Lawndale where dreams go to die

The Chicago Tribune started a new series, A new Plan for Chicago: A challenge to Tribune readers. The series is designed to "to address the imperiled livability, uneven prosperity and desperate public finances that have driven residents to leave by the hundreds of thousands".

Chicago is a city of neighborhoods. Lawndale was once thriving neighborhood and a model of economic prosperity. During the past few decades many of Chicago's older neighborhoods, some on the verge of blight, rejuvenated and gentrified. Old Town, Logan Square, West Town, Bucktown/Wicker Park, The Near West Side, around the UIC campus, and the DePaul neighborhood, to name a few.

The Lawndale neighborhood suffers from all the issues addressed in the Tribune series.

While other neighborhoods reinvented themselves, Lawndale idled. Lawndale is a neighborhood stuck in the past. It is mired in blight, multi-generational poverty and despair.

Vacant commercial property in Lawndale. (Peter V. Bella)

Vacant commercial property in Lawndale. (Peter V. Bella)

On a hot humid July day in 1978, I started my first day on the street as a Chicago Police officer. I was assigned to work in the former Marquette District. It incorporated part of the Lawndale neighborhood, south of Roosevelt Road.

At the time, Lawndale was one of the ten most dangerous neighborhoods in the country.

Lawndale was also one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the United States. The only thing that distinguished Lawndale from a fourth world country was indoor plumbing.

The roving packs of feral dogs and rats ate better than most of the people. They were probably healthier too.

Every day we patrolled streets where there was no hope, no change, no future, and no way out. Self survival is the first law of nature. Lawndale was in self survival mode. People struggled to make it through one more day. Despair replaced hope.

Lawndale was a place where dreams went to die.

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Vacant land in Lawndale. (Peter V. Bella)

There were miles, in the aggregate, of vacant land and vacant buildings. Former commercial, manufacturing, transportation, and industrial properties. Places that once provided jobs, a path to prosperity, and a thriving Black and white middle class.

Prosperity was destroyed by urban renewal, down zoning, and eventually riots and arson. Urban renewal in Lawndale meant urban destruction. Blighted buildings were torn down. The land remained vacant.

When things got bad, social upheaval, rioters and arson profiteers finished the job the politicians started.

The only people who prospered on Lawndale’s misery were the politicians, bureaucrats and social service agencies who kept people in a state of  multi-generational poverty.

Not much has changed in Lawndale since 1978. There are the same vacant buildings and vacant land, only more. There are still people living in abject poverty. There are still young people roaming the streets, unemployed.

The vicious cycle of no hope, no change, and no way out continues.

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Vacant land in Lawndale. (Peter V. Bella)

There is anger in this community. Over 60% of the men are ex-felons. The unemployment rate is upwards of 70%. Young people no longer want welfare, food stamps, or subsidized housing, contrary to what politicians claim.

They want their share of the American dream. They want economic independence. They want jobs. They see a future in all that vacant land.

Some call themselves the "grandchildren of the Dream". Many are angry that their parents and grandparents did nothing in their life times to change Lawndale. Many are tired of the deceit of a "new day coming".

To them, the new day is now. They do not want to fight the battles of the past. They want to fight for the present and the future.

The young see the possibility of bringing Lawndale back. The politicians see nothing, hear nothing, and mouth the same stale propaganda platitudes.

Many young people in Lawndale no longer believe racism is the cause of their plight. They have ideas no one in power wants to hear. They see their aldermen, state, and federal legislators doing  nothing to alleviate poverty in Lawndale. Their anger is a result of being powerless to affect change.

Politicians absolutely refuse to pursue an agenda of economic development in Lawndale and other impoverished areas. They refuse to provide the certainty and confidence that will allow businesses to build, start, grow, and expand.

It is easier to keep people impoverished and dependent on entitlements than to build a factory, warehouse, or retail store to put them to work.

It is better people keep their hands clean with handouts instead of their hands dirty from work. It is better to take people off the street and put them in prison than to give them opportunity.

We are supposed to learn from history. We learn nothing. We continually repeat the failures of the past. We keep electing the same failures to office. Over and over again.

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