AUSTIN — For folks on the West Side of Chicago, reminders of the city’s historic lack of equity can be seen always and everywhere. It can be observed in the lack of healthy food options in one of the city’s most devastating food deserts, in the abundance of shuttered schools in black neighborhoods, in high unemployment and in excessive rates of incarceration in some areas.
Perhaps the most visceral illustration of inequity in Chicago is the city’s response to disaster, like the Great Chicago Fire when miles of the central part of the city went up in flames leaving thousands homeless.
“How quickly that region was rebuilt,” said Ayesha Jaco, executive director of public health collaborative West Side United. “Go down to another great fire in 1968, where not far from here along Madison Avenue we had two miles destroyed and never rebuilt.”
Joined by Mayor Lori Lightfoot and several West Side aldermen, Jaco announced new investments under the organization’s Impact Investment Collaborative aimed at course-correcting the city’s record when it comes to inequity in supporting opportunities for black folks and people of color on the West Side.
The initiative will direct $6 million towards improving economic vitality out west by funding four community development financial institutions that will bring access to capital and loans to small businesses and organizations in the area. The investments will help finance projects that are responsive to community needs, like affordable housing, healthy foods and job readiness programs.
The importance of those investments drills down into one of the simplest and most poignant bellwethers for equity: the massive health disparities that leave a 16-year “death gap” between Downtown and the West Side. Downtown residents live on average 16 years longer than residents of Garfield Park.
And since clinical care alone doesn’t account for that gap in life expectancy, West Side United combines the resources of several hospitals and health organizations in the area to address the social determinants of health — things like income, education, walkability and the availability of nutritious food that have a tremendous impact on health outcomes.
“The reality is we can’t improve health without helping the neighborhood’s economic conditions,” said Dr. Omar Lateef, CEO of Rush University Medical Center, which is a member of West Side United. “If you’re going to solve poor health, you have to end premature mortality. If you’re going to end premature mortality, you have to invest in that community.”
The additional investments into the West Side are backed by the newest member of the West Side United collaborative, the American Medical Association, which has committed $2 million over the next two years to the project. According to CEO James Madara, providing capital to an opportunity-starved neighborhood can have a transformative impact on public health.
“The neighborhood a child is a raised in can have a profound influence on his or her health over the entire lifetime,” Madara said. “When individuals don’t have access to affordable housing or healthy food in their communities, when they have limited access to build wealth, and lack opportunities for quality education, when they lack access to safe and reliable public transportation so they can make their doctor’s appointment, all of that negatively impacts a person’s health and their ability to navigate our health system.”
The Impact Investment Collaborative is also backed by a $1.5 million investment from Northern Trust.
Lightfoot commended Northern Trust and the American Medical Association for working with West Side United to answer the city’s call for partners in implementing the INVEST South/West initiative. The new partners are joining a roster that includes BMO Harris, Starbucks and Fifth Third Bank, each of whom has committed millions to the mayor’s initiative.
“With new city partners on board, this marks another step forward in my administration’s commitment to ensuring community-based health care serving all of our residents, regardless of ZIP code,” Lightfoot said.
Lightfoot said Chicago’s history of development has prioritized investment “here, but not there,” funneling public and private funds into affluent neighborhoods while neglecting black communities. The partnership with West Side United that is responsive to the specific public health needs of the area is a model that Lightfoot hopes can be replicated in other parts of the city as the INVEST South/West initiative moves forward.
“We want to reverse the history of the city of not investing in the West Side and the South Side. There are too many places on the West Side in particular who look like the embers from 1968 fires have just cooled,” Lightfoot said about the large swaths of Lawndale and Austin that never recovered after they were razed during the riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “We have to reverse that. And investments like this are an important step in that direction.”
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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