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.