Chicago church spruces up down-and-out neighborhood. In many cities, run-down communities are getting facelifts. One Chicago program's rehabilitation efforts have been particularly successful.
Vanessa Little would never have moved in except for the small pink flower that grew among some weeds in the backyard. ``My husband...kept saying: `Picture this,''' she says, shaking her head at the thought of the dilapidated two-apartment building. But ``that flower smelled so good. That's what sold me. I figured it was a sign from the Lord.''
It was the large yard that led Angie Green to move onto the same block - a dead-end patch of Chicago's Lawndale neighborhood that used to be a center for drug dealers. Now, her four children have space to play in. And ``I don't have to worry about cars speeding down the street,'' Ms. Green says.
Welcome to 2200 South Avers Street. Two and a half years ago, the buildings in this block were falling apart. Junk cars were piled up in the vacant lots. A local newspaper profiled the heavy drug dealing that took place each night.
Now, all that has changed.
The drug dealers are gone. The buildings are being rehabilitated. And families - like the Littles and the Greens - are beginning to move in.
``We believe if you can do it on Avers, you can do it everywhere,'' says Wayne Gordon, pastor of Lawndale Community Church and the prime mover behind the rehabilitation project.
The Lawndale program is one example of how community groups around the United States are combatting poverty by creating affordable housing.
``It's one of the very successful organizations we work with,'' says Fred Messick of World Vision, an international Christian humanitarian organization based in California. ``It has reached a real level of sophistication in that neighborhood.''
In this particular case, Mr. Gordon - a white minister in a virtually all black area - wanted to see if the church could have an impact on a single block.
``A few can change the whole; not everyone on the street has to be a great leader,'' he says, sitting in his church office just a block away from the rehabilitation effort. But ``quite honestly, our intention was not to take over the worst block. That's what God led us to.''
The corner of 22nd and Avers caught the city's attention nine years ago. A federal grand jury indicted two major drug dealers who were operating a reported $3.5 million-a-year operation there. The two were eventually convicted and sent to prison. But by May 1986, the drug dealing had returned to the block, and the Chicago Tribune ran a front page story on it, headlined ``The law can't curb drug dealers on Easy Street.''
The following January, the church officially began its renovation program on the block. It bought its first two buildings from the two convicted dealers who had started the drug operation. Suddenly, the dealing stopped.
``It was very easy,'' Gordon recalls. ``They just left.''
``I wholeheartedly commend the community,'' adds Clemente Robles, commander of the city's 10th police district. ``The neighbors are more than cooperative.... A criminal will leave an area if he perceives that he can't successfully commit his deeds.''
The cooperation of neighbors, plus good police work, has resulted in long sentences for several area drug dealers, he says. ``Wouldn't it be great if we could do that throughout the city!''
A walk down the block on a cold December day confirms that renewal is taking place.
One building has put on new red awnings. Another has added a new stone facade. The junk cars are gone. And in their place, someone - Gordon is not sure who - has put up wooden posts to make the vacant lot look more like a park.
``It's a quiet street,'' says Ms. Green, sitting in her new living room at the end of the dead-end street. ``It's like living in the country. You hear the dogs barking and the train goes by.''
Currently, Green rents the place for $275 a month, but the church has set up a program so that she can accumulate enough money for a down payment on the building in three years. Then, with the rent from the first-floor apartment, she should be able to afford the monthly payments.
``People don't get something for free,'' says Michael Friedline, special projects consultant for World Vision.
Instead, as the Lawndale church recoups its investment in the first projects, it can begin investing on another street and, block by block, help renew the neighborhood. The church already has started to acquire buildings on a nearby street.
The Chicago program is one of more than a dozen housing programs to which World Vision is giving financial and technical assistance. Some of the programs encourage home ownership, like Lawndale, while others rehabilitate rental housing.
The programs are located in Los Angeles; Atlanta; Miami; Washington; Philadelphia; Pittsburgh; Denver; Detroit; Memphis; Oakland, Calif.; Benton Harbor, Mich.; a six-county region of northwest Mississippi; and Appalachia, which includes eastern Kentucky and all of West Virginia.
Next week, World Vision is launching a nationwide program that aims to get 200 homeless families into housing by the end of the year.
``Our goal is to enable people to have stable housing,'' Mr. Messick says. Stable housing helps keep families stable and, in turn, benefits the community, he adds. ``If that one street turns around, the street next to it will turn around and the next one. And we will say: Here's a block that got itself back on its feet.''
``We are looking forward to moving and owning our own home,'' adds Mrs. Little. Her family is scheduled to move to Avers in about six months.