Illustration by Shane Tolentino

At the end of June, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) announced the first-phase winners for this year’s Neighborhood Opportunity Fund. The fund, which former Mayor Rahm Emanuel started in 2016, awards grants to small business owners on the South and West Sides. Lightfoot has revamped the NOF, and is using it as a main piece of her new development initiative, Invest South/West, with first-round grant amounts ranging from $8,800 to $250,000.

Invest South/West is billed by Lightfoot and DPD commissioner Maurice Cox as an attempt to “re-activate neighborhood cores,” highlighting and injecting resources into ten South and West Side commercial corridors and the neighborhoods they anchor. The NOF portion of the program will distribute among small businesses who apply successfully $10 million annually for the next three years. Of the thirty-two awardees from this year’s first cycle, twenty-five were located on the South Side, and sixteen of those were on corridors prioritized by the city’s initiative.

Money from the city comes at a crucial and highly charged moment. The coronavirus pandemic has decimated business, and civil unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s murder hurt South Side economic corridors and sent a strong message yet again that the city has failed so many of its Black and brown residents. Lightfoot, who remains steadfast in her support of police and isn’t doing enough to protect renters, has done little to engender trust. The city’s development gatekeepers must ask themselves how a path towards equitable development can be forged. How can Invest South/West truly invest in the communities it purports to serve, and not become a tool for invasive private development, displacement, and gentrification? 

The city has touted the promise of putting $750 million in public funding toward Invest South/West, and holding the purse strings is Cox, the city’s new planning commissioner. Before coming to Chicago, Cox worked in politics, architecture, and design, then served as Detroit’s planning director for four years. He is a proponent of the twenty-minute neighborhood, a concept championed by urbanist Jane Jacobs that holds that a community should have everything it needs within walking distance. 

Neighborhood reinvestment, if done correctly, could be a start at healing decades of racist planning and reversing the alarming trend of Black depopulation from Chicago. Cox believes that keeping Black Chicagoans in the city starts with reviving historic corridors like Englewood’s 63rd Street, which he refers to as a neighborhood’s “front door.” These commercial stretches are usually right off CTA stops, and he’s betting that more focused development around them will encourage activity and accessibility. “When I look over and think ‘where do we start,’ it became obvious to me that if we want to hold on to those residents who live in those neighborhoods, we have to give them the option to shop locally,” said Cox. 

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Asiaha Butler, cofounder of the Resident Association of Greater Englewood (R.A.G.E.), believes that the city’s planning leadership has a long way to go if they want to make lasting change. In Englewood, the only Invest South/West neighborhood that didn’t receive NOF funding this cycle, “every single unjust system has hit our community.” 

Butler views the city’s lack of active listening as a consequence of the same racist system that created the capital flight they are now trying to correct. “I’m not seeing tangible things. The things they are pushing, it’s not what people [in the neighborhood] have been working toward for the last ten to fifteen years. People are dying, people are sick, and this process doesn’t seem to be responding to those urgent needs. If you aren’t going to do anything bold and radical with Invest South/West, to me you are practicing white supremacy.”

What Butler and other Englewood leaders have been working toward is building out necessary spaces to accomplish the Englewood Quality of Life Plan II, a wide-ranging and coalition-built plan to stimulate neighborhood development. Go Green on Racine, a neighborhood-led project meant to align with the Quality of Life plan, aims to create a hub of resident-centered growth on 63rd and Racine. It will contain, as Butler puts it, “everything that is acutely urgent in our community right now”—a fresh market, workforce re-entry services, a health clinic, and more. 

Invest South/West-targeted neighborhoods like Englewood, Austin, and North Lawndale,  through Quality of Life plans, are clear on what they need. “We’ve shared this concern with DPD, and other neighborhood Quality of Life plans have also shared their concern,” said Cecile De Mello of Teamwork Englewood. “We don’t want Invest South/West to operate outside… of the values and strategies [that] were created by the community.”

Cox and DPD are aware of these existing efforts. “[These neighborhoods] have gone through the deliberate process of planning—communities had already prioritized what they wanted to see, so that allowed me to move immediately to the question of implementation,” said Cox. 

To Felicia Slaton-Young, director of the Greater Englewood Chamber of Commerce, the city should be focused on “helping us to identify investors who are really interested in communities of color, like Englewood, Bronzeville, and Roseland. We need them to help us market the vision of what [these neighborhoods] could be.” Echoing Cox’s vision of the walkable neighborhood, Slaton-Young says every community wants to be able to “buy all the goods and services that we need without having to leave our neighborhood.”

