the benefits might be, especially since most of these neighborhoods have a lot of rough edges and unfinished business.

The first training session, in fact, was on a day when three youth were gunned downed in broad daylight in South Chicago. "I left the meeting so happy and then this senseless act of violence just hit our hearts so deeply," Samuel recounts. "I questioned if we were doing the right thing by showcasing the community. (But) I realized that so much hard work has been put in place over the past 10 years that I could not let a group of thugs steal our communities' thunder. When we started doing the research it clearly pointed out that we have a story to tell, with all of our lumps and bumps."

Download brochures and maps for each tour here.

Photos are of the Pilsen and West Ridge practice tours, by Vince Michael.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Single Working Moms: 'These Women Are Community Assets'

When Kamilyn Baskerville (second from left) came back to Chicago after living in Tennessee, she thought she'd have no problem getting a job. She had military experience, good grades in school and skills. Yet it turned out finding work wasn't as easy as she expected. A single mother, she and her three children stayed with her mother while she hunted for a job. After a while, the welcome mat wore out at her mother's, and she and her children had nowhere to stay. She called Catholic Charities, and they helped her with housing while she worked part-time at Kmart and earned a certificate from the College of Office Technology. Even with her new credential, she still wasn't finding a better job. The $750 rent on her South Side apartment was more than she could afford on a part-time job at minimum wage, and the rent subsidy she had been getting from Catholic Charities was about to run out.

Catholic Charities told Kamilyn about the Cara Program, which offers job training, placement and support to people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. She decided to give it a try despite her experience-based reservations about job training programs. "They just say 'go do this job,'" but don't always offer the support people need to get ahead, she told the crowd at the Federal Reserve this morning for a discussion of research on single working mothers commissioned by the Eleanor Foundation. At the Cara Program, Kamilyn was initially taken aback when she had to speak in front of a group during training. She thought, "I don't even like to sit and talk in public! Why would I do this?"

Yet she stuck it out. "I went to get a job, but I left a whole new person. I was transformed," she said. She learned to sell herself so successfully she was hired at Pitney Bowes solely on the strength of her interview. She also won a four-year scholarship to Robert Morris College, where she is studying accounting and earning plenty of As, just like her three children. Today, she and her kids live in a four-bedroom North Side apartment made available through a partnership between the Eleanor Foundation and the Chicago Low-Income Housing Trust Fund.

Unfortunately, many of Kamilyn's peers have yet to see her successes. New research on the state of single working mothers in the top ten largest metro areas in the United States, plus a deeper dive into Chicago metro area data, shows that single moms are working harder yet doing worse economically than they were in 1990. Researchers Gary Orfield of the Civil Rights Project and Malcolm Bush of Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago show that single moms earning up to $30,000 a year are largely working and increasing numbers are going to school. But low-wage jobs and the lack of affordable rental housing are forcing more of them to spend over half their income on rent, leaving them with little left over for food, medical care, clothing and other necessities.

Eleanor Foundation president Rosanna Marquez noted that "over 90 percent of this population does not access any public benefits or services. They're doing it on their own." When she made the point "these women are community assets." I thought about the women I know on my own block who are in their position--women who make tamales and sell them on the street, who watch each other's children, who ask for advice about schools, who organize block parties.

As Gary Orfield told the gathering, "the future really does depend on what happens with these mothers and their children." There's a lot to be done to improve opportunities for affordable housing, reliable child care and adult education, all of which would help these moms greatly. "Having a decent, comprehensive, well-organized post-secondary system for people who aren't going to do the four-year college route" would make a big difference in the economic future for many women in this group, said Malcolm Bush. The stimulus package includes a number of supports that could benefit single working moms and others, but researchers will have to be quick to observe the effects and advocates will have to gear up for a big fight to preserve those gains when the stimulus ends, both observed.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Pocket Parks Turn Little Village Green

On the same day that Little Village residents engaged in a planning charrette to flesh out ideas for a new park on the Washburne Trade School site, more than 50 others were implementing a shorter-term solution: planting and sprucing up four "pocket parks" on and around 26th Street. (Slideshow below.)

Christina Bronsing, health manager for Enlace Chicago, said local youth, residents and students from DePaul University planted 1,000 flowers donated by Hampshire Farms, spread a truckload of mulch provided by the city, created art boards to post at the sites, and made more than 100 "seed bombs" (balls of dirt with a clay shell that have seeds inside and can be thrown into spaces in need of green -- mostly tall, bright plants like sunflowers).

"I was thrilled to see everyone out, finally getting our hands dirty!" wrote Bronsing in an email. "After a year of talking and planning, coming up with designs, this was the first step in these spaces coming to life and being activated by the community.

"It's the beginning of a big process, but even during the course of the day we were able to see the project grow as folks met other neighbors, explained the pocket parks idea, and invited them to be part of it. We were able to integrate many components of the vision beyond just planting and transforming the landscape. We had art going on, hands-on projects, learning through experience and creating seed bombs to spread the green all over the neighborhood."

