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Big money, small pocket
January 25, 2013 2:18 PM   Subscribe

Gary Comer, the late founder of Lands' End, grew up in Pocket Town on Chicago's South Side. When he visited in 1998, he saw that his neighborhood--home to about 2,000 people (and the city's best blues club)--had fallen on hard times. So he spent $86 million to build schools, affordable homes, and a youth center. Has it helped?
posted by hal incandenza (31 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
" Last spring, every one of Comer’s 127 seniors went on to college"

Has it helped? I think it's safe to say that it helped them.
posted by deadmessenger at 2:25 PM on January 25, 2013 [5 favorites]


Has it helped? I think it's safe to say that it helped them.

If you read the whole article linked in"Has it helped?", it's clear that this is a misleading statistic: Many students never made it to their senior year, because they couldn't handle the extremely strict disciplinary policies of the school. Not every student in the neighborhood became one of those seniors. Helped? Sure. But let's not pretend this is some unambiguous magical shit going on. It's easy to help kids who are easy to help.
posted by Tomorrowful at 2:33 PM on January 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


Noble Network has come under fire from various education activist groups for weeding out low-performing students to improve its schools’ academic standings. Even Noble’s superintendent, Michael Milkie, admits that its 12 schools lose about a third of their students before their senior year.

There's one big problem. 1/3 of my school is 233 kids...

It works out to about $43,000 for each of the area’s 2,000 or so men, women, and children.

There's another.

Some of the elements of these projects are definitely valuable, like community services and parent education and involvement... but do we have a billionaire from each neighborhood in the country to pay for it?
posted by Huck500 at 2:37 PM on January 25, 2013 [4 favorites]


I wish I could give Gary Comer a big hug. What a guy.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 2:42 PM on January 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


I suspect that the best thing he could've done for the neighborhood would have been to move some Land's End manufacturing there.

Otherwise, he's building an education system, houses and community centers that no one will be able to maintain once his money stops flowing in.

It seems like the guy meant well, and I don't mean to get on his case too much, but it's really easy to throw millions at poor people when you've made billions off of cheap labor.
posted by Ickster at 2:44 PM on January 25, 2013 [11 favorites]


Reading the entire article, it seems that the program has been a mixed success. Some of the factors leading to a lack of success come from the program itself, but other factors are external and are major, such as the housing crash of 2008.

It's really too bad that it takes a billionaire philanthropist to tackle what is in effect a structural problem, and really depends on the whims of that philanthropist.

I suppose Bill and Melinda Gates and similar individuals are achieving tremendous success, though, so perhaps the individual philanthropist approach can be more effect than collective efforts.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:44 PM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


I hate to focus on a single detail, but what's up with the $5 "demerit fines" at Comer's charter school? That's highway robbery and it represents nothing short of willful and malicious disregard for the realities facing poor families. Is the idea to take away little Fauntleroy's daily allowance or to have the family scrimp on lunches for a week? How come black kids get the worst kinds of "discipline"?
posted by Nomyte at 2:45 PM on January 25, 2013 [13 favorites]


As for Land's End, alls I can say is that when I was living overseas in the mid-90's, their mail-order catalogues were about the only way to get clothes that fit. But they made me look like a Mormon missionary.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:46 PM on January 25, 2013


. . . but what's up with the $5 "demerit fines" at Comer's charter school?

I was shocked by that too. My kids go to a school with a very similar-sounding disciplinary structure--shirt not tucked in? Demerit--but it's relatively well-off, and there would be torches and pitchforks if they tried charging five bucks every time a kid got a demerit.
posted by Ickster at 2:48 PM on January 25, 2013


Interesting read. I grew up in Chicago on the South Side around the same time this would have started and I have never heard of it.

I have mixed feelings about a white guy giving tons of money to create bureaucracies designed to push poor brown people out of poverty. Building new houses but not understanding that poor people wouldn't be able to afford them exemplifies the good intentions not so great execution I'm wary of here. Is this really want the neighborhood needed or just what the rich white guy thought it needed? It's a fairy tale basically that this is merely about money and if we pour enough money into these areas we can fix them. However we need to try something and it's sad this is falling on generous individuals and isn't a higher national priority.

