Bringing Hope Back To The `Hood

Does Chicago provide a model for urban renewal?

From behind the rows of dark maple pews at St. Edmunds Church, the Reverend Richard Tolliver regards the cluster of children in prayer. The portly Episcopal priest savors the sight, then turns toward his office, a grin creasing his face. "This is where it all begins," he says. "My vision starts with these children."

When Tolliver took over the pulpit at St. Edmunds in 1989, these pews were nearly empty. Once the place of worship for some of Chicago's wealthiest black citizens, the church had become a towering anachronism amid drug dealers, gangs, and petty criminals. Washington Park, a 12-block patch on the city's South Side, was a sickly urban tract, its once-elegant brick graystones intermixed with decrepit public housing. Some 55% of its population had left by the early 1970s. Of those remaining, 60% lived below the poverty line.

It's not a new story. Middle- and working-class families have fled American cities for decades. With their flight, private-sector investment in urban areas has declined precipitously, hollowing city tax bases and choking off funds for public services and infrastructure. At the same time, a shrinking federal and state safety net has left cities paying more to care for an ever-poorer underclass.

But these days, something remarkable is happening in Washington Park, as it is in small corners of Los Angeles, Cleveland, Boston, and other cities. Mostly through Tolliver's brainchild, St. Edmunds Redevelopment Corp., $40 million is pouring into the neighborhood, financing construction or renovation of 500 homes within two blocks of the church. Mortgage lending is up 65%. A private school and youth programs are thriving. Dealers and thugs are moving out, and crime is down at least 15% since 1993.

Change is coming from an approach that rejects both big-government, big-money solutions and the 1980s free-market notion that a rising tide lifts all boats. Rather, St. Edmunds is combining public and private money to build homes that, together with better education and lower crime rates, can attract modest-income and working-class families. Tolliver envisions a mixed-income, residential community that attracts a healthy complement of corner stores and restaurants. The diverse population and solid local economy would feed on itself, attracting yet more residents and business.

Washington Park's strategy represents a radical rethinking of urban renewal, an embracing of private-sector solutions traditionally shunned by the community-development world. Now, tiny community groups across the nation are partnering with for-profit enterprises, imposing a mutual discipline that forces projects to meet local needs and produce at least modest returns. In Washington, too, Housing & Urban Development Secretary Henry G. Cisneros is racing to shut down failed programs, turning his agency into an incubator of sorts to attract private investors.

Washington Park gives a glimpse of what such partnerships can produce. Other cities are winning comparable results. In Kansas City, Mo., a joint resident-police effort has helped reduce overall crime by 19% in 1995 and another 25% so far this year. Newark's New Community Corp. is majority owner of a Pathmark supermarket that has helped bring shopping back into the city center, lowering food prices; it's plowing its profits back into a broad range of community programs. Just as encouraging is a community-led development initiative in the South Bronx, where a stream of new retailers is bringing in jobs.

Undeniably, America's inner cities remain in crisis. Even in Washington Park, poverty has not eased. An undercurrent of resignation, moreover, threatens to undermine early results. Still, the neighborhood is a place of hope. This is the story of one community's attempt to make itself worth living in, representing a modest but workable solution to America's urban crises.

At nightfall, just a few blocks from St. Edmunds, rap music pumps from a boom box into the humid spring air as a group of black teenagers plays basketball on a closed highway ramp. The smell of marijuana fills the air, as onlookers talk rowdily and share 40-ounce bottles of beer. On other evenings, bloody turf wars have erupted between the Black Disciples, the Mickey Cobras, and other gangs. Stabbings and gunfire are endemic.

But a group of angry residents is taking action. In St. Edmunds' spartan cement-floored basement, Beverly Catherine, Darryl Starks, and Sydney Simmons have joined nearly 30 other residents to wage war against the thugs who threaten their safety. Instead of sitting on stoops complaining, the group finally decided to act, and summoned eight Chicago beat cops to find solutions.

"They play ball 'till five in the morning sometimes," complains one resident. "And I can hear them fighting."

"They ain't out there to play ball," says another. "That basketball court is a camouflage for selling drugs."

