Chicago’s plan to convert an Underground Railroad stop into eco-tourism site gets new ideas

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By Lynette Holloway
Green Right Now

Naomi Davis has proselytized about the redevelopment of Chicago’s blighted Riverdale neighborhood as a green community so much that nine years into the effort she continues to galvanize support to help map out a plan.

An abandoned factory building in the Riverdale area.

Davis, the spirited president and founder of the three-year-old Chicago-based Blacks in Green (BIG) , an environmental nonprofit organization, plans to create a self-sustaining African American community in Riverdale in the hopes that it will become a cultural, industrial and eco-tourism showcase. It is part of 1,000 acres set off by a 50-acre farm on the Little Calumet River that used to serve as a pit stop on the Underground Railroad.

The goal is to develop a community where people would dwell in green houses, receive training in environmental remediation and farm close to home—all key elements of sustainable green living. Over the years, Davis, an urban theorist, attorney, activist and granddaughter of Mississippi sharecroppers, has marshaled support for the project from community leaders, green experts from across the country and financing from lawmakers.

Last spring, the project received an injection of new ideas from a group of students from the University of Illinois’s College of Urban Planning. A group of 26 graduate students studied the Riverdale community and came back with a set of recommendations.

“The biggest point they made was that only a big solution can make a difference,’’ she said. “They further concluded that early attention needed to focus on business and commercial enterprises. There needed to be attention to creating a commercial epicenter for subsequent growth elements of the plan to happen. The first focus should be how to create more business districts.’’

The Riverdale community started in the mid 1800s as a Dutch settlement. Today its residents are predominantly African-American.

The students recommended bifurcated commercial districts. One would be community-oriented with corner stores for residents, which would be the transportation hub. The area would be tied to the city’s completion of an extension of the subway system (the Red Line)—something the community has been fighting for for since the days when President Barack Obama served as a community organizer on the South Side 25 years ago. The second commercial district would be tied to the Underground Railroad Museum, which would have tourism-oriented shops, restaurants and lodging.

“The goal is to make this an eco-tourism and industrial destination,’’ Davis said. “The report just re-emphasizes that point.’’

Larry McClellan, a founder of the Chicago/Calumet Underground Railroad Effort C/CURE, applauds the overall plan. In 2001, McClellan and another co-founder of C/CURE, Diane Banta, from the National Park Association, began documenting the 50-acre Jon Ton Farm and surrounding trails as an Underground Railroad stop for slaves fleeing to Canada. Davis also was active in the development of the project. Now, Davis seeks to reconstruct the farm as the centerpiece of the community. (The model is based on Amish Acres in Nappanee, Ind., a 125-year-old historic farm that was converted into a heritage resort.)

“There is something very powerful about continually working to see the potential for alternative energy and other green initiatives in some of the hardest hit economic communities,’’ McClellan, who has been a community activist for 40 years, said of the Riverdale plan.

Naomi Davis, Chicago attorney and green activist

The objective in Riverdale, dominated by public housing that dates to the 1940s and industry, is to help revitalize the desolate community into a job-driven development. Today, the median income is $13,500, Davis said. She should know how to bring in green jobs. She has been at the forefront of creating green jobs for years. In May she was a panelist at Green Festival in Chicago, where she spoke about the importance of green jobs and working out agreements with labor unions.

“We are committed to bringing jobs to the Riverdale project,’’ she said. “The problem in black communities is that help is not on the way. We are losing ground on the progress we made in the 1960s and 1970s because of the Recession. You don’t have to be black to be a slave. America is enslaved by consumerism. We are acquiring at a rate of four and half planets.’’

Beaubien Woods near the old Ton Farm is part of the vision for a new eco-tourism site. (Photo: Naomi Davis)

Davis hopes that by tackling major problems in Riverdale, the answers can spread to other communities throughout the nation over time. She said applying her principles of green building to the project would be the key to its success.

Those principles of sustainability involve providing each community with its own system of measures, exchanges and repositories of wealth; with its own energy for light, heat and transportation and providing basic goods and services to neighbors and converting waste to wealth.

Also, residents should be able to travel the entire community by foot. It should be self-sustaining and whole with perceptible borders; and wealth should be circulated through community-owned businesses that invest, manufacture and merchandise locally, she said

“These principles were promulgated as culture specific with universal value,’’ she said. “But you could extend them to any neighborhood.’’

Besides McClellan and the University of Illinois, Davis has received advice from some of the best minds in the business, including Ken Dunn, a renowned expert in urban architecture and city scale composting, and Greg Watson, who shepherded the famous sustainable Dudley Street project in Boston. And Ken Dunn, once voted Chicago’s greenest man. He is a renowned expert in urban architecture and city scale composting.

“Most of my thoughts come to me in the dark of night,’’ she said. “ It is not self-evident that they will resound with everyone else, but surprisingly they do. Thinking always has been the hardest part of it. Still, loving what you are creating is not enough. You want to see it.’’

Copyright © 2010 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network

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