A few hundred people gathered on Dec. 14 to mark the one-year anniversary of implementing Austin’s five-year quality-of-life plan and to celebrate $13 million that has been committed this past year to improving the city’s largest neighborhood.

“It’s been a really momentous year. There’s been a lot of success,” said Darnell Shields, executive director of Austin Coming Together. The nonprofit, launched in 2010, is the driving force behind the quality-of-life plan and efforts to improve Austin that recently garnered a record $10 million from BMO Bank.

Shields also heralded last week’s announcement that a proposal to develop an area bounded by Madison, Chicago, Central and Laramie avenues was named one of six finalists for the $10 million Chicago Prize, to be awarded to a South or West Side community-led initiative by the Pritzker Traubert Foundation.

The Austin proposal – known as the Aspire Initiative – proposes developing an early learning, health and recreation center; creating an economic hub that targets low-income residents; building 60 units of new, affordable housing; and increasing enrollment at Austin College & Career Academy. Austin Coming Together partnered with the Westside Health Authority, By The Hand Club for Kids and several other community stakeholders on the proposal.

The Emmet School redevelopment, on the northeast corner of Madison and Central, is part of the Aspire Initiative. Last year, the Westside Health Authority acquired the property, which had housed Emmet Elementary before then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed it in 2013 along with nearly 50 other schools.

Architecture drawings were shared Saturday that show a new building on the site where worker training and business incubation and development will occur; there are plans to attract a bank, and there will be room for 150 parking spaces, among other features.

“This project is a longtime coming,” said Westside Health Authority CEO Morris Reed.

Gerardo Garcia, a coordinating planner with the Chicago Department of Planning and  Development, urged West Siders to attend a meeting next month at which the city’s recently unveiled INVEST South/West program, which targets Austin and nine other Chicago neighborhoods, will be discussed.

The first of four citywide meetings was held Saturday on the South Side, Garcia said, noting that more than 700 people had RSVP’d to attend that event. Austin’s meeting will be held form 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Jan. 18 at the Kehrein Center for the Arts, 5628 W. Washington Blvd.

Garcia also urged local businesses and organizations to attend a Feb. 7 meeting, at Kehrein Center for the Arts from 10 a.m. to noon, to learn about how to apply for grants from the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund.

Shields touted the work done by seven task forces since implementation of the quality-of-life plan began in December 2018. “Look at the output of what we’ve done,” he said, noting that 28 of 84 actions are in the works. “This is a blueprint to garner more resources.”

Under the community narrative task force, the Austin Garden Collective organized 12 volunteer days in summer 2019 throughout the community, deploying 177 volunteers who worked 324 hours. Another project that will come to fruition in February is an art exhibit to be held at the Austin Library branch that showcases visual artifacts from the community.

The economic development task force helped secure a $20,000 grant from Accion to bolster efforts to create a food coop in Austin. The task force also helped 15 Austin businesses become more vibrant and hopes to attract more manufacturing, said co-chair Jerrod Williams.

Building on Michele Clark Academic Prep Magnet High School receiving IB status, the education task force will help spread the word to families whose children attend the four international baccalaureate (IB) elementary schools in Austin. Up until this year, there had not been an IB high school on the West Side, forcing Austin students to leave the community if they wanted to continue or start their IB education, said Michele Clark Principal Charles Anderson, a co-chair of the education task force.

With about 60 percent of Austin residents renting, the housing task force is working on building more pipelines for renters to become homeowners. Education about home ownership was provided to about 800 people this past year, 100 of whom live in Austin. The task force will also help share best practices based on what’s learned from a tenant leadership program being developed at Mercy Housing’s Lavergne Courts.

In the public safety task force, youth community ambassadors are helping spread the word about restorative justice, said co-chair Bradly Johnson of BUILD Chicago. They also hope a restorative justice court will open in Austin. And the task force has been working to reclaim the parks, especially at night during the summer, with concerts and other activities. Johnson gave a shout out to “Barrelhouse” Bonni McKeown for performing.

Work is underway on a youth leadership council under the youth empowerment task force. Helping youth develop leadership skills is critical, especially in Austin where 40 percent of its nearly 100,000 residents is under the age of 25. “Mentorship is very important,” said Carmen Scott, also of BUILD. She added the task force wants to give young people a pathway to be mentors themselves. Plans also are underway for a job fair in mid-May at which Austin youth can find summer jobs in the community.

A number of forums, including one that featured the 29th Ward aldermanic candidates – were organized by the civic engagement task force. And the group has worked to provide trauma counseling to residents. Such action was needed because “they’re not coming to our low-income, high-crime neighborhoods, so we created our own Austin response team along with the 15th Police District and Good Neighbor Campaign,” co-chair Deborah Williams said.

Williams noted only one of the two candidates in the city’s mayoral runoff attended the civic engagement’s forum held at Malcolm X College. “We made sure she understood that Austin was on the map of Chicago and that Austin needed some TLC – some tender love and care.” That candidate – the eventual winner, Mayor Lori Lightfoot – agreed to do some things, and so far, “has been keeping her promises,” Williams said.

A big push for the task force in coming months will be getting as many Austin residents as possible to participate in the 2020 Census. “If we aren’t counted, so much money will be lost for Austin. We must count everyone,” Williams said.

The task force also will be encouraging everyone to vote in the March 17 primary and the November general election. 

CONTACT: austintalks.org@gmail.com