The people of Washington Park have lost faith in the ability of a financially strapped city to solve their problems. At the same time, black leaders, locally and nationally, are calling for self-direction as the only true rescue. These currents--and a combustive mixture of anger, camaraderie, and pride--are spurring residents here to act. "My roots are in this neighborhood. Why should I let anyone run me out?" says Beverly Catherine, who has lived in Washington Park since 1956. She and her husband used to bolt their doors as drug dealers from neighboring projects plied their trade on an empty adjacent lot. Two years ago, the couple purchased their 150-square-yard property for $2,000 and fenced it in. "Now, it's just peace and quiet back there," she says.

Starks, 25, believes that only through such individual efforts will things really change. He stands up at the meeting and exhorts: "There's no quick fix. Everything must start small. But we know that we'll never get anything done working from the top down. Change has to start here--from the ground."

The grassroots rumbling is compelling, but it is Richard Lamar Tolliver who has ignited and focused this self-help movement. "The inner city must be saved block by block," he says, loosening his Roman collar and settling into a sofa in his small office at St. Edmunds.

The 51-year-old Tolliver is hardly the sort you'd expect to find toiling in the 'hood. He is quick to point out his middle-class upbringing in the manufacturing town ef Springfield, Ohio. Now, he eschews Washington Park for a home in Hyde Park, a tony enclave a few miles away. He speaks with a professorial air, punctuating sentences with lively arches of his thick brow. He prides himself on his professional accomplishments, including five advanced degrees. Lining his office wall are photographs of him beaming beside Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond F. Tutu, and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

In Chicago, Tolliver is known as among the first to promote the notion that only mixed-income development can stabilize distressed inner-city communities, that their survival depends on recovering the families that abandoned them. They are critical, he says, not only because of their incomes and the businesses they draw, but also because jobs and a strong work ethic enhances community life and creates role models for its youth. "You have to attract more than just those who have fallen to the bottom of the social safety net," he says.

On Sundays, Tolliver likes to share his vision with the congregation, many of whom have moved from the area but return for services. He updates them on the housing progress and boasts of school enrollment. Until recently, Tolliver's reports drew little more than blank stares. "They believed in me," he says. "But I'm not sure they believed we could do anything to change this neighborhood."

Now, he can point to results, from the lower crime rate to a new Little League club. Still, Tolliver's strategy is driven largely by the reputation of his church, one of few credible city institutions, and by his own charisma. And even that asset can rub some residents the wrong way. Some dub the pastor an elitist who is distant from the very people he seeks to serve. "I think he only wants to know people who came from his level," says resident Renee Simmons. Adds her husband Sydney: "I don't see him around enough." Says Tolliver: "If you want me to be reinvigorated to take on this task every day, I have to have my space."

Amanda Carney, St. Edmunds' link to money, is a product of the affluent, mostly white Chicago suburb of Lake Forest. She strikes some in Washington Park as a 1990s version of the well-intentioned campaigners for Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty. Even her boss says she often fights an inclination to tell poor blacks what's best for them.

Unlike many old-school liberals, though, Carney staunchly believes poor communities must pull themselves out of poverty. "The government, while a critical component, can't do everything and shouldn't be expected to," she says. Carney also believes that in an era of falling government support, cities must be more creative in spending diminished federal dollars. As a consultant for Local Initiatives Support Corp., the nation's largest nonprofit community-development support organization, Carney works at the front lines of reform. She helps Tolliver and St. Edmunds turn private investments into new homes.

Her primary weapon: the Low Income Housing Tax Credit. Enacted as part of the Tax Reform Act of 1986, the measure offers corporate and individual investors a credit against their federal income taxes for investments directed at acquiring, rehabbing, or constructing low-income housing. It attracts $3 billion a year, from companies such as AT&T, Xerox, and BankAmerica, producing about 110,000 low-income rental units. "Do-goodership is not sustainable," says William M. Goodyear, CEO of BankAmerica-Illinois. "Proper business relationships are."

Such investments, funneled through LISC or other syndicators, finance 40% to 50% of development costs; the rest comes from bank loans, grants, and federal aid. Carney, a 1991 graduate of Northwestern University's Kellogg business school, helps Tolliver and his staff administer these diverse funding sources and tries to wean them off money from the government and foundations. She shows them how to deal with banks, and how to handle spreadsheets, cash flow, and basic real estate issues.

