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Bridge-Building on Division Street

The old divides between the Cabrini-Green public housing project and Chicago's pricey Gold Coast are fading thanks to a variety of efforts, including the Near North Unity Program.

Photos by Eric Young Smith

It’s been a neighborhood long divided between have-not public housing residents and have-it-all residents of Chicago’s pricey Gold Coast.  Only now, with the grim Cabrini-Green high-rises gone, many think it’s high time to bridge the old divides and create a diverse-but-unified community on the Near North Side.

Enter the Near North Unity Program (NNUP) – a coalition led by Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), LISC/Chicago, and a deep roster of local religious leaders, park directors, school principals, affordable housing tenants and condo developers.

“We have a diverse community, new buildings, a lot of beautiful things,” said Ald. Burnett about the physical transformation taking place. “But we have a lot of social challenges and a lot of cultural differences. The goal of the Unity Program is to bring folks together, break down those differences and bring out how much more we have in common.”

The plan is to marshal some of the same resources and expertise that the MacArthur Foundation (the program funder) and LISC/Chicago have brought to the New Communities Program (NCP), which for nearly a decade has been working with community groups in 28 neighborhoods across the city. 

Ald. Burnett said he’s been especially taken with the way NCP brought together the black and Puerto-Rican communities in Humboldt Park at the western reaches of his ward.  So last year he guided a tour of the Near North area for MacArthur President Robert Gallucci and then-president of LISC/Chicago Andrew Mooney, who now heads the city’s Department of Housing and Economic Development.  They agreed NCP methods could make a difference in the neighborhood bounded by North Avenue on the north, Wells Street on the east, Chicago Avenue on the south and the North Branch of the Chicago River on the west.

As with NCP, several “early action projects” will be undertaken while local residents begin crafting a long-term quality-of-life plan for the neighborhood.

Cabrini rowhouses in the shadow of the former Montgomery Ward offices.

Some history

Nobody is claiming all this will be easy. The late Studs Terkel was making a point, after all, when he titled his oral history of everyday urban struggle after this neighborhood’s main drag: Division Street: America.    

The divide between East-by-the-lake and West-by-the-river has perplexed city planners and thinkers since before the Great Fire of 1871, when dirt-poor Irish pitched a shantytown west of LaSalle Street called Kilgubbin. Later came the Italians with enclaves dubbed Little Sicily and Little Hell. After World War One, as white ethnics moved up and out, the ramshackle zone became a port-of-entry for southern blacks.

A leading sociologist of his day, Harvey Warren Zorbaugh, researched the area and in 1929 produced his classic The Gold Coast and the Slum contrasting the simultaneous development of the upscale lakefront and the grim decline of what he called the city’s “oldest slum.”  The latter was, he wrote, “a jungle of human wreckage” full of rickety wooden tenements heated with dangerous wood stoves and most without indoor plumbing.

What the neighborhood did have, then and now, was a prime location – literally within the morning shadow of the skyscrapers rising along North Michigan Avenue. 

This likely explains why, during the Great Depression, the city targeted Near North for its first experiments in urban renewal, or “slum clearance” as it was then called, using both private philanthropy and New Deal dollars.  Montgomery Ward was encouraged to build its sprawling headquarters and warehouse along the river at Chicago Avenue.  Then came the Marshall Field Garden Apartments (1930) along Sedgwick Street, a pioneering effort financed by the estate of another famous retail baron.  Later renamed Town and Garden Apartments, its 628 moderate-income units remain handsome … but were never profitable.

New townhouses have replaced Cabrini highrises that were razed through the CHA's Plan for Transformation.

So the newly-created Chicago Housing Authority took up the burden of affordability and one of its first efforts was the Frances Cabrini Homes. The 16-acre complex of row houses and low-rises opened during World War II and counted many defense workers among its 586 tenant families.  Ironically it would be these more human-scale row houses that stood the test of time – not Cabrini-Green’s thicket of post-war, 16-story high-rises, the last of which were demolished last year as part of CHA’s ambitious Plan for Transformation.

