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Issue 1: Community Revitalization

Together We Can Make a Difference

by Monica Chadha

Amid stories of drugs, brutality, and crime, a refreshing tale emerges. Here is how a community, their police department, local organizations, and volunteers united resources to restore one city block on Chicago’s West Side.

The block, 800 N. Harding, became the city’s first official Super Block. A Super Block is a designated block where, for a one year period, city resources and community groups join forces to lower crime and rehabilitate the neighborhood. The ultimate goal of the Super Block program is to transform the city one block at a time and is intended for blocks with high owner occupancy and some community involvement. The program’s success depends on community groups working with committed residents to affect permanent change.

The program began as a vision of Douglas Bolling, Commander of the 11th District Chicago Police Department. The residents of the 800 block of North Harding transformed his vision into a reality. Their actions and achievements created a model for future Super Blocks and illustrated that collaboration between people could enable them to transform their neighborhood.

When this project began, the block was considered a high drug trafficking area and so unsafe residents were uncomfortable walking the streets. The resulting sense of isolation and increased gang activity made it a prime candidate for the Super Block program.

The Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy — a division of the police department that works towards creating strong ties between police — the block residents, community organizations, and the City of Chicago agreed to participate.

The residents appropriately coined the slogan “Together We Can,” and together they did. In one year the block residents experienced an eighty-five percent reduction in drug offenses, created the Super Block Park, rehabilitated four properties, demolished and purchased abandoned properties, and removed abandoned vehicles. The program also forged partnerships between city agencies and community organizations.

The West Humboldt Park Development Council proved to be one of the key local organizations. The Council’s board of directors, made up of area residents, community organizers, local leaders, bank officials, and small businesses, became the cornerstone for community support by creating a continuing forum and offering a measure of security for the residents.

Government Assistance Program volunteers helped residents set an agenda and organize meetings. Established goals included ending gang-related activity, creating a drug-free neighborhood, aiming toward an owner-occupied block, restoring abandoned buildings, and transforming a vacant lot into a park and garden.

The residents and organizers held planning sessions bimonthly at a local church, and later increased the meetings to monthly, then weekly. Block residents, members of community organizations, and city officials attended. A democratic forum was structured that allowed residents to discuss their needs, along with people from outside the neighborhood who shared ideas. Residents now had the opportunity to interact with each other, the police, and deal directly with pertinent issues. Attendance increased forty percent as they organized clean-up days, implemented a city rebate program, and outlined plans for the street.

Residents chose the community park for their first project and enlisted the aid of Greencorps, a city-sponsored program, and a group of designers from Archeworks. The residents maintained the plants, trees, and other material provided by Greencorps, and organized volunteers, including crews from the 800 block of North Harding, North Springfield, the Bank of America, Tootsie Toys, Helene Curtis, Archeworks, the Development Council, and the 11th District Police Department. On a vacant lot they spread wood chips, dug planting beds, installed benches, and mounted a sign.

The year passed quickly as residents focused on building a park pavilion, designing street banners, and a planning a celebration day. With the help of Archeworks, a children’s banner design contest was held and drawings transformed into four foot purple and gold street banners that bore the motto “Together We Built a Super Block.”

Subcommittees planned events and established “Build Days” in the park. The Chicago Park District commemorated the first Build Day by providing a Bobcat to dig and level a twenty square foot area in the park for a patio and pavilion. Construction continued on successive weekends with residents and volunteers, while other residents provided food with help from the Development Council and funding from Bank of America. Many lessons were learned and skills exchanged.

By the second Build Day, word was out on the street. The park was busy from morning until night. Residents and volunteers formed the concrete crew, the tile color crew, and the design crew. Families worked together with volunteers from Somers Studio to create unique tile pieces. De Paul University volunteers broke tiles to make mosaics; children sorted the pieces by color, and the local Men’s Club made a mosaic dedicated to “love.” Even the police were “caught in the act.”

One team of children, toted bags of concrete and spread gravel underlay. One of the Archeworks members who taught the science of concrete was taking directions from the children by end of the day! One resident, Mr. Shorty, donated a bucket full of marbles for the mosaics, as well as many of the necessary tools to build the entry and lay the concrete.

A few weeks before Celebration Day, the entry was completed. One resident commented with pride that no other block had anything like this. From the tile company that donated not only tiles, but grout and cement, to officer Maria Cleveland, from CAPS Division — Neighborhood Relations, who attended every meeting, the feeling was jubilant.

On Celebration Day the street was a sea of purple and gold as residents wearing matching T-shirts marched proudly down the street towards the temporary bandshell. Both Commanders Bolling and Irving were present. Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley commended the residents and referred to this block as a model for all future Super Blocks — and the City committed to building a Super Block in every police district this year!

The celebration continued with awards and tumbling teams. Later there was dancing in the streets.

Change on 800 N. Harding is ongoing. This is not only a story about what was accomplished — it’s also a story about next year’s visions in a community that has experienced the power of working together.

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