Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Shoveling Snow . . . and Waiting for Spring

What we do in Chicago, in the dark bottom of winter when the snow has been coming for two months solid and the temperature barely nudges 20 degrees, what we do is tell ourselves that the long cold season just makes spring, when it finally comes, all the more glorious.

So when I woke this morning and found three inches of fresh white powder on the ground, making everything clean again, I only grumbled a little before grabbing the shovel and heading out for the ritual of clearing the sidewalk, edge to edge, as is the custom on the block where I've lived almost all my life in Rogers Park.

And I enjoyed it even more this time because one of my neighbors was down the block behind a snowblower, moving fast, back and forth, clearing not one or two lots for easy passage by the pedestrians, but six houses worth, and then moving to the other side of the street. He is just one of the good samaritans who go well beyond the minimum, whether it's clearing snow, picking up garbage, planting flowers or keeping an eye on things that don't look right. It's a good community of neighbors, and thus a good street to live on.

Now about that glorious spring. While we're getting impatient, the urban farmers at Growing Home have already ordered their seeds for spring and are expanding their Wood Street Farm in Englewood. If you want to pitch in, you can contribute to the $1,315 tab for their vegetable seeds. Of if you just want to learn more about how the nonprofit combines ecology and community development, check out this video. Spring will come. It always does.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Neighborhood Tourism, Here and in DC

Since Amadi pretty much said it all about the inauguration itself, I'll take a different tack on the recent festivities and how they might connect to the neighborhoods back here in Chicago. The picture above is a cellphone shot of Ben's Chili Bowl, an already-famous Washington eatery that experienced the "Check Please" effect on steroids in January, thanks to Barack Obama's visit shortly before taking office. I went by the day after the inauguration vaguely hoping to try the chili, but the crowd was so thick it was hopeless. Two policemen were out front warning tourists not to stand in the street to take photos.

Ben's is located in Washington's Shaw neighborhood, where the main drag, U Street, was known as "Black Broadway" back in the 50s, when Ben's first opened. Shaw predates New York's Harlem as a center of African-American life and culture. Originally settled by freed slaves during and after the Civil War, Shaw became the center of Washington's black community and was the largest African-American community in the nation until Harlem surpassed it in 1920. Nearby Howard University began to attract African-American intellectuals as early as the 1870s.

Although it's tempting to draw parallels between Shaw and Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood, their trajectories diverged somewhat in the mid-20th century. Shaw survived the Great Depression and World War II relatively unscathed compared to Bronzeville, where the depression followed by the creation of the Ida B. Wells housing projects devastated the neighborhood. (See this Wikitravel article for more.)

Meanwhile, Shaw thrived until the 1968 riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. For the first decade of Ben's Chili Bowl's history, everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Bill Cosby to King himself could be found having a half-smoke at Ben's. (It's smoked sausage with chili sauce on a bun, but you should click the link and read the mouth-watering description they give on the menu.)

From there, Shaw's history looks like that of Bronzeville, North Lawndale, Woodlawn, and many other Chicago neighborhoods--a generation of crime and blight after the riots, followed by regeneration, which has come faster in some places than others. In Shaw's case, the rebirth has been fairly explosive in recent years, fueled by an influx of Ethiopian restaurants and businesses moving in from nearby Adams-Morgan. In a pattern familiar to community development folks, the neighborhoods took off (or fell, depending on your perspective) like a row of dominoes. First Dupont Circle got pricey, then Adams Morgan, then Shaw. Although to the naive out-of-towner the crowd in Shaw still seemed largely African-American, both on the street and in the storefronts, Wikipedia cites Census data showing the proportion of African-American residents in Shaw has declined from 92% in 1970 to 56% in 2000.

One thing Washington has in place is some cultural tourism infrastructure that extends beyond the most obvious neighborhood destinations to neighborhoods like Anacostia, which has both middle-class enclaves and a reputation for crime, drugs and violence. On this trip I got a first-hand look at the walking trails in both Adams Morgan and Shaw/U Street, more by accident than design. But I wasn't the only tourist reading the plaque explaining the area's history while taking a stroll or waiting for the bus. I definitely think Chicago has room to grow in this area.

For now, here's my favorite way to draw tourists to Chicago neighborhoods. Maybe someone can persuade President Obama to take a vacation from DC and stop by Chicago's Home of Chicken and Waffles!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

From Chicago to D.C.: Witnessing History

On January 20, 2009, I had the honor of witnessing a fellow Chicagoan and community enthusiast become the 44th President of the United States (along with about 2 million other people from around the world.) The experience filled me with many emotions. I felt proud of how far this country has come and of the man so many of us have come to admire. I also felt overwhelmed, not only by the mass of people crammed into a relatively small space, all straining to catch a glimpse of this historic moment, but also overwhelmed by all that this inauguration meant for this country, for myself, and for the people who fought, struggled, and died for this day.