Obviously this is a complex issue. I wonder what would have happened if more of these efforts had targeted everyone in the neighborhood. Finding jobs for adults. Bringing businesses and arts to the 'hood. Giving each family a few thousand dollars to pay off some debts. Building affordable housing for neighborhood people.
posted by Misty_Knightmare at 2:52 PM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


what's up with the $5 "demerit fines"

I went to Marist High School on Chicago's far south side. Detentions, or "jugs," as we called them, could apparently be paid off with a nominal fine in the days before I got there. My older brothers reported the existence of jug fines when they went to Mt. Carmel. Granted, these are both Catholic high schools which operate by their own rules, but perhaps it was more common years ago when Comer was coming up?
posted by Terminal Verbosity at 2:59 PM on January 25, 2013


Nomyte and Ickster--I have a friend who teaches in the Chicago Public School system and we talk a lot about how the powers that be (charter schools and increasingly in public schools since those two are increasingly run by the same people) are convinced that many problems are the result of not enough discipline. Hence the uniforms, security guards, demerits etc. In the school where my friend works students are supposed to walk on lines taped out on the floor and are not allowed to talk while they are in the hallway, even to teachers.

If you were the conspiracy theorist type it would be easy enough to draw a line between these schools and say, a prison environment and what a coincidence it is that many of these students will see prison having already endured years of restricted movement, harsh discipline, and low expectations.
posted by Misty_Knightmare at 3:01 PM on January 25, 2013 [8 favorites]


I'm not saying it's what I would do in Comer's position, but it would be completely fascinating if someone found a similarly-situated neighborhood and just wrote every resident a $43,000 check.
posted by hal incandenza at 3:12 PM on January 25, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'm not saying it's what I would do in Comer's position, but it would be completely fascinating if someone found a similarly-situated neighborhood and just wrote every resident a $43,000 check.

Why not? The neo-liberal philosophy is that markets and individuals do a better job of creating success than do governments, so why create another layer of bureaucracy via a non-profit that administers how philanthropic funds are spent?

Of course, if you have power, whether you're a bureaucrat or a billionaire, paternalism probably comes with the territory.

That said, this looks like a project carried out with the best intentions in mind, and just shows some of the limitations of social engineering. If it were a business, it would be iterative, and would incorporate "lessons learned".
posted by KokuRyu at 3:24 PM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


just wrote every resident a $43,000 check

Wouldn't the Feds come in and take 35%, and the state take another huge chunk? I mean, it's not right to let poor people control their own money. How do you think they got poor in the first place?
posted by spacewrench at 3:28 PM on January 25, 2013


To be accurate, it's four demerits for $5, although maybe there's a way to earn multiple demerits at once.

Several years ago I poked my nose into teaching at a public elementary in a poor city neighborhood. I have the tiniest of inside perspectives. All I can say is that I think it's silly to focus on boogeyman targets like "accountability" and "discipline" and "good parenting." Reformers who didn't grow up urban poor or lived with the poor probably don't understand much about the lives of poor families.

For example, I quickly realized that my own battle wasn't so much with classroom discipline as it was with weather and nutrition and health. Simple example: our school was air-conditioned to a frosty 70° for the teachers' comfort and the kindergarteners came in dressed for 95° Baltimore summertime. They got cold, their attention wandered, and they tended to fall asleep. We weren't allowed to let students sleep, so we'd drag them upright and walk them up and down in the hallway until a semblance of wakefulness resulted.

We had children whose parents couldn't afford asthma medicine. We had students with undiagnosed eczema and bloody fingertips.

Another weather-related phenomenon: many families in the neighborhood didn't air-condition their homes, for various reasons. This led to families staying outside until late and children unable to sleep until their homes cooled down. Then they had to wake up and get ready to start school at 8:00 sharp, at which point the lack of restful sleep was immediately apparent.

I really think that we're at the point where we can start sending in the anthropologists to inform the reformers. Like Laurie Anderson said, "Only an expert can deal with the problem." Wealthy reformers try to manage problems they don't understand by throwing money at symptoms while ignoring the deeper difficulties. Maybe it takes a man with Official Expertise to listen to what the poor have to say and then say it again, but more officially. But maybe real problems are too mundane and too tough to address.

These neighborhoods, communities, and families are at a structural disadvantage in virtually every area of life. In many cases, if you throw resources at the community, better-positioned people will just swoop in and absorb those resources. New housing stock will get bought up by outside investors and yuppies. Selective schools will select out the local children and classes will fill up with children of well-off families from other neighborhoods. It's like propping up the grass that's being trampled by elephants.
posted by Nomyte at 3:33 PM on January 25, 2013 [23 favorites]


I wonder what would have happened if he spent $86 million on building a business that employed a lot of people in the neighborhood and provided daycare, job training and tuition reimbursement.

I wonder how many of those seniors going off to college will ever return to the neighborhood.
posted by desjardins at 3:55 PM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


" this is a misleading statistic: Many students never made it to their senior year, because they couldn't handle the extremely strict disciplinary policies of the school."

