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Thursday, February 29

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The Mechanics
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Neighborhoods Thu Sep 03 2015

How One Program is Bridging Chicago's Neighborhood Divides

Photo by Dreamone Visualz.

North Siders often get flak for not visiting other parts of the city. But the disconnect goes both ways, says Jahmal Cole. He's waiting to cross a busy intersection in Wicker Park, a gaggle of selfie-snapping teens in matching t-shirts behind him.

"People don't feel a part of Chicago, they feel isolated to their community in Lincoln Park or the Loop, or they feel like part of an under-resourced community," Cole said. "When people hear about things happening in another community it might as well be in another country."

For young people from those under-resourced communities, venturing beyond their own block can be especially hard.

"Their entire worldview is shaped by the radius of those two blocks," Cole said. "The last time I took a group of people to Wicker Park, they were like, 'Ain't no black people out here,' so I took them to a black business owner and it blew their minds."

Getting Chicagoans to connect across community lines is the goal of Cole's nonprofit, My Block, My Hood, My City. The group takes young people from disadvantaged areas of the city on tours of other neighborhoods. The idea was inspired in part by a conversation he had with kids at Cook County Jail.

"I asked who has been to downtown Chicago, and none of the hands went up. I asked people where are you from, they said, 'My block is the 21st.' And I was like, hold on, I can see the Sears Tower from 21st, I can still see those places and y'all never been downtown?" Cole said.

This trip through Wicker Park included a stop at Bucketfeet, where the teens were treated to a question-and-answer session with the CEO Raaja Nemani, as well as a free pair of shoes to get them ready for school.

"I'm giving them to my girlfriend," said one of the boys on the tour.

"Teenagers, man," Cole laughed, shaking his head.

Still, he hopes even these small journeys can make a big difference by expanding the teens' horizons.

"They have a poverty of imagination because they think they're competing with the people they're around, the drug dealers, the basketball players, they don't realize they need to be competing on a global scale," Cole said.

The light changes, and the teens cross the street, heads swiveling like lighthouses, feet shuffling on uncertain currents. Their journey continues.

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