Monday, March 30, 2009

FDIC's Sheila Bair was here. Wasn't she?

FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair, who has emerged as a national hero in the fight against foreclosures and predatory lending, was in Chicago last week (3/26) to speak at the annual awards dinner of Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago.

Wasn't she?

You're excused, dear reader, for not knowing, because there was zero (none, nada, zilch, butkas) coverage in the local daily prints.Thank you, Bob Roberts of WBBM-AM Newsradio78, for filing a little something.

Anyhow, my point is, it's time we community development wonks, activists and fellow-travelers had some kind of local news service that both aggregates and selectively reports what's going on in, and done to, the neighborhoods.

At least that's what brass are thinking at LISC/Chicago, and slowly but surely I'm coming around to their view. I work part time there as a freelancer and consultant to the New Communities Program (NCP), and at first, when executive director Andy Mooney proposed a Chicago Neighborhood News Bureau (CNNB) I gave him an eye-roll that would have made my 17-year-old daughter proud.

I'm a practical, get-it-done kinda guy who's been in enough never-ending non-profit meetings to know all things are possible ... to those who don't have to do them. Seemed like a lot of work. Seemed like running a news desk that covers 77 community areas--or even the 16 in NCP-- would require the full-time effort of at least one seasoned journalist, maybe even 2 or 3 if you wanted to do it right with lots of original reporting and high value-added content.

I still feel that way. Only now, after seeing more and more of my former Chi Trib colleagues getting axed or taking buyouts, after seeing the Sun-Times slimmed to a shadow of its former self, I'm thinking that if neighborhoods want coverage of their issues they'll need to do it themselves. And the best way to do it may well be some kind of Web-based clearing house managed by a capable journalist who knows how to separate wheat from chaff, not to mention self-serving PR from genuine news. And no, I don't want that center desk "green eye-shade" job. Done that.

LISC/Chicago is already half-way there--thanks to the generosity and experimental verve of the MacArthur Foundation--with NCP's team of 5 or 6 part-time journalists, called scribes, who write, shoot and video-produce for the site. Maybe the Community Media Workshop, a solid outfit that knows this turf, should also play a role in CNNB. And there are communicators at several of our kindred non-profits (NHS, CIC, NTIC, CNT, ETC.) who are more than capable of generating usable, reasonably unbiased stuff.

Point is, Chicago could use a community development news site ... and the production of same is well within our ken ... especially if we had a little financial support. We need a site, moreover, where we can get a bit more technical, where both writer and reader will know the difference between an RFP and an RFQ, or that a TIF district isn't someplace you go to have a fight (Or is it?)

Back to Sheila Bair: I didn't go (you don't want to know why not) but my spies said she praised NHS and promised the FDIC will be a partner in the fight to stem foreclosures, stabilize neighborhoods and make life harder for predatory lenders.

"We're going to get back on track and get back to expanded home ownership for people with mortgages they can afford," Bair said, "and we'll have homes that will serve as a source of wealth accumulation."

Not exactly stop-the-presses stuff, but I'm thinking if we had a CNNB reporter there he or she might have primed the pump and got her going on, well, who knows? Also last week, Bair was named a 2009 recipient of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for her early--and widely ignored--warnings about the sub-prime mess.

NHS gave her an award, too, the Gale Cincotta Neighborhood Partnership Award, and nine local activists received Neighborhood Leadership Awards. Check out the local winners at:

Other thoughts on creation of a CNNB are warmly invited.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Video: Why Kids Enjoy Neighborhood Sports

A lot of community agencies and sports programs have been working flat out preparing for Spring Into Sports, which runs April 4 to 11 at four Chicago high schools (Crane, Little Village Lawndale, Englewood and Orr). Learn more at Neighborhood Sports Chicago, but first, take five minutes to view this video fresh from the smoking-hot computers of Sarahmaria Gomez and Alex Fledderjohn of TuMultimedia.

It will make you feel good, I guarantee it.

(If this video doesn't feed well for you, try the YouTube version.)

