Our Chicago: A Blueprint for Better Communities

Read the original article at The Atlantic: Our Chicago: A Blueprint for Better Communities.

COMMUNITY. Until the 21st century, the word tended to refer to a physical location: your town, your neighborhood, your block. For many today, community includes identity, history, and culture, and the familiarity and security gained by participating in local civic life and taking responsibility for a neighborhood’s well-being.

In Chicago, neighborhoods on the South and West sides are prime examples of the ever-evolving nature of American communities. Here, longtime residents are mostly priced out of areas they and their family before them have built over many decades, unable to afford the limited inventory of houses on the market and therefore denied the opportunity to build wealth through homeownership. The effects of now-illegal housing policies reverberate across generations: In today’s Chicago, only 35 percent of Black families and 43 percent of Latino families own their homes, compared to 72 percent of white families. As housing opportunities dwindle, local business and community development are choked off too. Only about 13 percent of small businesses in Chicago are owned by people of color.

But there are signs of progress. Helping realize the heights that communities can reach when the needs of citizens are prioritized, JPMorgan Chase is investing in residents building and maintaining housing development, community investment, and entrepreneurship opportunities in Chicago’s South and West side neighborhoods and nearby Back of the Yards. Residents in these neighborhoods are coming together, building communities that will endure for generations. At the forefront of the movement are three visionary leaders—each realizing a better future for one of the country’s most storied cities.

Chapter One


TURN ANY CORNER IN PILSEN and you’re greeted with vibrant murals that tell stories of revolution and resilience. Home to a majority Mexican American population, eloteros, or street vendors, push Mexican corn and paletas (ice pops). Like many Chicago neighborhoods it’s a community characterized by hope and perseverance, bursting with personality.

The influx of Mexican residents in 1960 marked a new chapter for Pilsen, one defined by dramatic cultural and economic shifts. Pilsen’s tax base shrunk, reducing the city’s capital for schools and infrastructure and triggering disinvestment. Pilsen was effectively a “credit desert,” where restrictive lending practices left families with limited access to mainstream credit. The situation rendered homeownership nearly impossible.

At the time, Pilsen was struggling. Poverty and a shortage of resources fostered increased crime, which further impeded meaningful investment in the community.

But Pilsen’s downturn spurred radical innovation among the community’s most passionate residents. Raul Raymundo, a Mexican immigrant who grew up in Pilsen, saw every vacant lot as an opportunity.

Raymundo knew that home purchase lending creates the kind of capital that can transform communities. In Pilsen, limited access to living-wage jobs, affordable housing, and bank loans meant families were trapped in a cycle of poverty.

In 1990, with just $30,000 in seed money from local religious leaders, the then 25-year-old created The Resurrection Project (TRP), an organization focused on transforming abandoned lots into affordable housing and hosting workshops on how to build credit and buy property.

Since 1995, Raymundo and The Resurrection Project have secured $537 million in investments to construct homes to own and rent throughout Chicago’s southwest neighborhoods and western suburbs. Focusing on cost effective solutions such as modular, manufactured housing built in less time than traditional new homes, Raymundo helped jump-start a new chapter in Pilsen’s history book, one that would have cascading effects across generations of Pilsen residents.

Today, the organization is looking to scale by constructing modular housing in the Back of the Yards community, a majority Latino neighborhood just south of Pilsen.

Raymundo’s work at TRP has not been easy—or cheap. A $7.2 million philanthropic commitment from JPMorgan Chase has lightened the load, and will aid Raymundo and TRP in building or preserving more than 150 affordable housing residences throughout the Chicago area over the next three years. It will also support new financial education programs and provide lending solutions for both first-time homebuyers and long-term homeowners (second mortgage loans and rehab loans, for example).

That support is a portion of the firm’s $30 billion commitment aimed at dismantling the structural barriers Black, Hispanic, and Latino communities have faced on the road toward building wealth.

For its part, JPMorgan Chase endeavors to solve for “the root cause of inequities, going beyond symptoms and institutionalizing change,” says Joanna Trotter, executive director and senior program officer of global philanthropy at JPMorgan Chase. That’s why, Trotter says, the firm seeks partners that are implementing systems-level change for the communities they serve.

As the leader of an organization that has been active in Pilsen since 1990, JPMorgan Chase trusts and invests in leaders like Raymundo. Trotter calls him “an important truth-teller and innovator,” citing TRP’s longtime leadership in developing and preserving affordable rental housing and homeownership opportunities, creating a community development financial institution (CDFI), and bringing responsive financial products to the community among the efforts that make him a both a valuable strategic partner and a fount of community knowledge.

“We have committed to targeting our investments in a way that benefits Chicago’s South and West side communities,” says Trotter. “But how we do that is informed by local organizations and leaders doing the work.”

