Chicagoland

Group ‘reclaims’ neighborhood around St. Rita of Cascia Parish

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Thursday, June 6, 2019

Group ‘reclaims’ neighborhood around St. Rita of Cascia Parish

Cardinal Cupich toured the neighborhood surrounding St Rita of Cascia Parish June 6, 2019 to see the work being done by the Reclaiming Southwest Chicago Campaign. Cardinal Cupich joined religious and community leaders in an interfaith event to celebrate their efforts in reclaiming their community from the devastation of the foreclosure crisis and community violence. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Alia J. Bilal, director of community relations at Inner-City Muslim Action Network, offers comments during the event. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Nick Brunick of United Power for Action and Justice, one of SWOP’s partners in the campaign, speaks to participants of work being done in the neighborhood surrounding St. Rita of Cascia, which is located on the corner of 63rd Street and Fairfield Avenue. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Nick Brunick of United Power for Action and Justice, one of SWOP’s partners in the campaign, speaks to participants of work being done in the neighborhood surrounding St. Rita of Cascia, which is located on the corner of 63rd Street and Fairfield Avenue. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Sisters of St. Casimir Regina Marie Dubickas and Immacula Wendt listen to speakers. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Cardinal Cupich delivers his remarks. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Cardinal Cupich prays along with interfaith leaders during the event. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Cardinal Cupich tours the neighborhood surrounding St Rita of Cascia Parish to see the work of the groups. With him is Jeff Bartow, executive director of SWOP, and Phil Andrew, director of Violence Prevention Initiatives for the archdiocese (behind). (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Cardinal Cupich called the results obtained so far by the Southwest Organizing Project’s Reclaiming Project a miracle.

“A miracle is about an event in which something is there that was not there before,” the cardinal said at a June 6 interfaith event celebrating the campaign. “We have replaced fear with hope, empty houses with full houses and division with reunification of communities and families. This is a miracle we are witnessing to today.”

The miracle he referred to is the turnaround of the neighborhood around St. Rita if Cascia Church, on the corner of 63rd Street and Fairfield Avenue.

When SWOP, a non-profit organization made up of community-based institutions and agencies, started the project in June 2012, the 20-square-block area around the church had 93 vacant buildings, many of them left empty after the foreclosure crisis. The vacancies tore at the fabric of the neighborhood, leading to instability, increased crime and high student turnover in neighborhood schools.

Now those 20 blocks have only eight vacant buildings, with the other 85 turned into affordable housing: apartments, two-flats, single-family homes that have either been sold or rented out. The Catholic Campaign for Human Development is a longtime supporter of SWOP.

Nick Brunick of United Power for Action and Justice, one of SWOP’s partners in the campaign, remembered walking the neighborhood on that 2012 evening, meeting with neighbors, and deciding to work to transform the vacant buildings into affordable housing for families.

“We believed in that vision in 2012, but not a lot of people besides SWOP and United Power believed in it,” Brunick said.

With the number of foreclosures, there were more than 700 vacant buildings in the wider neighborhood and the community seemed to be falling apart.

“It didn’t seem like there was anything anybody could do. And the doubters were right,” he said. “There wasn’t anything any one person could do, but there was a lot we could do as people of faith.”

That included getting $7 million in grants and leveraging that money into $15 million to invest in the housing stock. Those efforts helped draw in private contractors as well, leaders said.

This year, the campaign is to receive $12 million from the state capital budget, money that will help rehab 100 homes. But the important thing is to build relationships along with housing, he said.

The effort started with an apartment building at 62nd Street and Washtenaw Avenue, once part of a condo fraud case where the owners sold 19 units even though only 15 existed. It was remodeled into 13 two- and three-bedroom apartments and is fully occupied. It looks out over the area where St. Rita Parish held a summer festival last year.

“There were people out here until 10 or 11 at night,” said Jeff Bartow, SWOP’s executive director. “A few years ago, that would have been unthinkable.”

Speakers touted a 55 percent decrease in crime and a 60 percent decrease in shootings in the last six years, as well as improvements in all area CPS schools.

Speakers at the celebration included Muslims, with representatives of Inner-city Muslim Action Network, a partner in the campaign, and the Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation.

IMAN, the Muslim network, now uses a handful of the homes for its Green Reentry transitional housing, training and mentorship program for people who have been incarcerated.

Keana Lindo, who works as a parent mentor coordinator in another SWOP program, lives in one of the rehabbed homes. Her family was forced to leave the neighborhood when their landlord went into foreclosure. With the help of SWOP and its partners, she said, they moved back at their first opportunity.

“This isn’t just about housing,” she said. “It’s about good schools and safe streets for our children. That only happens if we are engaged with one another.”

The effort is not finished. Rather, it is expanding.

Capuchin Franciscan Friar John Celichowski, pastor of St. Clare of Montefalco Parish, 5443 S. Washtenaw Ave., is in the area that will be included. He was the last speaker at the event.

“We are not finished,” he said. “There are still buildings that need to be restored. There are still communities that need to be healed. There are still walls that need to be replaced with bridges. In this city and in our nation, there are still hearts of stone that need to be replaced with hearts of flesh.”

Topics:

  • cardinal cupich
  • cchd

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