Streets Cleaned, Vets Honored in Day of Service
Photos by Annie Grossinger
On a day dedicated to those who have served this country, through bouts of rain and blustering winds, more than 50 volunteers combed through a vacant lot in Auburn Gresham and collected trash on 79th street as a service of their own. The volunteers – comprising LISC Chicago staffers, Chicago Cares volunteers, AmeriCorps members, Mercy Housing for Boys & Girls volunteers and more – worked side-by-side on November 11 to make an improvement towards a much larger goal.
“There’s nothing like seeing people give their time,” said 17th Ward Alderman David Moore. When deciding on where to begin, Alderman Moore said he deferred to the residents, who targeted the lot.
The vacancy and disarray of the lot means more than simply an empty lot. In a few years, the City of Chicago intends to add a Metra stop at 79th street, only a few dozen yards from the overgrown fenced-off space the volunteers were cleaning. The event was part of the Southwest Corridor Collaborative (SWCC), a new partnership between LISC Chicago, the City of Chicago, Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation (GAGDC), Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP) and Teamwork Englewood. SWCC is a targeted and place-based approach to economic development which emerged from the neighborhood’s Quality-of-Life Planning in Englewood, Auburn Gresham and Chicago Southwest.
“Our plans focus on development of key commercial corridors like 79th Street,” said Carlos Nelson, executive director of the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation. “We’re here today because this is going to be the parking lot for the new Metra stop.”
Cleaning the lot and surrounding area, however, is more than simply prep work. Rob Schuller, an employee at Mercy Housing for Boys & Girls, drew upon the broken windows theory when describing the volunteer impact. The theory, first proposed by James Wilson and George Kelling in 1982, suggests that broken windows are metaphors for disorder within a community.
“How an environment looks has a profound effect on the message to community members,” said Schuller. “If you have a community that looks trashy, it reflects on the psyche of the community. If it looks bad, you feel bad.”
Carlos Nelson, right, the executive director of the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corp., sees neighborhood cleanup projects as the first step in jump-starting new business development.
Schuller, a four-time Marine Corps and two-time combat tour veteran, volunteered on a day meant to honor his service because he prefers to contribute. “Veterans are incredibly resilient and adaptive, which lends themselves to helping others with the obstacles they face,” he said. “I want members in the community to feel worthy and like we care about them.”
“There is something to be said for keeping spaces clean” said Jenné Myers, CEO of Chicago Cares, an organization that brings resources to mobilize people who serve that has joined with LISC as partner in SWCC. Thirty of the volunteers were from Chicago Cares. “When people drive by and see us working, it looks like someone is paying attention.”
The idea that the “someone” could be “anyone” was particularly poignant. The volunteers came from across the city. Some were from the North Side, some the West Side and some were local, but the common consensus was that the issues facing one neighborhood were the issues of all Chicagoans.
“Service is a unifier,” said Myers. “Here we have tons of people who have never met, from all areas, working side-by-side and making connections.”
“I always say that you should help when you can because if it’s not you one day, it will be you another,” said Alderman Moore. “It’s good to see people from all different wards here today.”
This togetherness was what Schuller hoped to show the boys from Mercy Housing who came to volunteer.
“The act of giving is therapeutic,” said Schuller. “Completing a mission makes you feel better about yourself. It gives you a sense of belonging and accomplishment.”
All for one, one for all
“We want to show our youth that we’re all in this together,” echoed Robert Simpson, a colleague of Schuller. “There’s always someone who needs it more. This gives the boys the opportunity to have their turn to give back.”
The act is the first, and one of many, to come in revitalizing the corridor. Within the next two years, Nelson expects growth with institutional partners, including health and education institutions, as well as local businesses. As part of the Quality-of-Life Planning, the area will be developed into a healthy lifestyle hub that would provide 100-150 living wage jobs, thus spurring economic viability. To do so, Nelson intends to use volunteers to help spur catalytic projects like the parking lot cleanup.
“Certainly, we need financial resources, but the lion-share of work we want to do locally,” he said.
And there seem to be a plethora of people willing to spare their afternoon for the resurrection of a neighborhood.
“There’s negative things going on every day, but there’s still hope, still positive things happening,” said Walter Grant, an employee at Mercy Housing for Boys & Girls. “This is a good example of how to keep pushing.”
To learn more about the Southwest Corridor Collaborative read the announcement here. If you are interested in getting involved and want to support this collaborative, contact Phillip Moore at PMoore@lisc.org or 312-422-9555.
Posted in Economic Development, Auburn Gresham