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Lawndale renewal continues, step at a time

The Biblical prophecy, a favorite hereabouts, foretells the revival of Jerusalem, not North Lawndale … though it well describes what’s happening to the greystones along West Douglas Boulevard.

"It’s an NCP strategy," said Kim Jackson, executive director of Lawndale Christian Development Corporation, or LCDC. "We’re not just providing an opportunity for first-time home buyers, we’re preserving a piece of North Lawndale history."

Photo: Eric Young Smith

Block clubs held a "Radical Makeover" competition with the winning block getting the services of a professional landscaper. Runners-up got seeds, tools and do-it-yourself technical assistance.

Which is why they gathered on a warm Wednesday in August—the congressman, the alderman, the commissioner of housing and dozens more who helped make it happen—to offer a prayer of thanksgiving and to cut the ribbon on the refurbished grey lady at 3242.

Early last year LCDC acquired 10 of the dirty-but-dignified buildings after a previous owner, Lawndale Restoration, let them decay and default on their mortgages. The struggle to revive this neighborhood, one of the city’s poorest, is like that—two steps forward, one step back.

Much of the forward progress for the past 20 years has been supplied by LCDC, the local partner in LISC/Chicago’s New Communities Program. A ministry of Lawndale Community Church, LCDC has built or is building and rehabbing over 200 affordable homes, well over $50 million worth of development.

But a lot more than real estate is being restored. After all, this was the place the Chicago Tribune chose as Exhibit A in its graphic 1985 "American Millstone" series on the plight of the so-called "urban underclass."

Investing in people

Those stories still rankle longtime activists, but they did help inspire renewal efforts that continue to have impact. The Steans Family Foundation, for instance, working with LCDC and other groups, has invested heavily in family-oriented capacity-building.

Community members want to turn this old fire station into a community art center.

One venture, the North Lawndale Employment Network, or NLEN, each year prepares and places hundreds of residents—including a good number of ex-offenders returning to this part of the city from prison—in living-wage jobs.

With help from the MacArthur Foundation, Casey Foundation and LISC, NLEN has become a Center for Working Families, complete with financial counseling, help with income taxes and even entrepreneurial skills that range to urban farming and beekeeping.

This same basic strategy—broadening partnerships so as to expand proven programs—can be found throughout "Faith Rewarded," the 2005 NCP quality-of-life plan that some 300 North Lawndale residents helped draft.

"We had a fairly narrow constituency before joining NCP," recalled Richard Townsell, who guided LCDC into the NCP fold near the end of his 14-year run as executive director. "It forced us to build partnerships, to forge alliances. Plus it brought resources we never had, like the planners from Camiros."

Now the focus is on implementation, and all across North Lawndale the seeds planted by "Faith Rewarded" are starting to bud:

* Strengthening and sprucing up the Ogden Avenue commercial spine has begun with launch of a Public Art Corridor. It features wall murals, "bricolage" mosaics and sidewalk benches decorated by local kids working with the Chicago Public Art Group and After School Matters. Careful oversight is also going to the Ogden-Pulaski-Cermak "five corners" area where a city-proposed tax increment, or TIF, district could pave the way for a needed family entertainment center.

* Planning is stepping up for a Dr. Martin Luther King Memorial District centered on 16th and Hamlin Streets, where the civil rights leader once took an apartment to dramatize the plight of inner-city blacks. There would be a housing complex affordable to both renters and owners, a new park and playground, a new community center for the Marcy Newberry and Chicago Youth Centers and a new public library.

* Technical training and career preparation continues at LCDC’s award-winning, 42-computer Community Technology Center, where students hone digital skills and explore job opportunities online. Dozens of adults were motivated and prepped to take the Chicago Police Department’s entrance exam through an NCP-funded "Careers in Law Enforcement" program.

* In partnership with neighboring Little Village, LCDC prepped North Lawndale teens to take advantage of the new Little Village/Lawndale High School and its college-track opportunities. Planning is underway for a career-oriented charter school as well. Also in the works are an on-line radio program in cooperation with Little Village/Lawndale High School and web pages for small businesses to supplement a recently launched on-line business directory.

"There is still a lot to be done," admits LCDC director Kim Jackson, "but these are challenges we embrace."

Pushing forward

And the challenges do keep coming, witness the outpouring of anger this summer following the fatal shooting by police of a fleeing 18-year-old. Or the drumbeat of demographic data showing that, while North Lawndale has made progress in areas such as housing and education, the numbers continue to disappoint on unemployment, household income and retail sales.

LCDC recently acquired and rehabbed 10 buildings that had been severely deteriorated.

This is a community, however, that is gradually rediscovering its strengths and its niche in post-industrial Chicago. The Sears Roebuck headquarters and the International Harvester tractor factory may be long gone, but new opportunities are surely arriving. The wave of private sector redevelopment emanating from downtown has crossed California Avenue and is headed this way.

The biggest problem now facing LCDC’s various housing initiatives is not finding mortgage-able families … but affordable vacant lots. That’s new. Not long ago the city gave them away. Not that gentrification will be a problem anytime soon. But the planners’ vision, the one laid out in "Faith Rewarded" of "a neighborly community filled with resources," is well on its way to becoming reality.

So was it prophesied. So will it be.

Contact: Kim Jackson, LCDC, 773-762-8889; kjackson@lcdc.net

North Lawndale Community Area  

POPULATION

Population (2005) 38,309, Down 7%, since 2000

Pop. Chg. (1960-2005) Down 86,628, Rate of decline has slowed since 2000

Racial/Ethnic Makeup (2005) 94% African-American, Latinos now 5.2%

HOUSING

Housing units (2005) 13,454, Down 8% since 2000

Number of vacant units (2000) 1,754

Vacancy rate 13%, above city average of 6.8%

Owner-occupied housing (2005) 3,151, Down 3.5% since 2000, but values rising

INCOME

Pop. below poverty level (2000) 45.2%, was fourth highest in city in 2000

Households w/income below $15,000 (2005) 4,865

Households w/ income above $35,000: 3,434
  (1,009 households had above $75,000)

Sources: U .S. Census data from www.chicagoareahousing.org , Local Community Fact Book Chicago Metropolitan A rea, 1984 and 1995, and 2005 Census estimates as reported by MCIC.

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