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The other side of Englewood: Community members and newcomers hold vision for its future

Thu, Sep 26, 2013

Growing Home Wood Street Farm August 19, 2010. Photo by Andrew Collings.

If someone were to ask you how well you knew the neighborhoods of Chicago, what would you say? If someone were to ask you, “What are the first words that come to your mind when I say the word Englewood?” what would you answer? The average pedestrian usually says one of the following: “South Side,” “Gangs,” “Dangerous,” or “Unsafe.” Typically they have had no experience being in the neighborhood, or many of the other neighborhoods outside of their own. A resident of Englewood, on the other hand, may not only mention the same types of words as outsiders,
but add to the list: “home,” “family,” “perseverance” or “hope.”

All too often our only perceptions of a neighborhood in the city come from the news stories we watch or read. They come from the statistics we hear about each week. However, if we venture outside of our own area code we might discover what another place is like on the ground level, on the front lines.

According to Neighborhood Scout statistics from last year, more than 1 in 3 residences are vacant in Englewood, which is a vacancy rate higher than over 96 percent of U.S. neighborhoods. In addition, Englewood is one of the lowest-income neighborhoods in the entire country, with one of the highest child poverty rates, and fewest numbers of adults with a bachelor’s degree. Parts of the neighborhood are also included on varying lists of “most dangerous neighborhoods in the country.”

However, though these statistics may be true, there is so much more to the neighborhood than what the headlines say. Englewood is a neighborhood steeped in history and full of potential. It holds an abundance of families and a great number of people with big hearts and a lot of hope for the continual improvement in the neighborhood. Insiders and outsiders alike have come into its borders with a knowledge of its past, and a vision for its future.

A Step Back In Time

The history of Englewood stretches to the year 1840, when a settler named Wilcox claimed the swampy prairie land about seven miles south of what is now the Loop. By 1852, railroad companies began to lay tracks and build stations in the area, establishing the name of Junction Grove. By 1868, another settler named Henry B. Lewis suggested the name be changed to Englewood, hoping to improve the lower-class image of the railroad community.

Before long, the Great Chicago Fire forced people to make homes in the outer regions of the city, and Englewood became a prime location. Soon it became a popular place for Swedish, Irish, and German immigrants. In addition to factory and labor jobs in neighborhoods nearby, a large employment surge was sparked by preparations for hosting the World’s Fair in nearby Jackson Park. Englewood was successfully growing left and right.

By 1940, Englewood exploded to 93,000 residents, hosted a large variety of commercial spaces, a hospital, schools, and the second largest shopping center destination outside the Loop! Despite all of the prosperity however, the Great Depression and World War II still took a toll on some of the smaller businesses and banks, and housing values began to drop. By the 1950’s racial tensions had grown in the neighborhood, and the construction of the expressway sparked the White Flight movement. The Great Migration also occurred – and many African Americans then began to move into Englewood. Due to the movement of white residents into the suburbs, the percentage of African Americans in Englewood grew to nearly 70 percent by the 1960’s.

Despite limited efforts by various city officials to revitalize the community, many major businesses shut their doors due to the competition of other nearby malls and centers being established. Tensions increased amongst the residents as job opportunities and the economy began to drop. More and more vacant lots began to appear, and by the 1980’s the population of West Englewood dropped to 62,069 residents and was 99 percent black. Most other residents had moved to other neighborhoods or out into the surrounding suburbs.

The Present Outlook and Looking Forward

Not surprisingly, that mental picture feels much more familiar to us. We often forget, or perhaps never knew, that Englewood was once booming with activity and life. We fail to acknowledge that crime rates have been steadily lowering since 2008. We neglect to focus on the fact that despite its reputation of decline in recent decades, the last handful of years has shown some considerable improvements.
Although the neighborhood’s population hovers near only 40,000 these days, it’s a community that has not given up. Many of its residents have lived in the area for generations, showing great perseverance and determination. The neighborhood supports Kennedy-King College, one of the seven City Colleges of Chicago. The college seeks to embody the same commitment to academic excellence and civic responsibility as its namesakes – civil and human rights activists Robert F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Additionally, Englewood has recently been announced as one of seven neighborhoods in the Mayor’s “Chicago Neighborhoods Now” plan. The city is leveraging millions of dollars in public and private funding for new economic development, housing, and quality of life improvements for residents and businesses in these seven areas.

In addition, there has been an agreement made with Norfolk Southern to build an 84-acre freight yard in the northeast region of Englewood. The city agreed to sell 105 vacant city-owned lots to the company for $1.1 million, in an effort to keep up with the rising demand for freight cargo. Despite some debate over pollution hazards and health risks for residents, this expansion project has many positives for the community. These include a return to some of the historical roots of Englewood as a transportation hub, as well as the creation of around 400 jobs over the 10 years projected for its completion. It also boasts a potential regional economic impact of $1.6 billion by 2030.

Beyond these political initiatives, there are many strong residents who desire change in Englewood who are behind various projects to build a better, safer, and stronger place to call home. Through individual and community organizations, people within the neighborhood are making a difference. I personally have benefited from seeing some of these efforts in action, and even being a part of some in varying degrees.

