Tag Archives: community

Finishing weaving and a closing thought

In our trilogy of parkway rain gardens, I had one more cell to go, which is also the largest cell. Snow was looming on the horizon and I was hoping to finish the weaving of the fence panels before I would freeze my fingers off.

Well, I got done just in time, but I had to wait all winter before I could fully vegetate the rain garden cell. This was a test of my patience.


Building the parkway knee fence and rain garden cells took me down memory lane – to our sustainable pilot project, One Drop at a Time, in Elmhurst, Ill. The rain gardens, green roof, rain barrels, and porous pavement at this project caught quite a little bit of attention.


The running joke was that whenever I stepped into the front yard of the Elmhurst project I got no work done because of the questions from, and conversations with, passers-by. Thirty minutes of uninterrupted work was unheard of.

Fast forward to our Chicago project: As I mentioned in the last blog post, I began to enjoy plenty of interaction with passers-by while working on the parkway fence. By my observation, the volume of conversations, the level of curiosity, and number of compliments seemed no different than what I had experienced in Elmhurst.

Yet these two communities, North Lawndale and Elmhurst, have completely different demographics and appear to be at opposite ends in the income spectrum.

To demonstrate the point, I picked data from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) Community Data Snapshots and summarized them in the table below.

For complete data set on North Lawndale, see:


For complete data set on Elmhurst, see:


This brings me full circle and back to the quote by the late Charles Leeks, former director of the North Lawndale NHS office.

“People who live in poor communities […] are entitled to good design. I’d love to see good buildings, an aesthetically engaging place. … [A] smart, clever, interesting place to live—and one that looks good.”


In this highly segregated environment, whether it is racial or income related, it is easy to overlook that some things are universal. We all share a thirst for an expression of care in our landscape combined with physical expressions that instill beauty, and a landscape that stimulates.

Just because North Lawndale doesn’t have the resources for attractive landscapes doesn’t mean that they would not be appreciated.

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Talking while weaving

Even though the weather was turning cooler, I just got warmed up weaving the fence panels on our first rain garden cell in the parkway. Now that I had figured out the details and nuances, I was on a roll – or should I say loom?

And with each panel completed, our parkway landscape started to look better, even though I had nothing planted yet.


We are always interested in community outreach, sharing with others what we are doing and why. We use this blog as a community outreach tool. We had several open houses where we invited the community to see our progress for themselves and ask us questions. I still accommodate groups that are interested in touring our project.

Despite all these efforts, we’ve had a hard time reaching the community closest to us, our neighbors in North Lawndale. Interest in and awareness of what we are doing to the house, and why, has grown over the years. But in the busy lives of our neighbors, and everyone’s daily struggle, the deep energy retrofit subject was not a priority. Plus, some of its aspects are rather abstract and eventually hidden behind drywall. There are few visuals that get people excited about, with the exception of our heating bill.

But once I started to work on the parkway rain gardens, interaction skyrocketed. I was doing stuff that was hard to overlook and that nobody expected to see in the neighborhood. Passers-by wanted to know what I was up to.


Interactions ranged from compliments on our work, to questions about what we were doing. Compliments and questions came from grown ups passing by and the kids leaving school down the street from us. A number of times, parents picking up their kids from school took them over to the parkway when I was working and asked me to explain to them what I was doing.

And of course, I mentioned the four brothers who helped me excavate the rain garden. We had some really good conversations, and they riddled me with questions until there was nothing left of me.

This was the fun part of putting the fence together, and I really enjoyed it!

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Do you live there?

As you can imagine, this project is a big part of our lives. And we talk about it a lot. Not so much as to bore people, but our friends and neighbors frequently ask us for an update.

Just about every conversation includes the question, “Do you live there yet?”  Of course the answer to that is no. There is no electricity, no plumbing and of course no heat.  We’ll live there someday, but not anytime soon.

So where do we live?

You may recall that we had been working on a project in Elmhurst for the past few years. Last spring when we bought this building on 15th St. we clocked our travel to the city and back to Elmhurst at 45 miles, round-trip.  We did that trip many times in the spring of 2009.  That is certainly not sustainable, nor was it any help to our sanity.

We decided we really needed a place in the city … but how would we find a comforting home on a temporary basis?  One day we were at brunch with some very cool friends at their place, the HUB Housing Cooperative.  (HUB stands for “Housing for Urban Bicyclists.”)  As it turns out, they had a unit for sale and our friend Ted was interested in renting it to us.  So we moved in last Memorial Day weekend.

