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Hip-hop rapper Rhymefest, former cop Willie Cochran face off in 20th Ward


Listen to Che "Rhymefest" Smith's campaign rap
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Updated: May 1, 2011 12:25AM

Who is more likely to provoke a renaissance in the South Side’s 20th Ward: a charismatic 33-year-old hip-hop rapper? Or a sedate 58-year-old former cop?

Che “Rhymefest” Smith won a Grammy for writing Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks.” He hopes his candidacy motivates the ward’s youth to get into politics and recharge the community.

In advance of Tuesday’s aldermanic runoff election, Smith offers an unconventional tour of the ward that includes an impromptu rap: “I came back to the crib . . . went off to rap, crap, became famous,” he sings in his car, chopping the air with his right hand. “Came back to the hood, did good, made changes. Nothing is impossible, I am unstoppable.”

Pointing to one of many boarded-up buildings, Smith says he would convert it to low-cost housing for artists: “On the top floor, photography, the middle floor, dancing, in the basement we have a studio.”

By cleaning trash from the ward’s ubiquitous empty lots, residents could earn “community service hours” to live in or use the artists’ residences, Smith says.

With a more droll delivery, freshman Ald. Willie Cochran points out the new construction he claims credit for bringing to the ward. In the empty lots where Smith sees desolation, Cochran sees future development.

Where the Green Line now ends east of King Drive, grassy, garbage-strewn vacant lots stretch out on either side of 63rd Street, where businesses once stood.

Tearing out the L was supposed to take away the shadows and the crime and let the businesses thrive in Woodlawn. It didn’t work.

“Sixty-third Street was a series of businesses — a place where you didn’t have to go anywhere,” Cochran said.

A few blocks of single-family homes were built on 63rd near the late Bishop Arthur Brazier’s Apostolic Church of God. But the economy tanked and the building stopped.

Back when Brazier led the charge to tear down the L, Cochran, then a police officer, sat on the board of the Woodlawn Preservation and Investment Corp. with Brazier, developer Allison Davis and Valerie Jarrett, now senior adviser to President Obama.

Did Cochran support tearing down the L?

“At the time, yeah,” Cochran said. “I felt it was a good thing to do. Why? Because we had plans to put new homes down here. In hindsight . . .” he trails off, not finishing the sentence.

Smith sees failure on 63rd Street: “This is the ‘Great’ 63rd Street. There used to be businesses here. There used to be life here. Look at all of the vacant lots. This wasn’t like this just when I was growing up.”

To Cochran, these littered lots are the drafting board of a new Woodlawn.

“We have this open space, an opportunity, a canvas, a dream come true,” Cochran said. “We’re working on a project right now with the Hyde Park Day School and the Sonia Shankman School, focused on kids who have emotional problems.”

In vacant lots from Woodlawn to Englewood to Back of the Yards, Cochran promises ground will be broken for new projects shortly. He also can point to new homes being built.

But sometimes Cochran jumps the gun.

“If Mr. Smith walks out the door and looks to the West on 60th Street, he will see some of the new homes being built as a result of my being alderman,” Cochran told the Sun-Times editorial board.

Not yet.

“What I see when I walk outside my door is three kids killed in three days and two empty lots with trash,” Smith said.

One of the empty lots has a sign saying condos will be going up. But west on 60th are just empty lots. Cochran said a design for a development has been approved.

Cochran points out a Save-A-Lot grocery store offering fresh produce he brought to the ward a few blocks from Smith’s house.

Cochran said he has brought $140 million in investment to the ward, including $65 million in stimulus funds from Washington, D.C., thanks to relationships he built over decades serving on community development corporations.

“We are getting things done in this community,” Cochran said. “This did not happen by chance. I was able to hit the ground running. I understood the process, I understood the language. I had built relationships. People knew me and trusted me.”

Speaking on Chicago Tonight, Cochran added, “I go to Washington, D.C. to lobby, to being resources back to the community. With the [arrest] record Mr Smith has, he wouldn’t even be able to get a clearance to go in the Capitol to do business.”

But Smith shot back: “I’ve been in the Capitol. I’ve testified in the halls in Congress. I’ve worked for the Artists’ Rights Bill, with Congressman John Conyers, Congressman Hank Johnson, Congressman Sheila Jackson Lee. I’ve met with the prime minister of Britain.”

Smith dismisses Cochran’s claims to have brought $140 million to the ward or at what he calls Cochran’s pie-in-the-sky plans that remain vacant lots.

Behind the body shop that serves as Smith’s campaign headquarters is a neglected but stately old red-brick building, the Raber House, which Cochran says will be the site of a vineyard. A developer has committed to take the old house now owned by the city and spend $800,000 comverting it to an urban Falcon Crest, Cochran said.

“That’s where the wine vineyard will be,” Cochran points. “The grapes will be grown. This will be the first wine vineyard in Chicago. He will build a distillery in this area over here so he can process his grapes. This is a real deal.”

Smith roles his eyes when told of Cochran’s plans.

At 63rd and State Street, where Cochran said he plans to bring a big retail development, Smith shakes his head and says, “This reminds me of when I went to the Palestinian territories. He had three years. He could have done something.”

Cochran disagrees: “In three and a half years, we’ve been able to accomplish a great deal,” he says.

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