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Moving Closer to Unity in Near North

They have laid out strategic goals, core principles and an overall vision for the fast-changing community emerging from where the Cabrini-Green high-rises once stood.

They have set up a website and coordinated an ambitious series of neighborhood events – from Friday afternoon youth basketball to twilight jazz concerts in Seward Park.

Charles Woodyard, CEO of the Chicago Housing Authority, speaks to a meeting of 75 participants in the Near North Unity Program on Oct. 29.

John McCarron

But to gauge the depth of progress made by stakeholders working on the Near North Unity Program, it’s best to set aside the list of projects and listen carefully to what’s being said at NNUP’s monthly community meetings.

People are talking to, not past, one another. In particular, public housing tenants and tenant-leaders are sharing their hopes and anxieties with their more affluent neighbors who own condos in the mixed-income buildings that have replaced the high-rises. And vice-versa.

The conversations can be edgy, even painful, but they are happening … and ever so gradually, the different factions are moving onto common ground.

Woodyard’s being there

This coming together was evident at NNUP’s October meeting, which featured a presentation by Charles Woodyard, CEO of the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), followed by a freewheeling “open mic” with CHA tenants, condo owners and others.

Woodyard is barely a year into taking over the huge task of integrating what had been one of America’s largest and most isolated public housing systems into the social and economic fabric of the city. The mere fact he was there says not a little about NNUP’s ability to engage on real issues.

Then again, the two-year-old effort has strong backing from Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) and continuing financial support from the MacArthur Foundation, a longtime contributor to public housing transformation in Chicago.

After an introduction by the Rev. Randall Blakey, chair of NNUP’s guiding core group, Woodyard looked over the diverse gathering and said, “I see an eclectic community that has come together.

"Let you be the vehicle that represents the entire neighborhood," Keri Blackwell, deputy director of programs for LISC Chicago, encouraged NNUP attendees.

John McCarron

“In a way, this is what we are trying to accomplish with our Plan for Transformation,” he said, not just to—but about—the 75 who gathered Oct. 29 in the activity room of the Cornerstone Center, 1111 N. Wells St.

He then opened by placing a finger squarely on what most bothers the area’s CHA tenants ever since demolition began on Cabrini’s thicket of 16-story high-rises.

“Our [CHA] residents are our top priority,” said Woodyard, “but I have to listen to and think about the larger community. … And that’s a very difficult thing to do, because those who lived in the buildings we tore down appropriately view this as their community, their homes. CHA came in and destroyed their community. I understand that feeling.”

Row house row

Woodyard even touched gingerly on the hottest of the area’s hot-button issues: What’s to become of the 440 Cabrini row houses that have been emptied of tenants but whose fate has yet to be determined?

“We’ll hold a community meeting in the near future to get input and ideas on how to move forward,” said Woodyard. He vowed that, when completed, the entire Near North area will have 700 dwellings leased to public housing tenants –counting 146 already rehabbed row houses, another 288 within mixed-income developments such as Parkside of Old Town, and those yet to be built.

But during the Q&A, condo owners and upscale renters worried out loud about what’s coming next; specifically, that too many public housing units will be added to the mix now that the market for condominiums has gone slack.

Charles Smith, an architect and NNUP regular, encouraged those in attendance to push past their differences.

Gordon Walek

“We’re feeling left out and that we have no representation,” said Melissa Howard, an owner in the mixed-income Domain Lofts, one of the old Montgomery Ward warehouses along the North Branch of the Chicago River. “We can’t address the issues unless we have all stakeholders at the table.”

Charles Price of the CHA’s tenant advisory council rose to counter those newcomers who complain they lack representation on the court-ordered CHA “working group” that is evaluating how to proceed.

“How many CHA residents are represented on your condo associations?” Price challenged the condo owners in the room.

Living it

But Charles Smith, an African-American architect and NNUP regular who’s lived in the neighborhood for more than 60 years, struck a more conciliatory chord: “I live it. I suffer everything everyone else suffers. I choose to do that. … I know what some of you are talking about, but it’s all about people getting along with people.”

Woodyard admitted that, in the past, “We [CHA] haven’t done a very good job, once we build a mixed-income community, of providing the kind of support we need for all three income groups.”

The back-and-forth went on for an hour, with condo owners concerned about crime, safety, drug dealing and underperforming local schools. CHA tenants and leaders countered that newer, more affluent neighbors are too quick to brand street vendors as “drug dealers” … and too careless about where they park their cars.

Tenant leader Carol Steele (seated) said public housing residents share others' concerns about crime and drug dealing--but sometimes feel looked down upon.

Gordon Walek

Tenant leader Carol Steele summed it by saying: “Ninety-nine percent of the people who live in public housing are good people. There’s a percentage of bad people everywhere. But just like y’all, we want a safer neighborhood. We want the drug dealers off the streets. … We’ve got to start looking forward … and stop looking down … on people.”

Next up for NNUP: An all-invited celebration of community achievement, 6-9 p.m., Thursday, December 6, at Cornerstone Center. 

Before adjournment, Keri Blackwell, LISC Chicago’s deputy director of programs, challenged the assembled to use the Near North Unity Program as their vehicle to advance the community’s agenda, especially on public safety and on the nature of new developments still in the planning stage.

“You be the voice,” Blackwell concluded. “You put forth our recommendations. You be the vehicle that represents the entire neighborhood.”

More information:
Keri Blackwell
Rev. Randall Blakey

Posted in Housing, Safety, Near North Side


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