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CNDA at 20: Much More Than Buildings

It’s an awards ceremony, a networking opportunity and a chance to meet friends old and new.

It’s an evening to celebrate hard work and fresh wins by communities too often dismissed with stale talk about what’s been lost.  

The program book cover for the third annual CNDA ceremony, in 1997, which reflected the trend to a more comprehensive approach to community development.

But most of all, the Chicago Neighborhood Development Awards (CNDA), celebrating its 20th year on February 20, has become the indispensible mid-winter pick-me-up for professionals in what may be our city’s loneliest occupation.


“Community development is a profession that requires a long view,” explained Susana Vasquez, executive director of LISC Chicago, “and if you forget that, your work can feel isolated and without impact.” LISC helped launch CNDA in 1995 to break down that isolation, and since has managed the event as it has grown to attract more than 1,500 guests. See 2014 awardees.

“Whether you work downtown – at a bank or foundation – or out in the neighborhoods with a nonprofit, we are all grappling with how to take the quick wins when they come, while keeping our eye on the prize,” Vasquez said. “CNDA is our chance to celebrate the power we have when we act together. We get re-charged. We get inspired.”

So while the Local Initiatives Support Corporation and its many partners routinely leverage neighborhood investments worth millions, getting CNDA just right, year after year, is just as important.

In the beginning    

Not surprisingly, the 20-year evolution of CNDA has mirrored the evolution of community development itself. At first the event focused narrowly on quality real estate developments. But it didn’t take long for the scope to widen … along with our understanding of what it takes to sustain a healthy neighborhood: good design, quality schools, safe streets, digital literacy and lots more.

It all started, like many innovations do, with a creative twist to an existing idea.

Back in 1994 a longtime member of LISC Chicago’s advisory board, Tribune Company Vice President Art Martin, was wowed by an awards dinner sponsored by the Chicago Sun-Times to recognize achievement in private-sector real estate.

“So we said to ourselves what a cool thing it would be to organize an awards program for nonprofits,” Martin remembers. “After all, the projects our local groups were doing were, if anything, more difficult than the privates.”

Art Martin, a member of LISC Chicago's board of advisors, was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the first Chicago Neighborhood Development Awards ceremony in 1995.

The “we” in those early meetings typically included then-LISC Executive Director Tom Lenz, business executives Charles Gardner and Thomas Mallon, and Ted Wysocki, head of a citywide umbrella called Chicago Association of Neighborhood Development Organizations, or CANDO. It didn’t hurt that then-Mayor Richard M. Daley and his commissioner of planning, Valerie Jarrett, now a senior White House advisor, were all for the idea.

Art Martin remembers some early discouragement because only “65 or 70” tickets had been sold two weeks before that first event at the Chicago Hilton & Towers (also the site of this year’s CNDA). Phone calls were made. The list of CEOs on the Honorary Committee was expanded. And more than 300 showed up.

Just three awards were made that night: Non-profit Neighborhood Group of the Year; Outstanding Non-Profit Real Estate Project; and Outstanding For-Profit Real Estate Project.

Raul Raymundo, then and now president of The Resurrection Project in Pilsen, remembers how it felt to win that first group-of-the-year award for developing dozens of sorely-needed affordable homes in his community. What he didn’t appreciate then, he said, was the way CNDA would begin to mirror what “best practice” community development is all about.

Richard Driehaus, the financier and philathropist, launched the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Awards for Architectural Excellence in Community Design as part of CNDA in 1998, acknowledging the importance of good architecture throughout Chicago's neighborhoods.

Alex Fledderjohn

Wider scope

“CNDA helped catalyze the comprehensive nature of community development by recognizing not just bricks and mortar but partnerships and strategies,” Raymundo said.

By Year 3 the event was approaching a thousand guests, and the 1997 theme – Beyond Bricks and Mortar – spoke to its widening scope. So did the addition of a “Friend of the Neighborhoods Award” shared that year by the gone-but-never-to-be-forgotten trio of county healthcare executive Ruth Rothstein, Bishop Dr. Arthur Brazier and developer Ferd Kramer.

This same eclectic mix – public officials, private sector execs, religious leaders and grassroots organizers – is what makes CNDA such a special, and productive, gathering.

“From the get-go that was the main idea,” said Martin “Marty” Stern, who served on Art Martin’s original committee and went on to co-chair several CNDAs. “You get people to interact who maybe wouldn’t see one another in the course of a business day.”

The event was amped up in 1998 with the addition of the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Awards for Architectural Excellence in Community Design.

