Can One Man Transform a Struggling Chicago Neighborhood?
Although it was never Gary Comer's intention to see the fruits of his labor in his lifetime, from one venture to the next, he's invested $86 million into projects aiming to improve Pocket Town, the neighborhood where he grew up in Chicago's South Side. Starting with a $68,000 check to fix an electrical problem at "the two-story red brick Paul Revere Elementary School," to investing $12 million in an affordable housing program, to setting up the Comer Science and Education Foundation, Comer made sure “he would take care of [the] neighborhood” long after his passing in 2006.
Elly Fishman writes, “Comer’s hugely ambitious quest contains elements of both the Kalamazoo Promise (a Michigan philanthropist’s pledge to pay for college for all local kids who graduate from public high school) and the Harlem Children’s Zone (an urban renewal program that provides an assortment of “cradle-to-career” services for children and families in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood). The plan he eventually hit upon was to address the interconnected problems facing Pocket Town’s residents: poorly performing schools as well as issues like substandard housing and inadequate health care.”
With all that said, Fishman asks, “What results has that huge investment yielded? And what lessons are there for policymakers, philanthropists, and everyone who cares about the fate of struggling urban neighborhoods?” Comer's initiatives have yielded successes, as well as failures. His health initiatives, for example, led to the vaccination of over 700 children this year. A youth center provides recreational activities, year-round jobs and 6,000 pounds of vegetables annually via a community garden. His housing and education activities have had mixed results.
"On paper," concludes Fishman, "$86 million looks like a helluva lot of money. 'But it’s really hard to change people and communities,” says [Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson]. “We need to be realistic. . . . The social forces that permeate the South Side don’t stop at the Pocket Town boundaries.”