When Brad McConnell heard that some residents in North Lawndale were looking for money to work on a comprehensive plan that would essentially govern the direction of economic and community development for this West Side community of roughly 36,000 people, he was immediately skeptical.
“I get requests all the time from people saying we really want to do a plan to do this or to do that. The first question I always ask is, ‘Is everybody together on this?'” said McConnell, a deputy commissioner with the Chicago Department of Planning and Development.
“When I heard that North Lawndale was doing a plan, I’ve got to say, your reputation says, ‘You got to check,” he said, addressing a crowd of more than 100 people during a community meeting held Sept. 22 at the Sinai Community Institute, 2653 W. Ogden Ave. “Is everybody together on this?”
North Lawndale’s ‘reputation’ isn’t a secret to most people familiar with the community — least of all those who live and work here.
“Let me say one thing, because this is on somebody’s mind in here. This has not been, and it will not be, an old Lawndale meeting,” said Dr. Dennis Deer, a native and current resident of North Lawndale.
“That means whatever we say that we’re going to do here? Guess what we’re going to do? We’re going to do it,” said Deer, a psychologist, owns Deer Rehabilitation Services.
Deer, along with North Lawndale residents Valerie Leonard and Rodney Brown, comprise the executive committee of the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council (NLCCC), a group that’s been meeting since May. And what they want to do is monumental.
“What hasn’t been done in almost 50 years — we have not put this down on paper where it goes to the plan commission downtown, where it becomes an ordinance, where it guides the policy for anywhere from 30 to 50 years,” said Leonard, a prominent public policy expert.
Leonard and Deer noted that there have been other planning documents completed in North Lawndale before, but they said those have been confined to certain pockets of development in the community.
Reversing the tide of disinvestment
The NLCCC’s comprehensive plan would apply to all of North Lawndale, which is formally designated Community Area 29 — roughly three square miles whose boundaries Leonard summarized aptly (“some people call it Eisenhower to the north, Western west, Cermak south and city limits east”).
In North Lawndale, Leonard said, roughly a quarter of the workforce is tied up in social services and around 17,000 people (about half the population) are eligible for Medicaid or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
It’s become something of the poster child of urban disinvestment — so much so that when the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates wanted to explore the process and ramifications of housing discrimination for his famous Atlantic magazine essay, “The Case for Reparations,” he came here.
At one point, said Ald. Michael Scott (24th), North Lawndale had more than 100,000 residents, a stable housing stock and commercial corridors like Roosevelt Road and Pulaski that were “lined with businesses” and were the envy of the world.
“I want the same thing to happen for us today,” said Scott, who was born and raised in the community.
Leonard said the NLCCC’s comprehensive plan would focus on reversing the tide of this historical disinvestment by focusing both within North Lawndale and by working with community areas on North Lawndale’s northern, southern and eastern borders.
“So we look at this [comprehensive plan] regionally as well,” she said, adding that she and her co-planners consider those other, less comprehensive planning documents as worthy predecessors that would serve as models for this one.
It was perhaps a sign of sobriety that the NLCCC leadership showed some trepidation at such a massive undertaking. The plan focuses on more than a dozen areas that make up the built environment, such as infrastructure, housing, technology, health and wellness, economic development and public safety.
The entire undertaking seems to be a genuine grassroots effort, albeit supported by some major political heavyweights.
“We couldn’t wait for superman to come and descend on North Lawndale to come save us,” Leonard said, emphasizing the bottom-up nature of the organization. “We’ve been waiting for a savior … too long, but our savior is us.”
Before Tuesday’s meeting, where NLCCC first unveiled their plans to the public, more than 50 individuals and entities worked on initial preparations — all of them voluntarily.
Among the 54 people the NLCCC acknowledged on the back of its meeting programs were Mayor Rahm Emanuel and U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis (7th). Ald. Scott (24th), Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), state Rep. Arthur Turner (D-9th) and Cook County Commissioner Robert Steele all spoke at the meeting, along with a representative from U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin’s (D-IL) office.
But if the NLCCC’s core leadership showed fear at the frightening prospect of this massive undertaking — one of such promise — coming undone, the group also demonstrated an almost military-like readiness and zeal.
“Everyone will leave with some marching orders and some kind of plan in your head and if you don’t leave with a plan in your head, we will find you,” said Deer.
The more than 100 attendees at Tuesday’s meeting were shown an orderly, multi-colored organizational chart of NLCCC’s structure, which comprises a steering committee; an executive sub-committee, members of which will be required to undergo an orientation; ex-officio members, or largely elected officials who may want to participate in the group; and 13 committees, each with a chairperson (many of whom were at the meeting).
“We’re only going to go as far as we are organized to go,” said Brown, a procurement professional with an MBA.
“We’re also going to go only as far as you in this room work with us to go,” he said, adding that when NLCCC was first formed, the group had between 5 and 9 sub-committees.
“When we got done dealing with 50 people, they said, ‘Hey, what about this and that committee? We’re concerned about this issue? So that means we had to add some more committees … This committee is driven by you. It is for your issues and your desires, so you need to be in the room to make sure your input is given,” Brown said.
Brown noted that the NLCCC is an unfunded effort. Whatever money it brings in, he said, goes toward technical assistance. So far, the group doesn’t have a treasurer, but New Covenant Community Development Corporation (CDC), 1111 S. Homan Ave., will serve as the group’s fiscal agent for grant funding that it receives in the future.
Brown, who along with Deer is on New Covenant’s board of directors, said NLCCC will pay all of its expenses with collected funds, which the group anticipates to be minimal. He said the group will publicly report its financial status on a regular basis.
There’s a strong possibility that the NLCCC will receive a technical assistance grant from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP).
Just the beginning
“You haven’t gotten it yet, but the staff recommended it,” said McConnell, still overcome by the sight of the standing-room only crowd. About ten minutes into the meeting, there were so many people who showed up that the collapsible dividing walls had to be taken down to accommodate additional seats.
The metaphor wasn’t lost on the NLCCC’s planners (“Let’s tear down another wall!” said Brown).
When Kevin Sutton, NLCCC’s head of recruitment, invited all of the committee chairs to stand in the front of the room, they formed a phalanx of support that deeply impressed McConnell.
“I was sitting back there watching all these people come up here? I go to a lot of community meetings in a lot of communities and I’ve never seen anything like that,” he said, adding that Leonard submitted 42 pages worth of letters of support with NLCCC’s grant application.
“Most of the applications for this year’s round of grants had three to four pages,” McConnell said.
But as deeply impressive as this first meeting was, the deputy commissioner noted, it was still only an inch in the way of what lies ahead.
Although NLCCC seems poised to receive the grant, they haven’t acquired it yet. And if they do, that will only be the start of a grueling, months-long process of data-collecting, research, community outreach, synthesizing a thousand different ideas, and managing (if they hit their recruitment targets) hundreds of personalities and relationships — all with the understanding that, as McConnell was careful to point out, “there’s no magic pot of money that comes from City Hall that goes along with finishing a comprehensive plan.”
“We have to use the scarce resources we’ve got and really smartly to invest in things that matter,” he said. “It’s not new money, it’s the same money — you just have to use it smarter.”