The many successes of the New Communities Program show what a neighborhood can do once it has a plan and the energy to move it forward.
But how do you get to that point? It's a great question in neighborhoods like Back of the Yards, the original home of community organizing thanks to the great Saul Alinsky. Unfortunately, this once-mighty powerhouse of community work has been through tough times in the last 40 years, weakening many anchor institutions. Though the community still has a very homey feeling among neighbors, changes in population and five ward boundaries cutting up the turf has definitely reduced the sense of political and civic empowerment from what it became in Alinsky's day.
However, much has been done over the last decade or so to build community and raise the neighborhood's profile with city leaders. Very recently, the Peace and Education Coalition of Back of the Yards and LISC have been working together to assess community needs and develop recommendations to address them. Through the fall of 2008, the coalition held seven focus groups with neighborhood stakeholders: religious leaders, principals, police, businesses, social service providers and residents.
From these discussion, three key needs emerged:
A new library/community center
A recreational center for youth, especially those living south of 47th Street
A job development and training center
Last Thursday about 18 people gathered at the Park Federal Bank branch at 47th and Honore to discuss these recommendations and hear a little about next steps. There was some disagreement among the group about how to prioritize the three needs--business reps wanted the job center first, but there has been a longstanding push among neighborhood leaders to get the library (now located in the 47th & Damen shopping center) into a larger and more centrally-located space. However, everyone agreed that these three needs should be top priorities in planning use for available spaces, especially buildings near the intersection of 47th and Ashland, a neutral space among warring gang factions and a key commercial and transit hub for folks in all parts of the neighborhood.
The developer of the Goldblatt's building at 47th and Ashland attended the meeting and gave an update on what's moving in there. The Famsa furniture store is already open, a Bally's is coming, and the rest of the space will be independent senior housing. (Maybe there will be some storage space there, too. My notes are a little hazy, sorry.) There is some chance an Athletico rehab office might coexist with the Bally's, he said. The same developer owns the recently vacated Aronson's Furniture building on Ashland just north of 47th. He said they have one solid tenant with a letter of contract in place, and another in process, but couldn't say more.
There's a lot we don't know yet about where the space will be, how getting it built or rehabbed will be financed and accomplished, nor who exactly will provide all the programming. There was a lot of discussion about having the Chicago Park District run community center programming. A couple of us who know the local parks and work with young people here in the neighborhood were concerned that their staff-to-youth ratios are too high to ensure safe, quality programming and positive youth development.
Consultant Jim Capraro told us about a skating rink at 76th and Loomis that is park district operated with serious local oversight and seems to be doing a good job. "It's very different from most park district facilities," he promised. Some of us hope to go visit and see it up close for ourselves.
Finally, an interesting sidelight at the meeting was there's suddenly interest in getting a bike shop open in the neighborhood. In an effort to beautify a vacant storefront opposite Park Federal, Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council's Craig Chico had a nice facade painted on the front proclaiming, "Back of the Yards Bike Shop." I wasn't the only one at the meeting who wanted to know when the bike shop would open. Based on how many kids come borrow my air pump, I'd bet there's a good market here for bike sales and repairs.
So, Alex Wilson, know anybody who wants to open something similar down this way? The Council would be glad to talk to them.