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A New Plan in Belmont Cragin

The performing arts auditorium at Steinmetz High School is packed to the rafters on the warm evening of June 17.

New street banners, designed by recent Steinmetz High School graduate Brandon Pozos and selected by community members, will soon hang on the main avenues that run through Belmont Cragin.

To prepare for this first community meeting for a quality-of-life plan for the Belmont Cragin neighborhood, the Northwest Side Housing Center (NWSHC), with support from LISC, has been working for months with resident leaders and representatives from local churches, nonprofits, schools, healthcare providers, elected officials and others. 

Now, more than 200 residents fill the seats and line the walls to hear more about Belmont Cragin’s assets and challenges and to give their ideas for what will make a stronger community.

“Recently I’ve become more aware of what’s happening in the neighborhood in terms of safety issues,” said Carlos Olivero, a community resident. “I’m telling my neighbors if you see something, call the police.”

NWSHC helped Olivero and dozens of other homeowners band together to fight off foreclosure after the housing crash in 2009, awakening his interest in the community. “I’m here to support the neighborhood and hear what concerns everybody has,” he said.

Gloria Arroyo, who founded a local block club soon after buying a home in Belmont Cragin a year and a half ago, said she’s hoping a plan will include strategies to help homeowners fix up their properties, and maybe connect to programs that support energy efficiency. 

Yurida Espinosa teaches English-as-a-second-language (ESL) classes at Steinmetz, her alma mater. She heard about the community meeting through a flyer at work and on Facebook and says that she hopes the plan leads to more support for neighborhood schools. 

“We have beautiful schools here, but the resources and line of communication with the community is missing,” she said. “I haven’t heard of any other community gathering like this in Belmont Cragin, so I’m very excited that this is going on.”

A community in transition

Espinosa grew up in Belmont Cragin, and moved back after college to be close to her family. She said the neighborhood has changed a lot since she was a little girl and that the evidence can be seen on the commercial corridors. Most of the stores that served a predominately Italian and Polish population are gone, replaced in many cases by Latino shops and restaurants.

Belmont Cragin has long been one of Chicago’s quiet communities, where a working family can afford to buy a bungalow or rent an apartment in a two-flat to raise their kids. 

But as neighborhoods like Humboldt Park and Logan Square get “hot,” many of the residents who are priced out are moving west in search of what Belmont Cragin offers. The neighborhood’s population grew dramatically in the 1990s, adding 21,000 people and shifting from 30 percent to 65 percent Latino. It continued to grow the following decade, adding 1,000 residents for a new all-time high of 78,743, while the city as a whole lost 7 percent of its population.

Yurida Espinosa, a Steinmetz High grad who now teaches at the school, hopes the plan will focus in part on education issues in Belmont Cragin.

Gordon Walek

Changes come with consequences, though. Belmont Cragin isn’t as affordable as it used to be. Housing demand is pushing up rents and home prices, and NWSHC is seeing more families doubled or tripled up. The number of households in poverty in Belmont Cragin rose from 11 percent in 2000 to 21 percent in 2010, higher than the citywide average. The bungalow community does not have the train lines of its neighbors to the east, so more people (80 percent of residents) are driving. And, due in part to disrupted gang territories as members move west, crime and violence are on the rise, too. 

“Belmont Cragin has a lot of assets – it hasn’t seen the decades of disinvestment some neighborhoods have,” said Jake Ament, the program officer leading LISC’s work there. “This isn’t a neighborhood that often comes up in conversations across the city about communities in need, but residents see changes happening quickly and know that services and resources need to keep up.” 

Planning the process

James Rudyk, Jr., NWSHC’s executive director, said that Belmont Cragin is ready for a community plan. “This is a really critical moment in time to change the course of this community. We realized we needed to do more, but we can’t do it all ourselves,” he said. “Last year, we met several times with LISC and we could see that the quality-of-life planning process fit our goals and objectives.” 

