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Keeping It Real

A new generation of city leaders with fresh ideas is making solid progress on tough urban challenges by rediscovering an old truth: neighborhood matters.

Susana Vasquez, LISC Chicago's executive director, discussed the value of neighborhoods with 800 academics and practitioners at the UIC Urban Forum on September 18.

Photos by Roberta Dubuis-Devlin, UIC

“This is about the deep relationship between people and place,” said Susana Vasquez, executive director of LISC Chicago, in welcoming a gathering of 800 academics and practitioners Sept. 18 at the annual UIC Urban Forum, which this year was titled “The Return of the Neighborhood as an Urban Strategy.”

“What better-positioned person to co-chair the event?” asked Michael Pagano by way of introducing Vasquez. He’s dean of the University if Illinois-Chicago’s College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, which organized the day-long conference.

Vasquez opened by saying neighborhoods never went away. And she’d know, having worked as a community organizer in the Mexican-American Pilsen community before joining LISC in 2003 to manage its New Communities Program. Several New Communities veterans were on the Forum’s six discussion panels, sharing what they learned during LISC’s 10-year experiment in locally directed comprehensive community development.

Vasquez outlined six procedural steps that are at the heart of how LISC approaches its work:

* Engage, by taking the time to listen to people in the neighborhood.

* Plan, by bringing together stakeholders to develop a vision for the neighborhood and strategies to bring the vision to life.

* Act, by networking with LISC and others to marshal resources needed for change.

* Communicate, using the power of a well-told story to change a neighborhood’s narrative from “who got shot” to what’s being accomplished.

* Evaluate, not by measuring results afterwards, but as a guiding tool during implementation.

* Repeat, because it takes successive layers of engagement and capacity-building to create enduring change.

A local response and a big picture

Vasquez cautioned, however, that no amount of local effort will succeed long term unless national policies – economic policy, immigration policy, health care policy and the rest – are supportive of neighborhood health.

“We need to work harder to make those connections stronger and our policies more effective,” she said, “for the benefit of our neighborhoods, our cities and our country.”

Neighborhood quality-of-life plans can galvanize and create coherence in how a community moves forward, said Terry Mazany, president and CEO of the Chicago Community Trust.

Terry Mazany, president and CEO of the Chicago Community Trust, underscored the macro/micro linkage by describing how the Great Recession of 2007-08 and the anemic recovery that followed caused a “marked compression” in the number of Chicago neighborhoods with steady or growing prosperity.

“We’re down to 21 (of 77) neighborhoods that are feeling any sort of positive economic activity, household formation or educational attainment,” said Mazany of recent Census data. “It’s becoming a bifurcated economy and the keys for success and opportunity are not felt from the ground up.”

Mazany noted that the quality-of-life plans in a number of neighborhoods, “funded by the MacArthur Foundation and with LISC leadership,” can galvanize and create coherence in how a neighborhood can move forward. That’s why, he said, the Trust has asked LISC to manage a wider inventory of neighborhood assets, from community groups to public works, that could guide future city investments and planning efforts.

“But there are these larger macro forces that are at play,” Mazany said, echoing Vasquez’s point, “driving population out of communities, forcing school closings, as an example, that take a vital anchor institution out of a community.”

Bernita Johnson-Gabriel, executive director of the Quad Communities Development Corporation, stressed the importance of improving the quality of neighborhood schools following the large number of closings in 2012.

Co-panelist Bernita Johnson-Gabriel, executive director of Quad Communities Development Corp., related how the school closings of 2012 drove a wedge between families that use magnet or selective enrollment schools and those relegated to neighborhood schools that are underperforming.

“How do we now move the conversation from what happened to how we’re going to improve the quality of schools that remain?” implored Johnson-Gabriel, who has been a mainstay of the New Communities effort on the Near South Side.

Why policies matter

At an afternoon panel on the issue of gentrification, moderator Craig Howard, director of community and economic development at the MacArthur Foundation, challenged panelists who decried the displacement of the poor by the well-to-do.

Howard, who has helped guide MacArthur’s investment in LISC’s New Communities Program, said he grew up in Englewood back when “going downtown” meant 63rd and Halsted streets. Then it was the city’s second-busiest commercial district, anchored by the likes of an A&P supermarket and Goldblatts department store. Disinvestment can be catastrophic, he implied, whereas gentrification, while painful, can be ameliorated with, say, strategies to build and preserve affordable housing.

The MacArthur Foundation's Craig Howard challenged panelists who decried the displacement of the poor by the well-to-do.

“Aren’t all neighborhoods changing?” he asked.

At a closing panel on immigrant communities, Michael Rodríguez, executive director of Enlace Chicago in Little Village, made a point that underlined how Chicago’s neighborhoods don’t all move in lockstep: 26th Street, his neighborhood’s commercial spine, remains one of the most vibrant in the city, largely unscathed by the Great Recession.

He also explained how national policy – in this case the failure to reform national immigration policy – feeds into the biggest problem in his neighborhood, youth violence. “Since 2007 we’ve had 119 people murdered in our community, over 60 percent of them under the age of 25,” said Rodríguez, whose organization carries the New Communities banner in Little Village.

Police have complained residents often fail to come forward with information about who’s doing the shooting, in part because many fear they or someone in their family could be exposed as undocumented and forcibly deported.

Neighborhoods are key," said Enlace Chicago's Michael Rodriguez. "They’re the urban strategy that works."

“We need to separate local law enforcement from immigration services,” Rodríguez argued.

And later, as if to sum up the day’s discussions, he explained his point of view on the work: “We need to learn from each other, to share best practices and data on outcomes. Neighborhoods are key. They’re the urban strategy that works.”

Posted in Placemaking, Little Village, Quad Communities


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