Raymundo’s vision helped create growth opportunities for his community. Now developers see Pilsen as fertile ground for profit, prompting increases in property value and cost of living. Since purchasing her home in 1990, TRP homeowner Rosa Perez’s house has doubled in value due to this rapid change.

“Homeownership has historically been one of the most important pathways to wealth building in the United States, but it has not been so easily attainable for Black, Hispanic, and Latino people,” says Trotter. “We must invest in new ways of making homeownership attainable and sustainable for households of color. This helps build a stronger economy for us all.” According to Trotter, some of the more promising solutions include TRP’s work in manufactured housing, as well as its partnership with local government to lower the cost of acquiring and preparing land for high-quality, low-cost homes.

While critical, homeownership is just one part of community reinvestment. The vitality of a community is dependent on the availability of essential amenities: accessible medical care facilities, grocery stores, and community gathering spaces, to name a few.

It’s a reality Auburn Gresham, a 20-minute drive south of Pilsen, knows well.

Chapter Two


COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT IS KEY for a neighborhood to thrive. In low-income communities like Auburn Gresham, community development is scarce, creating a lack of opportunity for residents to grow and sustain wealth. Auburn Gresham is a majority Black neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. In the 1920s, it was a bustling metropolitan community with schools, churches, and locally owned and operated grocery stores and businesses. In the late 1960s, after restrictive housing policies were outlawed and Black people settled in Auburn Gresham, white residents left the neighborhood. Businesses and other resources followed.

Auburn Gresham is 95 percent Black. The community is proud and grounded in its history; its sidewalks are lined with West African Adinkra symbols. But community resources are in short supply: Residents must travel outside of the community for medical care and community centers. That dearth of available services lowers the value and the quality of life within Auburn Gresham, creating obstacles to wealth generation and stability.

In 2017, the community published the Auburn Gresham quality-of-life plan, guided by three simple questions: What did Auburn Gresham used to be? What is it today? What might it be tomorrow? The report called for the construction of a wide range of amenities, such as banks, coffee shops, pharmacies, and fresh-produce markets.

Walking into an empty building on 79th Street, a smile stretches across Carlos Nelson’s face. This is the future home of the Auburn Gresham Healthy Lifestyle Hub (HLH), a project Carlos, CEO of the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation (GAGDC), has been dreaming of since 2016. GAGDC, founded in 2001 in response to rapid disinvestment in the area, is at the forefront of the HLH. The organization works to foster and promote revitalization of low- to moderate-income communities.

One of the Adinkra symbols found in Auburn Gresham is Mmere dane, meaning “time changes.” As Nelson and GAGDC look forward to opening the HLH in a building that has been vacant for 25 years, the phrase rings true. The HLH will house medical facilities, a sit-down restaurant, a Black-owned pharmacy, a teaching kitchen, and plenty of open space for community members to convene. The medical facilities are expected to treat more than 30,000 patients per year.

Nelson hopes the hub is the beginning of a new chapter, for both Auburn Gresham (which he calls the “crown jewel of the South Side”) and the organization he’s spent his life growing. Once a two-person operation, the organization has grown into a comprehensive community development organization employing 40 full-time and part-time staff focused on health, education, youth development, housing, and seniors services.

The HLH, an $18 million project, was made possible, in part, by a $14.5 million equity investment from JPMorgan Chase, a longtime supporter of GAGDC, via the New Markets Tax Credit initiative, which helps economically distressed communities attract private capital by providing investors with a federal tax credit. It’s an example of the kind of strategic projects the firm supports as a part of its $30 billion Racial Equity Commitment for a stronger, more inclusive economy.

Nelson is proud that his personal bank is also an investor in his ambitious community development efforts. He first engaged the institution through his participation in a leadership workshop hosted by Prosperity Now, an organization focused on creating a more equitable economy. JPMorgan Chase is the seed funder of Prosperity Now’s Racial Wealth Divide Initiative, aiming to address the resource and capacity disparities that exist between nonprofits led by people of color and those led by white people.

Since connecting with JPMorgan Chase through the program, Nelson says the firm has furthered the work of GAGDC as a whole and made him a better leader. The bank has provided Nelson and GAGDC with networking and fundraising opportunities as well as management-skill training. He says the firm has been instrumental in furthering GAGDC’s “bold vision and audacious aspirations.”

Standing in the 60,000-square-foot space formerly occupied by a furniture store, Nelson daydreams about the light that will pour into the HLH from its ample windows. The space is a testament to the possibilities of public, private, and philanthropic partnership: In addition to JPMorgan Chase’s commitment, the HLH was supported by a number of city grants and donations (Whirlpool and Kohler donated appliances for the bathrooms and offices, and the teaching kitchen is funded by the Chicago Bears).

