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From Planning to Action on the Northwest Side

A half dozen individuals stood under the spotlights at the Northwest Side Housing Center’s (NWSHC) annual dinner last week to be honored with the NWSHC’s Rev. Schrey Partner of the Year Award for their work as committee chairs for the Belmont Cragin Quality-of-Life Plan.

The celebration represented the official release of the community’s plan, the product of nearly a year’s work, from monthly taskforce meetings to bi-lingual public meetings to outreach at summer block parties.

Belmont Cragin’s quality-of-life plan includes analysis of changing demographic trends in the Northwest Side community and calls for new services and programs to keep the neighborhood strong. 

“Together we are going to make a difference in Belmont Cragin,” said Vanessa Valentin, NWSHC’s director of community organizing, in her introduction for the award. “This plan has a lot we want to accomplish in our community. The work starts now.”

Her words were certainly for those on stage, who represented a mix of community institutions, from Riveredge Hospital to Onward Neighborhood House to local school councils. But even more, she was speaking to the nearly 500 residents and allies in the catering hall.

Valentin will be the first to say that the plan exists because of the ideas and energy from more than 600 residents and 30 local agencies and organizations who participated in the process.

Belmont Cragin’s new plan is the latest of 20 quality-of-life plans that LISC Chicago has supported in communities across the city over the years – and that does not include three South Side neighborhoods currently working on plans in Auburn Gresham, Chicago Lawn and Englewood.

As Belmont Cragin discovered, in many ways, the work to create these plan is as important as the final document itself. “The quality-of-life planning process is a community-building process,” said Maritza Bandera, a local resident and co-chair of the education and youth committee. The neighborhood passed a milestone when it handed out the printed plan last week, but its impact is already being felt.

“It’s like a magnifying glass. It brings such clarity,” said David Potete, pastor of the Northwest Community Church, a deeply engaged partner in the process. “I’m thrilled. I can’t wait to see how we’ll fit in to the next steps." 

Principal Stacy Stewart of Belmont Cragin Elementary School (left) shares a laugh with Maritza Bandera, co-chair of the QLP’s education and youth committee, at the celebration of the plan’s release last week.

A plan for a changing community

For Belmont Cragin’s plan, the first task is to paint a clear picture of where the neighborhood is today. The community has changed over the last decade, often in ways that haven’t been fully acknowledged or understood, and services and programs are falling behind demographic trends.

Long-time community assets – busy commercial corridors and quiet streets of bungalows and three-flats, hard-working residents and good local schools—are still in place.

While the neighborhood retains its Eastern European roots, however, today the population is 80 percent Hispanic, a melting pot from Mexico, Poland, Puerto Rico, Central Europe and Central America. More than a quarter of residents speak limited or no English.

Over the past decade, poverty rates in Belmont Cragin have risen to more than one in five households, higher than the city average, and affordable housing in the neighborhood is hard to find. More than a third of adults living in the community have less than a high school degree or GED.

“The neighborhood is at a crossroads right now, and the plan explains what the issues are and why now is the time to address them so the community can continue to prosper and grow,” said Jake Ament, the LISC Chicago program officer who helped spearhead the partnership in Belmont Cragin.

The plan focuses on four crucial issue areas for the neighborhood’s future: affordable housing, businesses and jobs, education and youth, and health and older adults. Each section explains where Belmont Cragin is now and gives a vision for where to go, with specific strategies and programs to get there.

With more than 1,800 students in the community attending an overcrowded elementary school, there is a call to redraw some attendance boundaries and work with the Chicago Public Schools to build a new school. There are plans to help immigrants find affordable health care, market the community to new businesses, support renters and homeowners, and much more.

“At least one organization or local leader put their name next to every project—not necessarily that they’ll do all the work, but that they’ll move it forward,” Ament said. “Somebody has to own it. It’s not just a lot of good ideas that have been written down hoping someone someday will come and have an impact.”

Already making a difference

Although Belmont Cragin’s plan was officially released last week, a whole lot has already been accomplished throughout the process, even beyond the early action projects that are a hallmark of LISC’s quality-of-life planning.

For starters, the taskforce and issue groups have forged real connections among the many participating local social service agencies, schools, churches, health care providers and other groups, an important development in a community that hasn’t had a deep history of collaboration.

