By Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz
April 15, 2009 
Lavern Herron came to the Austin neighborhood bearing turkey: turkey
breast, turkey burger, turkey ham, turkey bacon, turkey pastrami and
turkey sausage, all ready to be tossed in a salad, wrapped in a wrap or
grilled in a panini.

As co-owner of Caramel Cafe, a cozy coffee and sandwich shop that
opened at 5941 W. Madison St. last summer, Herron wanted to bring a
healthy alternative to an area overrun by fast food joints and greasy

"Our community needed a place like this, a place where you can go
and sit down, that’s different from regular fast food," said Herron,
32, who grew up in the West Side neighborhood and now lives in Lombard.

Austin, the largest of Chicago’s 77 community areas, has for
decades been dismissed as a depressed danger zone, a stone’s throw yet
a world away from scenic Oak Park. Some community activists call it the
city’s "forgotten child," left to fend for itself–so fend for itself
it has.

Behind the gritty exterior of dollar stores, flashing street corner
police cameras and storefront churches, some residents and business
owners are fighting the perception of Austin as a blighted community.

"You have to believe in the area," said Michael Pearson, 35, who
moved his visual media company, Seven Seals Media, to an Austin
storefront last summer, tearing the bars off the windows and lifting
the ceilings to create a more inviting space.

Said Jacqueline Reed, president and CEO of the Westside Health
Authority, Austin’s largest community organization: "There’s a
tremendous sense of ownership and pride in this neighborhood. If
there’s a vacant lot, people say, ‘We have to fix that up. We’re no
North Lawndale.’ "

Because of its size, Austin bears the brunt of Chicago’s social
ills–the most murders, the most sexual assaults, the most robberies,
the most STDs. As of last Thursday, eight of the 80 murders in Chicago
this year have been in Austin, according to an analysis of preliminary
police data by RedEye. But Austin’s per capita crime rate, while high,
pales in comparison to some of its peers. And while 24 percent of
Austin residents lived below the poverty line at the time of the 2000
U.S. census, the area boasts an impressive housing stock that has
attracted core groups of longtime middle-class homeowners and affluent
professionals, Reed said.

Reed speaks with pride about the group’s Every Block a Village
program, which designates citizen leaders on each block to encourage
neighbors to interact and create programs such as a support group for
grandmothers raising grandchildren. The citizen leaders raised $60,000
several years ago selling catfish dinners to put toward a health

Westside Health Authority also operates a prisoner re-entry program
that helps parolees find jobs and housing. According to WHA, 300 people
return to Austin from prison each month.

"WHA is buying abandoned, foreclosed homes and putting ex-offenders
to work fixing these up," said Roger Ehmen, director of the prisoner
re-entry program.

The do-it-yourself attitude was on display last week, when
residents frustrated by what they felt was the city’s slow response to
fixing potholes took up shovels, rakes and rollers to fill seven
potholes on the 4800 block of West Van Buren Street, the Tribune
reported. The South Austin Coalition Community Council, which organized
the effort, fronted $50 for asphalt mix.

Some help does come from the outside. Ald. Emma Mitts (37th), whose
ward includes the northern portion of Austin, excitedly described the
stimulus money that Austin would be getting for street repairs. And
Austin is one of the 25 community areas in the federal Neighborhood
Stabilization Program getting a piece of Chicago’s $55 million pie to
help areas hard hit by foreclosure.

Austin had 1,017 properties go into foreclosure last year, the most
of any neighborhood in the city, according to the nonprofit Woodstock

Thom Viere, secretary of the Greater Austin Development
Association, said the housing crisis put a major dent in the
neighborhood’s upswing. New residents stopped trickling in, old
residents lost their homes, and now many buildings sit vacant, subject
to thieves who steal the copper pipes.

"We were on a pretty positive track, and now it seems like
everything’s on hold," said Viere, who owns several buildings in the
community. He said 10 to 15 percent of his rental applicants are moving
from buildings that were foreclosed upon.

To be sure, Austin faces tough challenges. Drug trafficking drives
the area’s crime, police say, and Austin’s proximity to the Eisenhower
Expressway attracts drug buyers from the suburbs, Wisconsin and
Indiana. Battles over drug territory lead to gang violence.

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