VIDEO: Gentrification in Logan Square and Pilsen

By Courtney Dillard

Gentrification is the process of rebuilding a neighborhood to accompany an increase of middle or upper class residents. As the community changes, residents who cannot afford property tax increases are displaced. Gentrification is a hot topic here in Chicago, where neighborhoods that have been immigrant communities for decades are seeing an increase of Millennials and young families moving in.

The word itself is a cause for debate because some people say gentrification reflects economic development, while others ask what the cost of that development truly is. In this edition of Medill Newsmakers, DePaul University professor Euan Hague, and Amie Sell, a community activist, explain what gentrification looks like in Pilsen and Logan Square.

VIDEO: SitStayRead improves its literacy program

By Courtney Dillard

Man’s best friend can also make a pretty good reading teacher. At least according to SitStayRead, a literacy program in Chicago Public Schools. It uses dogs to help kids improve their reading skills by having young people read books aloud to patient canine listeners.

Jamese Linton, a second grader at Milton Burson Math and Science Specialty School enjoys the weekly visits of the dogs each Wednesday. “We get to read, we get to write,” she said. “We always get to pet the dogs and give the dogs treats.”

This year the organization is partnering with Loyola University to introduce new curricula for its first-through-fourth grade programs.

In 2013, SitStayRead evaluated the success of the program in fluency, comprehension and written expression with the help of Loyola. They found that participating students improved their fluency scores at a rate 47.8 percent greater than students who did not participate in the program. But they also found the program did not impact written expression and comprehension scores.

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VIDEO: Chicago celebrates its 178th birthday

The Windy City turned 178 last week, and the Chicago History Museum threw a party to celebrate. Guests listened to music from the Latin School of Chicago concert band and had dessert from Eli’s Cheesecake. The party celebrated the city’s rich history by focusing on what makes Chicago unique.

“One of the reasons our history is so important to each of us is because our shared history is so accessible,” said Russell Lewis, chief historian of the Chicago History Museum.

All Illinois residents and children received free access to the museum as part of the celebration.

VIDEO: New United Center office building means new jobs on the Near West Side

By Courtney Dillard

Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the construction of a new office building for United Center employees last week. Construction of the new building will bring 300 jobs to the Near West Side. United Center officials say they are excited that they can create a better experience for fans, but they also hope to bring economic opportunity to the neighborhood.

VIDEO: Block Museum teaches Kashmir culture through art in new exhibit

By Courtney Dillard

Collecting Paradise,  a new exhibit at Northwestern University’s  Block Museum,  displays art from the Kashmir  region in South Asia. Robert Linrothe, an associate professor of art history at Northwestern, selected 44 paintings, manuscripts and sculptures for the show. The Block will also offer movie screenings, lectures and music showcases to complement the exhibit.

City of Chicago makes fruitful efforts to eliminate food deserts

Click the image above to see how grocery store choices change drastically by neighborhood.

Click the image above to see how grocery store choices change drastically by neighborhood.

Nia Arnold is a guidance clerk at one of Chicago Public Schools’ 11 selective enrollment high schools. The closest grocery store to her school has always been Jewel Osco, nearly three miles away. Two months ago Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market opened about four blocks away.

Before Wal-Mart opened, Arnold’s school was in one of the many food deserts on Chicago’s South Side. She says that even though there are healthy options available in and around the school, students still make unhealthy decisions.

“As soon as the bell rings, kids go to McDonald’s, Golden Fish and Chicken, or White Castle,” Arnold said. “Food desert or not, that’s a choice.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as “a census tract with a substantial share of residents who live in low-income areas that have low levels of access to a grocery store or healthy, affordable food retail outlet.”

WBEZ’s South Side reporter, Natalie Moore, says the USDA definition is problematic. “It doesn’t matter what your income is,” she said. “People with means are able to leave their neighborhoods and go elsewhere, but that doesn’t paint an accurate picture of what a food desert is and who lives there.”

