EDITORIAL: Why neighborhoods freak out when schools, stores and churches close
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Every time a school, church or major store closes, a neighborhood loses an anchor.
Before long, that neighborhood risks losing its sense of self, of its purpose and identity. Residents move away, no longer feeling the ties that bind, in search of what they’ve lost.
Further disinvestment follows. More anchors are lost. Unemployment climbs, and crime rates, too.
When Chicago closed 50 public schools in one fell swoop in 2013, the focus of the civic debate was on how this would improve or diminish the quality of education. In retrospect, too little weight was given to the importance of schools — especially traditional neighborhood schools — as community anchors.
Research since then has concluded that the school closings of 2013 failed to deliver the educational benefits promised. And, while we know of no reliable studies on this, critics argue that the closings are partially to blame for Chicago’s population decline — especially of African-Americans — and higher violent crime rate.
Now, again today, the news is full of stories of threatened community anchors.
Chicago Public Schools officials continue to contemplate school closings and consolidations. Advocates of charter schools continue to push for more charters, which compete with existing public schools, even as CPS moves to shut down two charters. The Archdiocese of Chicago is consolidating churches and elementary schools.
Even the decision by the retailer Target, announced in October, to close stores in Chatham and Morgan Park is at bottom a story of lost community anchors. A viable city neighborhood is built on local places to shop and work.
If Chicago truly is a “city of neighborhoods,” as it often is said, it will redouble its efforts to support essential community anchors.
The next mayor and City Council should put traditional neighborhood schools first, before selective enrollment and charter schools.
A neighborhood school welcomes every student living within its boundaries. That includes the kids who can’t get into upper-tier schools or charters, and those marked as troublemakers. A neighborhood school is a community gathering spot within walking distance, offering sporting events, band concerts and adult education classes. A good neighborhood school is sometimes the only source of pride in a poor neighborhood.
As we have written before, City Hall should declare a moratorium on more charter schools until CPS draws up a plan to better support neighborhood schools. Students and their parents deserve choices, but not at the expense of hollowing out neighborhood schools.
In the same way, the next mayor and City Council should be stingier with tax subsidies to retailers that sell minority neighborhoods short while raking it in on the North and Northwest Sides. It is galling that Target is closing two South Side stores while opening a store in a mall at the Edens Expressway and Foster Avenue — for which the city is providing $13 million in tax-increment financing.
As for those Catholic churches and schools that are soon to be closed or consolidated, we have no advice, only our best wishes. The Archdiocese of Chicago, like most dioceses in the United States, is struggling with declining school enrollment and a priest shortage. Cardinal Blase Cupich has no choice but to make what he calls “difficult decisions.”
But, here again, it’s important to stress that Catholic churches and schools at their best serve not only their parishioners and students, but the larger neighborhood, as well. A prime example would the Rev. Michael Pfleger’s St. Sabina’s Church in Auburn Gresham. When a church — of any denomination — shuts its door, a community anchor is lost.
Consider the cardinal’s decision to consolidate Nativity of Our Lord Church in Bridgeport and St. Gabriel Church in Canaryville, with both buildings to be used as worship sites — at least for now. That might seem like a small change to outsiders, but folks in Bridgeport and Canaryville view themselves as living in very different neighborhoods, and their two churches are deeply rooted in those neighborhoods. With the consolidation of the two churches comes a challenge to each neighborhood’s historic identity.
A 2014 study of Chicago’s Catholic schools by two University of Notre Dame professors found that the presence of a Catholic school in a neighborhood correlated with lower crimes rates, while the presence of a charter school did not.
“There’s a lot of trust and high expectations among the principals, teachers, kids and parents,” one of the study’s authors, Nicole Stelle Garnett, said in an interview with the Religion News Service. “There’s a spillover in the community.”
That’s the operative word for all community anchors: Spillover. A school is about more than education. A church is about more than praying. A store is about more than shopping.
Each, in its own way, can be a vital community anchor, but in some Chicago neighborhoods, they are an endangered species.
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