Can this Chicago community be saved? Hope rises in Englewood

In Englewood, a troubled neighborhood on Chicago's South Side, community engagement programs hint at a budding transformation. But some residents say it might take years for tangible changes to come to this 'cultural desert.'

By MARK GUARINO | Staff Writer The Christian Science Monitor

September 22, 2013 at 1:55 pm EDT

Chicago — In Ogden Park on a recent Saturday afternoon, children were playing, parents were chatting, food was cooking, and the music was pumping.

This might be a typical scene in summertime America. But it was no small matter in Greater Englewood – a poor neighborhood on Chicago's South Side that has been front and center in the city's struggles with a soaring homicide rate.

People turned out by the hundreds for the event, cohosted by the Chicago Park District and the Resident Association of Greater Englewood (R.A.G.E.). Many here said it is fostering a new, more positive energy on their streets.

"It's a good thing for Englewood," said Arlene Ray, who was at the event – one of four this summer – with her daughter and two grandsons. "Englewood is on the news all of the time. But violence is not the only thing going on here."

Long marginalized by geography – the neighborhood is cut off from the rest of the city by the eight-lane Dan Ryan Expressway and a sprawling industrial corridor – Greater Englewood has problems familiar to many impoverished communities: gang violence, population loss, a lack of jobs, school closings, the housing bust. The neighborhood has seen 43 homicides in the past year, primarily due to gang violence, police say. The horror of such violence was compounded on Sept. 19 when a gunman shot 13 people, including a 3-year-old boy, in the nearby neighborhood of Back of the Yards.

No doubt people have tried to improve Englewood's fortunes before. But this year, many have observed, things finally appear to be moving – not only because of several outside initiatives, but also because of effective activism among the neighborhood's residents. One sign of the new dynamics: the R.A.G.E. event in Ogden Park.

A new generation of activists is "at a place where both big outside groups and small local groups are beginning to get a rhythm and gain traction. I do believe they are, in a small way, beginning to turn that corner" for the neighborhood, says Susana Vasquez, executive director of Local Initiatives Support Corporation Chicago, an organization that raises capital for neighborhood development projects and programs, including those in Englewood.

Of course, no one doubts it will be a long, difficult road ahead, and there's hardly a guarantee that Englewood will be transformed. But the changes that Englewood has already embarked on could provide food for thought as other neighborhoods struggling with similar longstanding problems consider how to mount a turnaround.

"Just as you can have vicious cycles, you can have virtuous cycles," says Robert Sampson, a Harvard sociologist who studied Englewood in his book "Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect." "I don't see Englewood as spiraling down. What matters is what the trajectory is: Is it going down or improving? Even though it's still poor, I think there's actually signs of hope."

Perhaps the most striking example of the new way of doing things in Englewood can be found in how it handled concerns about a railroad company's project for an intermodal yard. The community activism that coalesced around the issue had not been seen in the neighborhood for years.

In August, activists temporarily stopped Norfolk Southern Corp. from getting city approval for a $285 million expansion of the intermodal yard – a 10-year project that is set to enlarge the railroad's existing facility by 57 percent. The activists' prime concern: increased exhaust from more diesel truck traffic.

The additional diesel exhaust generated from the planned expansion would exceed federal safety limits, creating an elevated level of soot that could lead to numerous health problems, according to an analysis by the Environmental Law and Policy Center, an advocacy group that has a Chicago office. Already 1,250 diesel trucks pass through the neighborhood every day, and they're responsible for elevated asthma rates in the neighborhood, Englewood residents say.

Pointing to the analysis, they say the situation will only worsen with another 810 trucks expected each day as a result of the expansion.

"This will be a deathtrap," says activist and resident John Ellis. "This is what they are allowing. This will be Los Angeles in its worst days."

Norfolk Southern says it plans to use the cleanest technology, which will meet federal pollution standards, but residents say that's not enough. In late September they succeeded in negotiating with the railroad to come up with an improved plan with specific details on how it would reduce air and noise pollution: Norfolk Southern now says it will install modern pollution-control equipment on the majority of new trucks, install clean engines or diesel filters on dozens of pieces of equipment, and donate $2 million to fund sustainability projects and job-training programs for the neighborhood.

The railroad will also help fund the restoration of an old rail track into a green space and bicycle trail.

The turnaround resulted from residents successfully persuading the Chicago Plan Commission to delay a vote in August so that the railroad had time to address their concerns.

The activists' power came as a surprise: Most people had expected the commission to give a green light right away. Chicago Plan Commission member Bishop John Bryant said he was "extremely disturbed" by the earlier environmental findings that led to stopping the vote.

"It's hard to ignore a history. All across the country, these entities are always placed in poor communities that do not have the financial or political oomph to stop them," Bishop Bryant had said at the August meeting. "They're never taken to communities of strength and economic and political clout."

Residents now are pointing to their success in delaying the vote as a confidence booster. That development, along with a small but steady stream of others, can "institute this turning point where things build upon themselves in a positive way," Professor Sampson says.

Other developments are indeed taking place in Englewood. Consider the following:

Whole Foods Market announced this month that it will open an 18,000-square-foot store in the center of Englewood's aged business district – a remarkable prospect for an area where buying fresh food has not been an option for decades and where the only dining choices have been fast-food restaurants.

The store, slated to open in 2016, is to anchor a 13-acre campus that is also expected to include green space and other retail shops. Funding from a public-private collaboration is expected for the complex.

