Top

This is the Place

by Sonya Jongsma Knauss

A new year is a good time to take stock of what’s good and what’s bad in your life. For many people, one thing that’s good is this place we’re all in together. It’s where we live. It’s our neighborhood. So we’re devoting some space this issue to reflecting on the past year — in photos and writings — and on this place we live in together. Just what is it that makes a place a neighborhood? You may think it’s something as simple as location and boundaries, but even that can be complicated, as Dan asks in “Where is Riverwest?” Boundaries are fluid and changing; we decide what they are. You may think it’s the people that make a neighborhood, and that is mostly right. People have everything to do with a neighborhood’s character, which is why Riverwest has so much character. We live in one of the few diverse neighborhoods in one of the most segregated cities in the nation. But we still have a ways to go, as Tanya talks about in this month’s View from Here. One way to get a sense of a place and its character is to take a look at where it came from. The past is never just the past; even things that are largely forgottenshape and give meaning to the present. It is important to tell stories about the past, even to argue over their meaning and how they should be told. That’s one reason why we’re starting to run excerpts from Tom Tolan’s forthcoming book about Riverwest. When people have a sense of belonging to a place, they often work hard to make their neighborhood strong. They will stand up to anyone who is perceived as bullying the neighborhood or failing to live up to its expectations. This was true of residents twenty years ago who joined together to rally against the city’s plan to widen Locust Street to a four-lane thoroughfare, a victory which is annually celebrated in the Locust Street Festival. This was true last year when northern Riverwesters banded together to block the Capital Drive Jewel Osco from getting its liquor license. And it’s true today too, when residents who believe in a neighborhood’s right to self-determination were not afraid to stand up and demand accountability from the YMCA CDC for the way our neighborhood’s allotment of Community Development Block Grant funds were being spent. For these residents, the very existence of the YMCA CDC office at 604 E. Center St. is symbolic of the organization’s commitment to our community. That is why the impending closing of the Center Street office and the elimination of the position of full-time community organizer, announced last month, was a big deal. Even if you’re not familiar with the office and the services its employees offered to the community, you probably unknowingly benefited from its many behind-the-scenes neighborhood-building tasks. Neighborhood planner Vince Bushell and community organizer Jan Christensen deserve recognition and thanks for the ways they have served our neighborhood in the past years. These activities include but were not limited to helping residents avoid foreclosure on their homes, building a neighborhood strategic plan, helping start and providing technical support for a residents’ council called the Riverwest Neighborhood Association, scheduling and planning neighborhood cleanups, organizing block clubs, arranging monthly meetings between police and concerned residents, helping people understand the kinds of assistance programs available to them for work on their houses, writing for the grant that launched this newspaper, and continuing to provide support for it in innumerable ways. It is clear to me, as I see the people I work with in the neighborhood, that there are many people who care about this place. And they feel strongly that a neighborhood should be in charge of the decisions that affect its people. That only makes sense. Thanks to their work, and yours, the year ahead holds exciting possibilities. If you’re looking for ways to become more involved, please see Tess’s listing of upcoming events and neighborhood-based organizations. And stay tuned to the Riverwest Currents as we tell the stories of our neighbors and the broad section of the city that is our neighborhood. Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 1 – January 2003
by Sonya Jongsma Knauss