Looking Back, Thinking Ahead

Be sure to complete the LEARN Coalition’s online survey of residents’ wishes for the new library g before Monday’s community meeting with  CHA and CPL officials and the alderman to discuss the new library-senior housing building.  The meeting is Monday, March 30, at 6:30 p.m. at the Warren Park Field House.

Monday’s meeting to discuss the new library-senior housing building to be built at Pratt and Western should be the first of a series of meetings exploring what the residents of West Ridge want and need in our new library. On Monday we’ll be discussing the results of the LEARN Coalition’s resident survey as well as opinions and suggestions from the audience.

But I’ve been thinking we should also take a step back, review how we got to this point, and where we go from here. There’s a lot more at stake than a library.

Many individuals and groups have worked for years to make this library a reality. Last summer dedicated volunteers from the LEARN Coalition worked overtime to gather more than 2,000 signatures on a petition for a new library—proof that West Ridge residents were determined to succeed in this endeavor.

The sudden announcement last October that the Mayor had agreed to present the community not only with a new library but also with a small number of apartments for seniors on the floors above was completely unexpected. This concept has had some success in Europe for nearly ten years, and has been introduced to other American cities. In New York, for example, the library was combined with affordable housing. . Cornelius, Oregon, funded its project, which includes a library, community space, and senior apartments, with federal block grants and lottery funds. Willowbrook, in Los Angeles County, California, combined a library, senior housing, and an employment center; 22 of the 100 apartments have been set aside for tenants with medical needs because of a new hospital a block away.

The mayor’s idea dazzled. But did it solve one problem only to create a few others? Let’s review a few things that may not have received enough attention.


First, we cannot underestimate the damage resulting from removing the last remaining cultural asset from the struggling south end of the ward, home to the less affluent, less powerful, new immigrants, refugees, and many families and retirees of modest means. There are relatively few private homes and condos compared to the north end, and the residential market is of increasingly dubious stability. The lack of  investment, coupled with the staggering economic and housing deterioration resulting from the alderman’s neglect of the area, is rapidly creating slum-like conditions in certain pockets of the south side of the 50th. Gangbangers are moving in, because it’s easy for them to exploit the conditions created by absentee landlords and residents without work. Left unaddressed, this social disorder will spread to the ward’s more affluent areas. Even if the current south end is chopped from the 50th in the 2021 ward remap, its problems will not go away.


Second, West Ridge desperately needs a cultural center. Let’s consider whether a cultural center or senior housing is the better fit with the library building.

The 50th is the only ward in the City without any movie theater, performance space, art gallery, or music venue. There is no public art. No pop-up galleries. We are losing our common architectural heritage to property owners who neither understand nor appreciate it. Beautiful terra cotta building facades are defaced by mailboxes, signage, and other insults. There are no murals representing the vibrancy of our neighborhood. Nor is there any official recognition, encouragement, or support of the many creative individuals who call West Ridge home. Other neighborhoods celebrate their musicians, dncers, writers, actors, sculptors, painters, and performance artists. So should we.

The alderman has announced she will give $10,000 of the ward’s $1,32M menu money toward the City’s 2017 Year of Public Art program.  Maybe her interest in arts and culture will continue, and she will see the value of having a performing and cultural arts center as part of what is sure to be the neighborhood showpiece.

We already know the old library will never be repurposed as a cultural center because there is no parking for patrons. That was the reason given for moving the library. So what do we do with the old library building?

Third, affordable housing for families and seniors would be a solid investment in the south end of the ward.  Turning the existing library into a senior center with several floors of housing above would help anchor the south end of the ward. More importantly, it would provide senior residents with easier access to grocery shopping and options for bus transportation, two things lacking at Pratt and Western. There’s more than enough room in the existing layout for a fitness center, computer room, communal kitchen and dining area,  game rooms, discussion centers, classrooms, and an auditorium for visiting performers and lecturers. Several floors of housing above and it would provide a safe space and anchor for the south end of the ward. There’s even a vacant lot on the north that could be taken by eminent domain and ued for parking, there’s an employee lot behind the building, and the Republic Bank parking lot is just a block away.

The building should allow residents to have pets. Most CHA buildings don’t, but this ignores dozens of studies that show that living with and taking care of pets helps to foster independence, helps pet-owners to connect with others, and relieves the loneliness of aging. The close bond people feel with their pets is especially important as we age. Pet ownership also promotes fitness—somebody has to walk that dog!

