The weekend before Easter, a large crowd of locals and their kids packed into the Hamlin Park field house to take pictures with the Easter bunny, watch a magic show and count up loot from an egg hunt in the park’s ballfields. The event looked exactly like so many other Chicago community gatherings: Kids jacked up on sugar skittering across the gymnasium, parents lazing on the bleachers as the area alderman and police district commander made the rounds, shaking hands.
It was an important moment for Hamlin Park, as Geoff Dankert reports elsewhere in this edition of Center Square Journal. The area had a frightening surge of gang-related crime last year, but it seems to have passed that bump in the road and is only getting better.
For the experienced neighborhood event-goer though, a few other things stuck out: The day’s events were highly organized, there was plenty of everything and there were lots of well-attired people there. While the structure of the community event might be the same as one in Archer Heights or Lawndale, it was far from the same experience. And I don’t mean just the wealth part. The Hamlin Park Egg Hunt was like so many other community events I’ve attended in the Center Square Journal coverage area: Highly organized, lots of resources, lots of people.
It’s important to note this sort of thing isn’t normal everywhere you go. Living in Northcenter, Lincoln Square, Roscoe Village and West Lakeview, what I like to call “Center Square” (for obvious reasons) we not only have well-to-do neighbors, but our neighbors are highly involved in our community and public institutions, from parks to schools.
When you live in a community where everything seems to go well, our local schools are growing, not closing, real estate values are booming and everyone has to struggle which free music-in-the park concert to attend, it’s easy to lose track of what’s going on outside of the neighborhood: Record homicides, school closings, foreclosures and so on.
It makes me wonder if as a result, if we suffer from a kind of cognitive dissonance with the rest of Chicago. More on that later.
I’ve been to more than my fair share of community events, from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin, and in at least half of Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods, rich and poor. The common community event element in almost every other part of Chicago and the nation is at least one “broken thing”. The broken thing can be just about anything: Someone that always insists on bringing their terrible food. An organizer that just can’t seem to organize. The meeting facility with the perennially leaky roof. Poor attendance. The strange guy that never says anything but hangs out in the back eating more than his share of free food. It’s the kind of stuff you shrug your shoulders about and try not to notice so you can have a good time. But if you look closely, it’s there. Always, maddeningly there.
But not in Center Square. The Hamlin Park Easter Egg Hunt was a perfect example.
“The rest of the city is doing so [poorly] compared to Lincoln Square and Ravenswood in general. I don’t know how that gets fixed. The money is coming from the North Side and the Loop,” says Bob Farster, co-founder of the Friends of McPherson Elementary School and in-coming chair of McPherson’s Local School Council.
“I think of myself as living in Lincoln Square first, and Chicago second….We live in a very small town, within a very big city,” Farster says.
Chicago is often cited as “a city of neighborhoods” a statement that celebrates rich cultural diversity as well as clear dividing lines between different parts of the city. You can’t help but notice that on Center Square’s side of the line, things are generally better. And when you start thinking about the quality of neighborhood public schools it seems like the dividing lines have never been clearer.
“The schools have been so forefront in Chicago, I don’t think anyone awake and alive in Chicago is not aware of the disparities. I think the feeling is mostly, thank God I have mine,” says Jason Coulter, pastor of Ravenswood United Church of Christ, and a Rogers Park resident.
“There’s a good contrast between what I see in Rogers Park and Ravenswood. We live half-a-block from Kilmer Elementary [in Rogers Park]. Were I a more courageous parent I would invest there to revitalize it. But we took our chance with the lottery and got lucky with getting into a magnet. I wish it wasn’t so, that you could send your kids to a neighborhood school, but it’s all about critical mass, tipping points.”
Rogers Park hasn’t hit the tipping point, but Center Square has.
It’s hard to miss for anyone that lives in the area: Center Square residents are much more involved in their public institutions than in many other Chicago communities. We have some of the strongest “Friends of” groups for our public schools, and community meetings and neighborhood group events are almost always well-attended.
During the 2011 Local School Council elections, many LSC panels across the city had half as many candidates as they had slots. To fill them, Chicago Public Schools administrators pleaded for parents across Chicago to run for their local LSC. In contrast, many elementary schools in Center Square had twice as many candidates as there were slots to run for.
Plus, as a true statement of commitment, well-to-do people who live in the area send their kids to public school. I grew up in Lincoln Park in the 1970′s and 80′s, and in those days, the gentrifying kids with money went to Latin School and Parker, while the working class regulars took their chances at Oscar Mayer and Newberry Elementary. Not today and not in this neighborhood.
What happened so that the residents of Center Square got so much more involved?
It’s a mystery to neighborhood Realtor Mike McCallum. “School-wise, when I started in the business [ten years ago], everyone moved when their kids hit four. That’s not happening any more. It’s not a guaranteed move at four.”