The ’hood transformed

As part of the Transformation Plan, much of the sprawling Cabrini-Green area has been redeveloped with mixed-income townhouses and low-rises wherein a third of the new units are rented to CHA tenants, a third rented to moderately-subsidized families, and a third sold as condominiums to “market rate” buyers. The developments have names like Parkside of Old Town and North Town Village. The CHA also rents units in nearby private complexes such as Mohawk North and Old Town Square.

This unprecedented racial and economic intermingling – a nationally significant experiment, really, in the techniques of integration and community redevelopment – has not been without frictions and sore points.  Some market rate owners complain of loud music and kids “hangin’ out” in lobbies and on front stoops. CHA tenants complain of dog waste left by, and “snooty looks” flashed by, haughty condo owners. Both complain about a lack of street parking and, more worrisome, unruly behavior among teenagers, especially those affiliated with street gangs.

“Safety is the main issue,” said Patrick Steward, whose Chicago Men in Action (MIA) group has organized a summertime youth basketball tournament that NNUP will build upon. “Safety affects so many things in so many different ways.”

Stanley Merriwether, an accomplished community development professional brought in by LISC/Chicago to coordinate the project locally, summed up the challenge at a start-up meeting of neighborhood stakeholders:

“The goal is to create cohesion, to build relationships where there are none currently, to try and create a more vibrant and revitalized Near North community,” she said. “By working on different projects that people across the community have said are priorities – community wellness, safety, youth, employment – we will get to know each other better.”

Jazz concerts at Seward Park are among the early action projects of the Near North Unity Program.

Early action

Several “early action” projects are being planned for this summer, Merriwether said, including some that already had local sponsorship but can be expanded using NNUP resources:

Back-to-School Fair – Tentatively set for Sept. 3, this neighborhood tradition would be expanded to include a rummage exchange of household goods, music concerts, youth basketball playoffs, health screening and information and distribution of donated backpacks filled with school supplies.

Clean & Green – Senior leader Charles Smith is organizing crews of youthful volunteers to gather rubbish from vacant lots and plant trees, flowers and vegetable gardens where permissible.

Jazz in the Park – This series of Friday evening performances at Seward Park – the first was on June 24 – at Division and Orleans is not unlike those presented by Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art and will be hosted by Al Carter-Bey, a jazz historian and longtime Cabrini-Green mentor.

Cake Decorating Classes – Justice Stamps, daughter of the late and legendary Cabrini-Green activist, Marion Stamps, plans to teach the baker’s art to teenagers in the kitchen of St. Matthews church.

Bridging the Gap Basketball – This offshoot of LISC/Chicago’s citywide Hoops in the Hood program is organizing teams of players aged 8 to 18 for its free, Friday afternoon competitions at Seward Park. Ancillary activities will include food, music, jump rope completion and even free haircuts.

Digital Portal – LISC/Chicago will provide technical assistance for creation of a NNUP website through which residents can stay on top of local activities, social services, employment opportunities and info on local stores and businesses.

Building trust

Surely the most important project, though, will be building trust among residents of very different backgrounds.

“We’ve got to make things attractive to everybody,” said Carol Steele, president of the Cabrini-Green Local Advisory Council.  Tough-minded and always protective of her public housing constituents, Steele was among those who in 2004 sued the CHA in federal court, forcing it to delay demolition of the high-rises until acceptable replacement housing and relocation services were in place.

Building trust among residents of vastly different backgrounds and circumstances will be a key to establishing a strong, cohesive community.

There’s a strong feeling among the public housing tenants who remain, Steele  explains, that the neighborhood is being redeveloped for someone else, not them. This suspicion would be allayed, she argues, if the CHA would get on with its “Phase II” remodeling of the many row houses that are still empty and boarded up.

“It’s always been a melting pot around here,” Steele said. “So don’t tell us about diversity. Now the concept has to be one community. That’s not so easy.”

Steele wouldn’t get an argument on the latter point from Keri Blackwell, the LISC/Chicago senior program officer who, with colleague Sandra Womack, is coordinating the NNUP effort from downtown.

“Without question,” Blackwell said, “this is the most complex of the neighborhoods LISC has partnered with.”

And, she might have added, a worthy test of the networking methods used so effectively elsewhere in the city by the New Communities Program.  

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Keywords: Cabrini-Green, comprehensive community development, Near North Unity Program, neighborhood development, neighborhood planning

Posted in Near North Side


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