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Can $86 Million Save a Neighborhood?

Fifteen years ago, Lands’ End founder Gary Comer embarked on a wildly ambitious project to improve the struggling South Side neighborhood where he grew up.

Comer-built houses dot Pocket Town’s streets.   Photo: Mike Schwartz

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On a mild September day in 1999, Gary Comer drove from his Gold Coast apartment to a neighborhood on Chicago’s Far South Side. Known as Pocket Town, it’s a small triangular “pocket” of Greater Grand Crossing bordered by Oakwood Cemetery to the north, the Norfolk Southern tracks to the west, and the Metra tracks to the east.

Like many parts of the South Side, Pocket Town had become overrun with drug dealers and gang violence in the 1970s. Block after block was blighted. The local school was failing. Fifteen percent of residents lived below the poverty line, and unemployment topped 25 percent.

Comer, a diminutive 70-year-old in khakis and a crewneck sweater, got out of his car and walked into the two-story red brick Paul Revere Elementary School. “This little guy, who barely reached my shoulder, came up to me and tapped me,” recalls Shelby Taylor, the principal at the time, a tall man with a deep voice. “He asked to take a tour of the school.”

Days later, Comer wrote a check for $68,000 to fix an electrical problem in the aging building that prevented computers from being used in the computer lab. A grateful Taylor asked Comer what he could do for him in return. Comer responded, “Well, Shelby, I would like a good soul food lunch.” Over greens, grits, and cornbread, Comer told him: “I will use all of my resources to help turn Revere around.”

Dumbstruck, Taylor learned that the unassuming senior citizen was the billionaire founder of the mail-order clothing empire Lands’ End. Comer had graduated from Revere more than half a century before. And it turned out that helping the school was only the beginning. Comer soon resolved to do no less than transform the lives of the families and young people of Pocket Town.

Comer’s hugely ambitious quest contains elements of both the Kalamazoo Promise (a Michigan philanthropist’s pledge to pay for college for all local kids who graduate from public high school) and the Harlem Children’s Zone (an urban renewal program that provides an assortment of “cradle-to-career” services for children and families in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood). The plan he eventually hit upon was to address the interconnected problems facing Pocket Town’s residents: poorly performing schools as well as issues like substandard housing and inadequate health care.

Given his age, Comer knew he’d be unlikely to live to see Pocket Town completely resuscitated. (Indeed, he died of prostate cancer in 2006.) Through the Comer Science and Education Foundation, which he set up in 1998, now run by his son, Guy, 42, he made sure the money would keep flowing. “Gary told me that even though he’d be gone, he would take care of this neighborhood,” Taylor says.

So far, some $86 million of Comer’s money has been plowed into Pocket Town. “[That’s] a fair amount of money for a small neighborhood,” says Robert Sampson, a Harvard sociologist and one of the country’s foremost experts on neighborhood revitalization. It works out to about $43,000 for each of the area’s 2,000 or so men, women, and children.

The big question: What results has that huge investment yielded? And what lessons are there for policymakers, philanthropists, and everyone who cares about the fate of struggling urban neighborhoods?

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