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NCP Provides Road Map for Milwaukee Initiative

In making a $50 million commitment to help poor Milwaukee neighborhoods, philanthropist Joseph Zilber looked south to Chicago's ambitious New Communities Program that's working in 16 diverse neighborhoods.

It started six years ago with a $21 million grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, an investment that has attracted $274 million, said Susan Lloyd, an architect of the New Communities Program. Last year, the MacArthur Foundation committed another $26 million that's expected to leverage $500 million in the next five years, she said.

Lloyd has been hired by the Zilber Family Foundation to design and develop the Zilber Neighborhood Initiative. The first two Milwaukee neighborhoods are Lindsay Heights on the north side, where Zilber grew up, and Clarke Square on the south side. Four more neighborhoods are to be selected next year and another four in 2010.

In Chicago, the 16 neighborhoods vary in their histories, character, needs and resources. For example, the West Haven community was once dominated by a notorious public housing project. Little Village is home to the largest Mexican community in the Midwest and a young population, while Auburn-Gresham is an aging community.

"The idea is not to fund a bunch of programs but to create a neighborhood infrastructure and system that works, so investment is leveraged and market forces work, so the neighborhood gets its fair share of investment," said Susana Vasquez, director of New Communities.

It starts with resident participation. In each neighborhood, there's a nonprofit lead agency that works with residents and others to draw up a quality-of-life plan that spells out the needs and hopes of the neighborhood.

But community development is complicated and a little like making lasagna. It takes time and a combination of ingredients that must be layered, mixed, spread and blended with some overlap.

So it is with New Communities. One neighborhood may especially need more businesses, including a sit-down restaurant, as a catalyst for community engagement; another may need new housing; a third, recreational programs and green space for children, or retraining for parents. Most need combinations, and over time, many components have come together complementing one another and building on each other.

New Communities provides the lead agency with money for two staff members and seed money to attract more funds for projects that run the gamut from home repairs to arts, sports and land purchases for business development.

Milwaukee's Zilber Initiative will use that same model, Lloyd said.

"Milwaukee has higher concentrations of poverty and strong, rooted human service organization and many good leaders, but there's shallow bench strength," she said. The Zilber Initiative can help develop new leadership, she said.

History of activism
West Haven, on Chicago's west side, was once dominated by the Henry Horner Homes, a public housing project riddled with gangs, drugs and violence. It was the setting for Alex Kotlowitz's 1992 book, "There Are No Children Here," about two boys struggling to survive amid the crime and chaos of the projects.

Businesses along Madison St. moved out or closed after the riots and fires that followed the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

But the neighborhood also has a history of activism that helped lead to its selection as a pilot project for the New Communities Program in 2001.

In 1987, residents and a coalition of churches fought efforts by the Chicago Bears to build a new stadium that would have displaced 1,500 families. When the Chicago Bulls and Blackhawks decided to build the United Center, which now lies in the shadow of the community, team officials went to neighborhood organizations to develop a joint venture, said Earnest Gates, executive director of the Near West Side Community Development Corp.

As a result, new homes for seniors who would have been displaced were built, along with the James Jordan Boys & Girls Club and Family Life Center and a new library.

Today, the high-rise projects are gone, replaced by a mix of bright, new low-income, affordable and market-priced housing built by public and private enterprise, said Gates, 56, who lives in the neighborhood where he grew up.

Some $1.4 million in New Communities money helped finance 18 new units of housing. Land for a much needed grocery store was purchased with $220,000 from New Communities, and this summer, $15,000 helped pay for a basketball league that ran four nights a week from 4 to 9 p.m. and attracted 270 youths.

Because of New Communities, West Haven and other neighborhoods now have a Center for Working Families that provides help with employment counseling, financial coaching and income assistance.

Katrina Chapman, 29, a mother of four, said the center has helped her get housing and training in culinary skills.

"Everything in my life, they had a hand in and helped, including helping me get this suit and shoes," she said, fresh from a job interview.

Programs for youths
The lively business strip along 26th St. in Little Village stretches for more than a mile, with 1,000 stores ranging from bakeries to bridal shops. Mexican music plays along the avenue, and vendors peddle tamales and paletas.

Among its 100,000 residents, 50% are under 25. Crime, gangs, education, health and green space for recreation are key issues, said Cesar Nunez, the director of economic development for the Little Village Community Development Corp., the New Communities lead agency.

Little Village drew the attention of New Communities after it waged an epic battle to get a new high school, Nunez said. In 2001, after the Chicago public schools backed out of building a new high school for the burgeoning population, parents staged a 19-day hunger strike. A $72 million high school opened in 2005 and now enrolls 1,350 students.

New Communities has supplied seed money for a playground, a boxing club and a new gym, and is working on turning an old cookie factory into an immigrant resource center and on the redevelopment of a 40-acre former industrial site.

Seniors needed help
In the flats and brick bungalows of the Auburn-Gresham area on Chicago's south side, more than half the residents are older than 55.

The busy 79th St. commercial strip, one of the longest and most traveled bus routes in the city, had turned into a marketplace for liquor stores, drugs and prostitution during the 1980s, said Carlos Nelson, executive director of the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corp.

Today, there are two new restaurants, and other businesses are arriving, along with a new seniors apartment complex and activity center.

New Communities helps pay for a litter-free zone, an effort to beautify and recycle trash on the street and the neighborhood.

More than 100 residents took part in a Green Bungalow Initiative that fixed up homes and made them more energy-efficient, with the dual purpose of organizing residents, Nelson said.

Bobbie Rawls, 70, has lived in her bungalow for 40 years and received new windows, paint and a new furnace. She's now president of the block watch.

"For years, the neighborhood was going down, but now things are going up," she said.

In Chicago, the Local Initiatives Support Corp. runs the program. It has also poured millions into it, along with attracting additional funding from foundations, government and others.

New Communities has attracted so much interest that in March, the Local Initiatives Support Corp. held a how-to conference attended by 900 people from cities throughout the country. In addition to Milwaukee, Indianapolis, San Diego and Duluth, Minn., are undertaking similar efforts. And while the lead agencies have generally succeeded in their New Communities mission, in three cases, the lead agency was changed for various reasons, Vasquez said.

Gates describes New Communities this way: "It's not just about bricks and mortar. You can build new housing, but you just move the problem. You've got to invest in human infrastructure."

This article first appeared (along with a slew of photos) at


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