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A New Stage for Belmont Cragin…and, Quality-of-Life Planning in Auburn Gresham, Chicago Lawn and Englewood

More than 200 residents and other community stakeholders gathered at Belmont Cragin Elementary School on December 17 for an event that was part design charrette and part talent show – with a bit of tent revival meeting thrown in for good measure.

The final community meeting to create a Belmont Cragin quality-of-life plan could have served as the dictionary definition for a big chunk of the letter E: Enthusiasm. Engagement. Entertainment. Energy. It even dipped into the letter D: Democracy.

Led by the Northwest Side Housing Center (NWSHC), a neighborhood taskforce and subcommittees dedicated to specific issues have been meeting since March 2015, writing and refining strategies to map out the future of the community. They’ve reached out to hundreds of residents and neighborhood institutions with community meetings, door-to-door survey teams, and outreach at events like local school council meetings.

“This plan would not be possible without you,” said James Rudyk, Jr., NWSHC’s executive director, in his speech to start the night. “This is a plan that is for, by and with the residents of Belmont Cragin. You’re here tonight to tell us what you want for the neighborhood.”

“This plan would not be possible without you,” said James Rudyk, Jr., left,  NWSHC’s executive director. “This is a plan that is for, by and with the residents of Belmont Cragin."

For a few folks in the audience, the meeting was a glimpse into the past – and the future. Representatives from several lead agencies in the LISC New Communities Network were on hand to see how Belmont Cragin is creating its plan. A decade or more ago, Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP), Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corp. (GAGDC) and Teamwork Englewood led the design of quality-of-life plans in their own neighborhoods.

Today, these groups are working with LISC to create a new generation of community plans.

“Nothing is static, and in communities there are changes in opportunities, needs, population and leadership,” said Chris Brown, LISC Chicago’s director, education and engagement. “It’s not enough to do a plan once. For these neighborhoods with a 12- or 13-year-old plan, they’re refreshing their vision – with all that’s going on in this city right now for people at the neighborhood level to be thoughtful and coordinated in charting their own course and speaking on behalf of their community is really important.”

Fun activities bring serious ideas

At Belmont Cragin Elementary, the meeting started with music and energy – a short student recital of holiday songs on violin and guitar – that continued throughout, with performances ranging from cha-cha dancers to a chorus belting out Katy Perry to a sweet traditional Mexican song sung a cappella.

While students commanded the stage, the audience got out of their seats to visit stations around the perimeter of the room, each designed to gather input on one of the four issue areas that will be the heart of the Belmont Cragin quality-of-life plan.

For Businesses and Jobs, participants chose from hundreds of images from magazines and newspapers to show what kind of stores and services the neighborhood could use, favorite existing shops, and what kind of job training is needed – a particularly popular category. For Health and Older Adults, votes on available and missing local health care options were tallied with “thumbs up” stickers on presentation boards.

Residents placed tiny models of houses on maps to indicate their preferences for new townhomes, retail, and mixed-use buildings.

Photos by Nancy Valentin

At the Affordable Housing tables, residents were able to show their preferred mix and location of new townhomes, retail, and mixed-use buildings. As they considered where to place tiny models on the maps, the conversations were filled with valuable details about life in Belmont Cragin: the streets near this park are too congested, the east side needs more affordable housing, there aren’t enough places for little kids to play – could we get a Chuck E. Cheese, maybe?

Participants were able to role play urban planner at the Education and Youth station as well. Each person was given $350,000 in “Belmont Cragin Bucks” to divvy up between options for activities at a proposed new community center. After-school programming and a new track-and-field facility were the winners there.

“People who live in the community know what resources are needed,” said Shirnette Gosberry, who’s lived in Belmont Cragin for almost 30 years. “We know day to day what’s going on in the community. I think it’s about time to hear the voice of the people.”

At the end, just before the winners of the #mybelmontcragin photo contest were announced, several parents from local schools got on the mike one by one to exhort everyone to stay involved and help change the community.

“We need to fight for a new school for Belmont Cragin, [one of the proposed ideas in the community plan],” said Serafin Patiño, in Spanish. Then he started a call and response of “Si Se Puede!” That needed no translation.

One nears the end, three more begin

As Belmont Cragin is getting the last details right for its quality-of-life plan, Englewood, Auburn Gresham and Chicago Lawn are starting to roll out their community planning process.

“We want a broad section of the community at that first meeting,” said David McDowell, the senior organizer at SWOP. “We’re starting with a wide vision of the community – what do they want to see in the neighborhood in five years?”

In Englewood, the key word is engagement for the first community meeting scheduled for Saturday, January, 23, 2016 from 11 a.m. – 1 p.m. at Kennedy-King College (747 W. 63rd St. – Mini Great Hall). “We want much more resident involvement in the planning process, even more than for the last quality-of-life plan,” said Perry Gunn, Teamwork Englewood’s executive director.

“We want people to sign up, to make a commitment to participate in the process,” said Rosalind Moore, the program manager at Teamwork Englewood. “They’re going to leave that meeting with their schedule for the year!”

The community meetings are a big step toward creating concrete strategies for issues that weren’t a big part of the first round of plans but the groups have heard more and more about from residents over the years – health and education in Englewood, for example, and jobs for adults and youth in Chicago Lawn.

This round of plans is also an opportunity to revisit the planning process itself. LISC has worked with the lead agencies to tweak the quality-of-life planning structure. The groups have more control over how they build and manage their planning team and LISC is providing more technical assistance.

“We’ve been meeting monthly since June,” Dionne Baux, senior program officer, LISC Chicago, said. “Our approach is to build upon capacity that already exists in the neighborhoods to engage on their local issues, to build up their toolbox to facilitate meetings and attract greater investments in the community.”

In this light, the community meetings are more than a way to gather information about what residents want – they’re a forum to organize the structure, momentum and grassroots power to make the ideas in the plans a reality. That’s why GAGDC, SWOP and Teamwork Englewood are so carefully considering how to build interest and commitment at their first community meetings, and why NWSHC had residents take the stage at Belmont Cragin Elementary to pump up their peers to stay involved.

“That was our last planning meeting,” Vanessa Valentin, the NWSHC’s director of community organizing, told the members of the taskforce after the last resident left. “But the real work is about to start.”

Posted in Placemaking, Belmont Cragin


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