The South Chicago community literally helped make Chicago.
For most of the 20th century, many of our city’s skyscrapers, expressways and bridges were built with steel that the neighborhood’s mills — namely the giant U.S. Steel South Works plant — churned out around the clock and by the freightload, providing thousands of good-paying jobs along the way.
And then what happened? The days of Big Steel ebbed in the 1970s and then ended, and the city and its institutions repaid its debt to South Chicago by allowing it to become yet another neighborhood debilitated by chronic disinvestment.
So we were glad last week to hear the announcement that Fifth Third Bank will be making a three-year $20 million investment in the South Chicago neighborhood.
Working with South Chicago’s Claretian Associates and Enterprise Community Partners, a national affordable housing non-profit, the bank announced that it intends to fund nine categories of need in South Chicago, including mortgages, small businesses loans and neighborhood revitalization loans.
If successful, the bank’s commitment could help solve a number of chronic problems in South Chicago, including a shortage of quality affordable housing, access to capital, and income and wealth disparities compared with the rest of the city.
Fifth Third Bank said it is investing $180 million in nine communities across the country, including South Chicago.
“We believe that this effort . . . will not only generate significant, positive outcomes but also catalyze other investments,” Fifth Third said in a statement, “leading to sustainable improvements in retail and commercial vitality.”
‘Forgotten community’ gets its due
Most of the $20 million — $18 million — will be set aside for affordable loans for housing and businesses in South Chicago, a triangular-shaped neighborhood roughly bounded by 79th Street, Lake Michigan and the Chicago Skyway.
Claretian Associates will receive $2 million to assist in its work in the area, including $500,000 to fix up an indoor pool at the organization’s Salud Center, an ex-YMCA at 3039 E. 90th St., that has been converted into a 101-unit senior residence.
Other projects include turning a vacant building at 3134 E. 92nd St. into a workforce development center and cafe.
“A lot of times we feel like we’re the forgotten community,” Claretian Associates Executive Director Angela Hurlock told WTTW. “But we’re here, we’re thriving and we’re continuing to grow.”
A role for banks to play
If Chicago neighborhoods such as South Chicago are to be rejuvenated, it will take major investments from banks to do it.
Big Steel is long gone, but the neighborhood still has assets. For instance, Commercial Avenue, the neighborhood’s Main Street, is still a functioning commercial strip, kept alive mostly by the South Chicago residents who shop there.
With its good early 20th century retail architecture, Commercial Avenue could be greatly improved with an infusion of some of that Fifth Third Bank investment.
South Chicago also is close to enviable natural assets, including the lakefront and attractive, restored public wetlands and green space further to the south, such as Big Marsh Park and Hegewisch Marsh.
It’s particularly good to see a bank playing a leading role in fighting for a neighborhood like South Chicago because of the banking industry’s historic and even ongoing role in disinvestment in predominantly Black communities over the last half-century.
Here’s hoping Fifth Third Bank’s investment will be only the first of a new good thing for South Chicago, with other banks following their lead there.
And if not in South Chicago, then somewhere else in the city where there is a similar need.
For the sake of the neighborhoods. And for the sake of our city as a whole.
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