Many hands make fast work of solutions to challenges on your street
CHICAGO SUN-TIMES By Michael Herman May 27, 2007
For Joann Podkul and Kevin Murphy, the time for a new level of neighborhood involvement came when they realized they wanted more than a lot of passport stamps to show for their retirement years.
Podkul, a lifelong resident of her block in southeast Chicago, describes her neighborhood as "working class and family-oriented, the kind of place where people scrimp and save to provide good things for their kids, a place where people are satisfied with simple things and know how to fix things for themselves." She's talking about East Side (of the Calumet River), South Chicago, South Deering, and Hegewisch neighborhoods, from East 79th Street south along Torrence Avenue to Calumet City. Murphy joined her there, moving from Chicago's west side, 24 years ago.
Their East Side home sits in the shadow of the Skyway, looking out at Lake Michigan, just north of Wolf Lake on the border with Indiana. Amidst an influx of new residents who are helping to rehab the housing stock, the community is working to redevelop long-shuttered steel sites in a way that will preserve and enhance the character of the old neighborhoods. Nearby Hegewisch is the future home of a Ford-sponsored Environmental Research Center.
Podkul and Murphy have been active community members, especially interested in working with neighborhood kids. Podkul studied, and then taught for 39 years, at nearby Bowen High School where she also served as a service learning coach. Murphy, a retired corporate and college educator, is still active as a writer, finishing a second mystery novel. He wrote "Unfriendly Fire," a play based on the "1937 Memorial Day Massacre" at Republic Steel Company, at the urging of neighbors.
With a wealth of life experiences, and energy left to give, they've not been content to settle quietly into retirement. "We were seriously seeking a project we could sink our teeth into," says Podkul. "We wanted to do something that would provide positive results at day's end. It might not save the world, but we wanted to at least point it in the right direction."
Many others have the same desire. When they call Chicago's 311 non-emergency helpline, "we send them to four places: their alderman, their CAPS community policing meeting, their park, and their library," says helpline director, Ted O'Keefe. "If they have kids, they'd want to check with the public school system as well, not just their neighborhood school."
On participation citywide, O'Keefe says, "The level of activity really depends on how you define participation, from active organizing to regular membership in churches, clubs and chambers. The neighborhood CAPS programs are probably most focused on helping people get organized into block clubs and other kinds of neighborhood groups -- and on connecting new residents with existing groups." CAPS meetings are held monthly in every beat of every police district in the city. Dial 3-1-1 to find yours.
In the Spring of 2006, Podkul and Murphy found the connection they were looking for through a new program, in a different city department. They joined the first class of "leaders" in the Chicago Conservation Corps, a community and environmental leadership program launched by the City of Chicago's Department of the Environment. For training, they attended classes four consecutive Saturday mornings, learning about asset-based community development — a process by which community leaders unearth valuable relationships and connections that can help them get things done in their neighborhoods.
They also met with partner organizations and developed ideas for neighborhood projects. Participants in the training came from every corner of Chicago and all were committed to lead, with the support of the program, a project that would preserve Chicago's air, water, land and energy resources.
Podkul and Murphy say they are old enough to remember the old CCC — the Civilian Conservation Corps — a federal program organized during the Great Depression. They even had a late brother-in-law who'd worked on a CCC project, the Chicago Botanic Gardens in Skokie. So they felt called to join this new C3 program.
Their classmates distributed rainbarrels and planted rain gardens to reduce storm water run-off. SOME distributed energy-efficient lightbulbs and home weatherization kits. SOME promoted cloth diapers and vermi-composting at neighborhood events. OTHERS hosted green dinners and showings of Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth." One Conservation Corps leader is producing a map of recycling sites on the south side.
Start Where You Are
For Podkul and Murphy, the choice of projects was a simple as a walk down the block. "At the end of our street, there is a wooded area bounded by a cross street and a railroad line," says Podkul. "It's a popular dumping ground for passing vehicles that could provide lots of data if anyone wanted to study the drinking preferences of area visitors."
The neighbors found this area to be a problem and a disappointment. "Not the most charming aspect of the neighborhood," says Podkul, "and yet it could be."
Initially asking an age-old catalytic question "What if," Podkul and Murphy wandered down the roads of possibilties with neighbors. "What if," they asked, "we made it so beautiful that people would feel guilty about trashing it?" In the previous summer, neighbors had organized their first-ever "block yard sale" and first-ever "block party." Podkul and Murphy used the momentum of those events to recruit volunteers to plant 300 spring bulbs that they had received from their C3 program liaison.
"Each participating family chose their own patch to cultivate along the edge of the wooded area," Podkul says. "The largest single planting was a curving 24-foot long furrow on the edge of the railroad embankment. One family planted 100 daffodils there."
Bigger issues, small miracles
Other community issues beyond beautification, came up along the way, including what to do about drivers ignoring a stop sign. "One teenager working with a senior citizen convinced her to plant a lot of red tulips close to the stop sign," Podkul says, "so drivers would slow down to look at the tulips and actually stop." They also planted hyacinths, scilla, grape hyacinths, geraniums and snowdrops.
At the end of the day, the neighborhood planters found notes at the bottom of the bulb bags requesting letters of appreciation be sent to the Chicago Botanic Gardens, which had donated the bulbs.
To Podkul, it felt like a blessing and an appropriate turn of the wheel. As spring arrived this year, the neighborhood's beautification work is blooming. But it gave seed to other work in Calumet.
Podkul and Murphy have taken on leadership roles in the Calumet Stewardship Initiative, which coordinates educational and stewardship programs offered by the Chicago Park District, Cook County Forest Preserve District and others.
Now they are also working with the local chamber of commerce. "We went in just wanting to let them know what we were doing," explains Murphy, "but they got so excited they wanted to be full members of the Initiative. It's more than we ever hoped for."
And so it begins.