Spring Greening

Jane Fentress

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Huddled together under an overcast sky, a dozen volunteers and 3rd Ward Alderman Pat Dowell wait patiently for the clean-up to begin. Despite the weather, the small group has gathered in a vacant parking lot in Washington Park, showing their commitment to the neighborhood, and in some cases, to one another. Best friends of 40 years and Washington Park residents of even longer, Lex and Rob are two volunteers intent on leading the clean-up. After a few minutes of energetic chatter, Lex, a broad-shouldered man in his forties, raises his left arm and gestures to East Garfield Boulevard, drawing attention to the green grass and trees that span the length of the street.

“Rob and I have been doing this clean-up for the last five years,” Lex says proudly, “We want to keep this neighborhood free of garbage and looking nice so that everyone can enjoy the area.”

Last Saturday was the last Clean and Green Day with Richard M. Daley in office. For over two decades, community action groups and teams of volunteers have organized around this annual event, removing litter from their neighborhood lawns and streets. Overall, Clean and Green has been celebrated as a success in civic service–in 2009 alone, the event had a total turnout of 10,500, including representatives from 450 different groups from across the city. More than just a day of sweaty raking and trash pick-up, Clean and Green Day has become an opportunity for community-building: in many neighborhoods, cookouts accompany the dirty work, and DJs entertain volunteers taking a break. But it’s not just isolated citizens and do-gooders who participate in the cleaning efforts; local businesses have begun setting up their own cleaning teams and sponsoring the event in their neighborhoods.

Clean and Green is part of a much wider city beautification initiative that began with Daley’s election to office in 1989. To attract investors and tourists, Daley ordered the development and maintenance of key locations in the city, most notably in Downtown Chicago. After years of “greening” initiatives, including the construction of over 2 million square feet of rooftop gardens and purchasing ten “Green Machine” street vacuum sweepers in 1998, Daley’s environmental efforts have paid off: Chicago was named the ninth greenest city in America by Popular Science in 2008, coming in ahead of Minneapolis, Denver, and New York City.

But that isn’t to say that the Mayor’s intentions haven’t been marred by controversy. Though Daley did establish lush public spaces in the downtown area–with Millennium Park as the centerpiece–and reinvented areas like Greektown as culturally significant attractions, South Side activists have repeatedly accused Daley of forgoing development in their neighborhoods, favoring local projects in the Loop and farther north. With few recreational parks, poor access to recycling facilities, and the Crawford and Fisk coal-fired power plants still polluting the air, many residents argue that Daley’s sparkling green vision is confronted with harsh, sooty reality.

“In terms of the government bettering this neighborhood, most of what I see comes from Alderman Dowell and not the Mayor,” Rob admitted, “He’s given her some money and supplies to plant the trees you see all along this Boulevard, but just look at all those potholes. Those haven’t been fixed for years.”

According to residents like Rob, the popular dissatisfaction with Daley is derived from the perception that because his main focus lies with the downtown area, not enough funds or other resources have been allocated for the development of other, less touristy, city neighborhoods. The mayor claims to provide for all city neighborhoods with initiatives like TIF budgeting, “used to encourage development and investment where it would not otherwise occur,” as the city’s web page describes. But TIF districting, perhaps more than any other city-wide effort, has demonstrated the remarkable gap in funds available for development projects in the Loop versus those on the South Side–$20,000,000 are available on average for the 16 designated zones in the “Central” area of the city, where only about $3,000,000 are available for the 56 zones on the South Side.  It has been the task of individual South Side aldermen and residents to work to bridge this gap, and to continue to rail against unkempt, and sometimes even hazardous, community facilities that impede development and economic opportunities. Shoddy maintenance of parks, roads, and buildings has kept investors and visitors away from the South Side while discouraging residents from fully enjoying their neighborhoods’ public spaces.

“You know, back when Lex and I were young, we used to play football and do acrobatics all along this boulevard, and people would stop, talk to us, and pay us to do a few tricks for them,” Rob mentions, remembering his childhood, “Now you don’t see any kids around. Kids don’t play in the streets because there’s crime, and they don’t visit the parks because the parks aren’t equipped well and drug dealers roam them. There just isn’t that feeling of home that I enjoyed as a boy anymore.”

Using the limited cash and supplies they do possess, South Side aldermen like Dowell are committed to improving their neighborhood’s appearance and raising property values. A long strip of healthy grass and lithe trees that runs along East Garfield Boulevard testifies to Dowell’s determination to make the most of Daley`s offerings and show her love for the area. But the greenery is completely surrounded by the rest of the neighborhood`s grey and dusty image, characterizing the work that still needs to be done.

City government money only goes so far, and it’s rarely far enough. To finish what Daley started, local organizations and agencies have been picking up the slack, raising funds independently and planning the desired initiatives. Ghian Foreman, a charismatic, broad-smiled man who works with the Washington Park development agency New South Partners, is part of such a movement. Foreman and his coworkers spend much of their time backing Dowell through grassroots initiatives that not only promote clean neighborhoods, but also deliberately seek to bring back a sense of community.

Each year, Foreman and his colleagues at New South Partners persuade nearby businesses and residents to participate in the Clean and Green event–whether through extra funding, food, or an additional hand they can count on for the day. By engaging local residents in cleanup efforts, they claim, communities will become more invested in their own health and well-being.

“What you’re doing is motivating people to take ownership and responsibility for their land. You’re getting them to show that they care,” Foreman says. “Because if you don’t care, why would the government?”

For Dowell and Foreman, getting residents to appreciate their living space is better than any of the benefits of greater mayoral attention, and can open the door for economic development without governmental intervention. Characterizing the area as a “diamond in the rough,” Foreman and Dowell pointed out the large number of people they see walking around the Midway, along the streets, in Hyde Park restaurants, and illustrated the potential for industry and employment.

“You never know who’s passing by,” Dowell explained. “Investment [in this area] has remained stagnant for the last 30 years, even though there are so many attractions here. A few pieces of garbage here and there can discourage an investor to start a business, so making sure all public spaces are clean is extremely important if you want to attract new businesses and create opportunities for jobs.”

But equally as important is youth involvement to create a better future for the community. Foreman strives to install a sense of community-building in youth by offering them responsibilities to encourage respect for their surroundings. The majority of Clean and Green flyers are distributed to schools, and New South Partners employs teens during the summer to pick up litter around the city. Volunteers have also made youth participation a large part of why they are involved with the clean-up, because, in their eyes, it isn’t just about fixing up the neighborhood, it’s also about providing positive role models for the community’s children.

And so on another April Saturday, for the 23rd year in a row, 3rd Ward volunteers continue to rake and pick up trash in the Washington Park area. The goal is to one day attract businesses, tourists, a sense of citizenship and responsibility, and perhaps even the next mayor’s attention. With promises to enforce the city’s solid waste recycling ordinance and claims to turn parks into safe recreational sites, Rahm Emmanuel`s policies entice residents to observe closely and see how much Chicago, as a whole city this time, improves.

But in the meantime, residents will continue as they have for the last few years. Glancing quickly at the garbage-filled parking lot, Lex perked up and reached for a broom and dust pan, joking all the while.

“I love how we`re standing here talking about cleaning, but none of us have even looked at the parking lot!” he says, laughing, “There aren`t a lot of us here, but we might as well keep on going.”

He pauses before muttering on, “It`s the only thing left to do.”

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