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Chicago Rising

President Barack Obama’s urban policy team is looking to Chicago, and especially to the tools and tactics of NCP, as they craft a new, “bottoms up” federal approach to neighborhood revitalization.

So declared Adolfo Carrión, Jr., director of the new White House Office of Urban Affairs, in his keynote speech to NCP’s annual assembly held Oct. 29 at the Fairmont Hotel.

Photo: Eric Young Smith

Andrew Mooney of LISC/Chicago (from left) and Julia Stasch of the MacArthur Foundation welcomed Adolfo Carrion of the newly created White House Office of Urban Affairs.

"At the street level, people have been coming up with smart, innovative solutions,” Carrión told the 500 neighborhood leaders, activists and volunteers gathered for “Chicago Rising: What a Community Can Be.”

"You’ve been doing it here in Chicago,” he said. “We want to follow your lead.” (To see a video of Carrion's speech, please click here.)

Carrión is no stranger to the NCP’s grassroots approach. As Bishop Arthur Brazier explained in his introduction of Carrión, the former president of New York’s Bronx borough worked closely with the Comprehensive Community Revitalization Program (CCRP), a LISC-supported effort credited by many with sparking that community’s remarkable turnaround during the 1990s.

A rave-up roll call

But before he talked about the success of grassroots programs there and here, a smiling Carrión confessed he was “taken back” by the raw, bordering on raucous, enthusiasm displayed by NCP’s local delegations during the roll call of neighborhoods before his speech.

Photo: Eric Young Smith

“At the street level, people have been coming up with smart, innovative solutions,” Carrión told the 500 neighborhood leaders, activists and volunteers. “You’ve been doing it here in Chicago. We want to follow your lead.”

One at a time, as each neighborhood was asked to report, delegations jumped up from their luncheon tables and cut loose. They hooted. They hollered. They blew whistles and pounded on an assortment of drums.

NCP lead agency Greater Southwest Community Development Corp. unfurled its room-sized banner still bearing the signatures of all who committed to that neighborhood’s quality-of-life plan.

Perhaps inspired by all the neighborhood pride, emcee Earnest Gates, executive director of NCP lead agency the Near West Side Community Development Corp., declared he had proof that -- contrary to the claims of others -- President Obama actually was born on the West Side.

“I’ve spoken in many settings. But Reverend Mooney,” Carrión began his keynote, nodding at LISC/Chicago’s executive director, “I have never been to a church like this … or even a rally like this.”

Photo: Eric Young Smith

Carlos Nelson, executive director of Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corp., listens to Susan Yanun, NCP director at Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

Hard times, harder issues

Once the opening bravado subsided, however, NCP leaders focused intently on the issues facing their communities, first as outlined by speakers at the opening plenary, and later as participants in a series of small-group Recovery Roundtables, where they shared ideas on how to keep pushing forward against the headwinds of today’s Great Recession.

“I don’t need to remind you of the litany of our distress—foreclosures, unemployment, violence,” host Andrew Mooney sympathized before the Roundtables began. “You are the leaders. You have taken responsibility for your communities. Because of you, Chicago will rise, and the NCP platform will be one of its foundations.”

Mooney and Gates also made a special presentation—a pair of bright red boxing gloves—to Julia Stasch, the MacArthur Foundation’s vice president for Human and Community Development. They hailed her “unbending” support of NCP, now in its eighth year of MacArthur’s 10-year financial commitment.

Photo: Eric Young Smith

Speakers at the Chicago Rising event included Michael Johnson, principal of Reavis Elementary; and Juana Ballesteros, executive director of the Greater Humboldt Park Community of Wellness.

“It is the urban neighborhood that shapes the quality of life for most people in this country,” Stasch said in accepting her fighter’s trophy. “It’s a new day for the relationship between neighborhoods and the federal government, and the New Communities Program is the platform, the model, for that relationship.”

Other luncheon speakers included Livia Villarreal, director of the Southwest REACH Center, where in just three years more than 1,000 families have received anti-foreclosure counseling along with help in seeking jobs and applying for public benefits.

She urged Carrión, when he returns to Washington, to get the president and his White House staff to “face west on a clear day, and tell them that the warm red glow on the horizon is Chicago rising.”

She was followed by Michael Johnson, principal of Reavis Elementary School, who has been working with NCP lead agency Quad Communities Development Corp. (QCDC) on its version of the LISC/Chicago-supported Elev8 academic enrichment program.