The City of Chicago removes the low-income qualifier in its definition of food desert residents: “all Chicagoans living in a census block located more than a mile from a retail food establishment licensee with a business location larger than 10,000 square feet”

In 2013 Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that the number of low-income Chicago residents living in food deserts had decreased by 21 percent since 2011. He also laid out a plan to completely eliminate food deserts in the city by 2020 by opening new grocery stores, funding small business efforts and supporting urban farming.

Most of the city’s food deserts are in predominantly black West and South Side neighborhoods. Moore says this is not a coincidence. “Retailers have an aversion to the black dollar,” she said. “The demographics prove that it is a race issue, not just a class issue.”

Her observation fits the data. According to a study by Mari Gallagher, a food desert researcher in Chicago, 383,954 Chicagoans were living in food deserts in 2011. Seventy-seven percent of them were black.

In addition to high crime rates and percentages of households below the poverty line, there are higher instances of childhood obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure in Chicago food deserts.

In communities that have the most problems, like violence and unemployment, we’re seeing lack of grocery stores and lack of retail. All of these things are interconnected,” Moore said.

Healthier food at school

Though food options may be scarce in these communities, there is one healthy food option available for children: Chicago Public Schools.

Arnold says Chicago Public Schools is doing its part to eliminate food deserts in impoverished communities. This school year all CPS students are eligible for free breakfast and lunch at school.

“This program will allow all CPS students to focus on their studies without being distracted by hunger or worry about the stigma of free or reduced lunch,” said Barbara Byrd-Bennett, chief executive officer of CPS, in a news release.

Arnold’s school is also part of the “Smart Snacks in School” program. Since July schools that are part of the national school lunch program can only sell snacks in their vending machines that meet strict nutritional guidelines, swapping Oreos and Fritos for their healthier counterparts like Baked Cheetos and Popchips.

“Our cafeteria works with this vending machine company, so we have baked snacks. Kids don’t want to eat them. They sneak in chips to sell,” said Arnold. “The options are there, but they don’t take them.”

New grocery stores 

Since 2013 plans for new grocery stores have been the hallmark of progress to eliminate food deserts. This year Roundy’s, parent company of Mariano’s Fresh Markets, received $5 million in state bond proceeds from Gov. Pat Quinn to build five new grocery stores, four in Chicago food deserts. A lot at 87th Street and South Lake Shore Drive, the site of a former steel mill, is one of the confirmed locations, as is 39thStreet and King Drive in the Bronzeville neighborhood. Both stores are scheduled to open in 2016 and will create about 400 jobs each.

A new Whole Foods is slated to open in Englewood in 2016 as part of Mayor Emanuel’s plan to revitalize one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. The new store will serve as the anchor of 13-acre mixed-use site. The groundbreaking on the new Whole Foods location comes after openings in Detroit’s Midtown neighborhood and New Orleans’ Mid-City neighborhood–both with demographics similar to Englewood’s.

Some praise the company for moving out of its comfort zone by providing healthy food options in low-income areas, but others wonder how a brand known for costing a “whole paycheck” will be able to convince customers that the organic juice is worth the squeeze.

“Whole Foods isn’t going to hurt the people in Englewood,” Moore said. “There are ways to shop without spending a lot of money, so ultimately it’s giving Englewood residents one more choice. It’s going to end up being a regional South Side store.”

Moore says residents of South Side neighborhoods such as Beverly, Bridgeport and Chatham will frequent the new location.

Urban farming

Chicago’s urban farming movement has also gained traction in the past few years. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, urban farming is “the growing of plants or the raising of animals in and around cities.” Urban farming allows low-income community members to easily access fresher produce at lower prices.

“The more choices that people have are great. I also like the idea of turning vacant land into a positive-use space,” Moore said. “I don’t think that we are going to upend the way people eat and get their food.”

Urban farming creates options, but are more options enough to affect change?

Future Growing CEO Tim Blank is the creator of the Tower Garden, a vertical aeroponic gardening system. Tower Garden allows plants to grow soil-free in urban environments.

Future Growing currently has two projects in Chicago: the Salvation Army Rooftop Farm in Blue Island and the O’Hare International Airport Urban Garden, the world’s first vertical aeroponic food farm inside an airport terminal.

Blank’s Tower Garden gives local farmers the ability to thrive in city environments by growing up instead of out.

