Critics of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel contend he focuses too much on what is good for downtown and not enough on neighborhoods.
In campaign speeches the mayor vigorously rebutts that. One of his regular sounding points is the $4 billion spent on seven neighborhoods through a program called Neighborhoods Now.
The mayor reaches that $4 billion number by bundling together a hodgepodge of investments: federal dollars, city dollars, and lots of private cash spent on private ventures.
Some of the projects are exactly what one would expect from neighborhood development: a grocery store in Englewood, train line updates in Rogers Park, and a wellness center in Little Village.
But some of the projects WBEZ found in the full list might not be what an average Chicagoan expects when you hear Emanuel describe a program guided by the belief that Chicago’s success is measured by “whether our families can raise their children in our neighborhoods.”
For example, the full Neighborhoods Now list counts the $44 million in private money SOHO House brought to the West Loop. Soho House is a hip membership club. It requires a headshot, application, and approval from a board to join.
A quarter of public dollars in one area
Not all the projects on Emanuel’s Neighborhoods Now list are privately financed like the Soho house. Nearly a half-billion dollars, ($457,815,397 to be exact) came from the city budget.
Almost one quarter of those dollars went to an area right around the McCormick Place convention center in the South Loop. It includes two hotels and a new green line L stop. There is also a big stadium where DePaul athletes can play basketball games.
All that’s included as Neighborhood Now, listed under the Bronzeville Neighborhood, just to the south.
Pat Dowell is the alderman there for the 3rd Ward. Her office said it expects the hotels to bring more people into the the Bronzeville neighborhood.
But Harold Lucas with the Black Metropolis Convention & Tourism Council isn’t so ready to praise the move. He’s been a big advocate for bringing attention to Bronzeville. Does the development around McCormick Place sound like neighborhood investment to him?
“It does not, “ Lucas said. “And it tells us we need to be civically engaged ... In making sure that we benefit.”
Lucas said real neighborhood development would have brought bigger investments in community-owned businesses and projects committed to preserving Bronzeville's rich African-American history.
There is a bit of a warning in what Lucas is saying. Chicagoans have to pay close attention to what is being touted as community development—maybe especially around election time.
They should scrutinize broad initiatives and big money numbers and find out, in concrete terms, what they mean block to block.
Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia’s office didn’t respond to repeated requests to describe his specific plans for neighborhoods.
Emanuel has said if he is re-elected he would double Neighborhoods Now.
Shannon Heffernan is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @shannon_h