Twelve years ago, when the late Gary Comer visited his former elementary school, he was brought to a room where ten new computers sat unused because the school lacked the funds to power them. Today, Paul Revere Elementary is outfitted with a wireless network, new software programs, and a $10 million investment.
Comer, the son of a railroad employee, graduated from Paul Revere Elementary in 1942. In 1963, he started Lands’ End Clothing Company, and in 2002, he sold it to Sears for $1.9 billion. Of that fortune, $100 million has since been poured into developing and revitalizing his childhood neighborhood.
Revere School Community, part of Chicago’s 5th Ward, is a 15-block neighborhood in the eastern part of Greater Grand Crossing. It encompasses Revere Elementary and the surrounding residential areas, and is home to 2,500 people.
According to recent U.S. Census data, over one-third of Greater Grand Crossing’s 38,619 residents live at or below the poverty level; 91.3 percent of the elementary school students participate in the city’s free and reduced-priced lunch program, live in foster homes within the community, or both; and the high school graduation rate is less than 50 percent. In the Revere community, the median household income is $27,916, while the median salary in the Chicago metropolitan area is $46,911. The rates of crime, delinquency, unemployment, and residential instability are also significantly higher in Revere than in Chicago as a whole.
Revere, like many parts of Greater Grand Crossing, was a working-class neighborhood built around the railroad. The quiet streets of Revere are marked by a mixture of time-worn single-family houses, scattered vacant lots, and small parks. Many of the houses are abandoned, windows boarded and doors held shut by vines. But now, after a $27 million investment in new Revere housing, a third building style dots the neighborhood. Scattered throughout Revere are sixty modern saltbox houses. The contrast of new and old in Revere is jarring.
After his visit to Revere in 1998, Comer was rattled, and decided to act immediately. Greg Mooney, now president of the Gary Comer Youth Center, was one of the first people Comer recruited to help facilitate conversations between the community members and developers. “Gary started asking about the social issues that parents and students encounter in the neighborhood. The more he learned, the more he wanted to support the community,” says Mooney. Over a series of Saturday breakfast meetings, residents began working with a team of professionals to organize around issues in the neighborhood. Three years later, in 2001, the Comer Science and Education Fund (CSEF) was established.
Comer was not only inspired to compensate for deficits in the community; he also made an effort to capitalize on its assets.
At the time of Comer’s first visit to Revere, Arthur Robinson was a teacher at Paul Revere Elementary. Robinson also ran an after-school program, the South Shore Drill Team, which caught Comer’s attention. Robinson founded the drill team in 1980 with four original members in order to offer an activity with regimented discipline and a vibrant community as an alternative to gang life. Now, over 300 students are involved with the team. “Gary was inspired to build a practice space that would be South Shore Drill Team’s home,” says Mooney. Eight years and $35 million later, the South Shore Drill Team had a new practice space, and Revere had a new youth center.
In some ways, the Gary Comer Youth Center, on 72nd Street and South Chicago Avenue, resembles a colorful car dealership. It is a building that advertises itself, with red-and-blue-checkered walls and a large glass pillar resembling a smokestack with the center’s name scrolling across the top. It’s no wonder the Revere streets are quiet, as around 300 children spend their afternoons in the youth center each day. Another 300 high school students from Gary Comer College Preparatory High School are temporarily housed in GCYC until they move into a new $7 million building across the street in June.
In 2007, the Comer Foundation hired the Neighborhood Capital Institute, a collaborative, mission-driven Chicago development firm, to assess the needs of the neighborhood. This was a first for both parties. “What we tested at Revere was driven by the residents’ stated values: how do you start looking at any neighborhood—with at least one school—as a ‘learning-centered neighborhood?’” says Ruth Wuorenma, the president of NCI. “How do you organize a neighborhood to have a campus feel? To reinforce, in the physical environment, that education spaces are priority areas for the community and can be a cohesive force?”
On any given weekday around 3pm, Paul Revere Elementary School finishes its school day. Kids pour out of the building, lingering in small groups against the fence and near parked cars. Teachers tell them to move on. While some go home, many travel in large groups across the street to the GCYC. Mooney explains that this transition from school to after-school is the most important in the day.
“Chicago has a shorter school day than any other urban district,” says Mooney. “There is an overarching need for a first-rate education program. But in order to have a robust program, where students are progressing, education must extend well beyond the school day.” It is the connection between school and after-school that will tie a “campus feeling” together in Revere.
Once a more cohesive community—one centered around education—begins to form, the next step is creating education programs. Bill Gerstein, a former principal at South Shore High School who recruited students from Revere, believes in workforce development. “Change really happens around the role of schools and workforce development strategies. You somehow have to get people to earn money. And the only way to get students to earn more money is to have an education concentrating on developing the necessary skills,” says Gerstein.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment among 16- to 19-year-olds in the United States is 26.4 percent. Unemployment among black youth, however, has reached 43.8 percent. Without jobs, youth are disconnected from business networks and rapidly lose social capital as well. Unemployment is not just the absence of income, but also of an informal education that is integral to creating a sustainable community.
The most recent investment in Revere is the new charter high school, the Gary Comer College Preparatory High School. GCCP is one of nine campuses in the Noble Network of Charter Schools, each running a rigorous curriculum and discipline system created to prepare students for college education. However, the risks are high. “Noble Street Schools have very high standards. They have really good numbers. There are a lot of kids who just don’t care about that. And what are you going to do with them? Can’t just sweep them under the rug,” says Gerstein. If college prep schools get their students into college, it’s a success. If they don’t, what will make them employable?
These are the kinds of questions that the Comer Foundation asks. CSEF has invested $2 million in employment training programs in the Revere community. They also have youth and adult classes on subjects like computer programming, home budgeting, and managing debt.
“Gary’s interest was always to be the seed capital, recognizing that there needed to be other groups investing in the projects,” says Mooney. Comer has certainly catalyzed interest in the neighborhood. CSEF, after acquiring land for $2.5 million, is now working with the City of Chicago to bring the 5th Ward its first public library. They are also working with the Chicago Park District on rehabilitating parks in Revere.
It’s an open question whether this kind of change is imitable in communities that don’t benefit from someone like Comer. “When I was at South Shore, we used to ask Larry Ellison to donate to the school,” Gerstein reflects. Ellison, the multi-billionaire who founded Oracle, attended South Shore High School in the early 1960s. Ellison never responded to Gerstein’s requests. “Revere is a self-contained area. That’s why they call it Pocket Town. I don’t know any other place like it.”
It is Friday afternoon, 3:15pm, and Elgin Smith, one of three art teachers at GCYC and a recent graduate from the School of the Art Institute, begins his lesson for the afternoon. He is teaching Abstract Expressionism. Smith plays a variety of Michael Jackson hits, with each tempo meant to inspire a brushstroke. As his six young students dance and paint, across the hallway, a group of Gary Comer College Prep students clad in khakis and polo shirts walk silently in a perfect line to their classroom. At 6pm, the South Shore Drill Team begins their nightly practice in the gym, and a healthy dinner is served to those children staying late.
“Life is lived in neighborhoods,” says Wuorenma. “The best thing you can do for a community is to help them create a nest. A nest is what planners would call a ‘great place,’ where each piece strengthens the others. It is a place you feel safe. A place you can come home to.” Revere’s future can’t be predicted. But Mooney seems to have it right. “You can never meet all of the needs. We try and be as responsive as possible, but invariably—the needs are far greater than the resources available.” After twelve years, and a total $100 million in investments, it seems as though Revere has begun to build a new nest on top of old tracks.