“The old greenhouse was a monoculture model where you grew one crop and shipped it everywhere,” he said. “To eliminate a food desert, local farmers have to be able to shift with market trends. Using less land and less water, we can transform the local food landscape.”

Future Growing also teaches farmers about the basics of urban gardening.

“Education is necessary for the movement to continue to grow,” he said. “Once people learn about the power of fresh vegetables, they will jump on the bandwagon. They just need to get educated.”

Moore agrees with Blank’s sentiments on the importance of education in the process of eliminating food deserts.

“There has to be an education component there. You just can’t put healthy food in a neighborhood and expect everyone to come. There have been lots of local efforts to educate people,” she said. “Whole Foods will do that. They did it in Detroit, and they said they will do it here.”

Not only do food desert residents need to educate themselves on healthy eating practices, City officials hoping to make a change also need to learn more about the situation.

“Some people probably find it very hard to believe that crappy corner stores, liquor stores and gas stations are the primary places where people have to shop,” Moore said. “We need an understanding of what these communities look like.”

Though progress has been made in eliminating Chicago’s food deserts, there is still work to do. The key to the success of Mayor Emanuel’s plan to eradicate food deserts by 2020 is making sure these programs have educational components and actually delivering on the big promises made by even bigger grocery stores.

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Evanston raises age to buy tobacco to 21, but some residents think it’s a drag

By Courtney Dillard

As of Nov. 8, all Evanston businesses must display Tobacco 21 signage.

As of Nov. 8, all Evanston businesses must display Tobacco 21 signage.

Evanston residents under the age of 21 will have to leave their city to buy their cigarettes from now on. Evanston is the first community in Illinois to ban the sale of tobacco products to anyone under the age of 21.

Thirty-four gas stations, convenience stores and drug stores in Evanston must comply with the age limit, which went into effect Nov. 8. Any employees under the age of 21 cannot sell tobacco products. Businesses that violate the law will be subject to fines up to $500.

“The aim of the ordinance is to become an obstacle. It’s not necessarily a ban,” said Carl Caneva, assistant director of the Evanston Health and Human Services department. “They can still get any kind of tobacco or nicotine product from a neighboring community. That’s well within their rights.”

The change is part of Tobacco 21, a public health movement with the goal of preventing teenage tobacco addiction by raising the age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21. “We know that 95 percent of all adult smokers begin and transition to regular smokers before they are 21,” said Dr. Donald Ziegler, chair of the Evanston Health Advisory Council, in a news release.

Caneva and members of the City Council said they hope Evanston residents under 21 will stop and think about whether they need a cigarette.

“Instead of being able to roll out of bed in Evanston, walk across the street and buy a tobacco product, now they have to get in their car and move out of town to get that product,” said Caneva.

Some Northwestern students said the new ordinance will not have the desired effect.

“People still smoke weed and do other drugs, and it’s illegal. Now they are raising the age, so you can just ask a friend, said Marcel Hanna, a 19-year-old Northwestern undergraduate student. “A lot of people have fake IDs for alcohol. By raising the age, you get the forbidden fruit issue.”

Hanna has cigarettes shipped to Evanston from Jordan, his native country, to save money. He also said there are not many smokers on campus, so the ordinance will only affect the small group of regular smokers between the ages of 18 and 21.

“I think it’s ridiculous. Kids are going to find what they want to find,” said Emily Nowell, a Northwestern graduate student. “If they have to go to the Howard [L] stop, then they will.”

Evanston officials should let the city be more of a college town, she said.

Evanston is also known for its strict alcohol policies. Last year Whole Foods approached the city with a proposal for a “sip and shop” model for the Green Bay Road location scheduled to open next August. The concept would allow customers to drink wine or beer while they shop.

Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl is wary of the idea. In city council meetings, she has asked for alcohol consumption to be limited to certain areas of the store in order to better reflect the values of Evanston community members and alleviate concerns of overconsumption and underage drinking. No decision has been made regarding the future of the store.

Some Evanston store owners said they would rather not sell cigarettes to people under the age of 21 and are not concerned about profit.