Blaming the disciplinary policies strikes me as an convenient excuse. “A lot of my friends who came up from Revere with me have left because they couldn’t handle the rules,” says Mark Franklin, a senior. "left" being the key word there, not removed or expelled, left. I went to a public high school in Milwaukee with, I'll be generous here, lax disciplinary policies and many students never made it to their senior year. According to my homeroom teacher less than half the students enrolled in my freshman class graduated on time. You can find a lot of reasons for that (transferred, got pregnant, flunked, dropped out, expelled, moved out the area etc...) but disciplinary policies didn't make the list. You can make it hard on kids, you can make it easy on kids you can do whatever you want and there will always be those who just won't go. I started high school with a group of nine guys I was friends with from middle school. Two of us graduated. Not graduated on time, graduated at all. School policies had virtually nothing to do with this. I know ,YMMV, CSB etc...
posted by MikeMc at 4:11 PM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


I am kind of weirded out by the people suggesting he should have moved Land's End to Pocket Town. For one thing, he sold the business to Sears 35 years ago. More importantly, this is a small neighborhood inside the city of Chicago. Setting aside the zoning issue of a megaindustrial factory in the middle of a little neighborhood, why would you think he could restrict employment to just the residents of that neighborhood? It's the 21st century, cars are common. The best qualified people -- those with more advantages than the locals -- would take the jobs, knock down those cheap houses near work to build their own places, and push the current residents out.

Mr. Comer's work is a success. It's an experiment, absolutely. Try something, see what works, and study what doesn't work so you can try something better. At least from the article's evidence, it has done no harm -- everyone is either better off or has remained in the same state. (I can think of a lot of social policy to help the disadvantaged which has had actual negative consequences along with the good it's done.) When an approach hasn't brought the degree of success that the investment would suggest, they've looked at what other problems there are and redoubled their investment to help with those too. Their approaches have been what the community asked for: better schools, a teen center.

I have these arguments with conservative friends about federal funding of science. "Why waste my taxes on things that don't pan out?" Because doing science requires experiments that fail, not just those that succeed, so you can learn the shape of the problem! Nomyte suggests "Only an expert can deal with the problem." There can be no "expertise" unless someone is willing to spend the money and do the research program, otherwise it's all theorizing. Think of Comer's charity as a tiny version of the First New Deal era, when FDR put big funding into various long-discussed but never-implemented economic schemes to find out their effectiveness.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 4:38 PM on January 25, 2013 [6 favorites]


@Harvey Kilobit:

Throwing money into building temporary structures that end up being run by people who are not from the community itself isn't so much charity as much as it is handholding. There's a big push by people like Dambisa Moyo that basically argues that all the aid money going into Africa has been for naught because of the way agency plays into the 'developing' part of the equation. If you build an international hospital staffed by white doctors with an imported board of directors and only a few nurses and janitors on staff from the community then you're not empowering the people, you're babying it and forcing them into a situation where they are now dependent on your charity. There might be problems here and now that might be solved (like the electrical problem) but it doesn't sound like Comer is really interested in anything but short-term solutions to long-term problems that rely entirely on his wealth and expertise.

This isn't some newfangled approach to community development. This is noblesse oblige, that ancient tradition whereupon the rich white man pities the poor and shows his generosity by giving them 0.1% of his wealth even though he knows it was the community that helped make him into who he was. This is treating the poor and downtrodden as children who are dependent on you for sustenance. That he built a charter school means his endgame isn't just uplifting these poor brutes from their plebian life; he wants to gentrify the community, to turn it into the gated, yuppie community by which he's grown used to. That's his idea of sharing the wealth. In the meantime, there are tens of thousands of schools without enough funding and the big picture is that America's educational system is rapidly falling behind while we're stuck on issues like whether or not evolutionary biology should be taught in the classroom.
posted by dubusadus at 4:53 PM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


If you were the conspiracy theorist type it would be easy enough to draw a line between these schools and say, a prison environment and what a coincidence it is that many of these students will see prison having already endured years of restricted movement, harsh discipline, and low expectations.
posted by Misty_Knightmare
------------
"Ain't it funny how the factory doors close
Round the time that the school doors close
Round the time that the doors of the jail cells
Open up to greet you like the reaper"

RATM - Ashes in the Fall...
posted by symbioid at 4:57 PM on January 25, 2013


"That he built a charter school means his endgame isn't just uplifting these poor brutes from their plebian life; he wants to gentrify the community, to turn it into the gated, yuppie community by which he's grown used to. That's his idea of sharing the wealth."

