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The Richard M. Daley Friend of the Neighborhoods Award


A lifelong resident of the Near West Side, Earnest Gates leads a community group that has given Chicago “how-to” models for dealing with a potentially disruptive mega-developments, for integrating public housing tenants into a mixed-income communities, and for revitalizing once-devastated commercial streets.

Gates co-founded Near West in 1988 with longtime resident Wilma Ward in response to plans by the Chicago Bears and owners of the old Chicago Stadium to develop a dual-stadium complex that would have displaced over a thousand residents. The Bears went elsewhere, but plans for the new United Center still entailed city condemnation of housing for parking lots. Early hard-nosed confrontations led to substantive negotiations and, eventually, a 16-point agreement calling for construction of replacement homes, a new branch library, a Boys & Girls Club gym, and a refurbished Touhy-Herbert Park.

When the Chicago Housing Authority began moving ill-prepared tenants from the old Henry Horner high-rises into new townhouses nearby, Near West offered to provide training in housekeeping skills. This expanded to include job training and placement, giving CHA a prototype for the “service connector” effort the Authority used as its Plan for Transformation unfolded across the city.

Working with LISC Chicago’s New Communities Program, residents in 2002 published a comprehensive Quality-of-Life Plan that is steadily becoming reality. A Chamber of Commerce was created to lead recovery of a stretch of Madison Street that hadn’t seen new construction since the riots of 1968. Walgreens was recruited for a mini-mall at Madison and Western and, most recently, a Pete’s Fresh Market mall opened across the street.

But it’s Near West’s work with kids that brings a lilt to Gates’ voice, like when he describes the look on players’ faces as lineups were introduced at their summer league championship game ... played under the Bulls’ NBA title banners at the United Center. (Bulls and White Sox chair Jerry Reinsdorf having become a faithful supporter, with V.P. Howard Pizer sitting on Near West’s board.) The Sox-supported West Haven Giants are top contenders in the city’s Bronzeville League, but for Gates it’s about more than scores and games. All Near West’s teams schedule quiet time for homework and for 1-on-1 mentoring.