A rendering of the Wintrust Bank established at the North Lawndale Employment Network's workforce campus. Credit: Wintrust/Facebook

NORTH LAWNDALE — A West Side community group helped bring a bank to a neighborhood that has long lacked access to banking and financial services.

The North Lawndale branch of Wintrust Bank opened this month at the job training and work readiness campus being developed by the North Lawndale Employment Network at 1111 S. Homan Ave.

Before Wintrust opened, North Lawndale had only one bank: the PNC bank at 3340 W. Roosevelt Road. The community workforce campus where the bank is leasing space was once the location of Liberty Bank, the last Black-owned bank on the West Side, which closed in 2018.

The North Lawndale Employment Network sought out banking partners as it designed its headquarters because poor access to financial services can stifle wealth-building and entrepreneurship opportunities in the area, said Brenda Palms-Barber, CEO of the nonprofit.

Forty percent of Americans can’t afford an unexpected $400 expense, according to a Federal Reserve survey. A financial service as simple as a credit card “can make all the difference in people that are in entry-level jobs that have very little savings,” Barber said.

“If you have a credit card with $500 or $800, it’s enough to get the car fixed, which could be catastrophe … so that you can still keep your job and keep going to work,” Barber said.

Access to local banking options isn’t just a matter of convenience, Barber said. “It’s about equity.”

“There has been intentional systemic racism that is designed to create barriers to access and barriers to advancement, barriers to the middle class.”

Brenda Palms Barber

Chicago has an extensive history of redlining, where banks and governments collaborated to deny Black families from getting loans to buy homes in many neighborhoods.

Even though redlining was outlawed in 1968, a recent report by WBEZ and City Bureau showed some major bank chains still offer very few loans in Black and Latino neighborhoods compared to white areas.

The federal data showed banks offered more dollars for home loans in Lincoln Park than in all the Black neighborhoods in Chicago combined. JPMorgan Chase loaned 41 times more money in white neighborhoods than in Black neighborhoods, the report found.

Local access to financial services and community-oriented banks are valuable for creating pathways toward homeownership, said Anthony Scott, Wintrust vice president and business development officer. But they are also necessities for the community to have a commercial environment where businesses and entrepreneurs have access to the capital they need to grow, Scott said.

“We’re talking about a community that has been overlooked for years,” Scott said. “This will make such a big difference. You can’t draw businesses unless you have foundational businesses such as a bank.”

Scott, a Lawndale resident and a board member for the North Lawndale Employment Network, worked with the nonprofit to establish the bank at the campus.

The work readiness nonprofit also worked with Wintrust to create a local pipeline for hiring bank staff, Barber said. All five employees at the bank are Lawndale residents, Barber said.

More than 120 participants of the nonprofit’s workforce programs, which focus on people with criminal backgrounds or other barriers to employment, have opened accounts with Wintrust since the partnership began.

“They have banking products that are fair and just, even including those who have had a brush with the law or had real challenges around their credit,” Barber said. “There are 120 accounts that are open that otherwise might not be there for people. “

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

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