Post-Olympic Plans Floated in Washington Park | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Post-Olympic Plans Floated in Washington Park

People living in Washington Park are applying lessons learned from Chicago's Olympic bid process. They want to try and keep their South Side neighborhood in the spotlight. The Washington Park neighborhood is battered by unemployment, vacant lots and disinvestment. Many community organizing groups feel empowered by the organizing they did during the bid process. Now residents are figuring out how to sustain that political muscle.

Washington Park community activist Brandon Johnson says during the Olympic bid process he noticed a different attitude from the city.

JOHNSON: So with the Olympics they treated us like we were the North Side for a couple of months and it was nice. I think it did a lot for us in terms of revealing to ourselves our own potential as well.

Johnson is driving along 55th Street as an autumn rain pours down. He says there's a citywide perception that the Olympic bid did something magical for the Washington Park community.

How to sustain that interest in an economic downturn without the Olympic bonanza is what residents are now asking.

JOHNSON: That's the million dollar question. The city does not put the same resources on the South Side that it puts in other, more desirable communities. Part of that is a local fault, right? We have to learn to be better advocates for certain resources. And we have to be more sophisticated about how we use those resources.

Johnson's Washington Park Consortium is a neighborhood planning group funded with foundation money. The part of the city they're tackling is mostly African American and has seen some signs of gentrification. There's a sturdy housing stock and there's the centerpiece--a large, historic park. But there are also many low-income families and a palpable lack of retail.

Johnson says he's working on expanding urban agriculture in Washington Park as a means for jobs. Sort of like a green ‘hog butcher to the world' concept.

There's plenty of space. I'm standing on a piece of vacant property. According to documents requested by WBEZ, the city owns nearly 500 lots of land in Washington Park. Nearby University of Chicago has bought some property on 55th Street but not revealed its strategy.

Some of the city's plans for Washington Park are cryptic or lack specificity.

Alderman Willie Cochran's ward includes part of the Washington Park area.
COCHRAN: We are looking at a major grocery store t be developed along the 61st to 63rd and State.
MOORE: How much more detail can you tell me about that?
COCHRAN: I won't tell you anymore details because I don't like to put something out and it not come to fruition. But I'm pretty sure we will have some very good soon in the near future.

The city community development department says it is designating a tax increment financing district along the busy 55th Street thoroughfare. It wants to put it in place by 2010. The TIF might help attract new businesses, but TIFs don't always pan out successfully.

Officials also say they are looking at the idea of a master plan for the community. There have been a few floating around the neighborhood, including a quality of life plan that Brandon Johnson's group drew up recently.

Donna Hampton Smith has seen many plans and a neighborhood empowerment zone for the area in the 17 years she's been a Washington Park resident.

And she's frustrated.

HAMPTON SMITH: There's been so many plans with various organizations in our community but it hasn't happened. Hampton Smith runs the fledgling nonprofit Washington Park Chamber of Commerce.

She's not suffering from post-Olympic blues.

HAMPTON SMITH: If Mayor Daley and the city whoever officials were able to get that energy going, let's continue it, and I just don't think that it should've been just because of the Olympics. If he was able to pull people together, let's pull them together now.

Hampton Smith also acknowledges that residents must pull together, too.

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