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CNDA Forum: Strategies That Work, Policies That Don’t

Participants in the CNDA Forum included, from left, Brandis Friedman, Peter Levavi, Asiaha Butler, Shelley Stern Grach, Berto Aguayo, Amisha Patel, Raul Raymundo and Jack Markowski.

Photos by Eric Young Smith

Develop homeowners, not just homes.

Focus like a laser on neighborhoods still reeling from foreclosures and flight.

Widen that focus beyond programs to reform an economy that increasingly rewards the few at the expense of the many.

Three different perspectives on what’s needed, yet somehow they meshed dynamically at the annual Forum discussion that kicked off the 22nd annual Chicago Neighborhood Development Awards (CNDA).    

Their responses to the Forum’s “What’s Your Perspective?” theme closely reflected the professional backgrounds of the three expert panelists.

Raul Raymundo, CEO of The Resurrection Project (TRP), said the key to TRP’s development of over 600 dwellings in the Pilsen neighborhood – aside from carefully marshaling over $600 million in public/private investment – is helping families gain the job and financial literacy to become homebuyers and landlords.  

“We begin by working with the assets of the community, the assets of the people,” said Raymundo. “Development is never just about bricks and mortar. It’s about creating owners … and involving residents from the get-go.”

Panelist Jack Markowski, though he once ran a community group in the Edgewater neighborhood, brought the perspective of a deal-maker honed during years as Chicago’s Commissioner of Housing, and now, president of the non-profit Community Investment Corp. (CIC).

“After the crash we have become a city of neighborhood haves and have-nots,” Markowski said of the Great Recession’s aftermath. North lakefront neighborhoods have recovered nicely and are booming, he said. Others on the South and West sides “have been set back 15-20 years” and still face declining populations and property values. One take-away, he argued, is to stop agonizing over gentrification and find better ways to re-attach these still-struggling neighborhoods to the city’s economic mainstream.

Panelist Amisha Patel, however, described a broader pattern of economic elitism that needs to be changed if more neighborhoods are to avoid the pitfall of disinvestment. The activist executive director of The Grassroots Collaborative explained why she’s helping lead a Take Back Chicago coalition of labor unions and community groups. They’re fighting, she said, for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, more progressive taxation, limits on corporate subsidies and an end to refinancing deals that stiff public schools and profit banks.

“The service economy is creating poverty-wage jobs,” added Patel. “So we’re working on policy change.” Their struggles include the “Fight for Fifteen” and restoration of both public and non-profit sector jobs – such as teacher assistant and social worker – whose elimination due to budget woes undermines the economies of minority neighborhoods.

Moderator Brandis Friedman, a correspondent for WTTW-TV’s Chicago Tonight, started the conversation by first asking three vastly different community development constituencies to share their perspective.

Student musicians from The Mariachi Project provided musical accompaniment to the CNDA Forum and the formal awards ceremony.

Peter Levavi, a senior VP at Brinshore Development, asked what the panel thinks of new federal directives to redouble efforts to help the urban poor move to outlying suburbs or more affluent city neighborhoods. Berto Aguayo, a 21-year-old who quit a Back of the Yards street gang to later become student body president at Dominican University, urged the panel to regard minority teens as an energetic if too-often untapped asset, not as a violence-prone problem. Asiaha Butler, a founder of Resident Association of Greater Englewood (R.A.G.E.), reminded all that “residents must lead if it’s really going to work.”

The Forum ended as it began, with a brassy fanfare by the young musicians of the Orozco Mariachi band, a part of the Chicago Mariachi Project. Their recessional marched from the Chicago Hilton’s Grand Ballroom, where the Forum was held, to the awards ceremony in the hotel’s International Ballroom.

A buzzing, animated audience followed the band, with many asking or answering some variation of “What’s Your Perspective?”

Posted in Placemaking


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Local Initiatives Support Corporation Chicago connects neighborhoods to the resources they need to become stronger and healthier.

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