The cost of disinvestment in Chicago’s West Side

It’s too early to predict the impact of Amara Eniya’s mayoral candidacy. The 30-year-old municipal consultant seems to have generated enthusiasm among some young activists.

Progressive political pros I talk with don’t give her much chance. But in a recent talk with Neil Steinberg of the Chicago Sun-Times, Eniya raises a crucial point — something no one else has brought up. It’s a subject she also raised when I called her a few months ago, before she had announced her intention to run; someone had suggested talking with her when I was asking around about progressive revenue ideas.

Asked by Steinberg about finances, she talks in generalities about “priorities” and “efficiencies” in the city budget, but then she points out, “We have not done enough investment to make sure that we’re not losing our population.  When we lost 200,000 residents in ten years, that’s your property tax base leaving. … If we lose another 100,000, that’s our resources leaving the city.”

That’s basic common sense.  Most of the people leaving Chicago — and the 200,000 figure refers specifically to African Americans who have left the city — have the wherewithal to make choices about where they will live.

Eniya doesn’t go into detail on the matter of investment in communities, but she could:  The West Side — and particularly Austin, the community where she has worked for several years — is a prime example of what looks like a systematic withdrawal of city resources.

As the Chicago Tribune reported in September, “The city’s largest and most populous community, Austin, has been excluded from many of Chicago’s signature development programs, even as it has endured waves of foreclosure and population loss, government records and interviews show.”

The Trib mentions the Chicago Affordable Housing Opportunity Fund, which rehabs apartment buildings, along with the Neighborhood Stabilization Program and the Micro Market Recovery Program, both of which reclaim vacant foreclosed properties. Of the three programs, only NSP did anything in Austin, where it rehabbed just eight homes.

When the entire West Side was excluded from the Micro Market program, which Mayor Rahm Emanuel described as a “comprehensive program to combat (the) foreclosure crisis, Otis Monroe of the Monroe Foundation took notice in Austin Talks. “When will Chicago’s Austin, North Lawndale and Roseland communities get elected officials who actually represent their communities?” he asked.

And last year, when Emanuel announced the Opportunity Planning Initiative, a $3-billion program said to be “part of a holistic and strategic vision to foster and seize upon growth and development in neighborhoods across Chicago,” Austin Talks took note again: “Austin Overlooked in Mayor’s Strategic Vision.” The initiative targeted the Near West Side but excluded communities further west.

On top of this, the West Side was hit heavily with Emanuel’s mass school closings. Fewer neighborhood schools certainly makes it harder to attract new residents, Lawndale activist Valerie Leonard points out: “That’s the first thing people ask about when they’re considering buying a home.” A Woodstock Institute expert told WBEZ that vacant schools “could have some of these same negative impacts [that vacant homes have] in terms of attracting crime or affecting property values or neighborhood stability.”

Certainly the school closings amounted to yet another withdrawal of city resources from neighborhoods already reeling from disinvestment.

In addition, despite community efforts, there hasn’t been a neighborhood high school for Austin since Austin High was closed in 2007, although the area has the largest number of children in the city.  In 2008, the Austin Community Education Network reported that 70 percent of the neighborhood’s high school students had to leave the neighborhood to go to school.  Of course, that’s created tensions in high schools in other areas.

To state the obvious, community disinvestment doesn’t seem like a great strategy for reducing violence.  And as Eniya points out, it doesn’t help maintain the city’s tax base either.

Proposals to “shrink the footprint” of cities like New Orleans and Detroit by shutting off services to low-income African American areas have been rejected by residents.  Could something like that be accomplished without a grand conspiracy or sweeping urban plan, simply through malign neglect?

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