Although he and his wife don’t have kids, McCallum has been active with Coonley Elementary since he first moved to Northcenter in 2001 and believes community activism is now self-sustaining in the community. ”You meet people, and they’re great. Once you get started, you realize the benefits to it all and it’s rewarding. It grows. That’s my experience.”
Amy Smolensky, a Burley Elementary School parent and board member of the public education reform group, Raise Your Hand, is also not quite sure either how area residents became activist. “I don’t know what the answer is, it just became a popular thing to do. I think people started demanding it. I don’t know if it was hiring better principals, [maybe] the Alderman making better decisions.”
The activism around schools has benefited local real estate values too, says Steve Katz, another local Realtor, “Single family home inventory and schools is a big driver in the market. What is driving the market in Northcenter and Roscoe Village is schools. In 2009 the new construction market was selling at $1.2 million for single-family homes and in 2011-2012 they were [also] selling at $1.2 million. We’ve seen it creep up even more in Roscoe Village.”
But we shouldn’t be so quick to pat ourselves on the back, say some local social net providers. There’s still a great deal of need in the community, as well as other parts of the city.
Scott Best, director of Common Pantry, which combats hunger from Lawrence Ave. to Diversey Ave. and from Ravenswood Ave. to Kedzie Ave., a generally well-to-do area, says things actually got worse this past year.
“I don’t know if [our area is] completely immune to the problems in the city and state,” said Best. “Just in 2012 we had over 300 net new households come to us for food assistance in service area. I think there are still pockets in our community that are struggling.”
And Erie Family Health Center, which operates a teen center at Wilson and Damen Aves., is planning to open a new community health center in Swedish Covenant Hospital, because according to Executive Director Lee Francis, “If you drill down to census tracts in neighborhoods you find pockets of poverty and acutely unmet health care needs which rival some of the worst-served neighborhoods in Chicago.”
“People may have neighbors,” says Francis, “some of them in a nice house, that don’t have health insurance. That tends to get hidden. As far as health care goes, it tends to get hidden because it doesn’t impact [people] directly.”
That’s where I begin to think about cognitive dissonance, which Encyclopedia Brittanica defines as, “the mental conflict that occurs when beliefs or assumptions are contradicted by new information.” A person, under such a state experiences unease or tension and often attempts to reject the facts, explain them away, or flat out avoid the new information in order to preserve, “stability or order in his conception of the world and of himself.”
My friend, Kevin Robinson, is a one-time labor organizer living in Bridgeport. His local public elementary school just survived the CPS cuts, so he thinks we should all be so lucky as the Center Square area. “Over by where you live, people are middle-class and and upper middle class. It’s not that people in other neighborhoods don’t want these things, they just don’t have the resources to do them.”
“The guy that lives down the block from me wants to run for the LSC at Holden Elementary. And he would be fantastic. But his job, because of the hours, he just can’t do it. He doesn’t have the time.
“There are lots of places in Chicago where people would like to go to run for the LSCs, but they don’t have the time and money to do it. They lack education, they don’t have professional jobs downtown where they pull incomes in the high five figures, or maybe they’re responsible for the welfare of extended family members.”
We shouldn’t be putting ourselves on a guilt trip, Robinson tells me, everyone wants to make their neighborhood great. There’s no shame in that, he says.
“I mourn with the rest of the city about the school violence, and school failure. It’s tragic,” says Ravenswood UCC’s Pastor Coulter. “Islands in rising seas don’t last very long. If it all goes down the tubes, it will be hard to justify the few schools that are doing well if the rest of the ship is going down.
“If this community stays an island and doesn’t open itself to Albany Park, Uptown, and serve as a model for people in other parts of the city, It will become a fortress by drawing the lines by geography and become an unfair island of privilege.”
One of the things that intrigues me about cognitive dissonance, is it is personally experienced as “unease”, a symptom that could just as easily be a real thing as it could be complete fallacy.
When you live in a well-to-do community, the question of how much charity is enough, how much time and energy should I commit to my community, is a hard question to answer. Are we building a community of privilege, walled up against the rest of the city, or are we taking enough responsibility for what ails our city as a whole?
Smolensky, who is actively involved with improving schools on a city-wide basis, believes her organization’s membership, is the rule, not the exception. “The Raise Your Hand membership is very concentrated on the North Side, but we have a very significant proportion of our membership who do not have problems for their kids. I think most parents do see the bigger picture and they want education to be better generally [across the city].”
I hope she’s right. But I every time I read about homicides in Englewood, school closings in Garfield Park and foreclosures in Archer Heights, I start to feel uneasy. How do I get rid of that feeling?
Mike Fourcher is the publisher and editor of Center Square Journal. He was born and bred in Chicago and now lives with his wife and son in Lincoln Square.