At the same time, armed with the planning process’ data and accelerating momentum, NWSHC has started meeting with potential supporters and partners, from the Woods Fund to the Mayor’s Office and the Chicago Department of Planning and Development.

Investments are already happening. After School Matters recently announced that Belmont Cragin will be the site of the group’s first permanent teen center outside of downtown, and conversations are underway about key parts of the plan: that new elementary school in the neighborhood, a community center and a community health center.

Vanessa Valentin, Jose Quiles and local officials present the Belmont Cragin plan to Forrest Claypool, CEO of Chicago Public Schools. The community’s plan calls for redrawing local school boundaries and a new elementary school.

“It’s really put Belmont Cragin on the map. It’s been exciting. LISC has a great reputation and has relationships with these groups, so they’re able to connect us and help provide resources,” explained James Rudyk, Jr., NWSHC’s executive director.

Rudyk also said the planning process has helped transform NWSHC. The group has learned how to be a convener in the community and to build a network. “Without NWSHC’s leadership, there wouldn’t be a plan,” Ament said. “The energy and neighborhood commitment they bring to this is amazing.”

With the official unveiling of the plan, work to implement its strategies and programs will go into high gear. There are new partnerships with groups like Mikva Challenge and a newly formed coalition of local school councils. A market study commissioned by the plan’s affordable housing committee to add more data to its decisions – and its case for investment and support – is ready this month as well.

“Our immediate goal is to get the plan out there,” Rudyk said. “Our issue groups are still meeting monthly and the steering committee is meeting every other month. We are ready for more action.”

Meanwhile, on the South Side...

Staff from the Northwest Side Housing Center have been meeting regularly with their counterparts in Auburn Gresham, Chicago Lawn and Englewood, which started their own quality-of-life plans early this year. The planning coalition has been an opportunity to compare notes and get technical assistance and support from LISC, from training on facilitating community planning meetings to help gathering and interpreting neighborhood-level data.

“Community planning is such a big part of our vision at LISC for how comprehensive community development should work and can have an impact,” Ament said. “We’re heavily invested in working with our partners to get the most from their quality-of-life planning process.” 

In Englewood, the planning process has included a special focus on bringing in resident voices, a way to counteract a history of plans made from outside the community.

All three South Side communities have held big public meetings over the last few months to launch their efforts, and taskforces and committees get together monthly or bi-monthly.

The twist is that while Belmont Cragin is a few stages ahead of the South Side communities in this round of quality-of-life planning, the other three communities are revisiting and building on plans that they released just over a decade ago. They have an opportunity to revisit what has worked and what needs more work – as well as adding some new areas to explore.

The three neighborhood have identified a number of similar issues to focus on: economic development, education and youth, jobs, health and wellness, affordable housing, and public safety and anti-violence.

Within these categories, strategies are tailor-made for the community’s needs and strengths. Auburn Gresham, for example, is discussing development of a business incubator to facilitate entrepreneurial activity, and Englewood is thinking about creating advocacy groups to connect residents with community organizations for housing.

Other issues are driven by each neighborhood’s demographics and unique situations. Led by the Southwest Organizing Project, Chicago Lawn has an immigration committee, and Auburn Gresham has one for senior services.

Auburn Gresham, led by the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corp, also has a faith-based outreach issue area to better connect the 500 churches in the neighborhood with community development goals.

The approach to building the plan varies, as well. In Englewood, where outside developers, planners and policymakers have been drawing up schemes to change the neighborhood for decades, quality-of-life plan leader Teamwork Englewood has made a resident-led planning process a priority.

“Englewood is tired of people planning for them. They really wanted to be sure that the community was doing this for themselves,” said Dionne Baux, senior program officer at LISC Chicago.

Teamwork Englewood hired staff from local organizations like R.A.G.E. and community block clubs to bring out residents to lead and organize the planning process.

“They’re building a lot of capacity at the grassroots level,” Baux said. “When the plan is ready, they should be a force that can help move policy and make the changes they envisioned in the community happen.”

As the folks living and working in Belmont Cragin can attest, that sounds like a plan that can – and will – work out very well.

See Belmont Cragin’s Quality-of-Life Plan here.

Posted in Placemaking, Belmont Cragin


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