“Getting it Done: New Tools for Communities,” Remarks by Jonathan Fanton at the LISC National Conference
March 26, 2008 | Speech | Community & Economic Development

Thank you, Michael, for that warm introduction. I am inspired by the breadth of the audience and the stories of what the New Communities Program actually means on the ground, in the neighborhoods and for individuals and their dreams.

On my way here today, I considered that this the third time I have joined you for the LISC/New Communities Program assembly. I speak in many places around the world, on many topics. But this is one of my favorite occasions. I draw inspiration from the energy and spirit in this room. I am proud of what MacArthur, LISC, neighborhood organizations, their investors and other partners are accomplishing together. It is wonderful to welcome community leaders from nearly 50 cities around the country – from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. and points in between – all ready to share their experiences with us and learn from ours.

Think back to May 2005 when we gathered in the Grand Ballroom of the Hilton. Mayor Daley and I marked the formal launch of the New Communities Program when we received the Quality of Life plans from 14 organizations representing 16 Chicago communities. Those plans represented intense planning, heated debate, competition and compromise that yielded a widely shared vision. Over 18 months, across 16 neighborhoods, 3,500 people participated in the process, demonstrating how much they cared about their communities.

It was an exciting and deeply satisfying event. I walked from exhibit to exhibit, seeing the dreams of each community and admiring their rich diversity, expressed in the plans’ titles. Pilsen: A Center of Mexican Life; West Haven: Rising like the Phoenix; Auburn Gresham: Chicago’s Best Kept Secret; Logan Square: A Place to Stay, a Place to Grow; North Lawndale: Faith Renewed. I saw shared values, a desire for the same outcomes—new homes, stores, businesses with jobs for local residents, health clinics, community schools, programs to help ex-offenders return home, welcoming public spaces, programs to keep young people civicly engaged and on a positive path—common goals, but many ways to achieve them.

Then in November 2006, we gathered at the Palmer House to celebrate the progress made on the plans and to salute community heroes who were making change happen. I was excited by the investment prospectus for creative, well-conceived projects that were ready to go—projects that signaled each neighborhood’s determination to seek the partners and resources needed to turn their plans into reality.

Early action projects were underway. Community and police leadership training in Little Village. A small grants program in Woodlawn. In Humboldt Park, a Youth Investment Club and BickerBikes. A Cultural Heritage Festival in East Garfield Park and the first arts and film festival at the Thurgood Marshall Library in Auburn Gresham.

Today, in Little Village, small seed grants from LISC are helping residents Rob and Amy Castañeda face down gang violence on their block near 31st Street. Through their program, Beyond the Ball, they reach youth with messages about education, safety and hope. Not far away, Robert Ramos opened the Little Village Boxing Gym this winter in the basement of a church, with a determination to make that neighborhood a healthier, safer place for young people.

In the Quad Communities on Chicago’s south side, the Cottage Grove Avenue corridor is on its way back because of the steady determination of the local lead agency to attract economic investments, large and small. An $81 million mixed-use project is planned for the corner of 47th and Cottage Grove—the direct result of personal relationships established by the NCP lead agency and aggressive marketing at the annual meeting of the International Council of Shopping Centers. And a $12 million loan program, a partnership with Shorebank, will help small businesses up and down the street improve their properties.

As we gather for a third time, I see how the New Communities Program has matured. We have moved from the initial plans and stories about early action projects to significant progress underway and a more systematic look at our methodology. This afternoon’s workshops examine key elements of our theory of change, testing that theory against reality on the ground as we share experiences of what works and what does not.

“Planning: Making it Real, Right Now” underscores the need to integrate action on many issues—housing, schools, jobs, youth, safety and all the rest. “Deal Making: Partnering for Results” reminds us of the need for deep, long-term relationships and that both public policy and private markets matter. “Engagement: Organizing for Success” focuses our attention on capacity building, the need to strengthen local organizations and to reach out to every corner of the community. “Evaluating: So what?” challenges us to set clear goals and benchmarks so progress can be measured and mid-course corrections made.

And the roundtables tomorrow are on the very practical topics of affordable housing, safe streets, economic development, tourism and the foreclosure crisis.

We have come a long way from that first gathering at the Hilton. We think of our relationship with you and LISC as a long-term partnership. Good partners share in the joy of accomplishment, move quickly to seize new opportunities, but also stand by each other when there are challenges and setbacks. We see tangible accomplishments and opportunities but there also are threats from a changing economic environment.

