EDGEWATER — Edgewater today is "one of the best versions" of itself in the past 40 years, but the neighborhood must "fight with every ounce of energy" to sustain its success, Ald. Harry Osterman (48th) said during the 2016 State of Edgewater breakfast Tuesday.
"Forty years ago, when Edgewater broke off and became its own community, the people wanted a safe neighborhood with thriving businesses, with great schools, in a diverse community by the lake," Osterman said. "Today, Devon, Thorndale, Broadway, Clark Street, Bryn Mawr ... we are living through right now one of the best versions that we have of our community.
"People worked for 40 years, very, very hard to get to where we are — wasn't dumb luck," he added.
Osterman said with top-rated neighborhood schools, access to public transit, a low crime rate and "thriving businesses," people were continuing to seek Edgewater out as a community to call home.
Katrina Balog, executive director of the Edgewater Chamber of Commerce, said Edgewater's commercial vacancy rate is low, at 6.5 percent, with at least a dozen new businesses opening recently in the neighborhood.
Burgeoning areas of development continue to be Granville Avenue, an emerging arts district, and nearby Devon Avenue, which has seen six new commercial spaces in addition to at least 27 added residential units within a four-block section.
Balog noted "immigrants are in large part to thank for vitality" in the neighborhood, which has become whiter in recent years, adding it was essential to "hold on to what makes this neighborhood special" — especially its remaining diversity.
Yet, "great challenges" at the city and state levels were also driving some away, and threatening the overall prosperity and potential of the North Side, and Chicago as a whole.
"We can't build a wall and say, 'Edgewater is great, it's thriving,'" Osterman said. "We have to fight with every once of energy, like the people who fought for 40 years to make our neighborhood what it is today, to preserve and sustain what we have."
Violence around the city, including Edgewater, is Osterman's "No. 1 priority," he said.
Once known as a rough North Side neighborhood, Edgewater's reputation has changed since Osterman was a kid growing up in the neighborhood, he said.
"We are going though a time when we've really focused on reducing the crime in our community," Osterman said. "People can walk at night safely down Bryn Mawr, down Thorndale ... when I was a kid that was a scary proposition."
The "Safe Summer Nights" program through the 48th ward has been one way to help rebuild trust among community members, youths and police, Osterman said. The program offers over 100 events throughout the summer, including playing basketball with neighborhood police officers.
Further, funding cuts and an ever-unclear educational future in Illinois, particularly in Chicago Public Schools, continues to be a problem, Osterman said.
"It undercuts the success at Senn, at Swift, at Goudy, and will ultimately force families who support the businesses to move out of Chicago — they will leave — I've seen it happen right before my own eyes," Osterman told community stakeholders.
State Reform Impacts Neighborhood Reform
Other speakers at the meeting touched at local, state and federal levels, including U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky's promise to fight for women's health and 10th District Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer's ongoing efforts to provide increased employment access and opportunities to youths — particularly men between the ages of 16-21.
More young people were "taking the reins of leadership" throughout the country, including Chicago, though for many the path to sustainable employment was nearly "unfindable."
Tax incentives for some contractors, and partnerships with chambers of commerce were among her plans to provide apprenticeships and other ways for businesses to sponsor young workers.
Similarly, state Rep. Kelly Cassidy spoke of the importance of reforming cannabis-related laws, as well as the criminal justice system in general.
Cassidy said much of her efforts are concentrated in a plan to reduce the state prison population by 25 percent — meaning to release 25 percent of prisoners, not just place them in county jails over state-run prisons.
"We want to make sure people that do not deserve to be locked up are home," Cassidy said. "That we are only using incarceration for the folks that we're afraid of, not the people that we're mad at."
Ald. Patrick O'Connor (40th) spoke briefly about plans for the Edgewater Medical Center's transformation into a city-owned park and new residential units. The park will be built and operated by the Chicago Park District using just under $4 million in tax-increment financing, though a vertical tower meant to house 150 units won't receive any TIF funds, he said.
Overall, Osterman said Edgewater was doing well but was not immune to problems facing Illinois and Chicago residents everywhere.
Its success, he said, could be contributed not to wealth and extravagance, but to the hard work and continued support of the neighborhood and the investments made over several decades.
"Nothing against ... Lincoln Park, but, Edgewater's not Lincoln Park," Osterman said. "Edgewater is a special, diverse place, and we have to work to sustain that.
"So all of us have to roll up our sleeves and continue to fight for what we have."
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