Since October we've fielded more than 1,000 ideas from Tribune readers about how to build a better Chicago. The range of proposals is impressively diverse. But one luminous thread twists through essay after essay, as if many writers had secretly convened: The ideas that will build a new Chicago — that will better educate kids, cut crime, help parents raise children, boost businesses, create jobs — won't all come from City Hall. Or from corporate CEOs. Or leaders of foundations and institutions.
Sure, there's impressive brain power in executive suites. Policy wonks, pols, consultants and Ph.D.s get paid to think Big Thoughts about how to organize government services and address Chicago's needs. But there's formidable intellectual firepower in the neighborhoods, street by street, block by block, home by home. Many people in Chicago's more than 200 neighborhoods are speaking up, attempting to be heard over the cacophony of competing agendas and self-serving political calculations. They seek to advance a universally shared and carefully pruned list of principles and priorities, the most urgent goals and the best ways to reach them.
Hence the theme of this Plan of Chicago installment: Start in the streets. Or, if you prefer the shorter version: Listen.
We've heard over and over from readers: Whatever doesn't launch at the neighborhood level is likely to get lost or chewed up in the city's vast bureaucracy without broad buy-in from Chicagoans.
To start, several readers suggest a politically difficult, top-down mission: Halve the number of aldermen and then redraw ward boundaries to better serve residents.
Instead, Mary Steenson, of Chicago, suggests a ground-up solution: "What is lacking in the Chicago political system is not politicians but democratic neighborhood councils." These grass-roots organizations would tackle neighborhood problems across ward boundaries. That's a promising idea because Chicago's intractable problems disrespect ward lines.
Similarly, James Johnson, of McHenry, proposes creating block coordinators — think Resident Advisers in college dorms — who would focus, with aid from City Hall, on helping the unemployed find jobs. The coordinator "might arrange interviews directly, refer applicants to other agencies for training in interview techniques, help prepare a resume, suggest sources of job training, help an unemployed person find an area of interest or offer general guidance." Sounds like an ideal role for a retired neighbor with a lifetime of job experience and savvy to share.
Many of those jobs would be in technology, so Pastor Henry Razor of Faith, Hope and Charity Ministries in Chicago proposes a network of job-focused community technology training centers. For more than a decade, Razor, who also works for Coriant, and his wife, Janette, have run a tech training program for residents in the Englewood and Auburn-Gresham areas: "Until community residents become technically savvy, the communities will continue to be blighted, hopeless and full of despair."
Nancy Leginski, of Chicago, proposes a program called "Every Block Counts." She grows a large vegetable garden every summer and brings produce to a food pantry. Why not a program in which every block taps a neighbor to gather donations for a nearby pantry? That produce need not be home grown. But if the program did encourage more urban gardening, great.
Gabriel Zavala and Annalysse Rivera of Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago have a vision shared by many readers: They suggest the city could turn thousands of relatively inexpensive South Side parcels of land into a giant urban farming oasis. This could serve as a farmers market for sustainable produce grown within Chicago, they write, and also as "an advertising platform for existing urban farms." In other words, turn a South Side food desert into an urban farming oasis with produce for all. Instead of abandoned homes and weedy lots, green fields ... and jobs.
Eugene Salganik, of Skokie, proposes "a pool of money, talent, visionaries, teachers, neighborhood organizations and dreamers" that would partner with local businesses to provide basic services to neighborhoods. "We should employ local people; we should reinvest money in the neighborhood to open more businesses that feed off each other. If there is a food store, let's have a mini-farm; if there is a dry cleaner, let's have a dry-cleaning plant. But most important, let's get people involved; let's give them a job and a sense of purpose."
A job and a sense of purpose: The remedy for much of what Chicagoans confront. Any neighborhood voice on how to do that is a voice all of us ought to hear.
Listening to Chicago isn't just about handing adults a megaphone. Brian Brady, executive director of the Mikva Challenge, says "Chicago needs a full court press to include youth in civic life." His powerful idea: Build "civic engagement and leadership opportunities" into school curricula. "All public officials should create a working youth council to advise them and leverage staff and volunteers to provide civic mentoring." Local not-for-profits could add spots for young adults to their boards. How better to build Chicago than with insights and energies of the young?
Another untapped resource: closed schools. Lee Talley, of Tinley Park, proposes that they be turned into neighborhood centers "that house after-school programs, recreational centers and health centers, provide meals for seniors and homeless, senior activity centers, shelters for homeless (especially in winter), computer centers for adults and students, employment assistance offices, tutoring aid centers and small food markets to provide fresh food in food deserts." Repurposing dead schools also would ensure that they don't become decrepit sentinels to poverty and lost hope.
A possibility for those civic centers: Parenting classes. Hector Andreos, of Park Ridge, suggests that Chicago enlist parents to help other parents gain the skills they need to "raise children and provide a stable home life. ... We can pump buckets of money into these communities, but without bolstering the quality of the home life that often produces dropouts, we will never alone solve the problem." Agreed.
Chicagoans have tremendous pride in their city. They don't want nobody nobody sent. But several readers suggested that Chicago's leaders could learn from other cities' experiences, or even from the best practices of suburbs in the collar counties. Reader Ernie Davis, of Hinsdale, writes about a recent visit to his daughter in Harlem. The neighborhood impressed him with its "evolution" from the blight of decades ago to "a vibrant street filled with people rushing up and down ... among a variety of street vendors, shops, drug stores and great restaurants." Could that happen in Englewood? Sure it could. Davis suggests Chicago and New York officials and business leaders share insights gained from Harlem's renaissance "to see what/how/if we can do the same. Why not explore their journey and see what we can learn?"
These and many more provocative ideas are bubbling up all the time in the neighborhoods. Chicagoans aren't waiting for City Hall alone to solve their problems. Phil Blackwell, of Chicago, suggested that the mayor take corporate and political leaders to the top of Willis Tower, have them look south to Englewood, west to Austin, and northwest to Humboldt Park and "have them say to the children, 'Your neighborhoods are part of our city; we will be there to help you.' And then, do it."
Daniel Burnham looked over Chicago in 1909 and released his Plan of Chicago. He hoped his grand vision would knit neighborhoods together in a common goal: to prosper. Our readers share that vision — and hope. Steve Livesey, of Palos Heights, wrote: All Chicagoans should know they fit into a bigger picture and are not living in a vacuum. Indeed, they should not feel alone or abandoned because all share in a common heritage and a common goal."
Not all Chicagoans send their ideas to the Tribune. They may think they won't be heard. Or that they can't punch through barriers of politics and privilege. We hope that this series proves that their voices can rise above the clamor.
All the rest of us have to do is: Listen.