Transforming a City, Block by Block

The movement to strategically improve our region from the inside out requires efforts big and small, and many improvements can begin right at home, as one Transform Rockford program is finding out.

Do you live in a great neighborhood? Cira Richardson believes you do – and it doesn’t matter if you’re East or West, inner-city or suburban. All have something to offer.

As program director of Great Neighborhoods, a nonprofit that’s part of Transform Rockford’s movement to strategically improve our region, Richardson encourages a new paradigm.

“Some people think we’re coming in and saying your neighborhood isn’t great and we’re here to make it great,” says Richardson. “We always say you have a great neighborhood. Now, let’s make it even better.”

Great Neighborhoods is built on a simple premise: Support residents and neighborhood associations as they pursue collective goals, and in the process help them to identify and capitalize on their strengths. It’s a process that involves networking, strategic planning and empowering people.

With more than a decade of experience in social services, Richardson is wary of coming in and directing the show. Rather, she wants to empower residents, businesses and nonprofit institutions – churches, Scout troops, charities – to take ownership of where they live, work and serve. She’s trying to reverse the mentality where people sweep in saying, “this is what we can do to you.”

“Has anybody stopped and asked the neighbors, ‘Is this what you want?” she says. “People tend to come in and say, ‘We’re fixing this, or this program’s coming in and we think it’ll be good for you.’ We turn that whole paradigm around and say, ‘What do you need? What do you want?’ We are the platform for their voice.”

The Rockford area has roughly 140 neighborhoods, with about 40 active associations. As Richardson makes connections, she helps neighborhoods to identify, collect and mobilize their assets – and everyone has them. Maybe it’s architecture, history or the people themselves. Maybe it’s a roadway, a business district or a major attraction. Such assets provide leverage when addressing deeper problems like blight and crime. Sometimes the hardest battle, at first, is convincing people to see the positive.

“When you talk about peoples’ homes, where people live, some of those conversations can get a little sensitive, especially if you don’t live in a stable, well-resourced neighborhood, or you feel like you don’t live in a great neighborhood,” says Richardson. “How do you encourage people and inspire hope if people are like, ‘Look where I live’? It can get tricky sometimes.”

And yet, good things are happening. In the Keith Creek area, bounded by Charles Street and Woodruff Avenue, 11th and 24th streets, residents recently held a block party and planted a neighborhood sign with help from Great Neighborhoods, the City and the Keith Creek Neighborhood Association. Across the river, in the Coronado Haskell area immediately north of downtown, neighbors are tackling urban blight and hosting social events. To accomplish their goals, they’ve teamed up with the nonprofit Jeremiah Development Corp.

This past January, Richardson joined local architect Gary Anderson and a group from Judson University’s graduate architecture program for a charette on Rockford’s south side. The students and their professors toured the area immediately south of downtown, in areas known as Fordam, SWIFTT and ORCHiD. After Anderson explained the area’s history and assets, the students were asked to use architecture to address needs and opportunities. Their ideas were revealing.

“That sparked conversation across our community,” says Richardson. “We were like, ‘If this group can come in and reimagine that part of the city, what else can we do? What can we reimagine in small ways?’”

There’s now talk of inviting Jefferson High School’s architecture program to do something similar, with the hopes of inspiring the people who live and work in certain districts. It also stands to raise interest in investment opportunities.

“Our program empowers people to take leadership and ownership of what’s going on, and that’s transformational all on its own,” says Richardson. “And I think that kind of work inspires other people and other groups to do work, and then that starts to become transformational. That’s just a domino effect.”

As neighborhoods begin coming together, Richardson hopes to increase the branding and marketing potential of Rockford’s individual neighborhoods. Whereas Chicago has many distinct cultural and geographic zones, Rockford’s neighborhoods are less well-defined. Should those neighborhoods expand their profile, Richardson believes they stand to attract new assets and residents who will continue to build on what’s begun. And that, in turn, stands to improve metrics like homeownership, vacancy rates, property values and quality of housing stock – all indicators of a Top 25 community.

For now, though, it’s the simple victories that are proving the most fruitful. Richardson encourages churches and other institutions to start connecting and drawing out natural leaders. She’s also seeking people who want to make a difference, however small.

“If you’re inspired to do something in your neighborhood, you can reach out to us and we can get things going,” she says. “You talk about changing a neighborhood, and a neighborhood is big. That can feel overwhelming. We say, ‘Let’s start with one block at a time,’ and then it doesn’t seem so daunting to want to do something for your neighborhood.”

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