Belmont Cragin is part of a new generation of plans sponsored by LISC. When the New Communities Program (NCP) launched more than a decade ago, the community-based, quality-of-life planning process was the bedrock for comprehensive development programs in 16 neighborhoods. Several NCP communities will soon start the organizing work to update their plans, joining Little Village (who updated their quality-of-life plan in 2013) and the Near North neighborhood, who unveiled their first quality-of-life plan earlier this year. 

Residents at the community meeting used stickers to vote on the importance of local assets and write in comments on a set of “vision boards” about key issues in Belmont Cragin.

Gordon Walek

“People recognize the value of approaching a community plan this way,” said Keri Blackwell, LISC’s deputy director. “The value of not trying to do it all top down – to find purpose in engaging with the community – has really been demonstrated.” 

For Belmont Cragin, the progress since January has been fast-paced and focused. In addition to a broad taskforce, five issue working groups – on health and seniors, economic development, youth development, affordable housing and education – have been meeting regularly. In April, the planning firm Teska Associates was brought in to facilitate the process. 

LISC supports early-action projects as part of quality-of-life planning to build momentum and show neighbors and allies that progress is possible. Belmont Cragin has already discussed, voted on and started two such projects: 

  • The education group held a summit in June that brought together, for the first time, a dozen schools with local parents and service organizations.
  • The economic development group is finalizing a set of banners, designed by a local high school student and bearing the names of local businesses, that will hang on streetlight posts on Belmont Cragin’s main avenues. 

Carlos Olivero was among the 200 Belmont Cragin residents who met with planners at Steinmetz High School to establish goals and strategies for the neighborhood's future.

Gordon Walek

Also the youth group, a collection of teens and supporters who meet weekly, threw a picnic in May and is full-steam ahead on a mural and other projects to get their peers involved. 

While all this was going on, each issue group wrote a list of possible goals and strategies to be considered for the plan, everything from improving youth relations with police to recruiting more healthcare specialists who accept Medicaid. 

Resident recruitment

At the June 17 community meeting, the months of preparation are paying dividends, as residents pepper a pair of presenters with their ideas around housing issues in Belmont Cragin. Their concerns are big (investors driving up home prices, rising property taxes) and small (permit street parking, blocked storm sewers). 

Ernie Lukasik, a volunteer presenter who, like Olivero, began working with NWSHC when his mortgage was underwater, repeatedly gestures to the note-taker. “Be sure to write that down, we need to look into that,” he said again and again, unwilling to let a single good idea get by. 

Lukasik is one of three pairs of presenters rotating between break-out sessions, deftly leading bilingual discussions about possible goals and strategies. Even though it’s late in the evening, almost nobody has gone home. Across the cafeteria, the conversation around schools and youth is just as lively. 

“I think everyone left with a sense of hope and feeling very motivated to move forward,” said Vanessa Valentin, the director of community organizing at NWSHC. “The process is great because it’s bringing the entire community together.”

Gordon Walek

“I think everyone left with a sense of hope and feeling very motivated to move forward,” said Vanessa Valentin, the director of community organizing at NWSHC. “The process is great because it’s bringing the entire community together.” 

With quality-of-life planning officially launched in Belmont Cragin, the team is charting next steps. The information gathered at the community meeting will go back to the issue groups so they can refine their strategies and start brainstorming suggested projects to bring back to the community. And, Valentin is already working to pull folks who went to the meeting into these more detailed discussions, connecting their passions to the right issue group. 

“My message is to keep reminding the community, you’ve got to get involved,” she said. “This is your project. Take ownership.” 

The next community meeting will be Tuesday October 6, 2015 at 5:30pm at Prosser Career Academy, 2148 N Long Ave, Chicago, IL. Check for forthcoming location details and to sign up for updates.

For more information:

LISC: Jake Ament,

NWSHC: Vanessa Valentin,

Posted in Belmont Cragin


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