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Belmont Cragin Sees a Renaissance — And Youth are Helping Lead the Way

Linze Rice

The Belmont Cragin neighborhood may not be on every Chicagoan’s radar yet—but behind the scenes, the Northwest Side community has quietly been experiencing a community-driven renaissance, successfully bringing projects to life that address residents’ needs, wants and hopes for the future.Among the neighborhood’s wins so far is a $44 million investment towards a state-of-the-art new elementary school and community center, a $25.6 million senior housing building, a new $12 million Cook County Clinic, a number of public safety and beautification upgrades and several brand new additions and renovations to the neighborhood’s public high school, Steinmetz College Prep—which include a new $6.5 million PCC Wellness center and $4.75 million in renovations to its new Field of Dreams athletic fields thanks in part to support from the Chicago Cubs Charities Diamond Project.

Amped Kitchens, a new prep kitchen is coming to Belmont Cragin.
Amped Kitchens, a new prep kitchen is coming to Belmont Cragin.

Additionally, Amped Kitchens, a new prep kitchen is coming to Belmont Cragin that will create over 200 jobs in the community. LISC has provided funding to this organization in several cities. In Chicago, LISC provided a $6M, seven-year loan and a $4.5M allocation of New Markets Tax Credits for the $25M renovation of a 113,000 square foot vacant factory building into a multi-tenant food production facility. LISC worked with a variety of partners to provide financing for the project including Chicago Community Loan Fund, BlueHub and JP Morgan Chase. Upon completion in early 2020, there will be 64 fully equipped, licensed kitchen areas, ranging in size from 176 to 1,431 square feet, with shared refrigerated and dry storage, multiple loading docks, and conference rooms.

It’s all part of the community’s Quality-of-Life Plan (QLP), which is supported by a partnership between the Northwest Side Housing Center (NWSHC) and Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) Chicago  to help local residents organize, then realize, a collective vision for their community’s future. 

While NWSHC has been working in the community for over 15 years, its Quality-of-Life Planning partnership with LISC began in 2011 after NWSHC saw the potential LISC’s community planning resources could provide.

Really, what allowed us to position ourselves and community to be able to leverage these significant investments, was the QLP and support from LISC.
— James Rudyk, NWSHC’s Executive Director
Belmont Cragin Quality-of-Life Plan
Belmont Cragin Quality-of-Life Plan

“We started knocking on LISC’s door and saying, ‘We’re missing out on resources,’” added Vanessa Valentin, director of organizing and programs. “And then we were chosen as a lead agency for a Quality-of-Life Plan.”

The organization officially began working with over 600 Belmont Cragin residents to start the planning process in 2015 and formed four committees: Education, Youth, Seniors and Health, and Economic Development. Each committee had a leader and worked together to reach their goals. The group finalized its QLP in 2016, and has since completed nearly all of the Plan’s initially-envisioned projects—leveraging over $170 million in investments so far.

“This is what we’re able to do when we focus on community, when we put community first,” Valentin said.

Other accomplishments have included:

With some wiggle room left in their planning, the group is now focusing on what it calls its QLP 2.0—opening the discussion and planning process back up to hundreds more residents and community stakeholders to see what more they can do to address current and future needs in the next 3-5 years.

On the docket: keeping control over land and economic development decisions local, and empowering youth to get more involved in the community planning process.

“The QLP process has really been a roadmap for our community, for what we’ve done. We said from the beginning that this Plan wasn’t going to go on the shelf. We’ve done it, but we’ve done it with the community—our neighborhood is now vibrant, it’s diverse, it’s there, it’s happening, and we’re united. I’ve seen change; I’ve seen growth."
— Vanessa Valentin

Empowering Youth

One of the Plan’s recent major takeaways has been an emphasis on youth involvement—an arm of the QLP that seeks to give teens ownership over their own projects and ideas to improve the neighborhood.

Jakera Kimble, a 17-year-old Youth Leader with NWSHC and upcoming senior at Steinmetz College Prep, said she first got involved with the group during her Freshman year when she wanted to become more familiar with the neighborhood.

She attended a community meeting regarding the ITW David Speer Academy expansion, where for the first time she met an alderman, as well as directors from NWSHC, who suggested to her something that sounded radical at the time, but has since become her mantra: Her voice matters.

“It was shocking to me that an adult would actually come to me and say, ‘Your voice matters,’” Kimble said. “We live in a time when adults think we don’t have a place at the table, so to be able to hear that from an adult, it empowered me and opened my eyes to so much more—and now so much has come from that one conversation.”

She participated in the meeting, and from there fell in love with the idea of empowering the 27,000 youth who live in the Belmont Cragin area to get more involved in the community planning process.

Now, as a Youth Leader with NWSHC, she and her cohorts choose a new theme and project to work on each year, with public transportation being their current target.

The problem: While there are 200 miles of bike lanes in Chicago, only one of those is in Belmont Cragin. The neighborhood currently has no Divvy stations, and many students report a problem with bus bunching—where several busses will appear back-to-back with long gaps in between. The students want to see more bike lanes and more bike availability, as well as better bus dependability.

