The city wants to put a private community development corporation in charge of all new projects in Woodlawn, Washington Park, and South Shore. People with a sense of Chicago history understand this as a recipe for disaster for ordinary people living in these neighborhoods. To developers and politicians, it will be a bonanza.
What they are counting on, those developers and politicians lining up at the trough, is that you don’t know or you don’t care about what’s happening. Don’t know is good for them, but don’t care is better, because people who don’t know can always find out. And once they find out, they may not like it. They may even want to change it.
“It” in this case is the Chicago Way when it comes to development. Ordinary people like you and me are supposed to step aside when the Chicago steamroller comes rolling through. We are supposed to stand on the sidewalk as if a parade is passing by, cheering the wrecking ball as we pack our bags with one hand and wave our little Chicago flags with the other.
It is upsetting to people who plan on making money from your neighborhood when you do not act this way. That’s when pastors and politicians are trotted out to serve as cheerleaders. One by one they tell us how much we are going to benefit from whatever new mega-development they are hawking, that nothing good will be harmed, and that only “bad elements” will be removed: crumbling buildings and rotten people. The pastors are there, presumably, to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, when it comes to the people.
This is all nonsense. When developers operate on a massive scale, good things are always destroyed, benefit to the community is always overstated, and huge numbers of decent people are displaced with little to no recompense. When the city is involved, it only gets worse. Whole communities are wiped out, and what takes their place is rarely as good as what was lost.
Consider Maxwell Street, a vibrant, thriving marketplace that was a cultural crossroads, swept away without a second thought. Consider Block 37 downtown, which was closed down and then leveled, only to be replaced years later with similar amenities as were there when it was destroyed, except now they are housed in suburban mall architecture. Consider public housing, which was itself a city plan to demolish and replace buildings it considered substandard. Public housing was then deemed substandard and torn down. Now, literally acres of land lay dormant across the city while we struggle with an affordable housing shortage.
Just about every time one of these mega-plans is ginned up downtown, there are warning signs. One of them is creation of these huge development and land management corporations. They typically have excessively broad powers and essentially no oversight. During Urban Renewal, it was the Chicago Land Clearance Commission. During the demolition of public housing, several of these groups were created, with hundreds of acres of city land handed over to them and no accountability for completion or quality of construction.
This latest mega-development corporation does not have a name and is not even incorporated, but five members of its board have already been picked. Two of them are pastors whose organizations own property in the neighborhoods they represent. The others do not appear to live in any of our neighborhoods. It also appears the mega-CDC will have the power to take and hold land, based on statements made by organizers of it and related documents. These are signs of what is to come.
None of this should be read as anti-development. Let the developers come. The argument for the mega-CDC is that the Obama Library, the Tiger Woods golf course, and the amphitheater coming to Jackson Park will be a magnet for development. Maybe so. If that turns out to be true, let our communities decide what is best for us. If a golden spigot of development is about to open up, why should we turn planning over to others, including outsiders with a sudden interest in our neighborhoods they never had before? There really appears to be only one believable reason for their interest to me. They want to profit from this development, and they want to minimize the sorts of roadblocks that come when people demand quality construction and local investment as a part of the bonanza. They want to turn the voice of the community into a whisper.
I will say it plainly. This all stinks, and it will either not help or outright harm the majority of residents. If you think otherwise, you are trusting Chicago politicians and developers to do right by you. Why would you ever do that?
This is what we need to do instead: Use this moment as an opportunity to assert our rights as citizens. Create local institutions that will help residents manage change in our own communities. Use this as a reason to unite the community, not only in opposition to the mega-CDC but in affirmation of the people’s right to manage change.
This is the idea behind South Side United. We are a coalition of residents of Woodlawn, South Shore, and Washington Park who are against top-down development and believe in our ability to chart a course for our prosperity. Join us, and you will be making the statement that we are more than a meal for predators, that we will decide what goes on where we live.
Speak out before this disaster strikes. Sign our petition. Like us on Facebook. Join the mailing list on the front page of this website. South Side United is dedicated to making the voices of ordinary residents of South Shore, Woodlawn, and Washington Park central to this conversation.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of South Side United.