West Siders mobilize to bring changes to their neighborhoods

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A meeting Thursday brought together concerned West Side residents, neighborhood groups and Ald. Deborah Graham (29th) to discuss improvements for the West Side, including Austin.

Accelerate77, a project to make all 77 Chicago neighborhoods sustainable, held a meeting at Garfield Park Conservatory, 300 N. Central Park Ave., to get residents talking about what they want to see in their neighborhoods in the next five years – and how to make it happen.

Meetings have already taken place on the South and North sides to mobilize area-specific efforts. The 2-year-old project, sponsored and organized by the Institute of Cultural Affairs, aims to involve community residents.

Residents at the meeting were given a chance to write down changes they wanted to see in the West Side — regardless of costs or methods — by 2016, at the earliest. Some recurring ideas included elimination of vacant lots, more farmers markets, more recycling bins and increased youth engagement in the community.

One Austin resident, Marcel Davis, said the neighborhood needs more fresh food options because the area’s grocery stores tout unhealthy options. He also said public transportation needs to be available at more times so that people who work odd hours can safely get from point A to point B. Unlike the North Side, buses are much less accessible in the Austin area, he said.

A West Garfield Park resident who has his own greenhouse said there needs to be more efforts to fund local garden growth for the West Side because “you have to drive across town” to get good, quality fruits and vegetables.

“Stores are always advertising cookies, candies and pop. That’s what kids want, but it’s not good for you,” said Sammie Taylor, who has been gardening for 15 years.

Participants broke off into groups to discuss how each “big idea” could be achieved. Some people said that residents need to organize and contact their local public official to make change in their neighborhoods or get the necessary funds.

Ald. Deborah Graham, who is on the board of Accelerate77, said she’s in the midst of organizing two farmers markets for the 29th Ward. She also said she’s working to maintain abandoned buildings, rehabilitate them and use the property for something the community needs.

At the end, a few people agreed to organize the next meeting for residents, which will likely be in the first week of April.

One official from the Institute of Cultural Affairs said the whole point of Accelerate77 is to get residents so excited about change, they make their own effort to plan how they’ll achieve their goals. She said it’s not effective if her organization pushes residents to meet — that’s unnatural.

“We’re facilitating a process where community members realize what they want,” said Nina Winn, moderator of the meeting as well as the Institute’s program and website coordinator. “This has to happen genuinely. It doesn’t work when an outsider comes in with an idea.”

Winn said the South Side is an example of a place where community residents are making an effort on their own, without pushing from the institute. Their first meeting was held in February, and residents contacted the institute to let them know another one is in the works.

The series of meetings across the city is the third phase for Accelerate77, also called “Collaboration, Training, and Planning.”

During the first phase, student interns explored the communities to see what local organizations were doing to facilitate change. The second phase involved an event called “Share Fair,” where nearly 400 people from 150 organizations and 66 community areas gathered to see what other people were doing around the city at the grassroots level.

Winn said about 25 to 30 people come out to these meetings. But on Thursday, she was surprised to hear how many people were in the room.

“It’s 40 people here?” she asked. “Yeah, that’s the most we’ve had.”

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