The day started when I awoke at 4:30 in the morning ready to board the bus to D.C. I was of course tired, but the excitement burbling inside of me could not be hampered by sleep. My co-worker, Sandra and I, got to D.C. about an hour and half later. Since the area was surrounded by security, we had to walk a couple of miles to the Mall. As we got closer, the crowd grew exponentially. The sun rose above the capital building as we reached the outskirts of the Mall, suddenly surrounded by a mass of people. You could feel the excitement and anxiousness emanating from the crowd. The brisk cold air, miles of walking, and early morning start didn't seem to bother anyone. The anticipation of the impending moment was too strong to ignore.

With tickets in hand, Sandra and I walked with the crowd to the Silver Gated area. We arrived at the gate, packed like sardines, and were suddenly stopped. After about an hour, we still hadn't moved more than a couple of feet. The crowd, including myself, slowly grew restless. Finally, as the band began to play, we realized we wouldn't be able to enter the Mall. Seeing the Capitol Building to my right, so close, yet so far away, I was admittedly disappointed. Sandra and I decided to follow a line out of the crowd. We went to the American Indian Museum, just outside the Mall, where a couple hundred people were crowded in front of a big screen to watch the event.

The people inside were just as excited, and it still felt satisfying to watch the event on television with this diverse crowd as the events unfolded just outside the door. There's something powerful about being surrounded by complete strangers, yet sharing the same emotions. To cheer and cry with these people was truly amazing. As President Obama, addressed us, his "fellow citizens," asking us to to unite and share the burden of bringing the country out from its current trouble, I was struck by a sense of confidence that we're ready for this challenge. Just the day before, on MLK day, I participated in a service project with thousands of other enthusiastic participants, preparing care packages for service men and women. Millions of my "fellow citizens" were participating in similar acts of service around the country, many inspired by the President's call to honor the special day by helping others. I can't help but be hopeful that this inspiration will continue, that people will do what they can to repair the country, not only for their own benefit, but for the benefit of all their fellow citizens.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Urban Prep boys representing Chicago well

The Tribune's Dawn Turner Trice writes this morning that the bus trip to Washington by 22 young men from Urban Prep Academies, 6201 S. Stewart in Englewood, is going well. People are "moved by how put-together they are," she reports.

We've written a lot here about the need for youth programming and schooling that lets kids rise above the dangers and low expectations of their neighborhoods. It seems these kids are doing that:

"As impressive as Urban Prep's students look, their clothing doesn't begin to complete their stories. Many come from low-income, single-parent homes and live in the tough community of Englewood, where education isn't always the priority.

Some of these guys have to carry their clothes to school and change there rather than endure the harassment of peers who are street toughs.

"You do what you have to do," Alfonso Henderson, 15, said during the interfaith breakfast. "Englewood can be rough at times, but not all the time. You have to know when to go out and when to stay inside. You have to know who you're going to be."

My hat is off to the school, the students and to Turner Trice for capturing the story.

Photo above by the Tribune's Nancy Stone.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Video: Communities Respond to Foreclosure Storm

Just in from our colleagues at TuMultimedia, Sarahmaria Gomez and Alex Fledderjohn, here's a powerful video about the massive impact that the foreclosure crisis has brought down on neighborhoods, and how some communities are fighting back with trainings for homeowners as well as political and social activism. It's a nine-minute piece featuring trainers, organizers and people who have fought -- or are fighting -- to keep their homes.

Foreclosures Hit Hard; Chicago Neighborhoods Respond from Tu Multimedia on Vimeo.

If you'd like a copy of this video to use at community meetings about foreclosures, contact Gordon Walek of the Chicago Neighborhood News Bureau:

Friday, January 9, 2009

Youth Sports--and Sportswriters

Curie's not the only place where we're starting a great partnership with young people telling their stories. Over in Little Village, young athletes with Beyond the Ball have already put together a five-minute video showing how their so-called open gym at Little Village/Lawndale High School works. Watch the video and you'll see it's a lot more structured than the typical open gym:

Beyond the Ball founder Rob Castaneda says some of the players have formed a team off the court to keep stats and document games and programs for the organization's web site. This video is their first production. They are eager to explore lots of media: interviews, web stories, and photos as well as more video. We look forward to seeing more of their work!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Matchmaking Stories and Media

The Community Media Workshop has the best guide in town to Chicago-area outlets: print, online and broadcast. It covers city and suburbs, and news operations from WLS-TV (ABC-7), the most-watched TV station in Chicago, to the North Lawndale Community News. But today I wanted to put it to a really grass-roots test.

Today's mission, which I've accepted: find the local papers that might be interested in stories about Chicago Run, a nonprofit that now works with 19 Chicago Public Schools to get kids involved in running for fun and health. About one-third of them are on the Near North and Northwest Sides. A few more are West Side: Austin and North Lawndale. We've got others in Brighton Park and McKinley Park on the Southwest Side, one in Englewood, one in Bronzeville and even one in Mount Greenwood. (I've left a few out for now because I can't tell immediately what neighborhood you'd say they were in. But don't worry, I'll be coming back to you.)

You can get the guide in book and/or CD database format. Full disclosure: CMW let me take a gander at the database version for free to see if a nontechie like myself could make sense of it. Installing it was easy enough. I've already forgotten what I did, which is a good sign it wasn't hard.

