The city of Chicago recently invited residents of the Austin, North Lawndale and Humboldt Park communities to share what they want to see the city invest in.

On Oct. 21, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced the launch of the Invest South/West initiative, where the city would work with its sister agencies, local community organizations and business people to put their money and resources toward “foster[ing] community cohesion, vitality and private investment” in South and West side neighborhoods that haven’t seen much investment. The first round on investments will focus on 10 community areas, including the three aforementioned West Side neighborhoods. 

Over the past two months, the city held several kickoff events in those neighborhoods to not only let residents know what’s in store, but to get their reactions and suggestions. The West Side kickoff was held on Jan. 18 at Kehrein Center for the Arts, 5628 W. Washington Blvd. City officials laid out how the initiative would work, and residents got a chance to offer suggestions and vote for their priorities in the workshop afterwards. While many activists said they were excited to see investment come to the West Side, there were also reservations about how much that would benefit the community.

As previously reported, the city decided to initially focus on communities that had Quality of Life plans and “at least one active commercial area at a specific node or intersection.” During the Jan. 18 event, Maurice Cox, Chicago’s Planning and Development commissioner, noted the fact that North Side neighborhoods such as Lakeview and Edgewater have seen redevelopment wasn’t an accident — city policies and city investment helped it along. Compared to that, the investment the city made in the South and West sides is paltry. Ramping up investments — while learning from the mistakes of the past — would go a long way, he said.

“Oftentimes, we’re talking about our communities as if they’re disadvantaged and have some deficiencies,” he noted. “And we decided to flip the script and talk about the trends they can build on.”

Cox explained that the city plans to use a total of $750 million in funding from various departments “as leverage, so we can get the private sector to multiply this investment.”

It will focus on four “building blocks”: redeveloping underutilized and/or unused assets such as Austin’s Laramie State Bank building, 5200 W. Chicago Ave.; improving transportation infrastructure, including sidewalks and underpasses; incorporating arts and culture, including public art; and supporting local entrepreneurs who want to start businesses.

“Our goal is to see dozens of businesses that will be locally serving, from dozens of entrepreneurs who are in the community and want to serve our communities,” Cox said.

The Quality of Life plans would guide exactly where the investments would go — and he emphasized that residents in attendance should weigh in. After the presentation, they had an opportunity to share ideas and vote for priorities in the workshop area in the building’s basement. 

Cox explained that the city would take that feedback into account and come back in February to review what they learned. Afterward, the city will see which of those ideas can be implemented quickly and which would require more time. 

Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), whose ward includes the portion of Austin the Kehrein Art Center is located in, touted the jobs and housing opportunities the initiative would bring, especially for young people. 

“This is a new day for the city; this is a new investment for the city,” he said. “So let’s get excited about bringing opportunities back to the West Side of Chicago.”

Vanessa Stokes, co-leader of the Austin Town Hall Art and Culture Committee and recently elected co-president of Austin Town Hall Park Advisory Council, applauded the fact that the initiative would invest in art.

“Art and culture is an important part of a thriving community, and the city of Chicago has seen the importance of this by having art and culture as part of their [plans],” she said. “Art can be used as a way to develop communities, and it shows how much we care for ourselves and our neighbors. The West Side is rich in arts and culture, and it’s about time we showcase it.”

Adrienne Whitney-Boykin, executive director of the West Humboldt Park Development Council, argued that the community’s foundation — the infrastructure, parks, civic organizations, existing businesses — exists. The city investment would simply help them build on it.

“The goals to do this will be to have a community where we can shop, eat and play,” she said. “We shouldn’t have to go outside of our community to achieve that.”

Whitley-Boykin also emphasized the importance of collaboration between the communities, noting the Chicago Avenue corridor, for example, runs through Austin and West Humboldt Park, and they could both do their parts to improve it.

Malcolm Crawford, executive director of the Austin African-American Business Networking Association, took the opportunity to tout his organization’s efforts to create a “Soul City Corridor” — a mecca of African-American business and culture — along Chicago Avenue. He appreciated that businesses were at the table for Invest South/West, and said he was looking forward to working with the city to build on what his organization has been doing to bring businesses to Chicago Avenue.

“So be looking for us this summer because there’s going to be a lot going on, a lot of grand openings,” Crawford said.

Darnell Shields, executive director of Austin Coming Together, the coalition that spearheaded the development of the Austin Quality of Life Plan, said he appreciated the city being intentional about their investments.

“[I’m excited] because the power that this effort has to help us continue to realize the vision of a thriving Austin community, as well as other communities identified in this initiative,” he said. “And I hope you’re excited as well.”

Community activist and former 37th Ward aldermanic candidate Deondre Rutues said he supported the initiative — though not without reservations.

“Just bringing capital into the community, that’s the only way we can start to grow,” he said. “As long as money goes to the right places and creates prosperity in the community, we get jobs and don’t get to be displaced.”

Kenneth Cook, of Austin, a member of the Westside NAACP, was more ambivalent.

“I think it’s a good start,” he said, “and I think it’s better for the people in the community to be involved because people in the community are the real subject matter experts.”


Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...