JEFFERSON PARK — In less than a year, Jefferson Park Forward has grown from an idea tossed between friends to a pulsing community of more than 100 people, with no signs of slowing down.
It was November 2015 when Ryan Richter, having just lost a hotly contested election for president of the Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association, gathered some neighbors to see if they wanted to break off and start something new together.
"We really weren't sure if anyone would even come," Richter said. "If no one did, we were ready to just fold up shop and walk away."
More than 70 people crammed into the provisional meeting, Richter said. The group started calling regular meetings in March 2016, and in August, Jefferson Park Forward was incorporated as a nonprofit organization.
The group's energy kept snowballing through last week, when the group scored its 100th dues-paying member. By Friday, membership jumped to 110.
Just a shoutout to our new members. 2 days ago we crossed 100 members. Today we're at 110! #Momentum #Winning #love #JeffPark— Jeff Park Forward (@JeffParkForward) January 20, 2017
Richter considered the milestone "humbling, but not surprising," he said.
"We knew we were tapping into a current of people who wanted to see some changes, and really wanted to get involved in their community in a positive way," Richter said.
The group's model was a frenetic mix of community service and social events, calling members to beautify their neighborhood together and revel in the effort.
It was a deliberate departure from the neighborhood association, which devotes a large part of its energy between monthly meetings to political activism, much of it aimed against Ald. John Arena's (45th) agenda of adding housing density.
The founders of Jefferson Park Forward "made the decision early on not to focus on politics" so as not to divide their members or coax them into arguments, Richter said.
Instead, they set an early goal of trying to attract new businesses to neighborhood's central business district along Milwaukee Avenue, which is dotted with vacant storefronts after decades of population losses.
Their strategy is twofold: support businesses already in the neighborhood through advertising and fundraisers, and launch projects that would entice more. So far their efforts have included raising money for Olive's Community Garden for the Hungry, drafting a muralist to paint an empty storefront near the Jefferson Park Transit Center and planting flowers outside the U.S. Post Office, 5401 W. Lawrence Ave.
"When people are willing to roll up their sleeves and beautify their community, people will see that pride, and they'll want to come," Richter said. "It shows we don't just have to rely on government to solve all our problems and do our work for us."
Members of Jefferson Park Forward vary by age and background but they share the common mission of cultivating a thriving commercial strip, said Rolando Rodriguez, the group's vice president.
"There's been a real trend of people leaving higher-density areas and coming to Jefferson Park, because they want that house and backyard," Rodriguez said. "But they also really crave that walkable business district they had before. They want the option to be able to go out if they don't want to cook every night."
But for all the work members are putting in together, none of it matters if it isn't built on a foundation of neighbors forming bonds and enjoying one another's company, said Rodriguez, who also chairs the group's social committee.
Last year, members held a family picnic and a neighborhood bar crawl, kicking off a monthly happy hour session. Going into the group's second full year, Richter hopes to plan a restaurant crawl too, he said.
"Even if you just want to socialize, Jefferson Park Forward is a great way to meet neighbors and get a sense for your community," Richter said. "But it's about getting things done, too."
Jefferson Park Forward will hold its next general meeting at Smokey's BBQ, 5481 N. Northwest Highway. New members can sign up on the group's website.
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