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Neighborhoods salute beginning of school

Community organizations on August 28 took advantage of the waning days of summer to help residents gear up for the challenges and opportunities that a new fall season inevitably presents. Vacations are over, school’s beginning, life goes on. Following are reports from West Haven, Pilsen and Washington Park.

First annual Near West Fest bridges gap between long-timers and newly arrived

Maybe it was the smell of burgers smoking on the grill, or the R&B sounds beaming from DJ Steve “Miggedy-Miggety” Maestro, or the solar energy of a cloudless summer afternoon.

Whatever it was, a good vibe of friendship and community radiated from the Near West Fest held on the outdoor plaza of Malcolm X College at Damen and Van Buren.

Photo: John McCarron

Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) and Earnest Gates, executive director of Near West Side Community Development Corp., enjoy the first annual Near West Fest.

“This is about bringing people together without the rancor that sometimes pulls us apart,” said Earnest Gates, executive director of NCP lead agency Near West Side Community Development Corp.

Near West teamed up with the neighborhood Chamber of Commerce, with several churches and blocks clubs, and with the Homeowners of Westtown to stage the first-ever event. The new partnership, called the Unification Focus Initiative, aims to be a continuing forum for airing and settling differences that inevitably arise in a neighborhood as dynamic and diverse as the Near West Side.

“We haven’t always worked together. Too often we’ve been in our own silos,” conceded Mike Quinlan, executive director of the Chamber, who was helping serve walk-up customers at the grill tent.

A certain amount of factionalism isn’t surprising, given the neighborhood’s history. There are the longtime renters and owners who survived the riots of 1968, survived the urban renewal clearance binge that followed, then helped negotiate the neighborhood-friendly deal that saw the United Center replace the old Chicago Stadium. 

Then there are the decidedly non-affluent public housing tenants who’ve moved into replacement townhouses now that Rockwell Gardens and Henry Horner Homes are no more. There are, in addition, the relatively affluent buyers of market-priced townhouses and condominiums, many of whom were, until the present slowdown, hoping to be part of the next River North or South Loop phenomenon.

More often than not, the factions square off at assemblies such as a hearing to debate what kind of grocery store – a trendy gourmet emporium or a case-lot discounter – best suits the neighborhood. Police-sponsored CAPS meetings too often divide between those bothered by kids “hangin’ out” on sidewalks and those bothered by careless dog-walkers. 

None of that was in evidence at Near West Fest.

“This is beautiful,” said Ald. Bob Fioretti, whose 2nd Ward information booth looked at home across from one offering Class Salon beauty tips, another the financial services of PNC Bank and a third dishing out tacos courtesy of Angel’s Restaurant on Ashland Avenue. “You hear so much about all the bad things that happen on the West Side. This is one of the good things.”

Besides LISC/Chicago and NCP, other major sponsors of the Fest included the Partnership for New Communities, Elite Truck Rental, d’Aprile Realty, CTS Financial Enterprises, West Haven Community Coin Laundry, The Hope Institute Learning Academy, West Haven Market & Grill and Wines for Humanity.

More information: Michael Quinlan, or (312) 738-2280. To watch a slideshow of the event, please click here. 

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In Pilsen, a back-to-school bash

By Cristobal Martinez

Meanwhile, in the Pilsen neighborhood, Mayor Daley, Chicago Public Schools CEO Ron Huberman, Police Superintendent Jody Weis, CAPS Director Ron Holt, and Ald. Danny Solis (25th) attended the fourth annual back-to-school bash to tell students and their parents about the importance of getting an education.

Hundreds of families filled Juarez Plaza at Benito Juarez High School, to hear the dignitaries and receive new backpacks, notebooks, folders and pencils – all donated by Pilsen’s private sector.

Photo: Cristobal Martinez

Hundreds of families listened to several dignitaries extol the virtues of getting a good education during the back-to-school rally in Pilsen.

“The goal is to show these young minds that we believe in them and are behind them 100 percent,” said Solis about providing the proper supplies to CPS students. There were also plenty of giveaways from the Chicago Fire, the Chicago White Sox and Pilsen’s local businesses.

“Parents are the key to keeping the students on track,” said Mayor Daley. “If they don’t bring their kids to school on September 7, they are risking the proper funding for that school.”

Schools CEO Ron Huberman stressed the importance of attendance and noted why such back-to-school bashes are important. “Events like this one in Pilsen are critical,” he said. “We want to get the word out about the importance of being in school the first day and every day after that.”

Weis and Holt said they were collaborating with CPS to ensure every student feels safe during their arrival and dismissal from school.

“CAPS is working directly with CPS and community organizations at schools in high-crime areas to develop a citywide outreach program that will keep students busy during their free time,” said Holt. “The initiative is currently on the drawing board but will be implemented this year, and it will range from tutoring sessions to sports related activities.”

Weis pledged to stop unnecessary violence against Chicago Public Schools students. “We have a dedicated team to curb trouble in schools throughout the city before it even has a chance to escalate,” he said. He also said that CPD will continue working with CPS staff to identify individuals causing problems and to get them the proper help they need.

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Peace festival in Washington Park

And in the K.L.E.O. Community Family Life Center parking lot, on East Garfield Boulevard in Washington Park, more than 1,500 parents and their children gathered for the second annual Peace Fest and back-to-school rally.

Sponsored by the K.L.E.O. Center and NCP lead agency the Washington Park Consortium, the event promotes the theme “Becoming a Piece of Peace,” and aims to bring young people together to celebrate the end of summer, promote attendance on the first day of school and advocate for peaceful streets.

Photo: Juan Francisco Hernandez

K.L.E.O. Community Family Life Center and NCP lead agency the Washington Park Consortium brought together more than 1,500 parents and their children for a peace rally and back-to-school bash.

Community leaders, government representatives and a day-long lineup of entertainment, including musical acts and the Jesse White Tumblers, highlighted the event. In addition, to help students prepare for the upcoming school year, local barbers offered free haircuts (134 kids got trimmed), medical service providers had free health screenings, and various donors contributed free book bags (750 of them, full of school supplies).

Speakers include Ald. Willie Cochran (20th), Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), State Sen. Mattie Hunter, State Rep. Ken Dunkin, State Rep. Will Burns, Sean Harding, of Chicago Public Schools, and Pastor T.L. Barrett, Jr.

“Something as simple as a haircut can give a young man or woman the confidence they need to start the school year on a positive note,” said Brandon Johnson, executive director of the Washington Park Consortium. “We want to empower our young people to take advantage of their education and the opportunities they are given. Peace Fest is a way to achieve this.”

The Washington Park Consortium and the K.L.E.O. Center are also using Peace Fest to begin developing a plan of action to keep the area’s streets free from violence.

“This is an important community event because there is escalating violence in Washington Park,” said Torrey Barrett, executive director of the K.L.E.O. Center. “A lot of times, community members will march in protest of the violence, and we’re saying we can all be part of the solution.”

In October, the two organizations are co-sponsoring a violence intervention workshop with the University of Chicago. The goal is to coordinate social service program in the 3rd and 20th wards, improving social and emotional learning opportunities for students.

“Community members often say they’re tired of the violence, but they don’t set up plans of action to follow through on their statements,” Johnson said. “We think, by working together, we can create a safer environment with longer-lasting results.”

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