In Chicago's Albany Park Neighborhood, an Investment in Childhood Thriving Starts to Pay Off

Sep 27, 2022 2:30:34 PM


Albany Park has never been louder. 

The neighborhood of 57,000, nestled against the North Branch of the Chicago River, buzzes day and night with the drone of jackhammers. Temporary chain-link fences block off numerous streets, with cherry pickers parked in seemingly every lot in the area.

William G. Hibbard Elementary School, which has undergone a series of renovations over the last few years, served as my polling place in the Illinois primary elections back in June. 

As I cast my vote, loud bangs rang out from above. Sledgehammers were the soundtrack of democracy that day, as poll workers just shrugged at each bang and went about their business.

While the noise may seem burdensome, even annoying, it's instead thrilling.

Since I moved here in 2015, I’ve witnessed a nonviolent uprising. This diverse working-class neighborhood banded with local civic organizations to change community leadership—and direction. 

The children down the block from me are safer getting to and from school, thanks to construction projects eliminating blind spots at dangerous intersections. They have more places to hang out after school and on weekends — public spots where adults can pleasantly say hello as they pass by. They and their teammates will soon have a state-of-the-art turf field right in the neighborhood for games. Their playgrounds have become beautifully confusing works reminiscent of M.C. Escher. They’re even getting a say in what they want to happen in the neighborhood so that adults like me don’t have to guess. 

This is the story of Albany Park’s investments in children who thrive.

A Sea Change In Leadership

"All the money that they spent on that race, and we won by 13 votes."

Last June at a campaign event, Chicago Alderwoman Rossana Rodriguez sounded just as shocked remembering the moment as she had on the night itself, back in 2019. That's when she defeated incumbent Deb Mell to lead the 33rd Ward, which encompasses Albany Park.

It was a real David vs. Goliath situation.

Rodriguez was a teacher in Puerto Rico and focused on activism and art upon moving to Chicago. In this case, Goliath appeared in the form of Deb Mell.

Mell’s the scion of a Windy City political dynasty that began during my retirement-age parents’ childhood in the 1970s. Deb’s father, Richard “Dick” Mell, spent the 1980s blocking the city’s first Black mayor, Harold Washington, from enacting much of his popular multicultural agenda for explicitly racist reasons.

But a lot can change in a few decades.

Rodriguez is a longtime member of the 33rd Ward Working Families, a local political organization founded in 2015—members make up Rodriguez’s ward staff to this day. With strong ties to the Chicago Teachers Union and the Chicago branch of the Democratic Socialists of America, this represented a marked change from the old, machine politics of the neighborhood. These and other left-leaning groups endorsed Rodriguez’s campaign. 

In her first run, 33rd Ward Working Families members called residents, organized in-person chats with neighbors, and got them talking about what they’d like to see built in the community. 

Mell’s team . . .  didn’t do that. They relied on inertia, incumbency bias, and big-pocket donors to jam residents’ mailboxes full of negative mailers about challengers.

That’s how it came down to 13 votes.

 Rodriguez recalled onstage in June,

“We won our election after an exhausting runoff.”

The results have reverberated for the neighborhood’s young people.

Thanks to her regular appearances at Theodore Roosevelt High School to talk about community initiatives and run discussion circles with classes, the students even have a nickname for Rodriguez:

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How To Do Good With Public Money

Winning a political race is only the beginning. Delivering project after project for your constituents upon winning is what’s meaningful. 

Albany Park resident Raynay Valles said neighborhood resources were essential for her family.

“I raised my kids here,” she said. “There were after-school programs, choice of three parks for summer camp, teen community theater at Eugene Field, and free community bookbinding lessons on Lawrence.” 

Rodriguez sprang into action upon taking office to build upon resources like those used by the Valles family. Among the projects she secured:

  • $3 million for Participatory Budgeting projects.

  • $7.8 million in Tax Increment Financing funds to build athletic and play spaces at neighborhood schools.

  • Funding to bring the Violence Interrupters policing alternative group to serve the 33rd Ward.

These dollar amounts and program names may sound like the dreary “same old, same old” of city politics. But in the 33rd Ward, an active group of neighbors has used these programs to beautify and protect Albany Park while making it more fun at the same time.

Valles is one neighbor who has noticed these concrete changes to the area.

“They put speed humps and a light at Avers and Foster, which is good for the park [at Eugene Field],” she said. Previously, it had not been difficult for a car to hop the curb at the bustling intersection and endanger visitors at Eugene Field’s popular wetland preservation. 

A New Way To Participate In Democracy

Elections aren’t the only way to get things done in your neighborhood. Contacting your local officials and speaking your mind at community meetings can help, but they don’t guarantee that your leaders will listen to you.