The vision, Bronsing said, is to include murals, workshops, and multiple layers of community involvement, starting in May and June with screenings of classic Mexican films at the four sites, which are at 26th and Kolin (Manuel Perez Plaza), 26th and Trumbull, 25th and Keeler and 27th and Kildare.

Where those seed bombs ended up is anyone's guess. Keep your eyes open for sunflowers on the neighborhood's industrial edges.

Photos by Juan Francisco Hernandez for Chicago Neighborhood News Bureau.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

West Town Bikes/Ciclo Urbano Opens on Paseo Boricua

Photo by Alex Fledderjohn.

West Town Bikes has found a new home at 2459 W. Division, just west of Western at the eastern end of Paseo Boricua. Hundreds of urban bikers, youth and residents of West Town and Humboldt Park turned out on Friday night to celebrate the grand opening of the new space, which will house a retail store as well as more space for West Town's well-known workshops in bike mechanics and training programs for youth in bike repair and safety while riding.

Longtime educator, advocate of Puerto Rican independence, and neighborhood leader Jose Lopez spoke during the opening ceremonies, welcoming Ciclo Urbano to the neighborhood and emphasizing how the new venture builds on the existing community. "Ciclo the very idea we can incorporate bicycling into Fiesta Boricua. We can integrate the experience of bicycling with tours of our murals." Lopez reminded the crowd that building community "cannot be [done] by erasing our history, erasing our murals, erasing and criminalizing our youth. ... There's a different way to build community."

Photo by Antonio Figueroa.

West Town Bikes has shown the way, bringing together a diverse group of bicyclists and reaching out to youth in underserved communities. Plus, they know how to throw a great party. Watch for more sights--and great sounds--from the opening festivites over at the New Communities Program web site.

Humboldt Park's Ciclo Urbano from Tu Multimedia on Vimeo.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Mmmmm....Mole de Mayo!

I spent a couple of hours in Pilsen this afternoon sampling the tasty treats at Mole de Mayo, where some of Chicago's finest Mexican restaurants vied for the titles of "Best Mole" and "People's Choice." Above, Hector Marcial, executive chef of Mundial Cocina Mestiza, located about half a block east of Paulina on 18th Street, was dishing up a sample of three kinds of mole: the classic mole poblano from Puebla in central Mexico, mole amarillo/yellow mole, and a mole sauce with pork the name of which I tried to catch twice and failed miserably--sorry! But they all tasted mighty good.

You can see them here: beef in mole poblano to the left, pork in the mystery mole at center, chicken in yellow mole on the right.

Other restaurants competing included other neighborhood favorites like Nuevo Leon and Fogata Village, plus the Maxwell Street branch of the Lalo's empire, North Side contender Riques Regional and the upscale Zocalo. With the gorgeous weather, great publicity, celebrity chefs and master sommelier Alpana Singh on hand, hundreds of people turned out over the afternoon. Who won, you ask? I left before the winners were announced, but check in at the New Communities web site next week to find out.

Note: I stand corrected. Riques never made it to the event, and I neglected to mention FIG Catering, whose pulled pork torta and mint limeade were big hits.

See more photos and descriptions of the event through links in the comments below.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Bridging the School-Community Gap

On the surface, it seems like schools and communities ought to be natural partners. Neighborhood schools are filled with kids who walk just a few blocks every day, often escorted by their parents. They are big public spaces, often next to parks that are filled with locals at night and on the weekends. Yet schools constantly say they don't see their parents enough, and neighborhood folks say schools are often aloof from the local goings-on.

I've recently come across a couple of different strategies for trying to bridge the divide. The photo above was taken in February at Reavis Elementary's Family Art Night. This school year Reavis has been hosting family events every couple of months or so, inviting parents to join their children in activities or letting parents get a taste of their children's after-school activities through a "showcase." It's been a big hit--administrators say they've never seen so many parents show up for a school-related event. In December, about 200 of them showed up in a blizzard to see their kids perform in the end-of-semester showcase. This is one of many new things happening at Reavis since it became part of Elev8 Chicago.

Another tack is being taken in Pilsen. Last week, about 40 principals, parent and community leaders and university representatives headed out to Itasca for an overnight planning retreat. They began the process of drawing up a five-year plan for education in Pilsen, which should help ease the transitions from one stage of education to another (like pre-K to K-12 and K-12 to college), reduce the high school dropout rate and improve adult education and job training. This group, known as the Pilsen Education Task Force, grew out of a Principals' Table that brought local school leaders together to discuss common issues.

The Reavis strategy has successfully brought formerly absent parents through the school doors, but have yet to engage them in deeper levels of partnership; in Pilsen, they've brought stakeholders together from a variety of levels, but acknowledge that parents are still under-represented.

What are other neighborhoods and schools are doing to build bridges? How's it going? Now that Reavis is getting parents inside the building, what's the next step? Should more neighborhoods be creating task forces like the one in Pilsen, or are there other ways to go here?

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

What's Next for Washburne Trade School Site?

