A real-life game of monopoly

Twice last week old-line social service agencies in Chicago announced they were giving up their buildings in gentrifying neighborhoods.  New City YMCA, located hard by the Cabrini-Green housing project now being turned into mixed-income development (read: places for rich people to live), announced the sale of its property to a developer, while the Chicago Christian Industrial League reported that it will move in August from the West Loop, once skid row and now site of soft-loft developments and fancy restaurants, to a new facility in impoverished North Lawndale.

The groups offered different slants on the decision.  The Industrial League portrayed itself as following the people it’s supposed to be serving: there are plenty of poor people in North Lawndale and relatively few of them in the West Loop.  By contrast, the YMCA trumpeted its decision to keep New City’s social services nearby while shuttering only the athletic facilities, presumably made redundant by the recent eruption of upscale health clubs. 

But it doesn’t really matter how it’s portrayed: the question is, do nonprofits serving poor people have some obligation to obstruct the removal of poor people from newly-attractive areas?  Is it the task of those agencies to keep areas diverse (read: provide a leavening of poor people as an amenity for rich people to consume), or to create/maintain destinations in wealthy environments for poor people who might benefit from them?  Or are they really better off–"they" meaning the people served and not just the service agencies–taking the money and running?  What’s the calculus: how much cash makes it appropriate to leave a community and move elsewhere?

I wouldn’t argue that arts groups, or environmental groups, or universities are obliged to stay where they are when offered big bucks to make way for retail.  But with social service organizations, there does seem to be a certain question of walking your talk.  It remains my view that the only excuse for having social services provided by private nonprofits rather than the government is the nonprofits’ roots in the community.  If those can be trumped by real estate development, I’m not sure what the nonprofit social services sector is for.

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One Response to “A real-life game of monopoly”

  1. Ellen Wadey Says:

    I think this is a huge issue that we’re just starting to hear about in Chicago. The city has been gentrifying for years, but now it seems like the blocks are falling like dominoes. Because I’m running an arts organization with a social mission, I’m really aware of the impact gentrification has on program. We used to run most of our events in Wicker Park, but Wicker Park is very different these days. We wanted to stay true to our mission of reaching out to underserved populations, so we’ve moved our programs to Humboldt Park (and feel the gentrification wolf nipping at our heels again). Moving is easier to do when you’re itinerant. Video Machete recently moved for the same reason — they’re now in Albany Park. When your programs — social service and art included — are designed to give access to people who don’t normally have access, I do think the obligation is for you (the organization) to go to them (the clients). I know of several organizations who were urged by foundations and their boards to buy buildings as a sign of organizational stability and maturity. Now they’ve got buildings with either dwindling clientele or with a clientele that doesn’t fit their mission — socioeconomically, racially, ethnically. I am very troubled that the decision for an organization to move can help displace people and reinforce segregation. Which battle do you choose? When I won’t even go to a dry cleaners that isn’t in my neighborhood, why should I expect my clients to travel to me? It’s a real conundrum for me — the tension between the personal — the service to clients — and the collective — the way public spaces get defined.

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