PI Original Ellyn Fortino Thursday September 5th, 2013, 10:41am

Austin, Galewood Residents Take Part In New Community-Based Planning Initiative

Dozens of West Side business owners and neighborhood residents gathered Wednesday evening for their first community-based planning meeting as part of a new Austin-Galewood Sustainability Roadmap spearheaded by Ald. Deborah Graham (29th). Progress Illinois was there for the meeting.

Residents of Chicago’s 29th Ward on the West Side have a vision for how to strengthen their local business districts and make their Austin and Galewood communities more sustainable.

Dozens of business owners and neighborhood residents gathered Wednesday evening at the Columbus Park Refectory for their first community-based planning meeting as part of a new Austin-Galewood Sustainability Roadmap spearheaded by Ald. Deborah Graham (29th).

Graham, who officially launched the neighborhood planning initiative for her ward last month, stressed at Wednesday’s “visioning” meeting that the sustainability roadmap is not an aldermanic plan.

“This is a community plan,” that alderman told the crowd. “I thought this would be important and instrumental for us to come together and work on a ... document that we could have moving forward and something that we want to see happen in the community.”

The idea is for community members to “think local” by crafting, and eventually implementing, a master plan that addresses ways to make their neighborhoods more economically, environmentally and socially sustainable. A goal of the initiative is to help spur local job creation and keep money flowing through the neighborhoods.

The effort is also a way to connect Austin residents with those from the neighboring Galewood community. Galewood is mostly in Ald. Nicholas Sposato’s 36th Ward, but will be predominately in Graham’s turf once the new ward map, which was approved last year, takes full effect in 2015.

The Institute of Cultural Affairs in the USA (ICA) is helping to guide the planning process, which is expected to take about three months. ICA is in its third year of a five-year program, Accelerate77, which looks to identify, connect and accelerate community-level sustainability initiatives in all 77 of Chicago's community areas.

At Wednesday’s “phase one” meeting, residents said they wanted to see a Chicago Avenue business district, better community schools, new grocery stores and more youth services, to name a few.

Malcolm Crawford, owner of the Sankofa Cultural Arts & Business Center, 5820 W. Chicago Ave., said he wants to see a designated African-American business district come to the Austin community.

“When you put down markers in the community, it changes the way people feel,” Crawford said. “When you pull up in a community and you see a fountain, and a statue, and different things, it just changes the whole look of a community.”

A culturally-focused business district, like Chinatown, Greektown and Little Italy, is not a new idea, Crawford said, but it is a key neighborhood component that’s missing in Austin.

“That’s how other communities function,” he said. “My hope and my vision is that we would understand that we’re actually selling ourselves short when people don’t get to experience the community from the community’s perspective.”

Others at the meeting said the plan has to take steps to address the violence and drugs in the Austin community.

West Side resident Margaret Parker said there are only a few places where Austin’s young people can participate in activities that will help them “stay off the blocks.”

But West Side activist Dwayne Truss said there are valuable community assets in Austin, such as Columbus Park, that offer sports, activities and other programming for teens. The problem, he said, is that not enough community members have stepped up to help with those activities and create other programs for Austin’s youths.

“We have things here in the park that we can utilize,” Truss said. “It’s a matter of people utilizing those assets that are there.”

Neal Wankoff, member of the Galewood Residents Organization, stressed that much more work has to be done to spruce up the business district along a stretch of North Avenue that straddles Austin, Galewood and Oak Park.

Wankoff made a point to say that the area does not need any more pawn shops or liquor stores.

Just the other week, a fifth pawn shop opened up, despite fierce community opposition, along a half-mile stretch of North Avenue near the Oak Park border, he noted.

“We don’t want to be known as pawn shop row,” Wankoff said. “We want to see businesses that will attract the local residents to them that are higher-quality businesses, not liquor stores that are open until 1 (a.m.), and businesses that we can be proud to be neighbors of along North Avenue.”

The Galewood resident added that cars drive down North Avenue at "highway speeds." Community members should work to make the busy street more pedestrian-friendly, he said.

“To cross North Avenue, you risk your life,” Wankoff noted. “I do not feel safe sending a kid across there. If we can’t visit both sides of North Avenue to patronize [the businesses], we’re really not setting ourselves up for success.”

At the end of the meeting, Graham said the community was “headed in the right direction", and encouraged residents to keep up with the group and "see the plan through."

Community members are set to discuss how their various ideas can become a reality at the next meeting scheduled for October 2. ICA will present the final community plan to the residents on November 6. The goal is to start implementing the Austin-Galewood Sustainability Roadmap in 2014.

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