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Near North Unity Soars … For Now

It’s working … but can it continue?

It’s a familiar question in community development. An innovative project succeeds beyond expectation, but as “seed” funding nears expiration organizers and stakeholders look high and low for the means to sustain.

So it is with the Near North Unity Program, launched in 2011 by LISC Chicago with seed funding from the MacArthur Foundation. Then and now the need is undeniable: create a forum where public housing tenants can meet, problem-solve and build community alongside middle-class folks buying the condos and townhouses that replaced the Cabrini-Green high-rises.

Aldermen Michelle Smith - Walter Burnett and Bob Fioretti take questions

John McCarron

From the start there was rock-solid political support. It was Ald. Walter Burnett, Jr., (27th) who first approached LISC and MacArthur about doing something to relieve tensions between longtime residents who find their neighborhood “discovered” by home-buyers with their own ideas about how things should look and how kids should behave.

City support came also from the 18th District police, who provided a conference room for early NNUP meetings; from the Chicago Park District, which helped host sports festivals and jazz concert series at Seward Park; and from the Chicago Public Schools, which heeded NNUP voices in keeping open an improving elementary school once slated for closure.

Doubtless the public-side support will continue, but non-profits like NNUP also need flexible operating funds to defray everything from program management to basketball T-shirts, from mini-grants for promising projects to the pizza served at monthly meetings. Flex-funds will be needed, too, if NNUP is to take the next logical step in its growth – developing a comprehensive quality-of-life plan for the neighborhood.

Sure, the MacArthur Foundation has been there from the beginning, but leaders at LISC and NNUP are hoping to broaden support.

“MacArthur recognized the need and the possibilities,” said Keri Blackwell, LISC’s deputy director. “But as the program enters its fourth year, the funding base needs to expand.”In 2014, LISC will partner with NNUP leadership to make that happen.

National test

It shouldn’t be a hard sell, because the success in Near North reverberates far beyond Cabrini-Green or even Chicago. From Seattle to Baltimore, from Philadelphia to Denver, the transformation of once-isolated public housing into mixed-income communities has brought unprecedented opportunity … and unprecedented challenges.

Near North Unity is testing whether the community-building strategies refined over the last 12 years by LISC Chicago’s New Communities Network -- a comprehensive approach embracing everything from education to health to housing to commercial redevelopment – can help a mixed-income community not just survive but thrive.

Aldermanic panel takes questions at October NNUP meeting

John McCarron

Both progress and pitfalls get aired at NNUP’s monthly meetings. Whereas 20-30 residents used to show up at that 18th District conference room, more than 125 came this October to the big activity room of the Cornerstone Center at 1111 N. Wells St.

And with good reason, for the agenda included a Q&A with a panel of three City Council members whose wards include a piece of Near North.

“This has been a great opportunity for all of us, all over the community, to get involved, to give some input, to see how we can come to an equilibrium” said Ald. Burnett, who grew up in Cabrini-Green. “We’ve done a lot, and we’re going to continue to see this community grow and to advance.”

“You are the eyes and ears, not us, about what’s happening out there,” seconded Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) in encouraging the Near North gathering to keep working with the 18th District community policing (CAPS) program.

Better yet, said Ald. Michelle Smith (43rd), Near North should think about forming a volunteer “court watch” program. She explained that her Lincoln Park neighborhood sends representatives to pre-trial hearings to make sure those accused of serious crimes in the neighborhood are not let off easy by overburdened judges and prosecutors.

Give and take

During Q&A there was, as always, considerable give-and-take.

Pastor Randall Blakey and Raymond Richard of Brothers Standing Together

John McCarron

Raymond Richard, representing the Brothers Standing Together effort against youth violence, summarized the feelings of many long-timers when he said: “These developers come into our community, they put up these fancy high-rises and complexes, and yet no one in the community gets hired to do the building.” Whereupon Ald. Burnett responded with a brief history of his efforts to qualify young men for jobs in the construction trades.

Velma Landry, a resident of the rehabbed Cabrini rowhouses, wanted to know what’s to become of the many other rowhouses still empty and awaiting rehab. Ald. Burnett answered that their future is uncertain because of pending litigation between the Chicago Housing Authority and the tenants’ advisory council.

Another resident said she and some like-minded neighbors had collected 2,500 signatures in favor of turning 11 acres now occupied by the closed Near North High School on Larabee Avenue into a public park, including small dog park. Ald. Burnett patiently explained the land was already committed as a future site of more mixed-income housing.

“How much new housing do we need?” shot back the unsatisfied questioner.

Sticky dots

Voting with sticky dots on a new arts center

And so it goes in Near North, where not everyone comes from the same direction … but all now have a place to talk it out. One faction is desperate for jobs. Another needs a dog park. Yet here they come, sharing email addresses and slices of cold pizza. The budding camaraderie bodes well for 2014, compromise being an essential ingredient of the quality-of-life planning accomplished by LISC’s other New Communities.

Executive Pastor Randall Blakey of LaSalle Street Church, which provides local management for NNUP, closed the meeting by reminding folks to RSVP for the Community Celebration on Dec. 12, 6-9 p.m. at Cornerstone. He also asked folks, if they hadn’t already, to cast their “sticky dot” votes on the way out to indicate the kinds of activities they want to see at a new arts center being designed by-and-for the community.

Displayed on a series of easels were design options drawn by a volunteer group of architects called Architecture for Humanity Chicago.

As yet there’s no funding for the arts center, but like NNUP, successful ideas do  have a way of becoming permanent realities.

More information:

Jenn Hockema  312-573-8891

Keri Blackwell  312-422-9558

Posted in Near North Side


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