It's been holding the corner of 31st and Kedzie since 1910, a whale of a building and a nice-looking one, too. The prairie-style factory was designed for Liquid Carbonic by Nimmons and Fellows, the same architects as the original Sears Tower in North Lawndale.

It became, of course, the fabled Washburne Trade School, which trained tens of thousands for good jobs in a powerful industrial city, with 17 different unions hiring the graduates. That changed as integration came to the all-white school in the 1960s. By the 1980s most of the unions had pulled out, and Chicago Public Schools closed Washburne in 1993. It reopened briefly under City Colleges of Chicago, but closed for good in 1996.

Little Village neighborhood leaders have been pushing to convert the 11-acre site into park and community space for years, and that dream is now closer. A 1930s building fronting on Kedzie was demolished in 2006 and discussions were well along to rehab the historic building and create park space behind it. But a four-alarm fire on Feb. 15, 2009, ruined that scenario. Demolition, underway now, will leave a clean slate.

"What do you want to see? Que quieres ver?" asks a new flier circulating through Little Village, inviting residents to three community meetings on Saturday, Monday and Wednesday, May 2 to 6, at three locations. "Field House, Indoor Track & Field, Soccer Field, Community Center, Affordable Housing, Retail, Day Care Center, Student Teacher Dorm, Baseball Fields, Computer Room, Trees, Flowers, Skate Park, Grass, Green Technology, Health Care..."

Those are the possibilities. The meetings are sponsored by Enlace Chicago. For more information, contact Edgar, 773-542-9233, x21, or Cesar, 773-542-9233, x14.

Photos below by Juan Francisco Hernandez, taken in 2004 and 2008.

USX Redevelopment "Slowly Getting Under Way"

Despite the stalled economy, plans are afoot to transform the former site of U.S. Steel into a thriving, eco-friendly neighborhood. My friend and former colleague Mick Dumke has a post up over at Clout City with great photos of the site. They include some shots of the mighty ore walls that once stored the raw materials for steel through the winter, when the lake froze and ships couldn't bring new supplies.

It's a great, if unintended, promo for the Great Chicago Places and Spaces tour of the area taking place on May 16. Advance registration is open now, and they reserve a few spots for day-of registration. If you're interested, click the link to sign up ASAP. They often sell out-so you might have to show up early to get lucky day-of.

Monday, April 27, 2009

"It's too tough" to be a mayor, says Biden

Vice President Joe Biden was in town today at the UIC's fifth annual Richard J. Daley Urban Forum, to talk about how the economic stimulus package will benefit cities. "All of you have the most difficult job in government," he told the couple dozen or so mayors and municipal leaders from five continents, who had just finished a global town hall describing the challenges they are facing and solutions they are finding amid the world economic crisis.

Those mayors had stories to tell. Hanna Birna Kristjansdottir, mayor of Reykjavik, Iceland, saw local unemployment jump from one to nine percent in the first six months of her country's economic crisis. City revenues were projected to fall 20 percent, while costs were rising due to inflation and the devaluation of Iceland's currency. The mayor led the way in cost-cutting, taking a 20 percent pay cut, while city council members tightened their belts to the tune of 10 percent. City employees were invited to submit cost-cutting ideas, generating 1500 possibilities. Three hundred of their ideas made their way into the current city budget, helping balance the budget without raising taxes.

Meanwhile, in Lahore, Pakistan, the city's first elected mayor, Mian Amer Mahmood, described his home town's initial forays into privatization. When Lahore first tried to privatize waste management, they got no takers. Instead, the city partially privatized by giving its own workers the tools but asking them to share the costs--for example, the city provided garbage trucks but didn't fill the gas tanks, leaving that to the workforce. Lahore's waste management costs have been reduced 20 percent. Corporate sponsorship of public schools is also gaining ground in Lahore. More than a quarter of the city's 1400 schools have been adopted by businesses or wealthy individuals, and sponsors even chip in toward teacher salaries. The standard of education is improving in these schools, the mayor said, and the city's cost savings are being reinvested in infrastructure and teacher training.

Mayor Judith Pinedo Florez of Cartagena, Colombia could teach Chicago Public Schools a thing or two about food service contracting. In the past, foodservice contracts only went to large firms, but now the city is able to work with smaller, mom-and-pop vendors and with budding entrepreneurs fresh out of school, creating more competition on price and service. Meanwhile, the Organic School Project is struggling to get a toehold in CPS due to the same kinds of contracting rules that held Cartagena back in the past, I suspect. Like Chicago, Cartagena is keeping its school doors open longer hours to provide cultural and other enrichment activities for kids.

Education and health were much on Biden's mind as well. "How educated your city is explains how wealthy your city is by 60 percent," he told the crowd, interpreting recent research from CEOs for Cities. If Chicago were able to raise the number of people earning college degrees by just one percent, that would translate into $7.2 billion more dollars in the local economy. "A lot of those jobs are in health and health care," Biden noted. "Strong cities will be hubs of learning and hubs of healing."