Some notes from my own experience.
The Whittier Neighborhood had its troubles in years gone by. No need to go into that laundry list of bad news. But we also had some determined stakeholders and the wherewithal for some creative problem-solving. IMHO, money is nice, but creativity is nicer!
After a good deal of effort, we got a school, a gym, and a renewed park building. Very good.
Given the many households with minor children in the vicinity, this was a smart investment of the public’s dollars.
Meanwhile, Phillips has been struggling for years for one reason or another. Right now there are many positive improvements but the default situation seems to continue to favor institutional and commercial interests over quality of life issues. Plans are afoot for higher-density housing along the Greenway, a medical arts corridor on Chicago Ave., and no doubt some ambitious development intentions in the vicinity of the light rail line. The Sears complex is a major step forward and the Mercado district on Lake St. shows great promise. There’s a good bit of infill multi-unit housing along Franklin Ave. and to its credit, the Park Board is coming to grips with improvements for the parks in the Phillips neighborhood. Lead paint and toxic waste are on their way out, thanks to other government programs.
There will be some new housing in the vicinity of Little Earth thanks to the initiative of the Native American community. Lutheran Social Services has done a masterful job of establishing housing, social services, and a home for what looked to become an orphan religious congregation. There are two substantial charter schools now, one involving the re-use of the large institutional building at Chicago and 22nd and the other a brand new high school on 4th Ave. just off Lake St. The Ebenezer campus remains a well-conceived and large-scale residential presence for seniors.
But we still have gangs and listless young people with too much time on their hands and nowhere to go. We also have a large contingent of new neighbors who have come to live in Phillips just as previous waves of immigrants have done since the city was founded and there are accordingly many households with children of all ages. School buses pick these kids up in the morning and cart them off to distant schools just as was the case in Whittier in the 1990s. After school, on weekends, and in the summer … street crime is real and an ever-present danger for all of us.
It is true that Near North is in a desperate situation and our elected officials have nowhere near enough resources to bring order out of that chaos in the short term. One could say that the care lavished on more prosperous parts of the city has contributed to this imbalance, but perhaps it would be more useful to think about reinforcing positive developments wherever they occur, doing so in a collaborative atmosphere that embraces all the stakeholders involved. This isn’t a rosy prospectus – there are plenty of abrasive situations that will be continuing challenges. It doesn’t help to have the national economy in dire straits.
But still – won’t it be nice to see resources come together to give Phillips a serious leg up with or without the pool on the site of the Phillips Community Center. If the old facility is too far gone, so be it! The mantra I’ve in mind was very much in evidence in the 1970s when we got serious about riverfront development issues. We encouraged the removal of 50 obsolete structures, once they had been vetted by experts in such matters. We encouraged the restoration of a riverine neighborhood as old as the city itself. We encouraged large-scale commercial and residential development where opportunity could be found and planned for.
The point I want to make is that function is far more important than mere physical structures.
Quality of life is made up of many elements and it behooves us all to bear each of these elements in mind on an appropriate scale. I suggest that the Phillips neighborhoods are ready for prime time, as it were, just as Whittier was in the 1990s and the riverfront was in the 1970s. I also think that Near North will find its voice in time to come. I very much admire the initiatives and people of good will who are being so very industrious across the entire city.
But Phillips is coming ripe, I submit, and it would be a sad thing to underestimate the potential right under our collective noses.