GAGDC has invested countless hours and dollars into stimulating a thriving local economy that prioritizes community ownership and participation—the hub itself is expected to create more than 150 jobs for local residents. The HLH has also kick-started the process to bring a new metro station to Auburn Gresham, opening up transportation options for local residents and giving the greater area an opportunity to patronize the community’s budding businesses.

GAGDC believes that when people in the community win, Auburn Gresham wins. JPMorgan Chase’s commitment to community development is helping to increase the value of homes and the quality of life in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood.

But a self-sustaining community also requires a thriving local economy, fueled by resident-owned, well-resourced small businesses. Just three miles northwest of Auburn Gresham, in the Englewood neighborhood, JPMorgan Chase is investing in visionary entrepreneurs leading the way.

Chapter Three


IN THE 1950s, Englewood’s commercial retail corridor along 63rd Street generated upward of $150 million a year (the equivalent of $1.35 billion today). Anchored by a department store that employed more than 400 Chicagoans, Englewood’s retail center was second only to State Street, the popular corridor in the city’s downtown area.

Just as in Auburn Gresham, Englewood’s businesses were shuttered as the demographics of the community changed. Property values plummeted, and the population fell from 90,000 in the 1930s to just below 24,000 today. Now Black people comprise 92 percent of Englewood, yet only 20 percent of them are business owners. Residents regularly seek resources and amenities in other parts of Chicago.

Since property is the most common form of collateral put up against a business loan in the United States, the low homeownership in Englewood perpetuates the lack of local businesses. In this neighborhood, 76 percent of housing units are rented and only two percent of Chicago businesses are Black-owned.

A lifelong resident of Chicago, Deon Lucas always wanted to be an entrepreneur. His success as an architect strengthened the urge to start his own firm, and after a conversation with Felicia Slaton-Young, the executive director of the local Chamber of Commerce, Lucas founded architectural firm E.G. Woode. He helps fellow entrepreneurs in the area create unique brick-and-mortar spaces, providing resources that would be all but inaccessible to those entrepreneurs otherwise.

Lucas’s approach to business is unique: He takes money generated from leasing and sales and reinvests it into developing other small businesses.

Lucas was one of the first beneficiaries of the Entrepreneurship of Color Fund, developed by JPMorgan Chase and a network of investors, foundations, and Community Development Financial Institutions. The fund provides entrepreneurs from historically underserved communities—including Black, Latino, and Hispanic—with access to both capital and technical assistance and made it possible for Lucas to purchase the 4,000-square-foot center that is now E.G. Woode’s first location.

“Businesses like E.G. Woode are essential,” says Trotter of JPMorgan Chase. “By creating a space for business owners who live in the community, care about the community, and own the property, they are making local control and shared ownership possible. These businesses are invested in and accountable to their neighborhoods.”

Since its launch in 2015, the Entrepreneurship of Color Fund (EOCF) has supported more than 2,500 small businesses, deploying $119 million in loans across nine metro areas. In 2022 alone, EOCF loaned more than $8 million to some 430 business borrowers in Chicago.

E.G. Woode is home to four Black-owned businesses: barbershop Powell’s, consignment shop Marie | Wesley, design firm Beehyyve, and Momentum Coffee, the neighborhood’s first and only Black-owned coffee shop. At the center, Lucas also offers business development tools and marketing strategies for local entrepreneurs. His future projects include an E.G. Woode Food Hub, which will house two sit-down restaurants as well as a training kitchen concept called Englewood Kitchen.

Lucas says JPMorgan Chase’s investment has been integral to his business’s success. Beyond financial support, Lucas says the bank has elevated him in other areas, too, connecting him to people and institutions that are helping him reach new heights for his business.

That multipronged approach to small-business investment is strategic, providing necessary support beyond the initial surge of capital to address the deep-seated challenges faced by entrepreneurs of color.

“Businesses of color often do not enjoy the same access to networks and mentorship that would unlock their true potential,” Trotter says. “JPMorgan Chase brings a multifaceted approach to provide access to capital through responsive and affordable lending, markets that will help them grow, and strong management tools that will sustain them over the long run.”

There’s still a lot of work to be done. While Chicago is a complex metropolis with layers of history and challenges, the work Raymundo, Nelson, and Lucas are doing is proof that thriving small business ecosystems, along with expanded homeownership opportunities and community development projects, are the key to achieving an economic comeback in neighborhoods across the city. Communities excel when local leaders and residents are supported by both the public sector and equity-driven initiatives like those organized by JPMorgan Chase, ultimately fostering the kind of sustainable progress and inclusive growth that echoes across generations.

Cover Photograph by Akilah Townsend

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