West Side business leaders, elected officials and activists don’t understand why Austin is not one of seven Chicago neighborhoods Mayor Rahm Emanuel is targeting for special attention – and additional funding.
Emanuel will use $3 billion to help areas he considers to have the most potential for development. Bronzeville, the Eisenhower Corridor, Englewood, Little Village, Pullman, Uptown and Rogers Park are part of a “large community plan” to expand business opportunities the mayor announced last month.
“I don’t understand why we’re overlooked,” said Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago). “It’s not the first time the mayor has failed to bring resources to the West Side of Chicago.”
Mayoral spokeswoman Kathleen Strand said this is just the first phase of the community planning. The final list was narrowed from about 22 communities, leaving the seven that have the most promise, she said.
“The mayor explains it as drafting behind someone in NASCAR,” said Strand, the mayor’s deputy communications director. “You pick up their speed.”
Strand could not say whether Austin was on the original list of targeted neighborhoods or why the city’s most-populated neighborhood was not chosen.
“You can’t say one community has a greater need than another,” said Malcolm Crawford, executive director of the Austin African American Business Networking Association and co-founder of the Sankofa Cultural Arts and Business Center, 5820 W. Chicago Ave. “All 77 [communities] are worthy of help.”
About $2.6 billion will come from the private sector, and the mayor plans to tap an additional $330 million in public funds, including using tax-increment financing.
Using Uptown as an example, city spokeswoman Strand said officials have to step up the city’s public transportation to help the area flourish again.
“It’s about maximizing our assets,” she said.
Austin is not the only community left out of the mayor’s strategic vision. Out of the seven communities selected, two are on the South Side and five are on the North Side, leaving the entire West Side excluded.
Crawford said this happens often to the West Side.
“I don’t understand the logic behind not including Austin,” he said. “We are looked at as one ugly stepchild of the city.”
Crawford has long had an idea to create an African-American business district in Austin that could serve as a tourist destination. He said there’s no place in the city where residents can find African-American culture from the African-American perspective.
“It gives a community that pride element,” said Crawford. “It will definitely bring in tourism.”
Some Austin residents place more of the blame on local leaders than on the mayor. They say the aldermen who represent Austin don’t do enough to put the community in a positive light.
“There is plenty of blame to go around,” said Ron Reid, an Austin resident and co-founder of the Central Austin Neighborhood Association. “It has to start with leadership and elected officials.”
The Reids, who were speaking personally and not as members of CANA, say Austin’s aldermen have the old-school Chicago mentality of dishing out community services in return for political favors.
But Ald. Deborah Graham (29th) disputes that.
“Everyone in entitled to community services, such as street cleaning and garbage pick up,” she said.
Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) also disagrees.
“I can’t do everything, but I do give what I have,” said Mitts. “I always wanted to show my community the representation.”
Mark Halbert, policy director for Ald. Michael Chandler (24th), said the alderman’s ward no longer includes Austin and declined to comment.
In a later interview, Halbert said the alderman will continue to represent the small sliver of Austin until the 2015 elections and he will work with any businesses to encourage development in all of the communities he represents.
Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) did not return calls from AustinTalks.
The Reids say the plethora of liquor and pawn shops that line Austin’s trash-strewn streets makes the community an undesirable destination for city projects and funding.
“You have to have something that attracts. You need a magnet. Austin lacks all of that,” said Serethea Reid.
This is not the first time Austin missed a share of the economic pot.
In 2003, Local Initiatives Support Corp. (LISC) received $47 million from the MacArthur Foundation to create the New Communities program. Austin was not selected as one of the 16 targeted communities.
More recently in 2009, the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity received a $6.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce for the Smart Communities program. As part of that program, five West and South Side communities received money to improve digital access.
Dionne Baux, a program officer for LISC, said Austin did not receive funding for the Smart Communities program because it was not part of the original New Communities program established a decade ago.
“I wasn’t [with LISC] when the 16 communities for the New Communities program were selected,” said Baux. “I know it was a long process to identify and choose the underserved communities.”
Elce Redmond, an organizer with the South Austin Community Coalition Council, said the community has been hit hard with foreclosure and now is when residents need Emanuel’s help the most.
Redmond said the mayor’s disregard for Chicago’s most-populated community is very telling of his policies.
“The mayor is not reinvesting in communities that need it the most,” said Redmond. “It’s obvious he doesn’t care.”
Mayoral spokeswoman Strand said this is only the first phase of community development and the mayor will continue to reach out to other communities to ensure a better quality of life for all Chicago families.
“The mayor will continue to develop successful partnerships with communities,” said Strand.