Photo: Eric Young Smith

Will Towns of Chicago's Neighborhood Stabilization Program makes a point as others listen during a roundtable discussion.

“Our children are not only learning but thriving,” said Johnson, who closed by reminding Carrión that Reavis is located just three blocks from the president’s Kenwood home.

Other featured speakers included Carlos Nelson, executive director of NCP lead agency the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corp.; and Juana Ballesteros, executive director of the Greater Humboldt Park Community of Wellness.

Besides conducting the animated neighborhood roll call, the pair, with apologies to author Charles Dickens, recited a “best of times, worst of times” list of challenges and opportunities “here in the Land of Obama.”

Notes of the Roundtable

It was at the afternoon Recovery Roundtables, however, that the local leaders and volunteers got down to serious details. At a table focused on getting deals done in a brutal real estate market, QCDC Executive Director Bernita Johnson-Gabriel talked about how her agency had switched a planned project from condominiums to rentals and suggested that similar flexibility could help others find solutions.

“There was no way anybody was going to build more condos,” she said of a change recently made to keep alive their Shops on 47 mixed-use development on Cottage Grove Avenue. “You have to think outside the box. You have to bring together people who have never met.”

“If we bond together as one, we can take the streets back.” was the way James Riddle of Bethel New Life described anti-violence efforts in and around Garfield Park.

Photo: Eric Young Smith

Developer David Baum speaks during a workshop session.

Two major themes emerged from the Violence Prevention roundtable: the power of collaboration, and the need to develop career paths for ex-offenders.

At the table on Education and Youth Development, Luis Bermudez, director of the Elev8 program at Orozco Academy in Pilsen, connected the personal with the professional. “My mother was only asked to come to my school when there was some sort of trouble,” he said. “It's about changing that culture.”

And in a discussion about Youth Sports, Adolfo Hernandez, advocacy director for the Active Transportation Alliance noted: “It’s not just a game. It’s about developing future leaders, future organizers who are going to be in a room like this. It’s about more than just throwing a ball into a hoop.”

David Baum, whose Baum Realty Group is transforming an old lamp factory in Logan Square into a Green Exchange for entrepreneurs, told the Green & Sustainable roundtable that one key is convincing local residents of the health, economic and environmental benefits of going green.

For example, buying produce from an urban garden supports local jobs, reduces carbon usage and sustains a project that contributes to neighborhood health. “The more people who understand the benefits of that whole cycle,” said Baum, “the more demand there will be.”

Photo: Eric Young Smith

LISC/Chicago's Joel Bookman hands the mic to Adolfo Hernandez of the Active Transportation Alliance during a workshop at "Chicago Rising."

Baum’s point echoed a theme of Carrión’s earlier keynote—that NCP points the way to a “paradigm shift from a consumption model to a production model.”

Rather than beg a supermarket chain to come into a neighborhood and extract its disposable income, Carrión said, smart neighborhoods ask developers, “Where’s the community partner that can build the store, the [local] manager that can manage the store, the [local] suppliers that can supply the store.”

Heroes recognized

Following the Roundtables, NCP’s local leaders and volunteers returned to the Fairmont ballroom for a ceremony honoring “Community Heroes” selected by each of NCP’s 16 neighborhoods. A complete listing of the Heroes and a description of their heroic service can be found in this booklet and program for the ceremony.

“They have planted the seeds in our communities to make them the very best they can be,” said Gates of Near West CDC. Commissioner Chris Raguso of the city’s Department of Community Development then saluted the Heroes on behalf of Mayor Daley.

Photo: Eric Young Smith

The day ended with a ceremony to honor "Community Heroes" from each of NCP's 16 neighborhoods.

A reception followed for the Heroes and their friends and families. Then on Oct. 30, Carrión and Mooney toured two NCP neighborhoods to observe first hand what is being accomplished. Carrión met with NCP leaders at Perspectives/Calumet Charter School in Auburn Gresham (click here for an account of that), and then had a discussion with Humboldt Park leaders at La Estancia, a Bickerdike development on Division Street.

“You’ve been holding us together with local solutions, without much help from Washington,” Carrión said. “At the end of the day, when all is said and done, we ought to be investing in smart plans--plans driven by the communities all across this country.”

Elizabeth Duffrin, Ed Finkel, Maureen Kelleher and Carl Vogel contributed to this report.

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