Neighborhood Sports Chicago! from Tu Multimedia on Vimeo.

Defender's Chat Daddy Finds New Way to Help

Through his advice column in the Chicago Defender, Art Sims, aka Chat Daddy, has helped thousands of Chicagoans solve their health, self-esteem, and relationship problems for 14 years. I learned recently that Art has also taken on the task of giving young people the skills to deal with problems before they need to write "Dear Chat Daddy."

Art has been working at South Central Community Services, Inc. (SCCS), giving young people in grades K-12 homework help and tutuoring, behavior and etiquette lessons, and healthy living classes, "anything to help them become model people in today's society," he says. "My passion is to see that inner city children are given the opportunity to see something other than the negative environment and behavior that is seen on the day to day in most of their communities."

Art started volunteering in SCCS's future leader series in March of 2008. Last November Art was made director of the community center. When I asked him how his experiences helping people through media translate into his new work, he said:
The letters that people write me as Dear Chat Daddy are very real and compelling of everyday struggles that people face in the streets. Once I started volunteering at the community center, some of the very letters I received actually turned out to be the same or similar to experiences that students face in the community center.
While I'm sure I'm able to make a difference through my column with empathy and words of wisdom, my time at the SCCS is even more rewarding.
Art says he hopes more professionals consider volunteering for SCCS and other social service organizations. Folks interested in volunteering at SCCS can call Wardell Dodd at (773) 483-0900 ext. 233. You can search for volunteer opportunities in your community at

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Trail Prospect: Rail Viaduct in Englewood

A long-abandoned rail viaduct in Englewood is getting some serious attention as another link in Chicago's growing network of biking and hiking trails. The elevated rail line runs east and west a half-block south of 59th Street, between Wallace and Hoyne Avenues. That's almost two miles of traffic-free passage that runs past Hermitage Park and the Growing Home urban farm, with three other parks within a couple of blocks.

If it sounds a lot like the Bloomingdale Trail, that's exactly right. That North Side rail spur is well along on conversion to a linear park, with land acquisition underway to provide access parks and ramps connecting to adjacent Logan Square and Humboldt Park.

Pushing the South Side effort is the Englewood Rails to Trails Commission, a loose coalition of local groups – Imagine Englewood If, the Greater Englewood Community and Family Task Force, Stay Environmentally Focused, Rowan Trees, Teamwork Englewood, Greater Englewood Garden Assn. and others – plus a few heavyweights: Friends of the Parks, Openlands Project and Active Transportation Alliance.

In other words, it could happen. A couple of meetings have taken place already and a survey is underway (download it). A report on the trail is expected mid-year. Stay tuned.

Photo above by Eric Young Smith, Chicago Neighborhood News Bureau.

View Larger Map

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Migration North on Clark Street: Why Now?

The evolution of a commercial district is usually a subtle, slow-moving thing. You have to watch for clues as buildings lose tenants or gain them over a period of decades, which is what I've been doing for many years on long walks through Rogers Park and Edgewater.

What I'm seeing lately is a long-dormant strip of Clark Street, between Bryn Mawr and Devon, coming back to life.

It's been a good spring for this wide stretch where Ashland and Clark converge into a four-lane speedway through west Edgewater, just north of the wildly successful Andersonville retail zone. In the former Clark Furniture storefronts north of Hollywood, Joel Hall Dancers and Center just opened an expanded studio. Next block up is Community Auto Parts in the space recently vacated by La Raza newspaper. On the block after that, a long-vacant funeral home now sports the snazzy brown awnings of Know No Limits: "Your Neighborhood Gym."

How did this happen, especially in this economy? Here's my theory.

First, you've got long-time institutions anchoring each end of the strip: Clark Devon Hardware on the north, which attracts hundreds of janitors and fixer-uppers each day and recently installed a very clever hardware-inspired clock on the building's corner; and Gethsemane Garden Center on the south, which over the years has purchased one adjacent lot after another and filled them with flowers, bushes, trees, statuary and fountains (and they do a beautiful job maintaining the traffic island where Clark and Ashland split).

