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Black history, from quilts to opera

A West Side McDonalds will be transformed into a quilting bee, and the South Side Cultural Center will be transformed into a 1963 civil rights rally, in two cultural events exploring black history this weekend.

The North Lawndale African American Heritage Quilting Project is holding a “drive-thru quilting day” in the conference room of the McDonalds at Roosevelt and Kedzie on Saturday, February 25 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Customers will be invited to create a patch for the project’s second quilt, depicting anything they find meaningful including poems or Scripture, traditional African patterns, or depictions of family traditions or neighborhood landmarks or heroes.  People who bring photos or pictures can have them copied and transferred onto a patch.

The project reflects local activist Valerie Leonard’s passion for involving  people in participatory projects and a desire to build community pride.

The group has held quilting sessions at neighborhood churches and senior centers and is working on involving local schools, with students researching and designing patches with historical themes.

At a local church last week, “we had all ages, 3 to 80,” she says.  It’s not just women, either.  “It’s amazing, some of the young guys that do try it, they really get into it,” Leonard said.

On Sunday at 4 p.m., the South Shore Opera Company is presenting “The March,” an opera in development by composer Jonathan Stinson and librettist Alan Marshall exploring events surrounding the 1963 March on Washington.

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The myths of ShoreBank’s failure

Was ShoreBank a victim of its mission — to provide financial services and build wealth in low-income communities of color?  Tim Fernholz looks at the myths surrounding the bank’s takeover this year in the latest issue of American Prospect.

In a sense the bank may have been a victim of its success.  From its perilous founding, it found a niche helping small landlords rehab affordable housing, and its highly personal approach, knowledge of its neighborhood and attention to detail paid off.  Along the way it served as a model for scores of community development banks — and showed big banks that serving minority communities could be profitable.

Founded with a $2.4 million loan in 1973, Shorebank had $2.6 billion in assets in 2008.  But with success – and as the founders moved out of direct management – the bank moved beyond its “old-fashioned” view of a bank rooted in a community, expanding to Cleveland, Detroit, and the Pacific Northwest, even backing overseas development loans.  And although Shorebank eschewed subprime lending, its borrowers were not safe from the housing crash, and losses began piling up.

The conservative contention that ShoreBank was politically favored, with connections to Presidents Clinton and Obama among others, might have been rendered moot when the FDIC closed the bank in August.  But Fernholz notes “a new conservative conspiracy theory” – “regulators were letting the FDIC’s insurance fund absorb losses so that the social experiment could start anew.”

In fact the consoritum of investors who formed Urban Partnership Bank was tagged to purchase the bank’s assets only after hundreds of banks passed on the same opportunity.  And the new operation will share ShoreBank’s losses with the FDIC, which would have been on the hook for the entire bill otherwise.

Now “ShoreBank’s experience is being taken as a call to end government support for community lenders, as though encouraging credit access in underserved communities is the moral equivalent of bailing out Wall Street’s megabanks,” says Fernholz.  (This echoes the contention that the Community Reinvestment Act caused the crash by requiring investment in low-income communities; but the bulk of subprime loans came from unregulated mortgage companies and investment banks, and their securitization was a project of the higest rollers.)

Fernholz argues instead that ShoreBank’s experience is emblematic of the challenges facing small banks.  And he cites bankers who say “ShoreBank’s failure was less because of its mission and more because of its business practices” – it “tried to accomplish too much, too fast.”

“The politicization of ShoreBank’s failure detracts from the urgent need to reinvest in these areas with sustainable, local loans,” writes Fernholz.  The lesson is not that poor areas don’t deserve investment – indeed ShoreBank showed it can be done successfully.  Perhaps it’s what founder Ron Gryzwinski wrote in 1991: “To serve almost any geographical or social community we might name, banks must either be small or at the very least maintain a local focus.”

And while big banks have gotten bigger on bailouts predicated on their risk to the financial system, it’s time to recognize the importance of small banks to communities and families, with “policies that encourage community banks to do what they do best.”

Lakefront school site questioned

Plans to build a new school on Rainbow Beach Park needlessly take away valuable green space — and violate the Lakefront Protection Ordinance — according to South Shore residents, backed by Friends of the Parks.

Organized by the South Shore Community Organization, residents will rally in the park at 75th and South Shore on Saturday, March 7 from noon to 2 p.m., to inform residents of what’s going on and what they can do about it.

Though the project’s been in the works for several years, Lucille Young says she and her neighbors learned of it only in November, when they were notified of a Public Building Commission meeting. The PBC is legally required to notify residents within 250 yards of a proposed project when a hearing is scheduled.

Powell Elementary School, 7530 S. South Shore Drive, was among the schools listed to receive a new building when Mayor Daley unveiled his Modern Schools program in 2006.

What neighbors learned in November was that the city and CPS were planning to put the new building across the street, on a huge swath of land that comprises the northern entrance to Rainbow Beach Park.

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Community Plan for South Lakefront

With new marinas being proposed and private efforts to develop a massive, former industrial lakefront site proceeding, park advocates are holding a symposium on a community consensus plan to complete the south lakefront parks on Wednesday, June 20, at the South Shore Cultural Center.

[Local groups are also holding a bus tour of the 580-acre former site of U.S. Steel’s South Works this Saturday; see below.]