Participatory Budgeting (PB) was designed to hand people the power to determine public action, in collaboration with each other and with elected officials, according to the Participatory Budgeting Project. The group works with communities across the U.S. and Canada, helping them decide together how to spend public money.

In a four-step process, community representatives lead a series of neighborhood meetings. Volunteers develop these ideas into feasible solutions, and residents vote for which of those solutions they want to implement.

Originally launched in Chicago by former Ald. Joe Moore of the 49th Ward in 2009, Rodriguez brought PB to the 33rd Ward upon taking office in 2019—something that felt impossible under her predecessor. 

Since then, we’ve spent $3 million in public funds for infrastructure improvements, tree planting, and desperately needed street safety measures following a string of recent deaths after Chicago kids were hit by speeding vehicles at dangerous intersections.

What Did the Neighborhood Vote For?

The annual prompt is simple:

“How would you use $1 million to improve spaces in your community?” 

If you’ve lived through a Chicago winter, you understand why the neighborhood allocated half of the 2022 PB budget to street and alley repavement. 

As Boris Prado Rosales, an administrator of the active Albany Park News and Things Facebook group, put it recently: “Paved streets down Kedzie like a first-world country. Priceless.” 

“Only took like 20 years,” he added. 

That chronic, generational disinvestment in Albany Park led to a lot of decay in these basics of city life. We’ve only just begun to dig ourselves out of the backlog of necessary projects.

The other $500,000 is where things get especially interesting. In the 33rd Ward, 819 of most civically active residents picked seven winning projects that will improve air quality, expand food assistance, and slow motorists on streets populated with lots of children.

Screen Shot 2022-09-27 at 9.49.41 AM

The low cost of individual projects stands out. 

Trees planted at a local park and along a major street will cost about $25,000. Repaving sidewalks for elderly and physically disabled neighbors runs us $50,000. A big expansion of the neighborhood’s food pantry is a measly $25,000.

With increasingly sweltering Chicago summers, new trees can prevent kids from suffering heat stroke. Studies show children are especially at risk during extreme heat events, but shade from tree cover can reduce land surface temperature drastically on hot days.

Smoothing out jagged and crumbling sidewalks for our elders—and kids who run around without looking where they’re going—will prevent untold numbers of emergency room visits. 

Any children whose families are struggling amid inflation can grab food from a pantry where nobody will judge them.

That’s a lot of bang for our buck.

Another important wrinkle: Rodriguez’s office didn’t limit the process to adults. These projects are for the entire neighborhood, so, the thinking goes, kids should have a say too.

According to Rodriguez's website

“If you are 14 years or older and live in the 33rd Ward, you are eligible to vote in the Participatory Budgeting Process.” 

Subverting a Corrupt System—For Good!

Giggles are nice to hear. They’ve increased over the last year whenever I walk past a newly constructed plaza for the neighborhood’s kids to play freely in the street. 

Now, you can wave to students from the three schools that share the 4900 block of North Sawyer Ave.—Hibbard Elementary, Albany Park Multicultural Academy, and Edison Regional Gifted Center—as they play catch, walk their dogs, ride bikes, or climb colorful playground pipe structures that look like monkey bars took LSD. 

Until recently, cars zoomed down Sawyer, endangering students before and after school. Now, vehicles are gone, blocked by freshly poured concrete, a new playground, brick pillars, and an iron gate in case any vehicles do jump the curb to endanger kids. 

How did the ward pay for this $2 million project? Believe it or not, the money comes from one of the most corrupt (but somehow perfectly legal) money-laundering schemes in Chicago history. But instead of ripping off taxpayers, Albany Park used their money in a good and transparent way.

For decades, Chicago’s mayors have used a strategy called Tax Increment Financing (TIF) to put up construction projects quickly and pay for them over the course of decades. Local journalists have long uncovered extreme inequities in that system, secretive deals with property developers that were kept from the taxpayers footing the bill, and rampant abuse. 

But here’s the thing: TIFs don’t have to be bad. The 33rd Ward proved it.

It’s not just at the play plaza at the grade schools on Sawyer.

Down Lawrence Ave., construction will soon finish on the Maria Elena Sifuentes building, a six-story affordable housing complex named for a beloved community organizer who died of COVID. Other gentrifying neighborhoods toss TIF money at condos to attract big-money outsiders, but Albany Park wants its families to put down roots to thrive across generations.

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The Sifuentes apartments will even have a daycare on the first floor run by Concordia Place

“Daycare in the building is gonna be ready real soon. If you drive [past], you're gonna see it; it's glorious,” Ald. Rodriguez said with a smile in June. 

