icago is a city of diverse neighborhoods, many of them struggling with joblessness, crime and deflated dreams. But they all share an asset: Each one brims with doers — innovators who have ambitious ideas to improve this city one block at a time.
Our Plan of Chicago project, now in its third year, promotes powerful homegrown ideas to boost education, create jobs and improve safety. These ideas come from business leaders and corner grocers, foundation panjandrums and the guy who lives in a bungalow down the street. Our current theme reflects our firm belief: Chicago Can Do This.
One idea quickly percolated to the top of our list: Create a Sister Neighborhoods program so thriving communities can help those that struggle. Among our inspirations was an Archdiocese of Chicago program in which parishes are linked together and assist one another.
Many Chicagoans eagerly step forward to help fellow residents in violence-wracked or job-starved areas. Similarly, every neighborhood has expertise and resources that could help another neighborhood. Yes, we know that neighborhoods vie for scarce resources from City Hall. But we also know that whenever a neighborhood thrives, so does Chicago.
Can neighborhoods of different needs and means help one another conquer their challenges? Can they align in partnerships that grow over time?
Think of these pairings as blind dates in which neighborhood leaders can discover shared goals and explore the ways to help each other.
Several such fix-ups are in the works, thanks to Chicago Treasurer/Sister Neighborhoods Matchmaker Kurt Summers. Summers tells us the Tribune’s Plan of Chicago series inspired him to launch a “think tank” of leaders from all of the city’s 77 community areas. “We’re building bridges between neighborhoods,” he says. “We know there are opportunities day in and day out. So let’s start building the muscle of communities working together.” Bravo, Mr. Treasurer.
In July, Summers gathered those “thought leaders” at the Chicago City Council chambers to kick-start his Sister Neighborhoods program. He wanted grass-roots energy and independent action, not government planning and stultifying bureaucracy.
Result: We’re happy to report that Chicago Can Do — And Is Doing — This.
Two of Summers’ matches already have bloomed:
When Avondale met Englewood
When Glen Fulton, of Englewood on the South Side, met Margaret Ptaszynska, of Avondale on the Northwest Side, the attraction was mutual. Fulton is executive director of the Greater Englewood Community Development Corp., which last spring launched a new small business accelerator, a place that helps more than 50 entrepreneurs grow their businesses.
Ptaszynska, who leads the Greater Avondale Chamber of Commerce, strives to help companies in her neighborhood, known for its large Polish community and a growing Hispanic population, plant their flags in new places.
Their first order of business: Fulton led a tour of Englewood to show Ptaszynska potential opportunities. “One of the things that Margaret and I are talking about is creating incentives for businesses that want to come to Englewood,” he says, acknowledging that the neighborhood’s reputation for crime and poverty could scare away some companies. “Historically, we have had a bad reputation, and the conversation has been a negative one,” he tells us. “But we are changing that conversation with the business accelerator.”
The two leaders set a course. They would build a small-business exchange. The goal is to help Englewood business owners who want to expand in Avondale, and vice versa.
Fulton envisions cross-learning experiences, so that businesses can share with each other on a wide range of subjects: financial literacy, loan opportunities, finding and exploiting resources. In other words, a business exchange of ideas, tips and eventually businesses.
Ptaszynska tells us that she has an Avondale medical training institute that’s quite interested in opening a location in Englewood.
“It’s just the beginning of the conversation,” she says, “but the general idea of this partnership is really good and helpful.”
When Albany Park met West Rogers Park
Summers’ summit brought together a second serendipitous pairing: Rodney Walker, executive director of the Albany Park Community Center, and Shalom Klein, executive director of the Jewish Community Council of West Rogers Park. Albany Park had successfully lobbied for a new library; West Rogers Park seeks to persuade the city to replace a 1960s-era library at 6435 N. California Ave.
“We are following the playbook of communities like Albany Park,” Klein tells us. “They said, if you want to talk to someone who can make this happen, we can help.”
Albany Park officials connected Klein with Chinatown officials and others who have learned the ways of clout to get a library built.
“What it boils down to is we are engaged in conversations and in learning that without Sister Neighborhoods, we would have never known,” Klein tells us. “If we want a library, we should be talking to people who have advocated successfully for a library.”
So far, a West Rogers Park petition drive has gathered more than 1,300 signatures in two months. A newly organized committee is bringing together a diverse group of business and civic organizations to push for the library.
Chicago Public Library Commissioner Brian Bannon has noticed. “The ingredient of a strong community desire (for a new library) is always important when making a decision about neighborhood improvement. Not only do we love it, but we think it is important that a community is engaged and actively interested in seeking improved services.”
And what benefits flow back to Albany Park? Walker says he is confident those will come. “We are just beginning to learn what other organizations do — which services they provide in their communities and how we could leverage those resources moving forward,” Walker tells us. Also as a result of Sister Neighborhoods, these two are planning a networking event between the business owners of their communities.
Yes, this is just beginning. Connections beget connections. Solutions evolve and spread. Neighborhood leaders learn how to deal with their own communities’ struggles.
Sister Neighborhoods initiatives may expand beyond Summers and his 77 thought leaders. There’s another group, formed in 2013 after our first Plan of Chicago series, that is in talks with the Chicago Community Trust to launch a similar effort. We are watching them with high hopes.
Can your community, your group, offer or profit from your own blind date? Matchmaker Summers is easy to find. And he has plenty of potential mates for you and yours.