Chicagoan Takes on Abandoned Lots

lotproject.jpgChicago resident Sean Parnell is a kind of local celebrity–He is well known for his Chicago Bar Project, a website that reviews practically every notable bar in Chicago. Perhaps less well known is Parnell’s work to combat urban blight. While taking the Landmark Education Self Expression and Leadership class, Parnell decided to take on the problem of abandoned buildings and vacant lots in the city’s poorer neighborhoods that go beyond being an eyesore to being an active danger and impediment to the rejuvenation of the city. The Chicagoist, a leading local website, interviewed Parnell about both the bar project and the Abandoned Lot Project. Excerpts of the interview about the abandoned lot project appear here. 

“In the self expression and leadership program you embark on a project of your own choosing, your own design. They have a couple criteria about it – your project goes for three months and there needs to be some measureable result, to hold yourself accountable for the things you’ve done. And in the leadership component is getting others involved. And also at certain times in the project stepping away and letting others step up, to see if they can do more than just something by yourself. Because if you’re really going to have an impact in your community and beyond, those are the sort of things you should do. Is have others involved, and sometimes lead and sometimes follow.”

I started the Abandoned Lot project out of my frustration and shame that great parts of a great city are living in third-world conditions. I love Chicago and I have yet to find a place I’d rather live. But when you take a drive down to the south side and the west side, Austin, Lawndale, East and West Garfield Park, go down south to Englewood, Back of the Yards, Gresham – they look like there’s been a war. There’s bombed-out homes, a lot of them have been torn down, thanks to the city’s Fast Track demolition program, which has its pros and cons.

But I’ve been very frustrated and ashamed about how since the riots in the sixties, huge swaths of the south and west side have lain in waste. Abandoned buildings mostly on the west side, some vacant lots, which is kind of the reverse of the south side, where you do have a number of abandoned buildings but you have an incredible number of vacant lots. And if you think about the economic conditions down there, there are very few grocery stores, very few restaurants, a handful of bars and these are not the fun places on the north side – these are all nasty, hole-in-the-wall bad places, except for a handful of blues bars that offer something more than just alcoholism.

Anyhow, I wanted to do something that had a positive impact at the community level – never done a community project, and I thought, “well, what am I good at?” I just explained what I was interested in, but how could I apply that? Well, I created the Chicago Bar Project and that’s given a lot of exposure to bars in a very positive way. What if [I] take it in the opposite direction and expose some of the things that are really bad about the city? That these abandoned buildings would be allowed to lay vacant for sometimes 20, 30, 40 years? Because abandoned buildings are magnets for drug activity, and fires, and all kinds of illegal activity – and they’re just dangerous. Staircases can collapse, floors can collapse, there’s rats in there. They’re magnets for bad things.

And think about, what if you owned a property next to an abandoned building that sits vacant for 20 years? What’s that going to do to your property value? That can affect the property value of the whole neighborhood if it’s an especially bad one. So I was hoping to enact some positive change, and try to get some of these places dealt with. I had to pick five to fit within the scope, but I thought “what am I going to be able to do in three months, that will have an impact?”

There is lot more to this interview with Parnell, both about the Abandoned Lot project and other topics. Go to the Chicagoist to read this interview in its entirety.

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Julia Taylor

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