I've been searching geographically by outlet, but have found their geographic areas are too broad for the very local search I want to do. If I hit "Chicago-West" for geography, I'm getting west suburban papers, which is more than I need. Putting a neighborhood word like "Lawndale" in the name search is getting me to the targets: North Lawndale Community News and Lawndale News. It will probably take me some mix of scrolling through big searched by geographic area and target-searching by neighborhood name in publication titles to get what I want, but I'll get there.

If any readers out there are savvier searchers than I, please chime in with tips. And if you don't have the guide but want to know more about it, look here.

Right now I'm just glad the universe of outlets is all in one place. Thanks, CMW!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Listening to voices of Curie High students

We've got an exciting new project brewing with Curie Youth Radio, a group of students at Curie Metro High School at Pulaski and Archer, near Midway Airport. The students in Sarah Levine's classroom have put together some terrific pieces about their own lives and their neighborhoods, and we're going to tap their talents and enthusiasm to create an insider's guide to neighborhood places, people or events.

Fellow scribe Maureen Kelleher and I sat down with Levine yesterday in Curie's busy English Department offices, where teacher desks are jammed one against another almost like the newsrooms of the old days. An inspiring place for me, especially as Levine hatched a plan to engage her 16 students in exploring their neighborhoods, finding suitable subjects and then doing the reporting, writing and audio-editing to bring those stories to others.

We envision podcasts and web-accessible vignettes that we will promote widely as a form of tourism material as well as a peek into the students' neighborhoods, which include Little Village, Pilsen, Brighton Park and South Shore. In the process we'll learn from the students about how audio production is done and how to spread their stories across the internet.

WBEZ ran one of the Curie pieces just this week and interviewed students Destiny Collazo and Mark Poore. It's worth a listen.

There's more where that came from on the Curie site, or you can subscribe to their podcasts by going to the iTunes store and searching for Curie Youth Radio. One piece is a son's story about his mother, titled "My Plate Full, Yours Empty" by Abdel Mutan. WBEZ featured that piece last year.

Monday, January 5, 2009

"Remembering Our Children"

On December 17, 2008, I attended an event about youth lost to gun violence titled “Remembering Our Children.” I thought I had vision until the many faces of innocence flashed across the screen. I finally saw death at its worst.

I can see now that there has been a shift in the value system. The worth of our children has been minimized, from priceless to being priced for the highest bidder. Guns and the gun industry are robbing us of what was once considered treasures, our children.

My face rained tears over a child that could not have been more that seven years of age, lying in a casket. She was surrounded by a sea of grief and pain, loved ones, family and friends, crying. Internally, I screamed, "Where are the voices, voices advocating for Common Sense Gun Laws?” This is not much to ask for, the preservation of life.

How can I, an Elev8 Director, focus on the quality of education and the integration of services to improve the quality of life for our children, when I can’t be assured that they will safely make it to the next day?

-- Michelle Mason, Perspectives Charter School

Sunday, January 4, 2009

New year, new web sites. Is this important?

With millions of web sites covering every imaginable topic, is it a big deal when a few new ones are added to the pile? When the sites cover neighborhoods or community issues – and provide information that isn't available elsewhere – well, yeah, that is very important.

So I was excited in late 2008 as new web sites brought visibility and news from four different community-oriented sources.

Greater Humboldt Park Community of Wellness – This consortium coordinates and promotes a jammed calendar of events, exercise classes, health fairs and meetings that promote healthier lifestyles and preventive health care. Administrative assistant Maria Ramirez got the site started and coordinator Katie Ediger took it from there. Though Katie had never edited a site before she did a great job figuring out a logical way to present information and avoid double- and triple-clicking to get to something good. With help from consortium members and executive director Juana Ballesteros, Katie hopes to build out the site with plenty of new content.

Claretian Associates – The NCP lead agency in South Chicago had a decent web site already but it was tedious to update with news stories, photos and calendar items, which meant, of course, that some updates never got done. Like the Community of Wellness team, Claretian took advantage of the Grassroots web template developed by Webitects Inc. for the New Communities Program. Associate director Kate Graham put the site together and didn't forget to promote it. On Decemer 16, just before the Christmas lull, she sent out an e-newsletter with multiple links into the site. Traffic spiked that day with 54 visits, not bad for a brand-new site.

Keep Our Homes – Providing information to people facing the risk of foreclosure is the intent of Keep Our Homes, a partnership of Greater Southwest Development Corporation (GSDC), Southwest Organizing Project and Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago. GSDC executive director Jim Capraro put this site together using the open-source Joomla platform. A self-proclaimed "computer geek" as well as prominent community development leader, Jim has launched a side venture called to help more community groups take advantage of this powerful and low-cost way to build web sites.

Valerie Denney Communications – Valerie Denney has been helping community groups and nonprofits tell their stories for more than 20 years; now her newly revised web site gives a deeper look into her client base and methods. I learned about this site the old-fashioned way; a simple and classy New Year's card arrived via U.S. Postal Service (!) and suggested I take a look. And I did.

So, yes, it's important to have a web presence, to organize the material well, and to promote the site to your potential readers. Happy New Year!