Public housing for older adults is stuck in a time warp. There are many options today for senior living, if only our political leaders would pay attention. Some older adults are lonely in or unable to manage large houses because their kids have moved away, spouses have died, and the financials and maintenance burdens are no longer tenable. Some might benefit from home-sharing arrangements that match them with compatible roommates, sometimes contemporaries, sometimes younger people, sometimes a mix, restoring vibrancy to a home with a family of one’s choosing. Multigenerational  living arrangements, for example, Nathalie Salmon House in Rogers Park, provide a safe, supportive environment for all ages.

Some senor citizens lack awareness of programs that provide free or low-cost repairs to their properties. These programs do exist, and help seniors maintain their properties.

Older adults today live active, fulfilling lives. I was dismayed at November’s community meeting to hear the alderman note that there’d be a bingo room in the senior husing. Seriously?  Older adults enjoy book clubs, political and philosophical discussions, art, cooking together, computer games, and a host of other activities. The notion that “programming” has to be provided for us old folks is just plain wrong. We can entertain ourselves, thank you. Let me note, by the way, that the Chinatown Library, cited as a model by the City, does not program events for adults and seniors separately.  A bonsai tree doesn’t care how old the person tending it is, so why categorize the activity as “adult” or “senor”?

It’s also worth noting that the south end of the ward has several vacant buildings and vacant lots that could become affordable multigenerational housing if only the powers that be would recognize both the need and the demand for such housing—and get busy working to develop abandoned properties. Many families, priced out of apartments of their own, have doubled up; it is not uncommon to find 12-15 people sharing a two-bedroom apartment. Homeowners may not realize that the median rent in Chicago for a one-bedroom apartment is $1,500, a price out of reach for many young families and seniors, the unemployed, underemployed, and new immigrants. According to the Census Bureau, more than 15% of the residents of West Ridge live below poverty level (below $25,000 for a family of four).

Fourth, the completion of this building is timed to coincide with the 2019 elections. We don’t have to accept that timetable.  As I’ve repeated over the past few months, we should take whatever time we need to get this right.

The primary need is for a library. Let’s take as much time and use as many floors as necessary to make sure our library meets the community’s needs and gives some space to grow. Then let’s consider whether senior housing or a cultural center is a better fit.

And if we’re told it’s this building or nothing?

No library, no votes. Say it, mean it, do it.

Citizens settle for what they’re given rather than what they want because they elect officials who tell them what they’ll get rather than listen to what they say.

Finally, there’s the question of economic development on Western Avenue. I’m going to tackle this tomorrow, but let me say here that I believe we should not use precious library space for a coffee bar, coffeeshop, snack bar, or vending area. Instead, let’s look at the desperate need for economic development on Western and determine what kinds of businesses will best support the library and its patrons. The alderman has said she “hopes” the library will attract economic development.

Hoping hasn’t worked in the rest of the ward. It won’t work here.

Frankly, the alderman doesn’t lead unless she’s pushed. She needs to be pushed on this.









4 thoughts on “Looking Back, Thinking Ahead

    • You’re right, as usual, Dan. It looks as though we can’t reject the concept but I’m hoping we can impact the design. I’ve struggled to find something I like about it, but I just can’t find anything. It’s all about style, when a library needs to be about substance.


  1. Wow! You have done some great research and thinking about this. Your suggestions for community use spaces (community center, movie theater, etc.) are terrific. Love your forward thinking ideas about intergenerational housing rather than segregating elders into ta separate space. Yes… Elders do not just want to play bingo… They are alive and making meaning of life. There is no upper age limit to adult development! At any age people prefer engaging genuine relationships with others. Elders often have much to offer and they are still learning.
    Do you bring people together to think and vision together about what west rogers park might become?
    Thanks for your energy and for creating a community forum to share ideas along with inquiry.


    • Gretchen, thank you for such a thoughtful reply. There are many people who have been coming together to think and dream about what our neighborhood might be, and I’m delighted you want to join the conversation. You are probably familiar with the West Rogers Park Community Organization, which has been envisioning and creating positive change in the neighborhood for several decades now. It is undergoing its own transformation and is actively seeking new members. There will be an announcement in early April about how to join. Several neighborhood groups came together to form LEARN (Library Enhancement and Renewal Network), which has tried hard to work with the alderman on community input for the new library. That group will continue to expand in hopes of having an impact on other ward issues. There is a group in formation that is determined to bring residents into the sphere of ward-wide economic development; there isn’t a commercial street in the 50th that isn’t larded with vacancies. As meetings are scheduled, I will post them on my Events page and on social media. Please feel free to share so that word spreads and we engage as many residents as possible. And if you attend tonight’s meeting, please let me know you’re there. I’ll be in front, taking notes and photos! Thanks much for taking the time to write. I really hope you join in these ongoing conversations and actions to make West Ridge everything it should and can be. Kathleen


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