By Alison Saldanha and Joel Jacobs
Loud applause rang through the Kehrein Arts Center auditorium in Austin on the city’s West Side as newly appointed Chicago Planning Commissioner Maurice Cox presented Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s new INVEST South/West initiative earlier this month.
Residents and business owners, hopeful for an economic renewal, attended to hear how Cox intends to pump $750 million of public funds into 10 historically neglected neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West sides.
“New York and L.A. are growing. Chicago is the only global city in America whose population is declining,” said the New York native and former Detroit planning chief.
Cox is credited with rejuvenating disinvested parts of the Michigan City that resemble Chicago’s own struggles.
He attributed Chicago’s declining population to African American families moving out.
“This is a troubling trend that we think we know how to reverse,” Cox said.
INVEST South/West focuses on the neighborhoods of Auburn Gresham, Austin, Englewood, Humboldt Park, New City, North Lawndale, Quad Communities, Roseland, South Chicago and South Shore.
Cox’s plan encourages public participation and focuses on improving streetscapes, public spaces, strengthening transportation networks, and repurposing vacant lots for public amenities and affordable housing, paving the way for equitable development and neighborhoods people would want to live in.
“Often we talk about our communities as if they are disadvantaged, or have some deficits,” he said. “We decided to flip that script and start to talk about the strengths in our community that we know we can build on.”
Cox added that the city will leverage these resources to attract private investments that will usher in greater economic development for these areas.
“For those of you who feel it’s about time, I agree with you. For those of you who feel like, ‘Is this enough?’ this is the beginning,” he said.
Englewood resident Eric Hotchkiss, 36, who works at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s North Lawndale facility, welcomed the initiative but wondered how long the plan will take to materialize.
“There’s been 80 years of disinvestment in these predominantly black neighborhoods, so there is a lot to catch up on and I wonder what is going to be their timeline for implementing the plan,” he said.
Planned improvements could drive up rents and property taxes, directly impacting communities living in these areas, Hotchkiss said. He added that this would not lead to displacement if job creation remains a top priority.
“I’m curious to know if job creation will be at the forefront of this planning or will it just be capital improvements to beautify the physical space,” he said.
Accountant Sarah Gibson, who has family in Austin, said she is unsure how the city will employ local residents for these planned public works since many do not work for registered companies.
“In our community, in general, people have some skills and they work individually more often than not.They don’t have the requisite licenses or the half a million dollars in insurance they need to get contracted for work in the city,” Gibson said.
Dwayne Truss, 56, a 30-year Austin resident and a current member of the Chicago Board of Education, said the community will have to come together for INVEST South/West to work.
“Everybody needs to go out and talk to their neighbor and say, ‘Hey, we got this great investment in the South and West sides of Chicago.’ Educate the broader community,” Truss said, “That would be a challenge, but the challenge is up to us to make sure we articulate that to our neighbors.”