"This sends a positive signal to the marketplace, but more importantly, it sends a signal to the rest of Englewood," researcher Mari Gallagher – who did a seminal study on "food deserts" in 2006 – told the Chicago Sun-Times.

• An independent espresso bar, the neighborhood's first, is scheduled to open before the end of the year. Lauren Duffy, a former missionary from the Washington area who settled in the neighborhood five years ago, raised $25,000 to refurbish a building for the cafe. The building will be used not just for selling coffee, but also for holding art exhibits, community meetings, and other events.

Ms. Duffy, who's part of a growing wave of new entrepreneurs, acknowledges that moving to Englewood from a comfortable Washington suburb was "an unusual choice." But she says she enjoys being in a place where she feels she can make a difference. "I'm committed to doing that. It's my neighborhood," she says.

• The idea of Englewood being a food desert may be fading in more ways than one. The neighborhood is emerging as the center of Chicago's urban farm initiative, with farmland coming from two miles of abandoned railroad line and 100 acres of city-owned parcels. Three agricultural groups are already operating farms, one of which sells produce to high-end restaurants downtown as well as to residents on the South Side.

This month, Whole Foods donated $100,000 to Growing Home, one of the farms, which could eventually sell produce to the planned Englewood store.

Of course, those trying to make Englewood a better place are well aware of the daunting challenges. Englewood's geographical, economic, and cultural isolation has led to demoralization, as well as a fear that the "outside" – including banks, police, and schools – is somehow working against it.

"Many have seen promises made and promises alluded to, which has created a real sense that anything good that happens to our neighborhood is not for us," says Ms. Vasquez of Local Initiatives Support Corporation Chicago.

One necessary component, she says, is a commitment by city hall to "bold ideas," invoking the same spirit that motivated the city to rebuild after the 1871 fire that left it in ruins.

Englewood has been dealing with hardships "for a long time," says Juandalyn Holland, executive director of Teamwork Englewood, an organization that provides mentoring and computer training. In the past, she notes, "when it [came] to getting meat off the bone and [getting] to the gristle, people [walked] away" – because they felt powerless.

But that has been changing as people identify inaction as a culprit. Ms. Holland says her neighbors have become more politically active in holding their public leaders accountable. For example, Englewood residents marched downtown on several occasions to protest the decision by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to close 50 public schools this fall, six of them elementary schools in their neighborhood.

The closings, the residents say, are forcing schoolchildren to cross gang boundaries. While this is a citywide problem, in Englewood it is more pronounced: When researchers mapped out where young people were killed over the past five years in Chicago, the areas served by two of Englewood's schools had the highest tallies.

"When you have the power to affect public policy, that can affect your grandchildren," Teamwork Englewood's Holland says.

Another way that some residents have become more active is through online media. A growing number of bloggers and online activists are trying to get out the message that their neighborhood is just like any other. They're calling attention to immediate needs in the neighborhood and championing positive developments.

They appear to be getting somewhere: When Emanuel prepared to announce the new Whole Foods, his team solicited input from Asiaha Butler, a blogger who cofounded R.A.G.E. She made a statement that was included in the official announcement about the grocery store.

 (Subsequently, however, Ms. Butler said, "stronger community engagement strategies should have been in place before the deal was made." She also objected to the kind of funding practices used in this deal, saying they lacked "transparency" and input from the neighborhood.)

Ninth-grader Jasper Robinson, who was at the event in Ogden Park, says the recent upswing in community activity gives "young black men with at least a goal to make it" an opportunity to claim the streets for their own, rather than fully resign them to a criminal element.

The dismantling of the Cabrini-Green housing project forced his family to move to Englewood. Before the move, he had heard the neighborhood was "a bad place."

But reality contradicts this: "I'm here, and I rarely hear about the killing," says Jasper, who wants to attend college and open his own restaurant. "I may have heard about fights, but I don't hear about killings unless they're on the news."

Violent crime appears to have gone down in Greater Englewood over a 10-year period. Through Sept. 7, there were 1,297 incidents in the neighborhood this year. For that same time frame in 2003, there were 2,040 incidents.

To be sure, residents saw the good in Englewood long before the Whole Foods announcement. While others may think of the neighborhood as dangerous and downtrodden, the people who live there cite the large parks, access to downtown, a state-of-the-art campus for Kennedy-King College – plus hometown heroes like Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose, singer-actress Jennifer Hudson, and Grammy winner Chaka Khan, all of whom have maintained ties to their former neighborhood.

"We're called a food desert but also a cultural desert, which I think is ironic because people here have such culture and such heart. It's amazing," says Duffy, the entrepreneur. "There should be a lot of cultural outlets here, but there aren't. The reason is there aren't enough people to take that risk. It takes commitment."

Perhaps the hopes for Englewood can be summed up in the dream held by Butler, the blogger and R.A.G.E. cofounder. She'd like Samaiya, her teenage daughter, to live close to home when she becomes an adult.

That might have seemed unlikely a few years ago. But already, Butler says, she's seeing "more spiritual changes" in Englewood relating to "people thinking differently about their community."

The community activist, who has lived in the neighborhood for 30 years, is working hard to make sure Englewood is a different place when Samaiya is old enough to raise her own children and buy her own home.

"There's always going to be roadblocks, but there are ways to navigate through them," Butler says.

"Hopefully my daughter will reinvest here. I have about 20 years to make that happen."

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