Butler agrees that the city’s main role should be identifying capital. “This infusion of capital and resources needs to first hit the pockets of the people in this community. It needs to be economic stimulation. Most of the support and capital for Black developers is not there.”

In South Shore, another Invest South/West target neighborhood, Chamber of Commerce executive director Tonya Trice is optimistic about what Invest South/West could bring to the neighborhood. South Shore has high levels of commercial vacancy, especially along stretches of 75th and 79th Streets.

“Cox spoke with great admiration about Motor City Match, a Detroit program that links entrepreneurs in need of space with real estate opportunities,” said Trice. Run by the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, Motor City Match has awarded $8.1 million to 170 entrepreneurs since 2015. Trice believes similar programs could be worthwhile for Chicago as well. “There are barriers that hinder businesses from leasing space in our community,” she said. ”We need to find different ways to approach the problem.”

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When the city considers urban planning, large development projects like the Obama Presidential Center often attract the most attention. Invest South/West and the proposed OPC are separate projects, but inextricably linked. The decision-making surrounding both will determine whether longtime residents can reap the benefits of these investments or are left unprotected and priced out of their own communities. Commissioner Cox has his focus trained on the smaller scale projects that Invest South/West intends to support, under the philosophy that incremental development is more effective and crucial for long-term, measured neighborhood support. 

“I think that’s what the community is looking for, they’re looking for ‘fill in the gaps,’” Cox said on the Fran Spielman Show, with projects like greening vacant lots or rebuilding existing housing stock. In a perfect world, he said, incremental and monumental development efforts would inform each other. “Projects like the OPC are catalytic investments,” said Cox, but their effectiveness in boosting neighborhoods themselves relies on “position[ing] the rest of the neighborhood to benefit from that catalyst.” 

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“Development is going to come,” said Alderman Jeanette Taylor, whose 20th Ward includes Woodlawn and part of Englewood. In anticipation of the OPC, a coalition of neighborhood stakeholders in Woodlawn and Washington Park came together to push for a Community Benefits Agreement, proposed to City Council in 2019, with the intention of guaranteeing jobs and housing for longtime residents. Put forward by Alderman Taylor and 5th Ward Alderman Leslie Hairston, the CBA was at first mostly ignored by Mayor Lightfoot’s Woodlawn Housing Ordinance, announced in February of this year. Earlier this week, the CBA organizers reached a compromise with the city when the mayor’s office and Woodlawn community groups announced an amended ordinance aimed at better protecting low-income renters. “People who don’t live in our community will want to come in here,” Taylor said. “So yeah come in our community, but you’ve got to hire us, you gotta make sure that we have a seat at the table when it comes to your development.” 

Herein lies NOF’s potential promise. If neighborhood corridors are properly invested in before monumental development starts, then they will be in a position to harness the increased activity that something like the OPC will bring. The city leadership pushing Invest South/West is hoping that direct financial support of small businesses will be a step toward empowering these corridors.

At NOF recipient CBQ Facial Beauty Bar in Bronzeville, Nichole Doss plans to use her $37,500 grant to expand into a larger space as well as hire more estheticians. In Brighton Park, grant awardee Xavier Lebron received $68,000 to improve his bar, Xavier’s Club. He not only wants to upgrade his space, but to “change the area.” Lebron said, “We want to put a patio outside. There’s a lot of areas in Chicago that have already done that, and I want to be the first in Brighton Park.” 

Free Street Theater, the only performing arts organization to receive NOF funding, plans to renovate their Back of the Yards theater space. But since COVID-19 has halted live performance, Free Street is “also thinking about how that space can currently be in direct service to the community,” according to executive director Karla Estela Rivera. This summer, for example Free Street has set up a “grab and go pantry” to provide non-perishable hygiene products, masks, and art kits to residents. To Rivera, being a part of the Back of the Yards community means being a responsive advocate for it—and while the NOF grant is a boon, money from the city is welcomed with some reservations. “There’s a lack of trust when it comes to agencies that come in and are not grassroots-level,” said Rivera. 

Butler, of R.A.G.E., echoed Rivera’s concerns about top-down, city-controlled development. “[The] community has very little input, and the input we do have, there’s always a circle we need to go around in,” she said. Her frustrations stem from outside entities believing they know what’s best for her neighborhood. “They could be better listeners,” she says. “They could really work alongside us, and not think they’re doing something for us. It’s with us.”

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Jonathan Dale is a freelance journalist focusing on issues related to the urban built environment. He is a Chicago native; this is his first piece for the Weekly.

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