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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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Comer’s Pocket Town project has already yielded some clear successes. The youth center, for example, offers not only recreational activities for kids who don’t have many but also provides hundreds of year-round jobs for them. The center’s garden yields 6,000 pounds of vegetables annually. Perhaps most important, the center serves as a much-needed haven from the violence that continues to plague the area. In 2012, Greater Grand Crossing saw 36 homicides—and one shooting in Pocket Town itself. “Being here has changed me because I’ve learned how to be safe,” says Demetrius Walker, 15, a youth center regular. “It keeps me out of the streets.”

Comer’s health initiatives have been a slam dunk too. This year, for instance, the clinic has vaccinated 700 youths—a third of whom would not have been able to return to classrooms otherwise.

Unfortunately, when it comes to schools and housing, results have been mixed. Let’s start with Revere Elementary. Students initially showed significant academic improvement. For example, while only 20 percent of them met the national academic standards in 2001, 52 percent did in 2006. As a result, Revere came off academic probation.

But then progress stalled. According to Chicago Public Schools’ 2012 scorecard, less than 25 percent of Revere students meet the national student performance average. Unsurprisingly, Revere is back on probation. “The situation is dire now,” Taylor says sadly.

Schleicher blames CPS red tape: “It cost us more money than we expected, and we did not get the type of results we wanted as soon as we wanted.”

By contrast, Comer Prep is shaping up to be an academic success. Over the past three years, the average ACT score for its students has jumped from 13.7 (out of 36) to 20.1—the third-highest improvement among CPS high schools. And Comer is on track to graduate 85 percent of its students, according to CPS. Last spring, every one of Comer’s 127 seniors went on to college. “I wish [my dad] could have seen the first class graduate,” says Guy. “He would’ve been tremendously inspired.”

But look more closely and the picture gets less rosy. “A lot of my friends who came up from Revere with me have left because they couldn’t handle the rules,” says Mark Franklin, a senior. Noble Network has come under fire from various education activist groups for weeding out low-performing students to improve its schools’ academic standings. Even Noble’s superintendent, Michael Milkie, admits that its 12 schools lose about a third of their students before their senior year.

That’s a troubling development, given that Comer’s mission was for Comer Prep to serve all the teens of Pocket Town. One reason for the high dropout rate, parents say, is simple math: Those $5 disciplinary fees add up fast in a neighborhood where the median household income is just $21,361. (While Comer Prep has not waived the fees, last year the foundation added grades 6 through 8 to the school, figuring that would give students more time to adjust to the demanding atmosphere.)

As for housing, the Revere Way homes have indeed transformed large portions of Pocket Town. Their cookie-cutter structures and well-groomed lawns dot the neighborhood’s grittier cityscape. Binion points to a single block lined with nine of them. “Almost every one of these houses was where drug and gang leaders [once] lived,” he says.

But it turned out that Pocket Town residents weren’t so eager to buy. The first 30 homes went on the market in 2006; by 2007 all had been purchased—but only one by a family that actually lived in Pocket Town. The Revere Way homes were just too expensive at $220,000 each, a mighty steep price in a neighborhood where some homes were going for as little as $20,000. The $80,000 that Comer’s foundation kicked in toward the price of each home wasn’t enough.

When too few residents stepped up, says Reid, “we worked with the University of Chicago to find families from outside Pocket Town who could move in,” aided by certain U. of C. grants. Reid began building the second round of 30 units in 2008, finishing two years later. (At the end of 2012, six homes remained unsold, and the last 30 of the 90 planned structures had not been built.)

The 2006–7 real-estate crash certainly didn’t help matters. “The housing crisis led to a disastrous foreclosure problem on the South Side,” says Geoff Smith, director of the Institute of Housing Studies at DePaul University. More than 30 percent of Pocket Town’s homes went into foreclosure; the vacancy rate is currently 16 percent.

New homes can improve a neighborhood only so much, Reid points out, when there aren’t many economic anchors at hand. Pocket Town contains only four businesses: a gas station, a paper supply company, an auto salvage yard, and Reid’s real-estate company. “There’s still no new retail, no grocery store, and there isn’t even a pharmacy,” he says. Without meaningful commercial activity in Pocket Town, building houses there “is no different than building in Englewood.”

Responds Schleicher: “We tried to identify how to bring in other businesses. . . . The problem is, the neighborhood is very isolated. You can’t attract big-box retailers or grocery stores, because they won’t reach a big enough market to make money.”

* * *

On paper, $86 million looks like a helluva lot of money. “But it’s really hard to change people and communities,” says Harvard’s Sampson. “We need to be realistic. . . . The social forces that permeate the South Side don’t stop at the Pocket Town boundaries.”

Furthermore, Sampson says, change depends heavily on a community’s ability to leverage it. That’s a skill that needs to be taught, not handed out. “In the beginning, people got comfortable with Gary giving out a lot of money,” says Binion, who left the youth center in 2009.

Schleicher admits that Comer and some of the foundation staff were overly optimistic. “We were businesspeople, not educators or developers. We thought we could have things changed within ten years. . . . Since we started, the neighborhood has changed, but not as much as we’d hoped for.” He adds, “We did some things right and some things wrong. Hopefully, our story will give the blueprint of lessons learned.”

One of the things Comer did do right, say experts, was to put most of his focus on education. Both Sampson and Knowles say that school reform can be a powerful tool to help revitalize struggling neighborhoods. Problem is, the investment can’t pay off for the community as a whole for many years. “The true test of the effort is to look at all the kids over time and see what their trajectory is,” says Knowles. “That just takes time.”

Luckily for Pocket Town, there is no time limit. Comer’s daughter, Stephanie, says: “We will never step back from the neighborhood. I bring my kids there so they can see what their grandfather built. And someday I hope they’ll want to support it as well.”


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