At times, it has been a struggle. Carney has clashed with the strong-willed Tolliver on everything from staffing decisions to rent levels. He would like to expand St. Edmunds' programs faster than she thinks is prudent. With LISC behind her, Carney controls the purse-strings, and she likely will win such debates. "Asset management is critical to St. Ed's," Carney says. "It's one thing for everyone to come to the groundbreaking, but these units are going on for hopefully another 50 years, and they need financial controls in place."

Through the dim, narrow corridors of St. Edmunds' church, children walk in single file. The girls wear blue plaid skirts and white blouses; the boys sport blue slacks and ties. Their eyes focus straight ahead until they spot the clergyman striding out of his office. "Good morning, Father Tolliver," they call out in unison. Tolliver smiles broadly, nods his head, and issues a warm "Good morning, children."

Beyond all of Washington Park's new bricks and mortar, St. Edmunds Academy is Tolliver's greatest source of pride. It is also perhaps the most critical component of his vision for rebuilding Washington Park. Of the seven grade schools that serve Washington Park, five are among Chicago's worst-performing. Tolliver realizes that to lure middle- and working-class residents, the community must offer families a solid school.

Tolliver spent four years appealing to his 600-member congregation for $400,000 in donations for the repairs needed to reopen the 40-year-old academy, which shut down in 1988 for lack of funds. Then he tapped parishioner Gladys Ray, a retired Chicago public school principal, to run it. Some 42 students attend the academy, which runs from kindergarten through third grade. There's a growing waiting list, and enrollment is expected to rise each year as the school adds successive grade levels through junior high.

The problem: St. Edmunds still isn't wooing many middle-class students from other neighborhoods, so most students come from Washington Park. Their parents can't afford the $3,000-per-year tuition, so the school has constant fundraisers. Still, Ray says, "It is important that this be a mixed-income school."

Two weeks after the meeting with police, Sydney Simmons stands on his rear balcony, looking down at a trash-strewn lot below. Dozens of children are laughing and playing. Simmons says he'd like to let his kids join the frolic, but the makeshift playpen is too littered with rusted cans, bottles, and muddy pools of insect-laden water to let five-year-old Alexandria and one-year-old Sydney Jr. play there. "If I had my way," Simmons says, "I'd move out to the suburbs."

If Washington Park is enjoying a new sense of self-sufficiency and hope, it also is struggling to maintain optimism. The Simmonses moved to Washington Park a year ago. Combining his own income as an animal caretaker at University of Chicago Hospital with his wife's part-time earnings, they jumped from a $475-per-month two-bedroom flat to a renovated, $670-per-month four-bedroom apartment owned by St. Edmunds.

It's a financial squeeze, but worth it, Simmons says. Clean and sparsely furnished, the new home has enough space for Sydney Jr. to have his own bedroom. It also is just a block from St. Edmunds Academy, where Alexandria will enter first grade this fall. Still, Simmons admits to doubts about Tolliver's grand vision of an urban renaissance. In fact, he sometimes wonders whether the priest and Chicago's police are window-dressing deep, intractable problems that ultimately require government.

Tolliver shares the frustration. "We're on the verge of something great, but it won't happen overnight," he says. He recognizes, too, that some government involvement is both inevitable and desirable. Washington Park's rejuvenation can have only a limited effect without a broader strategic plan to revitalize surrounding neighborhoods and commercial districts--and, arguably, the city as a whole.

As it stands, Tolliver is pleased with St. Edmunds' progress. True, its balance sheet is highly leveraged, and cash flow is squeezed by five undeveloped buildings it is carrying; Tolliver has relied on LISC for a $400,000 loan to help cover costs associated with new projects. But the promise is clear. If St. Edmunds can raise enough to renovate its empty buildings, it will generate a steady stream of management fees to put into new projects. "St. Edmunds is on an unbelievable growth curve," Carney says.

Is Washington Park replicable on a broad scale? Some critics think not, since such community-based programs necessarily derive success from their small, tightly focused structures. The movement also doesn't solve the problems of low wages and joblessness that plague inner cities. "They have not done all that well in terms of economic development," says Margaret Weir, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Think of the power, though, of a thousand Washington Parks and a thousand Richard Tollivers, each renewing a neighborhood block by block. It is a model that resonates, as the federal government, more than ever, is relinquishing its role as the check writer for cities. Indeed, some experts think that the way to restore American urban neighborhoods is to expand the Low Income Tax Credit and provide grants for technical assistance to the local groups that would best deploy the resulting investments. Block by block, cities could become places people want to live in once more.