Kimble and the other teens also noticed that the Chicago Transit Authority and Active Transportation Alliance had assigned grades to each neighborhood according to its bus friendliness, with wards surrounding Belmont Cragin receiving D’s.

The teens have traveled everywhere from the state’s capitol in Springfield, to the nation’s capitol in Washington D.C. to speak on behalf of public transportation needs in Chicago.

“My vision for the future is for the low-income neighborhoods to have all of the things like great neighborhoods like Elmwood Park have,” she said. “That goes for our schooling, more programs for those who are less-fortunate, transportation and more youth programs, such as this one.”

In the meantime, Kimble wants other teens her age to know that they can make a positive difference in their neighborhoods—especially if they work together.

“We are the future—and that’s just the truth, point blank. We really are, and all these things, everything that happens, it affects us. We need to know that we can get involved and that we have a voice. We should have the same amount of space at the table as adults have because our voice is just as impactful and powerful.”
— Jakera Kimble, 17-year-old youth leader with NWSHC

Establishing Local Control & Healing Wounds

Also among the updated topics the QLP seeks to address in the coming years is bolstering the area’s economic development—particularly through local control of land and real estate to ensure long-term affordability for its residents.

So far, the NWSHC has worked with city and state officials to develop and grow a Community Development Corporation (CDC), build 98 apartment units for seniors on Diversey Avenue, secure $18.1 million in loans originated for home purchases, $4.4 million in foreclosure prevention/Illinois Hardest Hit funds, and $9.6 million in home repair loans available through its home equity restructuring program. Future goals include the creation of a community land trust.

“Right now the CDC is working on a rent-to-own program where local businesses can rent their storefront from us for three years, and on the third year they can buy it at a reduced rate,” Rudyk said. “In addition to that, we’re trying to implement a land trust where the individual owns the home and we own the land, and when they sell the property we can control the amount of profit they make off of it—basically helping to keep it affordable.”

Ultimately, at the heart of the QLP process is the concept of resiliency, according to Rudyk—at the individual, family and community levels.

“We want that to be a focal point of our new Plan—the idea of building community resilience and overcoming adverse experiences and childhood trauma,” Rudyk said. “Not only working with children, but with adults, too, so they’re not passing that trauma down and have the opportunity to bounce back. We realized it really requires everyone in the community working on the same page on that.”

Most recently, the Northwest Side Housing Center won the Chicago Community Trust Outstanding Community Plan Award at the 25th Annual Chicago Neighborhood Development Awards in May for their Belmont-Cragin Quality-of-Life Plan.

Just one of many stories:

Like Belmont Cragin, other neighborhoods whose residents have united through the QLP process and partnership with LISC continue to thrive as well. Some recent updates include:

Englewood Quality-of-Life Plan
Englewood Quality-of-Life Plan

Englewood: LISC’s community partner in Englewood, Teamwork Englewood, has a new Executive Director—Cecile DeMello. DeMello said she’s looking forward to continue building upon the group’s successes in recent years, particularly with its 2016 QLP.

“Our QLP is a true grassroots and collective effort that mobilizes the vision of the residents in a future they help build as the urban planners, project managers and decision makers of their own community,” she said. “One thing I am most proud of is a health and wellness initiative called the Health Navigators, a program that took two years to create. This outreach initiative aims to share with residents at their doors and in the community the health resources that are available right here in the community. The concept came from residents and health practitioners working to find the solutions around the health disparities in the community.

One important thing that came out of this dialogue and research is the disconnect between resources that do exist in the community, and the community's lack of awareness of these resources. With this initiative we hope to increase residents taking advantage of the programs and providers that exist in our community to address the significant health disparities in greater Englewood, and learn more about the barriers to care. This project is coupled with ongoing partnerships which have helped leverage in healthy eating programing, such as a soon-to-be-opened Englewood Community Kitchen, a free health educational learning Kitchen, trauma awareness and mental health resources, and preventative and treatment services that exist in the community.”

Teamwork Englewood and the public safety task force won a nearly $1 million grant from the US Department of Justice to expand community-led approaches to violence reduction. With a new high school and other public investments the EQLP has leveraged over $117 million in local investments in its first three years.

Chicago Southwest Quality-of-Life Plan
Chicago Southwest Quality-of-Life Plan

Chicago Southwest: The Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP) recently received $12 million through the State’s capital bill to expand Reclaiming SW Chicago. This will enable them to buy and rehab 135 homes and apartments—100 more properties than initially thought possible. Check out the QLP here.

North Lawndale Quality-of-Life Plan
North Lawndale Quality-of-Life Plan

And in North Lawndale: The North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council and Lawndale Christian Development Corporation acquired $3 million from the State of Illinois to launch its Reclaiming North Lawndale initiative, which seeks to restore the Lazarus Apartments into 50 affordable homes, and rehab some of the neighborhood’s vintage Greystones back into affordable homes. Check out the QLP here.

These highlights are just a small sample of all the great working happening across these communities and Chicago. We will have more exciting news from Auburn Gresham, Austin and Hermosa to share soon!