The HUB is a six-unit co-op right at 24th and Marshall Boulevards in the Little Village neighborhood. It’s an intentional community comprised of 11 people, 4 cats, 2 dogs, 3 worm bins and more than 50 bikes.  The group meets once a week to talk about business and there are lots of social opportunities.  I’ve known many of the people who live here for about 10 years through Critical Mass and other bicycling activities.  They are truly a great bunch.

The unit we’re living in right now is for sale.  It’s about 1,000 square feet with big windows and lots of light.  And lots of built-in friends. The kitchen looks out onto the boulevard. If you think you might be interested in buying the share of the co-op that is this unit, please let us know and we’ll pass your info along.


Beats and meetings

We found some interesting properties with the help of our Realtor. It’s now time to investigate their surroundings in detail, to start the serious research.

If anyone would ask us what our most useful research tool was, we could answer it in a heartbeat: beat meetings! – If you don’t live in Chicago, or you’re not involved in your community, you might ask “What are Beat meetings?”

“Beat Community Meetings involving police and residents; extensive training for both police and community; more efficient use of City services that impact crime; and new technology to help police and residents target crime hot spots.”

Source: What is CAPS?

In April of 1993 Chicago started in earnest with the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy, in short CAPS (for more information, see also ClearPath). The principle idea was to develop and grow a partnership between police and community to increase the efficiency of community policing and crime reduction. The city of Chicago is organized into police districts (twenty five in total). Each district is organized into three sectors, while each sector is subdivided into police beats. Each police beat has a community meeting once a month, where a CAPS officer, beat officers and typically a sergeant sit down with the residents of the beat to discuss community policing, crime statistics, crime hot spots and to develop a plan of action.

We attended beat meetings religiously for the properties we were interested in. It is amazing how much we learned in such little time! We got a detailed picture of community interest and involvement. Some beat meetings were very poorly attended, while others were buzzing with people, activity and opinions. We learned about crime activity levels and hot spots. It is amazing how localized some of the problem areas were. We observed how the officers worked with the community to target crime hot spots, relying on the observation and reports from residents. We learned that “the most interesting time of the year” is when the weather gets warm after a long winter and cabin fever reigns.

It was and is a privilege to meet and talk to our potential future neighbors. Some of them had been living in the neighborhood for years, even decades . That wealth of knowledge was absolutely priceless to us. This was the most fun and effective way to learn about the short and long history of a neighborhood.

Same for the officers and sergeants, some of them long-serving veterans in the community. They were always – and I mean always – happy to talk to us and share the historic ups and downs in the crime development and control. Looking at crime statistics online is one thing. But having an active duty officer walk you through the details of a crime hot spot gave us the perspective we were looking for. And if some of the details were not at the officer’s fingertip, they called us within a day with the answers in hand. Talk about excellent customer service and dedication to the community – we found it in the beat meetings. Thank you!


Neighborhood research

We have our wish list and decided what we want, which feels like a nice accomplishment. Don’t be fooled! The real research is yet to come. What neighborhoods would actually meet our basic parameters?

One of the first tasks is to look at a public transit map and identify which CTA train corridors would be convenient and of interest to us. We talked to friends and friends of friends who live in the city and had knowledge of the areas we were investigating. The spread of opinion was quite remarkable, but we got nevertheless a much better feel for the various areas. To test the opinions we received, we drove through the neighborhoods to collect our first impressions.

We quickly learned what to look for, and I am not talking about the community assets such as retail and other service. No, it’s things such as the care that is given to the houses and yards and the number of vacant buildings on any given block. Are those buildings secured or broken into? Have the neighbors formed and maintain an active block club or other community group that would indicate they are looking out for each other? How many vacant properties are on the block? What is the zoning? What are the current development plans and schedules? The various aldermen and the Department of Zoning and Planning have knowledge of the latter.

We also tapped into a number of online resources. Just typing the neighborhood name into Google led us to descriptions and historic background information. Other good online resources were the Chicago Neighborhood Map and the Chicago Reader Ward Map.  The Chicago Tribune has a real estate section on their website that offers neighborhood statistics such an income levels and the ratio of owner occupied versus rental properties.

What is the crime rate and type of crimes in any areas of the city? This is easy research thanks to a couple of excellent websites. The Chicago Police Department CLEARMAP is a GIS based system that provides access to a large variety of crime statistics for various time frames. Every Block Chicago is another excellent resource. You can type in an address and have access to a whole range of statistics, including crime for an eight, three or one block radius, in a variety of time frames.

All right then, with all this research done, let’s look at some real estate listings to see what is on the market in those ‘hoods!