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What Rahm Emanuel must do to renew Chicago communities


David Roeder reports on real estate 6:22 p.m. Thursdays on WBBM-AM (780). The reports are repeated at 10:22 p.m. Thursday and 7:22 a.m. Sunday.

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Rahm Emanuel so far has done a decent job of mingling jubilation with humility over becoming mayor of Chicago.

Maybe the size of the task before him has kept his ego in check. Maybe it’s the knowledge that a bench-load of rivals waits for him to make hard decisions and deplete his political capital so they can make him a one-termer.

He campaigned and at his inauguration he spoke with his legendary focus. Emanuel is like a cheetah stalking a wildebeest when it comes to focus. His prey is shortcomings in public safety, education and jobs. In a word, he’s staking his future on livability. If Chicago had a livability index, Emanuel would hope to lift it in four years.

To succeed, he must never forget Chicago’s tale of the lost 200,000.

That’s the number of people the city lost in the 2010 census. The 10-year exodus surprised many people who think they know Chicago, especially if they spend all their time in café-laden neighborhoods where developers shoehorned condos everywhere they could. Housing crisis or not, these neighborhoods are doing fine.

Then there are the neighborhoods where most of the population loss occurred. I call them the forlorn 30 percent of Chicago, a guesstimate, mostly black communities on the South and West sides where no investment occurs and the only commercial anchor may be the drug trade.

It’s where the people who are able have left, leaving blocks that are empty or under-used.

May I suggest that Emanuel’s success depends on that forlorn 30 percent? The neighborhoods are uncompetitive, but they have land and it’s the key to their turnaround.

To seize the opportunity, Emanuel should whip the bureaucracy into doing five things:

†Take a land inventory. The city already is the largest owner of empty lots. It must enlist private research firms and real estate agents to identify empty parcels in private ownership. If they can be bundled together as a development offer, the city should take them by eminent domain.

†Buy and wreck abandoned homes. This activity slowed under Mayor Richard Daley. I hear it was because city lawyers didn’t want the liability. When abandoned homes become tax delinquent, the city can acquire them with non-cash bids. Clear them if they can’t be saved and get the lender to pay for the demolition if possible, as Bank of America Corp. agreed to do last week. Where’s JP Morgan Chase & Co., recent employer of William Daley?

†Sweat the small stuff. Nothing says abandonment like crumbling roads and missing street signs. Send out city workers or volunteers block by block to record every problem.

†Knock some heads. Get the planners together with the public agencies to decide what to do with the land. Are new parks or new schools possible? What’s best for commercial or industrial development? Livability means jobs that aren’t just in Wal-Mart.

†Farm and garden it. Say what you want about Daley, but he understood flower power, or how appearances can make people take pride in their places, and even make the bad guys move on. What would you rather have across the street, garbage and abandoned cars or a community garden? There are many groups already active in working the land in Chicago. Their efforts must be nurtured so that in some not-so-distant spring, the forlorn 30 percent comes alive with color and with produce grown for local sale.

If Emanuel pursues such deep changes, he’ll be accused of the high crime of abetting gentrification, as if there are any gentry left who aren’t under water on their mortgage.

“Gentrification does not beautify neighborhoods,” said student Chanel Sosa in the poem she read at Emanuel’s inauguration.

It depends on the neighborhood. Ask old-timers in Lincoln Park, Wrigleyville or the Near West Side. Sure, rents and taxes rose. But so did property values. And gentrification did wonders for the crime rate, school performance and outside investment.

Urban renewal in the right places might not bring back the lost 200,000. But it stands a chance of restoring much of Chicago as a preferred place to live. I’d call that beautiful.

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