DOWNTOWN — Some of the city's top, but most overlooked neighborhood groups get their moment in the spotlight this week with what's been called the "Oscars of community development."
The 20th annual Chicago Neighborhood Development Awards are given out Thursday in an afternoon ceremony that runs into the early evening at the Chicago Hilton & Towers. Created in 1995 by Local Initiatives Support Corporation Chicago, the awards seek to recognize and publicize the work of neighborhood groups and developers to stabilize and otherwise improve communities.
"Where do good ideas come from? Usually not from Washington," said Marilyn Katz, a spokeswoman for the awards.
"What makes Chicago unique is that not only have community groups been more than protesters, but they've been social entrepreneurs for the community," she added.
The awards make no apology for emphasizing the work, hand in hand, between community groups and enlightened corporate interests. Katz worked on Harold Washington's first mayoral campaign and said the awards grew out of his attempt to join neighborhood groups and developers, to make moneyed interests realize "dollars were better invested through community partners ... in things that mattered," such as housing and new schools.
"Community development is a cornerstone of larger economic growth," said Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, a longtime supporter of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation.
"The services community leaders, advocates, developers and nonprofit organizations provide help improve our quality of life, strengthen our neighborhoods and create an environment that encourages further investment. I am thankful for the good work of neighborhood groups, and I’m happy to see them recognized by the Chicago Neighborhood Development Awards."
"It's definitely a great partnership of bringing resources together," said Angela Clay, president of the board of Uptown's Voice of the People, which will be honored for its collaboration with the Chicago Community Development Corp. to preserve and renovate 30 units in the Hazel Winthrop Apartments.
"Sometimes, being a community group, you can get frustrated," Clay added. "There's only so much that you can do." The corporate partnership, in this case, gave the group the financial muscle to make an impact.
"We're actually getting the attention for doing everything we love to do," Clay said. "We don't do it for awards. We really do it for our tenants and neighbors."
The awards, Katz said, have not only brought recognition to groups that have toiled for decades on small, but critical neighborhood issues, they've also encouraged other groups — and cities — to mimic the same tactics elsewhere.
This is one field, she said, in which plagiarism is encouraged and copying what works is the sincerest form of flattery.
Katz pointed to a "really brilliant" idea developed by Pilsen's Resurrection Project and the Wintrust Financial Corp. When a local bank was endangered, jeopardizing local mortgages, Katz said, "They just bought the bank!"
Through that agency, she added, they refinanced the mortgages and, when that proved impossible, purchased, rehabbed and resold the properties, stabilizing neighborhoods in both Pilsen and Back of the Yards and, in the process, reducing crime.
The awards are unlike the Oscars in that groups don't compete against each other.
"There is no envelope," Katz said. "The winners know that they've won."
While the full list of winners in 10 categories has been embargoed until after Thursday's ceremony, organizers have announced that among those to be honored, along with Voice of the People in Uptown and the Resurrection Project, are Theaster Gates and the University of Chicago for their arts incubator in Washington Park, the Preservation of Affordable Housing in Woodlawn, the Just Pay for All Coalition, working to fight wage theft, and Lawrence Benito of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
Still, the recognition is appreciated.
"If this is what it feels like to get an Oscar, then I'm definitely excited," Clay said. "It's definitely an honor."
According to Katz, about 2,000 people are expected to attend the ceremony, which will begin at 3 p.m. with a panel discussion including U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Evanston) and Pullman’s David Doig, Little Village’s Mike Rodriguez and Englewood’s Demond Drummer, followed at 4:30 by the award ceremony and a keynote speech by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, as well as a movie featuring Valerie Jarrett and Richard M. Daley, the former mayor.
A reception follows at 6. Tickets are $65 in advance, $75 at the door.