Harkening on the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Albert Einstein, the LEADER’s Network hosted a public community meeting Tuesday at Columbus Park Refectory to discuss the future of economic development on the West Side.

The meeting was called in response to public reports showing Austin being left out of the city’s multi-billion dollar community development initiatives, according to organizers. As reported by the Chicago Tribune in September of last year, the city’s most populated community has been all but shut out of those initiatives, while crime, school closings and foreclosures continue on in the neighborhood.  

Nearly 50 attended Tuesday’s public meeting at the Refectory, 5701 W. Jackson. Also attending was Forrest Claypool, president of the Chicago Transit Authority. He told the group about CTA’s plans to dedicate at least 265 jobs in upcoming construction projects for recently-released offenders, in addition to the already 10-percent of jobs on all projects going toward disenfranchised workers.

But the overwhelming theme of the day was breaking the silence.

Time and again, speakers addressed those assembled, urging them to make their voices heard. The roundtable discussion included several candidates running for public office, as well as pastors and concerned business leaders from around the city.

The consensus of the group was emphatic — not enough investment has been made into Chicago’s largest neighborhood.

“All of us are stakeholders, in one way or another,” said Marshall Hatch, co-chair of the LEADER’s Network, and an Austin resident. “All of us have tremendous investment of our lives and the institutions of Austin. And we just have to come together to figure out how to overcome this gross neglect of Austin.”

Hatch, who pastors New Mount Pilgrim M.B. Church in West Garfield Park, juxtaposed Austin’s claims to “firsts” in Chicago — first in crime, foreclosures and returning ex-offenders into the neighborhood — against the positive firsts — the largest middle-class African American population in the city, as well as being the most populated neighborhood in Chicago.

Despite a reported loss of 14,000 residents, Austin remains the only community of Chicago’s 77 with a population of more than 100,000 — 103,000 residents to be exact, according to 2010 Census data.

Hatch pointed out that the infrastructure is in place for success in Austin. Hatch said there is ample public transportation available and people are ready to work and make use of these assets. But the city has consistently neglected Austin when it comes time to hand out money for community development, Hatch argued.

Recently, there was $330 million from the city available to help develop communities — Austin received no funding.

“Good stuff don’t just happen,” Hatch said. “And it would be embarrassing for all of us, who are stakeholders, if we have this kind of information just circulating around about this gross neglect; people suffering because of a lack of resources. This disparity of being first and last, this tale of two cities in the same neighborhood, with all of these tremendous assets and then all this tremendous negativity, if we didn’t say something.”

Cy Fields, pastor of New Landmark Missionary Baptist Church, reminded the group that their mission is not only about talking, but about bringing action.

To that end, the LEADER’s Network has reached out to Chicago’s Department of Planning to invite officials to participate in the groups’ next meeting on Nov. 11.


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