What is Bronzeville without its bronze residents?

We must undo the reverse Robin Hood approach to neighborhood development.

BERNARD LOYD Urban Juncture

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Development is happening all over the city with projects rising in every neighborhood. Developers interested in building on the South and West Sides are rejoicing under a Mayor Lori Lightfoot who has committed to prioritize development in neighborhoods that have suffered from decades of disinvestment. But, these developers face a crucial question: How to develop a neighborhood without displacing its residents?

Past large investments downtown and on the North Side haven’t turned out to be the promised springboards for development in disinvested neighborhoods. While we’ve invested billions of dollars in projects like Millennium Park and Navy Pier, our city continues to shrink with Black residents fleeing neighborhoods lacking opportunity and troubled with crime. Time and time again we’ve seen that “trickle down” economics don’t work.

Likewise, investments in megaprojects within West and South side communities haven’t delivered sustainable development. While projects such as McCormick Place and the United Center have transformed their sites and created upscale amenities, they also have caused large scale gentrification with displaced residents moving to neighborhoods ever more distant from opportunity, thereby worsening their families’ finances and triggering the next cycle of neighborhood upheaval.

“Laissez faire” development has become the default approach: there is land and if you have capital, you’re welcome to develop. However, this approach preserves the inequities. External capital-rich developers push aside capital-starved neighborhood developers to develop half-million dollar homes for select buyers and depart with their profits. In the end, left out residents are priced out; and, Bronzeville is left bronze in name alone.

But neighborhood revitalization is possible. As a Bronzeville resident and community developer, I see a community filled with possibility. A place with a long and storied history as the “Black Metropolis”, the city-within-a-city, in which hundreds of thousands of African Americans settled during the Great Migration and created a neighborhood bustling with commerce, culture, and community.

While discrimination, disinvestment and bad public policy decimated “the Metropolis”, causing departure of most of its residents and closure of virtually all of its businesses, there remain in Bronzeville and across Black Chicago tremendous pools of talent, unique physical assets, a rich culture and heritage, ingenuity, and a surplus of just plain grit. More so than this, there are in place hundreds of committed leaders and revitalization initiatives, large and small, that can form the core of revival if provided with the appropriate support.  ADVERTISING

Capturing this promise and resetting Chicago on a path of shared growth will require three key changes in the way we invest in our neighborhoods. First, we must support a multitude of thoughtfully-designed, community-driven initiatives rather than a few mega projects. A large number of actions taken over decades created the despair that exists in many Chicago neighborhoods today. No silver bullet can unwind that history. Our investments must be small enough to be rooted within our communities, and numerous and thoughtful enough to make a real difference.

Many of these initiatives will be easy to find. They have been at work for years, though slowed for lack of support. Small enterprises should be at their heart — just as they are in our larger economy. The best will leverage unique local assets, including people, real estate, culture, and history to create local jobs and one of a kind products and services.

Second, we must keep ownership local. It’s the only way to establish the positive cycle of local hiring, spending, and investment required for true revitalization. Given the current lack of capital in our neighborhoods, this will require a new investment mindset and creative approaches for providing capital.

Finally, we must match the level of investment to the level of need. Consider the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund, which has become a much-touted primary platform for city investment in disinvested neighborhoods. Over its first three rounds, covering February 2017 to August 2018, this program committed a total of $20 million to 97 neighborhood businesses. This is less than 1% of the $2.4 billion committed by the city to two high-profile projects, the 78 and Lincoln Yards, both embedded in highly affluent communities, in April 2019.  

We must reverse this reverse Robin Hood approach.  

Addressing our huge neighborhood investment gaps will require real commitment from civic leaders at all levels, and development of substantive, long term collaborations between anchor institutions in the public, corporate, and philanthropic sectors. When these leaders are ready to support community-driven initiatives, keep ownership local, and provide the resources truly needed to change our city’s trajectory, they will find willing and able local partners deeply invested in the hard work of neighborhood revitalization.

Bernard Loyd is founder and president of Urban Juncture, a Chicago-based enterprise focused on neighborhood revitalization.

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