Friends of the Parks and advisory councils for Jackson Park, Rainbow Beach Park and the South Shore Cultural Center are sponsoring a panel discussion on the community plan with architects, planners and public officials.

The plan, developed in two dozen community meetings over the past year, envisions new lakefill to add beaches, lagoons and open areas, with greenway corridors along the lakefront and connecting adjacent neighborhoods, and restoration of natural habitats.

It’s part of Friends of the Park’s “Last Four Miles” project, commemorating the centennial of the 1909 Burnham Plan by articulating community visions to complete its call for the entire 30-mile lakefront to be public parkland.

The current focus is on two miles on the South Side including privately-owned lakefront property from 71st to 75th Streets, the former site of U.S. Steel’s South Works plant south of 79th, and Illinois Port District land at Calumet Harbor.

Private developers recently submitted a zoning application for 17,000 units of housing on the South Works site. South Works Development LLC is transferring about 120 of the site’s 580 acres to the Chicago Park District as part of a planned unit development. And last week the Park District announced the South Works site was being considered for a new marina.

Parks supporters advocated adding parkland and reducing parking in the 83rd Street marina plan, said Erma Tranter of FOTP. “Otherwise the community that lives there gets nothing except increased traffic and environmental issues.”

She contrasts the “holistic” approach of the community plan with the “piecemeal” approach of developers and city planners.

The south lakefront symposium takes place at 6:30 p.m. at South Shore Cultural Center, 7059 S. Lake Shore Drive.

On Saturday, June 23, FOTP and local groups including the Southeast Environmental Task Force are sponsoring a bus tour of the South Works site, leaving from the Calumet Park Field House, 9801 S. Avenue G, at 9:30 a.m.

Schools Focus of South Shore Plan

The past year saw charges that CPS was imposing school closings with little community input and little regard for the most vulnerable students.

South Shore is perhaps furthest along among of several communities that are launching grassroots strategic planning processes to ensure they have a say in improving troubled schools.

Last year the Coalition for Improved Education in South Shore started a series of task force and town hall meetings on schools, modeled on a previous effort which resulted in restructuring South Shore High School into small schools.

This time the focus includes the nine elementary schools which feed the high school. With eight of the nine on academic probation, South Shore topped the list of communities lacking high-performing schools in an Illinois Facilities Funds study last year.

Many of the best students go out of the neighborhood to school, said Marie Cobb of CIESS. Among those who stay, student mobility rates in the nine elementary schools are high, and schools are overcrowded.

South Shore’s schools also have the highest rates of homeless students and foster children, according to CIESS.

The neighborhood also has significant resources, including many professionals and retired teachers among its residents. South Shore is going through “yet another transition” with myriad dynamics — continuing condo conversions as well as an influx of CHA relocatees — said Henry English of the Black United Fund, who is working with CIESS on the strategic plan.

Scores of residents are now participating in task forces on the high school and elementary schools, at-risk students, overcrowding, safety, and options for community-based education, and a “town meeting” on schools is planned for October 15.

CIESS has sought university partnerships in the process, and now it is seeking to bring in CPS itself, “with the community and the Board [of Education] operating in equal partnership,” said English. “It takes the Board and the community working together to have successful outcomes,” he said, adding that “every community has particular needs” and “cookie cutter schools” aren’t the answer.

The planning process emphasizes the need for communities themselves to take responsibility for the education of their children, English said.

Juneteenth Parade Recreates History

From Stony Island to Rainbow Beach, 79th Street will be transformed into the Freedom Trail — with a recreation of slave quarters and Harriet Tubman leading a group of slaves to freedom — for the 10th annual Juneteenth Freedom Parade and Celebration on June 18.

Sponsored by the Coalition to Improve Education in South Shore (CIESS), the parade will feature floats honoring African American heroes, with a “Sounds of Freedom” battle of high school marching bands at the subsequent celebration.

“Wanted” posters for runaway slaves will hang along 79th, and Harriet Tubman will be portrayed leading a group of fugitives from South Carolina (at Stony) to Canada (at Rainbow Beach).

The youth group God’s Gang will premier their new traveling exhibit, a recreation of slave quarters featuring actual livestock and plants common in the Antebellum South — reflecting the group’s work with public housing children on ancestral research, urban agricultural, and African crafts and dance. Actors in costume will portray period characters.

“African American families don’t talk about slavery,” said Lestine Byars of CIESS. Often children “have no clue where we came from, that we are a strong people and we have overcome. We need to understand our history better — and stop all this foolishness out here.”

Bringing together 10 local schools in arts and sports festivals as well as Kwanzaa and Juneteenth celebrations, CIESS has worked for 18 years to improve education in South Shore, a neighborhood recently shown to have “the least amount of educational opportunities for students” of any in the city, Byars said.

The group is currently working to demand community input in CPS decisions on school closings and reorganizations.

Two years ago, CIESS initiated the successful call to make Juneteenth a state holiday, celebrated on the third Saturday in June. Juneteenth is traditionally the day when slaves in Texas learned of their emancipation.

The Juneteenth Freedom Parade kicks off at 79th and Stony at 10 a.m., and the celebration at Rainbow Beach Park continues all afternoon.

On Thursday, June 16, CIESS sponsors a Freedom Ball at South Shore Cultural Center, 71st and the lake, featuring scenes from the period (including the depiction of a slave ship), with attendees encouraged to dress in period costumes. “We’re trying to make history vivid,” said Byars.

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