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Englewood, Bronzeville wait for mayor’s ‘opportunity’ plan to pay off

Englewood and Bronzeville are two black, South Side neighborhoods facing unique yet separate challenges.

Englewood is decades off from anything close to resembling gentrification. The neighborhood is known more for its crime, poverty and vast swaths of empty land starved for development. Historic Bronzeville is close to Lake Michigan and downtown. A new, black middle class bought and rehabbed stunning greystones. Yet retail and amenities have greatly lagged.

Both of these communities could use a boost and that’s what Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is now promising.

Last spring, Emanuel designated seven city neighborhoods as so-called “opportunity areas.” The idea was to target public and private development in these communities to help attract much needed investment. Englewood and Bronzeville are two of the communities, but some residents there still aren’t clear on what the opportunity strategy means.

“I wanted to approach our neighborhood development strategy different. In a more coordinated fashion. I said we have an unprecedented amount of infrastructure investment. We should bring coordinated investment for greater value for our neighborhoods,” Emanuel said.

The mayor’s plan for the neighborhoods is long on hope but short on details. Some of what he’s touting was already in the works. So how does this new opportunity designation actually help these areas?

Let’s visit Englewood first.

On a recent summer Saturday some residents got together in Sherwood Park, which has a reputation for being dangerous. Englewood activist Asiaha Butler was there helping facilitate what she calls “positive loitering.” As children ran in an open field, Frankie Beverly and Maze’s “Happy Feelin’s” blared over the DJ’s speakers.

“I wasn’t shocked that Englewood would be a target place. We’re the poster child of the urban area gone wrong. So if you had any type of opportunities or things from the mayor, I definitely think we’d be the ones chosen for that,” Butler said.

As part of the opportunity strategy Emanuel said his office will help develop 2,500 city-owned vacant lots in Englewood. That could mean the kind of urban agriculture that has already turned some empty lots into vegetable gardens – in an area overrun with fast-food joints. Butler said she’s fine with that model, to a degree.

“What I’m afraid of is that is that it may be too much,” Butler said. “That scares me a little bit because I’m not a farmer and I don’t know what to do with all this land. I’d like to see more activities in these spaces and not just gardens; I think it could be something more,” she continued.

But according to Butler, the city’s top-down approach hasn’t left much room for community input. She says resident leaders aren’t in the loop about future plans or an overall vision for the neighborhood.

“I would want to see more sitting areas with the vacant lots. Definitely more retail and the commercial corridor district and even developing more commercial retail,” Butler said.

One of Emanuel’s bullet points for Englewood is a railyard expansion by Norfolk Southern that’s supposed to inject economic vitality. But the controversial project will demolish homes in Englewood and could lead to an increase in air pollution.

Another bullet point is leveraging Kennedy-King College as a community anchor on 63rd Street. But that’s been a struggle ever since the new facility opened several years ago, and it’s not clear how the opportunity area will change that.

One thing that might help neighborhood development is tax increment financing, or TIFs. It’s a tool that collects local property taxes from specific areas and then puts it in a fund with little oversight. Originally created to eradicate blight, TIFs tend to go to the rich and well-connected.

A close look at TIFs over the past decade in Englewood and Bronzeville  – neighborhoods with no shortage of blight – shows no major retail activity. Most of the Bronzeville area TIFs helped build new mixed-income housing after the city demolished public-housing high rises.

“Millions of dollars spent on primarily affordable housing, which is very important,” says Bronzeville entrepreneur Bernard Loyd. But Loyd continued, “If it is the only investment in the community, it’s going to dramatically skew development in a direction that ultimately is not productive for the community.”

Loyd’s using TIF money for something other than housing. In 2010, the city council approved three million dollars in TIF funds for Loyd’s Urban Juncture, which will be four restaurants with food from the African diaspora. The project, on 51st Street, will be a much needed oasis in a food desert.

It’s not built yet, but the site is already an urban garden with kale and tomatoes and cooking pavillion.  And a place where children can play tic tac toe and dominoes.

Still, Loyd’s not sure what the city’s larger vision is for the area.

“We’re all excited to have Bronzeville named as an opportunity neighborhood and we would all agree that Bronzeville indeed is an opportunity neighborhood, so many unfilled needs. At the same time, I have yet to see a plan. There’s language about opportunity but not much of a plan that says here’s how we will capture the opportunity, here’s how we will facilitate investment,” Loyd said.

Another TIF project in Bronzeville is underway at 47th and Cottage Grove. Construction crews are building a Wal-Mart. Emanuel says he lured the retail giant as part of his Bronzeville plan – with hopes that it will spur additional retail investment. Right now some low-income and middle-class residents have to leave their South Side community just to go to a grocery store.

It’s hard to ignore the race factor when looking at the lack of economic development in black communities. So I directly asked Emanuel about the stigmatization of race on the South Side.

“Well, there’s an economic and racial piece. On the other hand, our investment in Bronzeville will give some of the retailers – because it has all of the potential there – the confidence to come. They want to know it’s stable and it’s growing. We’re not going to invest unless we also have that confidence and we’re going to invest to give them the confidence to come to a Bronzeville,” Emanuel said.

The mayor says that will soon include a deluxe grocery store on 39th Street.

But so far Mariano’s is demurring.

Here is a list of TIFs and their status in the Englewood and Bronzeville areas:

Natalie Moore is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her at @natalieymoore.

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