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Garfield Council Aims for Safer Kedzie

Question: How do you announce to the neighborhood that an inner-city commercial corner with a dicey reputation is now safe for strolling and shopping?

Answer: With music … lots of music, plus crowds of people blissed-out on R&B, pop, funk, jazz and gospel.

The newly formed Garfield Park Community Council sees potential for transit-oriented retail development around the Green Line "el" stops along Lake Street. But only if shoppers feel safer.

Eric Young Smith

At least that’s one way.  There are many others … and leaders of the new Garfield Park Community Council say they’ll need them all to make West Side residents more comfortable in and around the corner of Lake Street and Kedzie Avenue.

Comfortable, that is, the way folks feel Monday and Friday afternoons, from 4 to 6 p.m., when the Council rolls its portable stage onto a vacant lot and student-musicians from the Chicago West Community Music Center start doing their thing.

“It’s ‘eyes-on-the-street’ set to music,” said Mike Tomas, the Council’s executive director. “We chose days and times when kids are coming home from school, looking for safe passage … or looking to get into something.”

The Council was formed this summer to carry on the work of comprehensive community development set in motion by the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance. For 10 years, the Alliance was one of 16 neighborhood “anchors” to participate in LISC Chicago’s New Communities Program. The Conservatory Alliance will continue as the non-profit arm of the Chicago Park District’s world-class botanical showcase, helping the Conservatory reach out with “green” and cultural programming.

Testing a Model

The Garfield Council, meanwhile, has spun off to tackle some of the grittier issues facing community redevelopment on Chicago’s heavily disinvested West Side. Its initial focus is restoring a sense of safety and orderliness to East Garfield’s commercial streets. That’s also the focus of East Garfield’s “testing the model” program, or TTM. 

At the moment, this establishment is among the few retail outlets operating in the vicinity--and a frequent hangout for men consuming beverages out of brown paper bags.

Eric Young Smith

Funded by the MacArthur Foundation and managed by LISC, TTM is challenging seven New Communities to identify specific issues, develop corrective strategies, and rigorously measure their effectiveness.

The Lake/Kedzie intersection was the logical place to start in East Garfield, Tomas explained during a windshield tour in his well-worn Toyota. For starters, the corner boasts a relatively new el station on the CTA’s refurbished Green Line. Completed in 1996, the $400 million rebuild was supposed to spark sorely needed “transit oriented development” on the West Side … and it has, around stations closer to the Loop.

But Kedzie and Lake is 16 blocks beyond the redevelopment boom that radiated from downtown prior to the 2007-08 real estate bust. All four of the commercially zoned corners surrounding the station remain vacant lots – three of them weed-filled. One corner was to be the site of an ambitious residential-over-retail complex sponsored by another community development organization. It never happened.

No, the closest thing to commercial activity is a block south along Kedzie at the prosaic One Eleven Food & Liquor. “The store has been offering food and liquor to the neighborhood for over 30 years,” said Tomas. “But you see those guys off to the side of the parking lot? They’ve been hanging out there – drinking – since seven this morning.”

Kids with Guns

Yet idle men sucking from brown paper sacks isn’t the Kedzie corridor’s main problem, according to Fariduddin “Farid” Muhammad, the Council’s commercial district manager. “It always comes back to youth,” which is to say, engaging young people to reduce the chances of gang affiliations, to not use guns, to not partake in senseless violence.

Student-musicians from the Chicago West Community Music Center, which operates out of the "golden dome" fieldhouse in Garfield Park, perform at the Lake and Kedzie on Monday and Friday afternoons.

Eric Young Smith

The Council’s TTM proposal to LISC notes dryly that “the community has one of the highest concentrations of crime in the city” and that in 2011 the Kedzie Corridor alone saw 741 reported crimes of violence, from homicide to robbery, and another 746 crimes against property, from theft to arson.

This summer there were so many gang-related shootings in Englewood and Garfield Park that Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy announced an intense step-up of police patrols, respectively, in the 7th and 11th police districts.

But police sweeps, while necessary at times, hardly broadcast a sense of safety.  That requires the steady presence of people – plain folks – going about their business without constantly looking over their shoulders. No question cops can bring temporary order to a block. Maintaining that order, though, requires the engagement of the people living there.

Partnering Up

So the new Garfield Community Council, just like the Conservatory Alliance, is “partnering up” with local actors and citywide providers of technical assistance.  

With the Safer Foundation, they’re continuing to expand an urban archipelago of community gardens – now 30-and-counting – most installed and cultivated by ex-offenders. Safer also cleared the vacant lots for the Monday/Friday concerts. With Active Transportation Alliance the Council ran a “Better Blocks” workshop – and issued a follow-up report – on creating safer walking and biking conditions.

Recruited through the New Communities Program, this CVS has done well in East Garfield Park.

Eric Young Smith

Safety is key, Tomas argues, for without it people will not patronize local stores. Police data suggest that almost a third of all crime in the area occurs on what’s left of the neighborhood’s two meager retail strips: Kedzie and Madison.

Consumer demand isn’t the problem – Census data show neighborhood population held steady above 20,000 from 2000 to 2010. A new CVS pharmacy at Kedzie and Madison – recruited there with the help of a New Communities initiative – is doing well. The sprawling CTA bus garage at Kedzie and Van Buren draws hundreds drivers and mechanics daily who would patronize local stores … if they felt safe. That’s why, Tomas complains, the neighborhood still has no clothing store, no shoe store, no hardware store and, importantly, no full-service supermarket.

Only now, with LISC/MacArthur support, the Council is able to consult with crime suppression experts like Dr. Harold Pollack at the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab; and tap into local talent such as faculty at the West Community Music Center. They give subsidized music lessons under the gold dome of the Garfield Park field house … and are only too happy to send students on their first public gig.

But achieving that communal feeling of safety requires more than bi-weekly R&B riffs. Tomas and Muhammad regularly push the city to provide more trash cans and cross-walks, enforce laws against fly-dumping and promptly secure foreclosed buildings.

Leading the efforts of the Garfield Park Community Council are executive director Mike Tomas (left) and commercial district manager Fariduddin “Farid” Muhammad.

John McCarron

The Police Department’s Expanded Anti-Violence Initiative is a step in the right direction. A wrinkle on community policing, EAVI gives in-the-know leaders like Tomas direct access to decision makers within the 11th Police District and area tactical units.

“But we’re starting to create a little buzz,” Tomas said. “We’re networking with the businesses. We’re developing a Kedzie Business Network.”

The goal, as Muhammad sees it, is to “create a sense of collective responsibility where people know one another and care what’s happening next door.”

If it all starts with a little funk and R&B, so much the better.

More information: Mike Tomas, GPCC, 773-638-1766;

Posted in Economic Development, Safety, East Garfield Park


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