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On West Walnut Street the scenery looks a little brighter

The solid red brick two-flat at 3352 W. Walnut St., in Chicago’s East Garfield Park neighborhood, isn’t the only building on the block for sale. Nor was it the only one in need of serious rehab. Like plenty of others throughout the neighborhood – throughout the city, for that matter – 3352 had fallen into foreclosure, vacancy and disrepair.

But you wouldn’t know it from the celebration that occurred in the building in late January, when representatives from Chicago’s Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP), the City, and local community organizations gathered to publicize the fact that 3352 is now in tip-top shape and on the market.

It’s one of a handful of two-flats and single-family homes that NSP – the federally-funded effort to breathe new life into vacant foreclosed properties and to help rebuild stable, vibrant neighborhoods in Chicago and nationwide – has so far acquired, rehabbed, and put a for-sale sign in front of. With its gleaming hardwood floors, energy efficient appliances and subsidies for low- and moderate-income buyers, 3352 and other NSP houses seemingly have a leg up on competing buildings on the market. Indeed, of the 16 NSP buildings that have been renovated and offered for sale, two have been sold and six more are under contract.

That’s good news for Mercy Portfolio Services, the nonprofit that’s administering NSP in Chicago, and the many developers, construction workers, property managers and community organizations that are preserving fine urban housing stock in struggling neighborhoods.

The NSP houses on West Walnut are a welcome sight for Mike Tomas, who 

heads up LISC/Chicago’s New Communities Program in East Garfield Park. During the celebration at 3352, he noted that significant changes have occurred in the neighborhood since a 2009 shooting outside a nearby liquor store, which injured several people. That event galvanized residents and local groups to help shut down the liquor store. Since then, calls for police department service have gone down, a new multi-million dollar restaurant and culinary training center is opening nearby, and more than 150 local youth participated in an anti-violence basketball program last summer.

“And now, we have new affordable homes for families – homes that previously were vacant and boarded up,” Tomas said.

Talk to Melvin Bailey, meanwhile, and you can’t help but share his optimism. Bailey, whose nonprofit Community Male Empowerment Program hires local residents to rehab buildings, just sold the first home he rehabbed through NSP (at 3412 W. Walnut St.) and is confident 3352 will go the same way.

Bailey takes pride in pulling kids off the street and putting them to work as apprentices to tradesmen. He’s big on rhetoric but he walks the walk, too. For the 20-plus young men involved with the Community Male Empowerment Program, the demand for work outnumbers actual jobs. So even though they may face adversity, they’re expected to work and to hear their boss out when he talks.

“I try not to have a mentoring session with them every day but I just can’t help it,” said Bailey. “Every time I see them I have something to say. It just comes out. And they listen. They listen. I tell them: Look at my background. I once was you guys – single-parent household, same ill-effects that you guys were facing. I didn’t grow up next to a doctor or a lawyer or a person that had a job.

“And now they’re learning how to paint, roof, frame, drywall, man…I’m trying to show them they don’t have to do negativity to earn a living.”

Bailey’s group is two months out from finishing another house, this one across the street from the Garfield Park Conservatory. And he’s branching out, too. CMEP is negotiating for two houses on the South Side – one on Marquette and another on Indiana.

“West Side, South Side - It doesn’t matter where we have to go to change lives,” Bailey says. “We’re afflicted with the same thing – unemployment. I went door to door and I was telling the young guys as soon as we got there.”

“With each house they’re getting quicker. And once they learn the trade they can take that with them for the rest of their lives.”

When his crew met the young woman who bought the house they had just finished, Bailey said, “She stays three blocks over so they gave her a warm welcome. And I said to them: ‘You see what happens with hard work? She purchased this house. The dream is alive. It can happen for you too.’ We just have to get away from that negative thinking. We gotta get that positive attitude.”

“If we continue working hard, someone will notice. Someone will say, ‘How 

can I help?’”

Bailey says he often meets people who tell him, “I’m unemployed, I don’t have any education.” And he said his response to them is the same every time: “If you don’t have any education, let’s get an education. Don’t let your past dictate your future.”

That spirit that says “We will either find a way or make one” existed long before Melvin Bailey came along. But he’s living out the message loud and clear every day on the West Side.

Keywords: Community Male Empowerment Project, East Garfield Park NSP, Neighborhood Stabilization Program

Posted in Housing