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Learning by Example: Other LISC Sites Share Experience with Eastern North

April 8, 2011
For communities struggling to overcome a decades-long legacy of blight and abandonment it can be easy to feel isolated and alone. But the fact is there are many communities, in many cities, who have grappled with similar problems, and there are plenty of lesson to be learned from their experiences.And that, really, was the purpose of a neighborhood meeting last week at McKinley Elementary School in Eastern North Philadelphia. The session was the latest in a series of gatherings organized by LISC and APM to get community input on a comprehensive community of life plan, which is now nearing a first draft. The session put Eastern North’s struggles into context, locally and nationally, by highlighting LISC-assisted redevelopment work in communities in Chicago, Cincinnati and West Philadelphia.

Examining the progress those communities have made gives residents of Eastern North a sense of what is possible, an idea of what can be achieved when neighbors come together to think and plan seriously about what they want their community to be, and craft a vision that goes beyond bricks and mortar.

Take, for instance, the Humboldt Park section of Chicago, where a comprehensive quality of life plan yielded, in time, a bricks and mortar improvements like 94 affordably priced apartments, but also renovated parkland and a Center for Working families that offers financial consulting services for local residents, like free tax preparation and assistance getting access to public benefits.

Closer to home, there is the work LISC and a coalition of community groups have done in West Philadelphia, a project that began in 2007, two years before the effort in Eastern North. One of the largest challenges in West Philadelphia is bridging the yawning divide between the area’s better-off residents, many of whom have easy access to the assets of the neighborhoods many universities, and those with fewer resources.“There are a lot of assets in West Philadelphia. The biggest challenge is equity. Making sure these assets are available to everybody,” LISC program officer Jamie Gauthier said at the meeting. “There can be a huge line between people who have and people who don’t have.”

To that end, LISC and a coalition of four community groups are working on projects like the Center for Culinary Enterprises, which features low-cost kitchen space for local entrepreneurs who would like to open, for instance, a catering business. And then there is the digital inclusion program, which connects low-income families to free Internet service, and a pilot program that places local residents in careers in nearby hospitals.

Residents check out newly installed green and white roofs, which were installed as part of a SCI West Signature Project

Four years after the efforts in West Philadelphia began, LISC is now looking to local groups to step forward and take control of the effort. 

“These groups were not working together when we came in. They were working alongside one another. We’ve seen the evolution of these relationships, from very little, to close partnerships,” Gauthier said. “We want LISC to be less of a driver in the future. It needs to be driven by and owned by the community.”

All of which suggests that, once it completes the difficult work of choosing priorities and assigning responsibility for them, the neighborhood of Eastern North Philadelphia has plenty to look forward to.

– Patrick Kerkstra

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