But that's not enough to bring back a half-empty, mile-long stretch. Eight or nine years ago Raven Theatre converted a grocery store at Granville into a theater and proclaimed themselves with a bold stainless steel sign. At Peterson, the Chicago Fire Department built a new fire house where a tire shop and used-car dealers had been. Other old-timers, like the Uni Mart Philippine Plaza and Minas TV & Video, kept things going on their blocks.

Another driving force: Community Auto Parts, Joel Hall and Know No Limits all moved north from high-rent Andersonville, finding larger spaces at lower prices.

None of these companies is new. They've been around for years, serving customers well enough to not only survive, but grow. And with enough growing businesses, even a worn-out, half-empty business district can turn into something new.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Design on a Dime: Tips for Creating a Retail Brochure

With a great sigh of relief, the first editions of Near West’s retail publication West Haven Now went out the door today. Here are some lessons learned through the process, for anyone looking to strut their own commercial districts.

1. Borrow from the best. Find best practices and precedents from across the country, and then mold them to fit your district’s needs. Here’s an international
list of commercial districts to inspire you. There are some really innovative people out there to learn from.
2. Get the right data. This is your foundation and comes in two distinct flavors. First, do your homework to build a comprehensive list of existing businesses and available commercial spaces in your district. Second, outsource to consultants who specialize in pooling together local and regional trade area data.
LISC MetroEDGE was a tremendous asset in Near West’s efforts.
3. Know your audience. An International Council of Shopping Center (ICSC) audience is simply different than those attending your local CAPS meeting. They think of your community in terms of key demographics for their type of business, and the cost per square foot to open up shop there.
Psychographics are interesting and commonly used as well. An aggressively optimistic tone works best; retail publications are not for the modest. Just be sure to back it up with data.
4. Snap the right photo. A potential business owner may be seeing pictures of your community for the first time. It’s imperative they like what they see. Pony up for a good camera ($300) and start building a photo library of your commercial district now. The uses of your photo library will cross over to almost everything you do.
5. Get feedback. Make sure you set the right tone by talking to people in the field of commercial district management, people with a good eye for design, and the local businesses you wish to promote. Near West has a retail committee of active community members who participated in the creation of “West Haven Now” and the experience proved invaluable.
6. Include resources. After you’ve convinced a potential business to look further into your commercial district, point them in the right direction. Indentify organizations and financial incentives that will sweeten the pot.
7. Third party forwards. Having a forward in your publication by a prominent community figure or politician pays dividends. First, the person writing the forward is more recognizable to anyone outside of your commercial district. Second, a third party adds credibility as a testimonial. I thought it was an absolute coup when we received a forward from Mayor Richard M Daley.
8. Print in-house. Price quotes for this type of publication will be mind-boggling. “West Haven Now” was quoted at $17-$22 per copy! If you don’t have the right printer for the job . . . beg, borrow and steal from somebody who does. The cost of materials for our publication was about $300 for 300 copies by keeping things in-house ($1 per copy).
9. Promote. You’re not done yet. Post on your website. (Link here to your website.) Send an e-letter announcing the publication. Mail as many copies as appropriate. Keep extra copies in the office to distribute.
10. Thank everyone. A lot of people helped you make this, and it’s important to recognize their contributions in a public manner. This will help in the future as well, when it’s time to make a revised publication and go through this process again.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Aldi Syndrome: The Mixed-Income Conundrum

It's not often that one gets to comment on mixed-income neighborhoods and the future of journalism in the same breath, but this is one of those days so I'm taking advantage of it.

One of the final editions of the News-Star newspaper came through my Rogers Park mail slot today and I got a big kick out of the story about the Aldi grocery chain trying to "sneak one of its stores" into a new development in Edgewater. It seems that some neighbors and 49th Ward Ald. Joe Moore would prefer something more upscale.

