The Chicago Loop Alliance’s next ACTIVATE celebration promises to bring art, music, refreshments, and, according to its online invitation, more than 4,000 guests to the alley that intersets the State St. Target store on June 9th.
By all accounts, it will be another successful installment in a meticulously curated series that has become known for generating good times in underutilized public spaces for the past three years. But the soirees represent just a small part of the CLA’s much grander mission: to create a Renaissance in downtown Chicago.
“The ACTIVATE stuff wouldn’t work if people didn’t feel safe,” says CLA Executive Director Michael Edwards. “If a downtown is cleaner and safer, people will come back.”
Mr. Edwards has been in the business of improving city centers for nearly two decades. With a Masters in Public Administration from the University of Pittsburgh, he has helped revitalize downtowns in a lot of cities admired for their revitalized downtowns, places like Pittsburgh and Seattle. He is dedicated to improving the Loop long before and long after the parties get rocking.
“The most effective thing you can do is kinda get back to the basics,” he says. “In all the cities that I’ve worked in, the things that are most important to businesses and property owners are that the city is clean and safe. The mistake is to go for some big silver bullet project.”
The cleanliness part of the deal is fairly straightforward. “Buildings on State Street pay an additional property tax in exchange for a higher level of services,” he explains, “landscaping, cleaning, power washing the sidewalks.” The program, which generates about $2.3 million annually, was renewed in 2015 for 15 years.
The safety aspect, on the other hand, is a much more nuanced approach to a significantly greater challenge.
“We count the number of people and cars along State Street,” he says. “In a week, there were 1,938,612 who came through.” At the same time, he acknowledges that before his arrival, “we weren’t addressing any issues with civility on the street.” So the organization started from the ground up. “We put together a street team,” he says.
The Chicago Loop Alliance’s Street Team is composed of emergency workers, nurses, social services experts and the like. They walk up and down State St. from Congress Blvd. to Wacker Dr. every day from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., all the while tracking progress on iPads, communicating with one another on walkie-talkies, and assisting whoever appears to be in need, especially the homeless. They are easily identified by their bright green shirts.
“The initial year was to learn what’s going on down on State Street,” explains Mr. Edwards. “Who has homeless issues? Where do they like to stand? What impact do they have on everyone else?”
Maintaining a rapport with people who ask for money and intevening in potentially hostile situations are among the team’s highest priorities, but they take a friendly approach to individuals who cause complaints from businesses and pedestrians.
“In most cases, they’ve built up a relationship,” says Mr. Edwards. “They can say, ‘Hey, something’s going on, can you move away for an hour?’ If it’s beyond them, they retreat and call the cops.”
Before requesting police assistance, however, they will employ their de-escalation training in an attempt to calm the situation and, if appropriate, connect people with organizations that provide food, shelter and mental health counseling.
Edmund Garcia joined the Street Team about two years ago, advancing a career that began when he started teaching Kung Fu to children at the Waukegan YMCA in the early 2000s. He quickly learned that many of the homeless on State St. were in need of more than just basic assistance.
“The first time I dealt with someone who had mental health issues,” he recalls. “They would just reply and make no sense. For literally like twenty to thirty minutes, they would go on.”
He credits the CLA’s training and his education from Northeastern University, where he is pursuing a degree in psychology, with helping him develop the skill to handle these situations.
“We’ve learned to be patient and try to piece together the bits of valid information in the conversation,” says. “It’s in there.”
Among the organizations to which he refers special cases are St. Peters Catholic Church on Madison, where a program to obtain inexpensive photo IDs helps open doors to health care and other benefits; and Breakthrough Ministries on the near Westside, where food and shelter are available to those who can follow basic rules.
The objective of the Street Team reflects Executive Director Edwards’ feelings about people who are less fortunate. “The homeless are like you and me,” he says. “They have life stories; their situations are just different.”
Ideally, it will also help make the ACTIVATE series a safe celebration for everyone.
“It’s a free event,” he continues. “Anybody can walk in.”
— Daniel Patton
Action at a CLA ACTIVATE event
by Jennifer Catherine Photography.