How Successful is Philanthropy-Based Urban Redevelopment?

Gary Comer College Prep, designed by John Ronan. (courtesy Zol87 via Flickr)

Gary Comer College Prep, designed by John Ronan. (courtesy Zol87 via Flickr)

Chicago Magazine’s Elly Fishman has an interesting story on Lands’ End founder Gary Comer’s efforts to save his old neighborhood. Pocket Town, a portion of Greater Grand Crossing on the Far South Side, suffered a 25 percent unemployment rate and longstanding poverty when septuagenarian Gary Comer popped into his alma mater Paul Revere Elementary School. Shortly after he began writing checks to the principal for improvements to the aging red brick building. That philanthropy snowballed into millions of dollars each year for Revere and the neighborhood. In 2010, Gary Comer College Prep moved into a John Ronan-designed school that has garnered praise from the design community.

To combat high turnover and low attendance at Revere, Comer invested in affordable housing. Improvements to the neighborhood so far include the haven from violence that the youth center provides, and an uptick in healthcare availability — the health clinic bearing his name vaccinates hundreds of children each year.

But it has proven difficult to turn around the neighborhood’s ailing housing and schools. In 2012 Revere landed back on probation. Less than 25 percent of its students met the national student performance average. Comer Prep, however, is among the highest-achieving public schools in Chicago. Housing results have been similarly mixed. New homes have cleared out blight, but few have been purchased by actual residents of Pocket Town.

“It’s really hard to change people and communities,” Harvard sociologist Robert  Sampson says in Fishman’s piece. “We need to be realistic…The social forces that permeate the South Side don’t stop at the Pocket Town boundaries.”

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