I laughed out loud because the same scenario has played out in West Haven, where the Near West Side Community Development Corp. has taken heat for trying to bring Aldi into the planned shopping center at Madison and Western. Some vocal neighbors there would prefer a Whole Foods, but even in well-off neighborhoods that store is known as "Whole Paycheck" because of its high prices. In Edgewater, the preferred alternative was Trader Joes, but the developer just couldn't swing that deal.

News-Star knows a good editorial topic when it falls into its lap.

In an editorial titled "Give Aldi's a chance," the editors wrote that "Our lakefront neighborhoods are changing, and with these changes come a delicate balancing act. Residents often cite racial and socioeconomic diversity as what they love most about living in Rogers Park, Edgewater and Uptown. . . . So let's stop being snobs and paying lip service to economic diversity, and give Aldi's a chance to thrive in Edgewater."

Now that's good journalism: first the story, which provided well-reported, timely information about the community; then the editorial, which offered a reasoned analysis about the tradeoffs that come with diversity.

The pity of it is that the News-Star won't be the same after March 19. Its most recent owner, Chicago Journal, is laying off its staff and selling the name to Inside Publications, which will fold it into its free paper serving Lincoln Square. That means the already-meager flow of news about neighborhoods will be reduced even further.

The only bright side is that there's plenty of room for new approaches to collecting and distributing news, and we'll keep doing our share with this blog and tools like the Chicago Neighborhood News Bureau.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Neighborhood Tourism: Pilsen Main Street Tour

Attracting tourists is one of the oldest money-making schemes in the world, but urban neighborhoods haven't often invested the resources to attract visitors and then roll out the red carpet when they arrive. But that's changing.

"The time has come for us to toot our own horn, to tell people that we have a lot to offer," said The Resurrection Project's Álvaro Obregón at a panel discussion yesterday following a bus tour of his Pilsen neighborhood. He and about 20 participants from the tour had just finished a fine lunch at Fogata Village restaurant, 1820 S. Ashland. Obregón thinks there is plenty more opportunity for visitors to spend money at restaurants, bakeries and other stores while they are visiting Pilsen, where he has lived since he was one year old.

The tour was part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Main Street Conference in Chicago. It was hosted by Eighteenth Street Development Corporation, which is promoting the tax benefits of rehabilitating residential and commercial structures within the 4,000-building Pilsen historic district. Eighteenth Street's Kristy Menas and Hector Saldaña did a nice job, during the tour, of interweaving historic information about 120-year-old houses and vaulted sidewalks with more-current stories about new businesses going in (an Italian restaurant at Thalia Hall) and planned promotions like the Mole de Mayo cookoff on May 2, 2009.

More tours are on the way. Six Chicago neighborhoods including Pilsen are participating in the Burnham Plan Centennial's upcoming Bold Plans, Big Dreams Community Showcase. Community leaders are working with tour and history experts to prepare bus and walking tours that will kick off on May 16 and continue through the summer. The tours will cover South Chicago, Quad Communities (Bronzeville), Pilsen, Albany Park, Auburn Gresham and the Indian business strip in West Ridge. Stay tuned for details.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

One day late, sports web site goes live

Darn it! If you're going to set a deadline for something, and then go public with your plan as I did in an earlier post, it's nice to actually meet the deadline. Which I did not.

Even so, the new web site for Neighborhood Sports Chicago went live this morning, just one day behind schedule.

The site already includes a whole lot of information on how organizations are using sports for youth development and community development. In the next four weeks it will provide regular updates on preparations for the Spring Into Sports extravaganza from April 4 to 11. That's during the Chicago Public Schools spring break, and hundreds of kids each day are expected to participate in competitions, demonstrations and open swim at the four host venues: Crane Technical Prep High School, Englewood High School (not confirmed), Little Village Lawndale High School and Orr Academy High School.

This is the real thing when it comes to youth programming: very impressive work by the hosting organizations and partners. We hope the web site will bring attention to this work that engages youth while creating stronger individuals and stronger neighborhoods.