Consider the picture presented by Metro Chicago Information Center’s Community Vitality Index. When I addressed the LISC National Leadership Conference late last year in Minneapolis, I reported that at the end of 2006, half the NCP neighborhoods had improved while the city as a whole had declined; home prices were up in all neighborhoods, most in the 15 to 18 percent range; school achievement had increased in a third of the NCP communities; and graduation rates had risen in two thirds. Business growth was up between 2.5 and 3 percent in all NCP neighborhoods, against a citywide decrease of half a percent per year. Today, some of these gains have faded: ten neighborhoods have lost ground on the Community Vitality Index and real estate values are down across the city, due in part to the spreading foreclosure crisis.

Statistics illustrate the real challenges we face. In 2007, there were 4000 foreclosures filed in NCP neighborhoods, more than double the number nine years earlier. An estimated 2000 families will actually lose their homes and, in the hardest hit communities, there are two to three vacant homes on every block.

We have always talked about unforeseen challenges and knew that we would be tested, that we would have to be resourceful and resilient when external forces threatened our progress.

For our part, MacArthur is ready to help with the foreclosure crisis, and last week our Board authorized us to take action. We will shortly announce a plan, in which we will work with Neighborhood Housing Services, the Legal Assistance Foundation, Shorebank, the City of Chicago and others to confront the foreclosure crisis here in the 16 NCP neighborhoods. We will provide grants to increase the number of counselors available in the NCP neighborhoods, reaching out to at-risk homeowners, helping as many as 50 percent of them to keep their homes. Low-interest loans by MacArthur to financial institutions will make new financing products available to borrowers who can handle a mortgage but whose credit may be blemished. Those who cannot sustain a conventional mortgage will be helped to find decent affordable rental homes. And we are working with the City of Chicago to find ways to put foreclosed homes back into productive use.

We view this initiative as a swift response to an unexpected and uncontrollable threat to our shared community development goals. But just as we are ready to take action against challenges like this, positive opportunities come along as well.

Consider Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics. The bid will be a catalyst for positive change, whether it is successful or not. That is why MacArthur, along with the Chicago Community Trust and the McCormick Tribune and Polk Brothers Foundations, created a donor-advised fund at the Trust to help neighborhoods benefit from the opportunities created by the Games. With a new 80,000 square foot stadium planned for Washington Park, the Olympic Village envisioned near Bronzeville, and the aquatic center slated for Douglas Park, residents will need resources to participate in planning for the housing and commercial development stimulated by these Olympic investments. They need access to training and entrepreneurial support so they can take advantage of the jobs and business opportunities that are sure to come. All of this is to help ensure that this global event leaves a lasting, positive legacy for neighborhoods and their residents.

So as I look at where we stand in the New Communities Program, here at our third assembly, I see sustained enthusiasm and real commitment. You are proving resilient in the face of larger economic forces and ready to seize unexpected opportunities. Chicago’s comprehensive approach is spreading to other cities and attracting investments from new sources.

Just this morning at Orozco School in Pilsen, New York-based Atlantic Philanthropies announced a four-year, $18 million dollar investment in an innovative school-based after-school, health and community services program for middle-grade students in five neighborhoods. The Integrated Services in Schools program goes to the heart of our Quality of Life Plans: a commitment to a better future for our young people.

Let me close with a personal comment. I first became involved in community development in New Haven during the Great Society. We believed that poverty could be diminished, that neighborhoods could shape their own destinies, that cities could once again be the pathway to the American Dream.

As we know too well, progress has been slow and uneven as the political will has waxed and waned.

But we meet at a moment in history full of promise. I think we are on the cusp of another era of domestic reform. America is ready to reject the pervasive acceptance of conditions, antithetical to America’s founding ideals and highest aspirations. A younger, less cynical, more politically engaged and optimistic generation is emerging. My instincts as an historian tell me we are nearing one of those swings in domestic politics toward reform.

We know that the energy must come from neighborhoods, not from Washington; that strong community organizations are the critical drivers of change and that both public and private investment are necessary. We know that success requires work across all the issues in a community—housing, health, jobs, public safety and all the rest—as well as the concerted effort of all sectors working together toward a common goal.

Most of all, we have learned that neighborhoods, once described as “blighted,” are sources of untapped economic and human potential, ready to respond to real opportunity. Together, we can provide that opportunity. Those of us here in this room, your local partners, national players with commitment and resources—we can together take advantage of this promising moment and help realize this nation’s highest aspirations of a just and humane society where everyone has an opportunity for a secure and decent life.

Thank you for letting me share this wonderful event with you again this year and best wishes for the conference.

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