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‘Dean’ Jim Capraro Retires from LISC Chicago Board

Jim Capraro, the Southwest Side dynamo who helped define community development in Chicago, has retired from the LISC Chicago Board of Advisors after 23 years of service. But he’s still doing the work he loves.

Although he's retiring from LISC Chicago's Board of Advisors, Jim Capraro will continue in his role as an advocate for neighborhood redevelopment.

Gordon Walek

Capraro helped define the first wave of nonprofit community development after he became executive director of the fledgling Greater Southwest Development Corporation in 1976. He had spent the previous years on picket lines and in protest marches, fighting the Vietnam War, racial discrimination and bank redlining. But coming back to his home neighborhood, he wanted to do more than criticize the policies and practices of others.

“I realized that stopping disinvestment doesn’t fix the damage, that someone had to work on that, so we started talking about reinvestment,” Capraro said, speaking by cell phone from the Miami airport, returning from a consultation in Jacksonville, Fla. “Nobody else was doing reinvestment work, and really we didn’t know what we were doing at the beginning. So we started with some seminars on how neighborhood shopping districts work, and learning about real estate transactions.”

Capraro was a quick study, and soon developed a method that would help stabilize big chunks of the Southwest Side. Early on he lured a Jewel grocery store to anchor a shopping center at the corner of 61st and Western, when few companies were investing in outlying neighborhoods. Later he helped convince Nabisco to reinvest in its Oreo cookie factory rather than leave the neighborhood. He promoted construction of the CTA Orange Line to Midway Airport, created an industrial development on a former dump site, and always kept organizing residents and businesses to address local issues.

Jim Capraro's engagement with community development practitioners - here at a Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago conference organized by the Institute for Comprehensive Community Development - is legendary.

Gordon Walek

But he did more than improve his own neighborhoods. By sharing his bubbly enthusiasm with others – and teaching them his methods of listening, building coalitions and wooing supporters – he has helped make comprehensive community development a thriving industry in Chicago and around the country. In recent years he has flown more than a million miles to 27 different cities and two rural communities, mostly to coach others about quality-of-life planning and implementation. He’s even brought his spiel to community groups in Munich, Germany, and Milan, Italy. And to keep in touch with his colleagues between visits, Jim became an early adopter of video conferencing and other web tools. 

“I love when I work with people on leadership development,” he said, especially coaching “regular people from the neighborhood who could stand on a stage and go toe to toe with a bank president or an alderman.”

He is proud, too, of the physical and organizational legacies that he has left behind, from a senior housing building on 63rd Street to Special Service Area #3, the first neighborhood-focused special taxing district in Chicago.

“Jim has tremendous insight into the issues that communities face and how to address them,” said Susana Vasquez, executive director of LISC Chicago. “He’s made significant contributions to LISC as a member of our Board of Advisors, but also to the whole network of practitioners in Chicago and around the nation.”

Of all his community work, Capraro says leadership development - "coaching regular people from the neighborhood" - gives him the greatest pleasure.

Gordon Walek

What’s next? The dean of Chicago community development has several active projects and some new irons in the fire as government agencies and others seek comprehensive, sustainable approaches to community improvement. He speaks with his typical enthusiasm about activities in Cincinnati and Indiana and downstate Illinois, and leaves no doubt that more work on foreign soil would be of interest.

But he’d like to scale back a little, too, passing the baton to the next generation. “What I want to do now is to get out of the way of the people I’ve worked with," he said, "so that they can do the work themselves.” 

 

Posted in Chicago Lawn

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Local Initiatives Support Corporation Chicago connects neighborhoods to the resources they need to become stronger and healthier.

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