“And we used TIF money for that.”

Another TIF deal means that student-athletes at Theodore Roosevelt High School will soon have a $5.8 million turf field to practice and host games. Parking at school got easier for Roosevelt faculty, staff, and kids, too, with a new asphalt parking lot on its way.

A Necessary Move

Perhaps the biggest educational change this neighborhood has seen recently is the relocation of North River Elementary.

Until the 202223 school year began, North River was housed at a local church. When funerals were held, students were forced into silent gym classes and recess so they would not disturb the mourners. Families and staff had petitioned Chicago Public Schools (CPS) for a new location, but local grassroots organization Communities United said CPS wouldn’t budge for a year.

Neither did the community, including Rodriguez, who backed them.

“Parents, teachers, leaders, and allies fought continuously to ensure a safe space for their children after being denied a new building,”

Communities United wrote in an Instagram post commemorating the school’s first day in its new co-location with Aspira Middle School.  

“Finally, this past July, because of the school and community-led efforts, CPS authorized the co-location,” they continued.

Now North River students can play like the kids they are.

Interrupting Violence

Crime remains Albany Park’s biggest struggle. This is hardly conducive to a healthy childhood.

When I asked my neighbors on the Albany Park News and Things Facebook group page what the neighborhood needs to do better, fixing violent crime came up repeatedly. 

Laurie Bertagnoli called Albany Park “crime-ridden” and likened it to the Wild West.

Gabriela Christy Hurtado is an Albany Park lifer, born and raised. 

“It’s a great area and so much diversity,” Hurtado said. “Now I have three kids of my own, and honestly, my only concern is the gun violence.”

Ali Carpenter, a teacher whose nephews attend local Bateman Elementary, said gun and gang violence prevention is key to the neighborhood improving further.

“There has been an uptick in recent years,” she said.

“It’s scary and disturbing. Teens and young adults still need a sense of community and security.”

That’s why Rodriguez brought in the Violence Interrupters as a pilot program for her more sweeping Treatment Not Trauma ordinance that’s seeking support in the Chicago City Council as of this writing.

Tio Hardiman founded the Violence Interrupters in 2004. That year, he predicted a 25% decrease in Chicago’s murder rate. In a phone interview, he said, “I may have got a little lucky” in his prediction, but he was right on the money. 

“Murders in 2004 decreased by 25.2% compared to the previous year, reaching a 38-year low,” per a report by the Chicago Police Department. After a later, tragic uptick that made Chicago “the nation’s murder capital” in 2012, murders decreased by 25% again in 2013. 

To be sure, groups like the Violence Interrupters do not create these positive changes entirely by themselves, nor should increased violence be blamed on them. Elected officials and those paid with taxpayer dollars to enforce the law hold far more responsibility for these challenges. 

But these groups are certainly in the mix, on the streets working with youth and neighborhood safety organizations all the time, Hardiman told me. We need it in Chicago, which has been part of the nationwide increase in violent crime since the start of the Coronavirus pandemic.

He said it’s important for young people specifically to have Violence Interrupters patrolling the streets, especially after high-profile police killings of kids like Adam Toledo and Laquan McDonald in recent years.

“The Violence Interrupters serve as role models for the youth."

In fact, it is baked into the job. 

“They work as intermediaries to solve conflicts before violence occurs.”

The Violence Interrupters are only one part of the Treatment Not Trauma package Rodriguez wants to pass citywide to provide Chicago residents with a multifaceted public safety initiative dedicated to serving their health and wellbeing.

If passed, it would provide non-police teams to respond to mental health crises. It would also increase funding for public mental health centers throughout the city, which are desperately needed after budget cuts over the past decade closed half of Chicago’s mental health clinics.

Your Community Can Do Things Like This, Too

These ideas are not unique to the 33rd Ward. They can spread to your neck of the woods. Here are just a few ways to get started: 

  • Contact the Participatory Budgeting Project to learn how your neighbors can get more involved in public spending.

  • The Violence Interrupters offer training on how you can prevent harm in your area.

    • They have an archive of founder Hardiman’s podcast and talk show appearances so you can learn more about violence prevention and the Peace Initiative movement.

    • Hardiman even wrote a comic book called “Mr. Cease Fire” to teach young readers how to prevent violent situations before they erupt.

If you do these things in your own community, you won’t move here and upset my neighbor Stefani Stavroula, who was slightly alarmed when I said I was writing this piece.

“Shh, no, don’t tell people about this place,” Stavroula said. “It’s our secret.” 

Oops. The secret’s out.

Rob Samuelson

Rob Samuelson is a Staff Writer at Education Post and Digital Media Manager for the brightbeam network.

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