“Good design changes mental attitudes,” said the founder of Driehaus Capital Management and energetic philanthropist. “People feel better as humans. They begin to think that someone actually cares about them. If it’s badly and cheaply designed, it’s a message that the residents or clients don’t deserve any better. But if it’s well-planned, human scaled, with good landscaping, you see a whole different response. You see residents maintain better; students try harder. It’s infectious.”

“We raised the value of design, the importance of design, to the neighborhoods,” said Andrew Mooney. Now the city’s commissioner of planning and development, Mooney promoted a steady expansion of CNDA during his 15 years as executive director of LISC Chicago.The Driehaus Award, captured first in 1998 by the architectural firm of Ross Barney & Jankowski for its Little Village Academy, carries a first-place honorarium of $15,000. Second- and third-place designers receive $3,000 and $2,000 respectively. But over time “The Driehaus” has achieved something priceless.

More recent additions include the Chicago Community Trust Outstanding Community Strategy of the Year Award; The Polk Bros. Foundation Affordable Rental Housing Preservation Award; the Woods Fund Chicago Power of Community Award; and the PrivateBank Norman Bobins Leadership Award recognizing outstanding personal achievement at the grassroots level.

Details, details

The addition of new awards raised the complexity of staging what has become a multi-faceted, multi-media event. There is, for instance, the planning and execution of the short-but-evocative videos that profile each winner, ably produced by Angle Park, Inc.

Just as elaborate is the recruiting and managing of more than 60 judges. Each year these experts give generously of their time and expertise, poring over applications and traveling as a group, on a bus, to tour the short-listed projects.

Architect Thomas Beeby, with Sunny Fischer, left, and LISC Executive Director Susana Vasquez, leads the judges who determine the winners of the architectural awards.

Gordon Walek

“There’s nothing exactly like it,” said Thomas Beeby, a world-class architect who helps select judges and manage the Driehaus judging. “They whittle dozens of entries down to 10 finalists, then we get on a bus and visit all 10.” Voting takes place on the bus, immediately after the final visit ... the better, said Beeby, “to limit politicking ... however well-intended.”

“The judging process is really in-depth,” echoed Lisa LaDonna Cooper, a State Farm Insurance executive and member of this year’s awards committee, which approves the final selections. “We look for the best of the best.”

Purposeful fun

Not all the excitement at CNDA is about carefully worded speeches and engraved awards.

LISC “scribe” Gordon Walek, who dons headphones to manage traffic to and from the rostrum and cue the audio-visuals, remembers a speaker or two who “left script” and had to be nudged along. LISC’s Monita Blunt, who has helped coordinate all 20 CNDAs, remembers the scramble when once the mayor had to cancel at the last minute.

Many come early for the 3 p.m. forum that typically kicks off the evening’s events. This year WBEZ radio reporter Natalie Moore leads a discussion on the future of neighborhood development. The panel features Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, David Doig of Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives, Demond Drummer of Teamwork Englewood and Michael Rodriguez of Enlace Chicago.

Ask any veteran CNDA-goer what’s best about the event, though, and they’ll likely say the gala reception. This is when business cards get exchanged. It’s when cross-neighborhood and Loop-local connections get made. And it’s when great thoughts, heretofore kept to ones’ self, are loosed thanks to the ancient chemistry of in vino veritas. The cheese assortment is also not to be missed.

How central is the evening’s closing reception to CNDA? At the 2008 event, when a troupe from Second City substituted for the Forum discussion, comedians planted in the audience opened by screaming this faux protest:

“What do we want? Our cocktail party! When do we want it? Now! What do we want? Our cocktail party! When do we want it …”

At the CNDA Forum in 2011, mayoral candidate Rahm Emanuel explained to moderator Julia Stasch why he was the best-qualified person for the job. 

Juan Francisco Hernandez

Like most everything LISC does, CNDA at 20 takes the comprehensive approach. There’s a dash of comedy … yet great attention to detail. There’s a layer of Hollywood glam and Academy Award drama … yet serious discussion of our city’s most pressing needs. Most of all, there’s recognition and fellowship among the many women and men who do the oft-lonely work of meeting those needs.

It was Mayor Rahm Emanuel who may have said it best at the 2011 CNDA Forum featuring candidates running in that year’s mayoral race.

“I believe the city can learn more from LISC than the other way around,” said the mayor. “LISC does it the right way – comprehensively.”  

View videos about the 2014 award winners.

For more information: Caroline Goldstein, LISC Chicago,


Posted in Economic Development, Housing, Placemaking


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