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.
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Comer with his Revere Elementary friends in 2000
Each year between 1999 and 2001, Comer flew Shelby Taylor to his 500-acre farm in southwestern Wisconsin. Against a backdrop of rolling hills, where coyotes and turkeys roamed, the men would discuss the progress being made in Pocket Town. Partly as a result of those conversations, Comer realized that focusing on education alone wasn’t enough. “If he wanted to help improve the lives of kids, he’d [also] have to focus on . . . after-school time and their home life,” says Hank Webber, a former vice president for community and government affairs at the University of
Chicago, who advised Comer.
In 2002, Comer started hosting monthly Saturday morning breakfasts in Revere’s auditorium to ask Pocket Town families about their needs. Turnout was poor at first. “People didn’t trust Mr. Comer,” explains Sam Binion, a neighborhood fixture whom Comer hired early on to boost community involvement. “They thought he’d be just another white man who’d eventually leave them hanging.”
Residents who did attend lamented Pocket Town’s lack of recreational space for kids. There were so few facilities that the South Shore Drill Team, an after-school program for 300 area school kids, had to practice in the street.
Comer decided to build a recreation center (and to cut a $1.5 million check for the drill team). The 80,000-square-foot Gary Comer Youth Center, a blue-and-red Lego-like building—also a Ronan design—opened in May 2006, just months before Comer’s death. It includes a fully operating kitchen that feeds up to 800 kids a day, a roof garden, a media lab, a gym, a dance studio, and more.
Back at Revere, attendance remained low. One reason, Comer learned, was that many students’ immunizations were not up-to-date. “Fifty to 100 kids couldn’t attend school because [of that],” says Schleicher. So the foundation partnered with the University of Chicago’s mobile clinic to provide free annual shots. Then, in 2009, the foundation partnered with the health care provider Access Health to open a clinic inside the youth center. It offers nutritional counseling, sex education, and psychotherapy to every Pocket Town child as of this year—all for free.
Comer eventually became convinced that a main reason for Revere’s high turnover (a third of its student body changed each year) was that few young parents in Pocket Town owned the homes they lived in. Instead, they rented (often in subsidized housing or from slumlords) or lived with older relatives—an inherently less stable situation. Many homes were in rough shape; nothing had been built there since the 1970s.
To encourage homeownership, in 2005 Comer and his foundation invested $12 million in an affordable-housing program called Revere Way. They hired Lee Reid, a veteran of the Chicago Housing Authority, to develop it.
The initial plan was to tear down the most dilapidated of Pocket Town’s existing housing stock to make room for 90 new two-story red brick homes, built in three phases. “Our goal was to find young families in the community who could [buy] the new homes and help stabilize Pocket Town,” explains Reid.
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Photograph: Wes Pope, City 2000/courtesy of Comer Foundation