Earlier this year, a group of North Lawndale residents, businesses, community organizations and elected officials united to create a detailed plan to improve their entire community.
The North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council is working with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency of Panning to develop it. The planning process kicked off in April and is expected to be finalized and approved by July 2017.
The plan will provide a blueprint for economic and residential development, improving employment and educational opportunities, and improving residents’ health and quality of life, those involved in the process say.
NLCCC hopes that the plan will ultimately become an official city policy, but even if it doesn’t, the planners note, it will at least give the community something to work with for years to come.
Over the past several years, there have been a number of efforts to improve North Lawndale. The Homan Square project, a plan to redevelop the former Sears site, is just one of the most prominent examples.
Rodley Brown, a member of NLCCC’s executive committee, said that while those efforts have helped, they didn’t address the community as a whole.
“Before now, we have had several [Tax Increment Financing districts], Empowerment Zones, Enterprise Zones, Hub zones and various developers’ plans,” he said. “Each of these processes took place in their own silos and were not coordinated. As a result, some areas of the community are on the upswing, while others have not been touched since 1958.”
Valerie Leonard, a community development professional, and Dr. Dennis Deer, a psychologist, both live in North Lawndale. They have been discussing the idea of a comprehensive, community-wide plan on and off since 2008. But it wasn’t until North Lawndale wasn’t chosen as a site of the Obama Presidential Library that they decided to make their ideas a reality.
“After we didn’t get the Obama Presidential Library, it occurred to us that we shouldn’t be putting all of our hopes in a single project,” said Leonard. “We would be better off doing a comprehensive plan, and focus on its implementation; so regardless of the project of the year, we would not be dependent on its success in order to move forward as a community.”
Leonard and Deer reached out to Brown. Together, they formed what would become NLCCC’s executive sub-committee. They invited other residents, businesses, community organization representatives and elected officials to join them. By April 2015, NLCCC was up and running.
Having an organizational structure in place allowed them to apply to CMAP for assistance. The Chicago-based organization runs the Local Technical Assistance program, which helps Chicago area municipalities, neighborhoods and various governing bodies with the community planning process. Leonard said Ald. Michael Scott (24th) was a major reason why NLCCC’s application was accepted.
“He gave a letter of support, participated in our application planning meetings, participated on a conference call with us and CMAP and worked with the Chicago Department of Planning and Development, which also had to weigh in on the application,” she said.
The application was accepted on October 2015, and NLCCC officially launched the planning process with the April 16 kick-off meeting.
The first step of the planning process is to reach out to residents and get their take on what they see as the biggest issues facing North Lawndale and what are best ways to address them. An online survey is currently up at northlawndale.metroquest.com, and it will stay up until July 1. According to Deer, the organization is distributing paper versions as well.
“We will go canvassing door-to-door and will ask churches and organizations to distribute and collect surveys during their meetings,” he said.
Leonard added that Scott helped NLCCC with the outreach. Deer said that the organization has already gotten hundreds of responses to the online survey, and they hope to get at least 2,500 responses to the hard copy version.
While the primarily purpose of the survey is to provide information for the planning process, Leonard said that it will benefit the community in another way.
“We will be meeting with different funders to try to match funding sources to [community members’] needs, and hopefully, begin to bring resources back to the community on a larger scale than we would be able to do as individual organizations,” she said.
At the same time, NLCCC has 13 sub-committees working on developing the plan. Each sub-committee focuses on a different planning aspect, such as education and housing. The committees meet once a month and, according to Deer, residents can ask to join any of them, if they want.
“All residents need to do is attend a meeting and complete an application, “he said. “They can visit our website [nlcccplanning.org] and apply online. Their information will be forwarded to the appropriate subcommittee chair, who will contact them directly.”
The complete list of all the sub-committees, as well as their respective meeting locations and meeting times, is available on NLCCC’s website. Leonard said that resident involvement was paramount to the effort.
“We didn’t think it made sense to focus on the physical environment without making sure our residents, businesses and organizations were prepared to take advantage of the opportunities the physical changes would bring,” she said.
The sub-committees’ work is already bearing some fruits. The Arts and Culture sub-committee is working on putting together North Lawndale’s first art festival. It will be held at Douglas Park Fieldhouse on Aug. 6 from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
“We will feature local performers and visual artists, including Larry Taylor and a youth orchestra from the Garfield Park area,” said Brown. “There will be opportunities for local vendors to provide food and merchandise. Organizations and businesses will also have resource tables.”
Once the plan is completed, NLCCC plans to submit it to the Chicago Plan Commission and, ultimately, to the City Council. They hope that the council will make it an official policy; but even if it doesn’t happen, having a comprehensive plan for the entire North Lawndale that everyone can refer to would be a major step forward
“Regardless of whether we have the plan formally adopted, it will serve as a guide for development for the entire community for the next 20-30 years,” said Brown.