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MOORE: A drive down King Drive teaches how to combat crime and poverty

A mother walks with a young child to the Parkway Gardens apartments in the 6400 block of South Dr. Martin Luther King Drive. | Jessica Koscielniak / Sun-Times

For years, as I drove down a stretch of King Drive in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood I wondered about a sprawling apartment development on the west side of the street.

Parkway Gardens carried a certain reputation for crime given how in 2013 more people were shot on the block than any other in the city.

OPINION

What I also noticed about the mid-rise brown buildings were their proximity to a shuttered Walgreen’s and McDonald’s – two corporate chains that traditionally have a presence in black neighborhoods. Years earlier, the city shut down a seedy motel in which the owner admitted to me that any illegal activity that went on in the rooms was none of his business.

Imagine my surprise when I learned that in 2011, the owners of Parkway Gardens poured $100 million into the 700-unit property. A significant and necessary investment. Low-income families welcomed renovated bathrooms and kitchens. But apartment upgrades did not change the condition of the surrounding community, besieged by crime, unemployment and disinvestment.

Shootings didn’t go down, bordered up businesses remained.

Housing activists rightly advocate for safe, decent living spaces that give people dignity. But it’s clear the big problem around Parkway Gardens is poverty, which can’t be fixed by working on only one issue. Without a focus on jobs or education in tandem with housing, the possibility of transforming people’s lives lessens. Same goes if there’s a singular focus on jobs without considering housing or schooling.

Of course, public investment is needed for all of these areas, including public transit and an environment in which neighborhood businesses can open and thrive.

There are examples of doing this well. The nonprofit Housing Opportunities for Women transitioned from focusing on short-term living quarters solutions to more permanent ones. Part of HOW’s strategy to prevent homelessness is to develop affordable housing. That’s rounded out with case management, employment training, life skills help, health services and youth programming.

Once HOW focused on the longer-term components of economic mobility for individuals – mostly, but not exclusively, women – their lives mended. They got jobs and their children improved in school.

None of this is easy.

“The public and private support models don’t support this [model] because it’s not a quick fix. The reporting model wants a quick turnaround,” said Britt Shawver, who runs HOW. She said the support mechanisms for the work her nonprofit does is very much siloed and that worries her.

“Strong incomes, high educational attainment, low crime — things that everybody wants and we don’t seem to have a system in place to distribute the burden for that all the legs of the stool,” Shawver said.

These are lessons to remember as Chicago figures out how to ameliorate the difficulties in the lives of residents. Solutions for gun violence emphasize more police officers and mentoring, rather than attempting to fix what systemically hurts the neighborhoods.

Public schools can provide stellar classroom instruction, but the American Dream is still elusive for young people when that school is situated in a high-poverty area. Affordable housing policy in this city continues to cluster units in segregated communities instead of dispersing into places with jobs and wealth.

I like to think I knew these things intuitively, but reporting and learning about Parkway Gardens crystalized all of these issues for me in a way I hadn’t truly reflected on.

My wish for 2018 is that our systems – whether private, nonprofit or governmental – do a better job of attacking social ills and poverty. A comprehensive approach is essential. Otherwise it’s all for naught.

Sun-Times columnist Natalie Y. Moore is a reporter for WBEZ and author of “The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation.” 

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