Here is just a taste of some of the refreshing types of work being done in the neighborhood of Englewood:

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1. Building Renovation and Re-Purposing:
Due to its long history, Englewood hosts a large number of historically sound buildings and architecture. Sadly, during its years of decline many of these buildings became abandoned and in disrepair. In response to seeing the state of her neighborhood, Lauren Duffy developed a vision. Instead of giving way to fear and assumptions, she has emerged herself in the local realities of the neighborhood, and decided to take the hopes of the community and give it a face. She founded a “low profit LLC” called “[re]create” and poured herself into redeveloping a grand, century-old building into a space that will house Kusanya, a community-oriented cafe, and other commercial and living spaces as the project continues to develop. It has been a long project with a lot of challenges, but through hard work and persistence the rehabbing of the eight-unit mixed-use building is coming along beautifully. Duffy’s dream is to see this building house a variety of creative commercial and community-based businesses and projects, and that it will continue to inspire others to invest in the development of a neighborhood’s potential. She shared that she has been trying to get local residents involved as much as possible, by either hiring them to help do work on the building or opening doors for volunteer opportunities. The neighbors have been giving a lot of positive responses to the project, which goes to show that the inspiration is indeed happening.

2. Community Building Businesses: The first of those businesses to be housed in [re]create’s newly-acquired building at 825 W. 69th St. is Kusanya Café, the realization of a long-held dream of owner Phil Sipka. Sipka is another resident of the Englewood neighborhood who saw a need, and desires to help meet that need. He founded Kusanya as a non-profit organization, and is currently in the midst of designing and renovating the space where it will be housed. Kusanya is a Swahili word meaning, “to gather, to collect.” The vision behind the café is that neighborhood empowerment does not come simply through social services and government aid, but also through places and spaces that allow people to come together and mutually encourage one another. Sipka plans to see Kusanya become a place where the community gathers together to hear local musicians perform music and poetry, as well a place where people meet for tutoring and block club meetings. His dream is that it will be a place where all the diverse resources of Englewood gather strength from one another – a place of hope where people begin to realize their own worth and that of others. One challenge that has recently presented itself to this dream is the closing of some of the public schools surrounding the café. The hope was to have it be a resource for teachers and staff to have a place to meet before or after school, as well as a place for students to stop in on their way passing by. Sipka still has high hopes for fulfilling the café’s dream vision with an opening planned for this fall.

Growing Home harvest photograph.

3. Youth & After School Programs: As many of us have come to realize, it is those crucial, often unsupervised, hours between school and bedtime that can be the most dangerous for the young people of our city. Children growing up in the urban environment, especially those in under-resourced and low-income neighborhoods, face a unique and overwhelming set of challenges and pressures. There are many non-profit programs reaching out to these young people through educational assistance, healthy meals, safe places for them to enjoy recreation, etc. One of those programs is By The Hand Club For Kids, a growing holistic after-school program founded by Donnita Travis. It was officially launched in 2001 with only 16 students from the Cabrini-Green neighborhood. Since that time it has grown to serving 895 students in 2012, encompassing four of the city’s lowest income communities: Cabrini-Green, Austin, Altgeld-Murray, and Englewood. The organization’s mission statement says, “We are a Christ-centered, after-school program that takes kids by the hand, and walks with them through college, helping them have abundant life—mind, body and soul.” Through a combination of homework tutoring, chapel, dinner, and other special activities and events, By The Hand Club is a life-giving resource for children and families in the Englewood neighborhood.

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4. Urban Farming & Agriculture: It’s not surprising that alongside the trend of eating healthier and eating organic, comes another growing movement towards fresh produce and home-grown goodness – urban farming. Access to fresh food and nutritional options can be scarce in areas of the city like Englewood and other “food deserts.” In an effort to alleviate this problem, as well as to give meaningful job opportunities to unemployed individuals, Les Brown founded Growing Home Inc. in 1996. Since that time it has become the leading social enterprise focused on empowering people and communities with Chicago’s first USDA-Certified Organic, high-production urban farms. Growing Home has farms in the Englewood and Back of the Yards neighborhoods, as well as the 10-acre Les Brown Memorial Farm in Marseilles, Illinois. Its mission is to operate, promote, and demonstrate the use of organic agriculture as a vehicle for job training, employment, and community development. Growing Home sells its produce at the Green City Market, through a Community Supported Agriculture program, and to fine Chicago restaurants. Additionally, Growing Home holds a weekly farm stand for residents in Englewood and provides programming on healthy cooking and nutrition.

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5. Community Centers: Jean Carter-Hill has lived in Englewood for over 40 years, and has seen it go through a lot of changes. As a result, she was inspired to get involved in bettering the community and improving the quality of life for its citizens. She founded a community center called “Imagine Englewood if…”. The non-profit has a wide variety of programs including: violence prevention Peace Circles, journalism and art initiatives, digital access for seniors and physically challenged adults, etiquette classes, youth mentoring & tutoring, baseball, gardening & computer programs, and classes on lead poisoning prevention.

As you can see from these examples, there are a lot of positive operations going on in the neighborhood of Englewood. The list could continue on with programs addressing violence prevention, veterans housing, food services, etc. My hope is that your eyes have been opened to what lies behind Englewood’s rough exterior – a valuable resource and a world of opportunity. Just as we try to “not judge a book by its cover,” neither can we fully understand a community by its media coverage.

Meagan Kennedy
StreetWise Contributor

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