Amy Akta, a cashier at the Citgo gas station on Green Bay Road, said Tobacco 21 is a good idea.

“Young kids do not buy much anyway. They don’t have a lot money,” she said. “Forget about the business. Society and health are the main things.”

Caneva said that business owners should not be concerned about Tobacco 21 because similar laws have not hurt business in the past.

“I think it is very much the same way that people were arguing when we outlawed tobacco in restaurants and bars,” he said. “The argument was that they would lose revenue because people who smoke wouldn’t come out to their restaurants, and I don’t think that’s been the case.”

Evanston joins the ranks of nearly 40 other cities with similar ordinances, including New York City; Healdsburg, California; and Needham, Massachusetts.

The issue of tobacco usage has been highly visible this year. In February CVS announced it would stop selling tobacco products in all stores nationwide. The ordinance went into effect Oct. 1. Caneva cited CVS as a success story in the fight against tobacco addiction.

“The goal is to put that obstacle in place that may make people make a different choice,” he said.

Chicago works to close the breast cancer race gap

By Courtney Dillard

Attendees listen to the findings of the study at last week’s Beyond October event at the Chicago Urban League.

Attendees listen to the findings of the study at last week’s Beyond October event at the Chicago Urban League.

Now, a new study shows the gap has narrowed significantly. In 2007 black women in Chicago were dying of breast cancer at a rate 62 percent greater than white women. That disparity dropped suddenly to 40 percent between 2008 and 2010, which translates to 25 black women’s lives saved.The mortality gap in breast cancer between black women and white women in Chicago has decreased for the first time in 20 years. Up until 2007 it increased every year.

“We’ve saved 25 women, 25 mothers and 25 friends,” said Teena Francois-Blue, associate director of community initiative for the Metropolitan Chicago Breast Cancer Task Force.

A study released last week at the Chicago Urban League outlined the inconsistency of treatment across the state of Illinois, as well as plans for the future.

The study, conducted by the task force, found that the quality of mammograms and treatment had a more prominent effect on the racial disparity than genetics. Similar metropolitan cities, like New York and Baltimore, have a lower mortality disparity rate. San Francisco has no disparity, the study said. “There are two issues here. There’s access and there’s quality. They go hand in hand,” said Dr. Anne Marie Murphy, director of the task force. “There’s no point in accessing poor quality, and there’s no point in having high quality that’s not actually available.”

The neighborhoods affected most by the disparity are on the South and West sides of the city. Seventeen of those 20 neighborhoods are predominantly African-American. Only one Breast Imaging Center of Excellence, Advocate Trinity Hospital, is in a high breast cancer mortality community.

“Most women assume that they are getting a high quality mammogram no matter where they go,” said Murphy. “But the reality is that not all mammograms are created equal.”

The Task Force partnered with the Illinois Department of Public Health to collect data about treatment quality from mammography centers in the Chicago area. Of the 160 mammography centers that submitted data, only two met all 11 quality benchmarks. Facilities that are public providers were less likely to meet the benchmarks. Though the findings for all the centers are available collectively, specific data sets are confidential.

“These studies give us concrete data so we can see exactly where we need to focus our efforts, and as a result, we’re going to have a whole bunch of providers improving quality,” said Julie Hamos, director of the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services.

The Task Force plans to offer free expert training to mammography technologists funded by a grant from the Coleman Foundation. They are also working on a third- party evaluation of three pilot hospitals in collaboration with Northwestern’s Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center to be completed next spring.

Dr. Bechara Choucair, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, announced the state’s commitment to using big data to target women who are at high risk for breast cancer. Earlier this year the state used microtargeting to send postcards urging 5,000 women at high risk for breast cancer to get mammograms at Mercy Hospital, a designated Center of Excellence.

“We can’t roll a hospital into a neighborhood, but we can navigate women to quality care,” said Dr. David Ansell., president of the task force.

Though the mortality gap has decreased, the question of high quality, accessible breast cancer treatment still has not been answered.

“I have seen over the years that our health care system is not an equitable system. Not everybody accesses the best care,” said Murphy. “We’ve really been interested in spending our time making the system a little bit fairer.”