Yeah! Fuck it, burn that charter school, community center and new housing to the ground! Oh, wait, "he" doesn't want anything, he's dead.
posted by MikeMc at 5:06 PM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


There's a big push by people like Dambisa Moyo that basically argues that all the aid money going into Africa has been for naught because of the way agency plays into the 'developing' part of the equation. If you build an international hospital staffed by white doctors with an imported board of directors and only a few nurses and janitors on staff from the community then you're not empowering the people, you're babying it and forcing them into a situation where they are now dependent on your charity.

This is really important: Pocket Town is not an African country. It's a small neighborhood inside of the city of Chicago. Self-sufficiency makes no sense here, and Dambisa Moyo's criticism doesn't apply; it's like saying we shouldn't have the Indian Health Service because most of the doctors come from off the reservation.

Even when Comer was a child who went on to succeed because of his schools, they were not run by the local people; they were part of the Chicago Public School system, whose teachers and funding come from the city as a whole. It's too bad we don't have big government social spending anymore but this is as close as it gets for now in Pocket Town.

he wants to gentrify the community, to turn it into the gated, yuppie community by which he's grown used to.

You're going to need to give me evidence for that because there's nothing like it in the article. The only thing I can see is the new housing stock that turned out to be too expensive for locals when sold on the open market. Was that a secret plan to bring in Yuppies who would set up a gated community?
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 5:21 PM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


This photo was interesting to me, because it seems to clearly express that Mr. Comer's motivation was not a narrowly-defined "people like me" or "kids like I once was", it was "people in and from my neighborhood".

hal incandenza: "I'm not saying it's what I would do in Comer's position, but it would be completely fascinating if someone found a similarly-situated neighborhood and just wrote every resident a $43,000 check."

I don't think it would be fascinating, I think it would be utterly predictable. The money would get used ("frittered away"/"wasted") on day-to-day expenses and small help-me-get-through-the-week-without-killing-myself-or-someone-else indulgences, rather than going towards education or job training or anything like that.

Speaking from experience, here. I grew up middle-class with educated parents, never any worries about whether there'd be food on the table or a roof over our heads, always reasonably new clothes on our backs (aside from my Dad's "it's virtuous to shop at Goodwill" thing), and education in things like math and economics, all of which gives (gave? help, verb tense problem) me an advantage over many or most of these kids.

And yet, the unexpectedly-large (significantly more than $43k) life insurance payment I got after my mother's death? Gone. Frittered away. Wasted. Sometimes I think of it as "eaten by my depression", sometimes I think of it as "having made it possible to survive some of the darkest times of my depression". Any way about it, it's gone. So I have no illusions that the folks in this neighborhood would handle a windfall any better than I did. And no illusions that I have any right to be judgmental.

Harvey Kilobit: "I am kind of weirded out by the people suggesting he should have moved Land's End to Pocket Town. For one thing, he sold the business to Sears 35 years ago."

11 years ago. It was sold in 2002, not 1978. Comer hadn't sold it in 1999, when the article says he visited (and wrote a check for) Paul Revere Elementary.
posted by Lexica at 7:45 PM on January 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


It would perhaps be an interesting exercise to tally up the expenses of a middle-class life versus those of a working-poor life. As in, "add up every penny that's ever been spent to keep you personally alive, hale, fed, and satisfied." I suspect that for many of us who are reasonably well-off, that number (in today's dollars) would reach into the hundreds of thousands, if not millions for some. Every doctor's visit because you had a sore throat (that's copay plus employer contribution), every family vacation, every fee for music lessons and school athletics, every pair of socks, and so on and so forth. Over the course of an average life, a middle-class person absorbs an extraordinary, astronomical sum in goods and services.

I feel that this proposal might offer some perspective on how much money to throw at people before they will stop living poor and start living middle class.
posted by Nomyte at 8:20 PM on January 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


When I was in high school (MPHS), I assumed the attempts at discipline weren't to help us learn, but to help prepare the populace for prison. Random purse checks, ID's with your schedule around necks at all times, the way security guards would interact with students... We didn't have uniforms, but it was something that was brought up every year.

I mean, we knew the stats. We all knew that the boys were more likely to end up in prison than college. Which one would make more sense to prep for?

Looking back, I'm still not entirely sure that wasn't the case. It always felt like any learning that went on was secondary to keeping us contained. And kids were able to pick up on that they were considered a threat. It's a weird environment to learn in

There are different ways to implement discipline. I guess. I transferred over to a Jesuit school to graduate: it was plenty strict, but the rules seemed logical, explained out to us. But I'd be wary of anyone who thought the fix for inner city schools was more rules.
posted by dinty_moore at 8:43 PM on January 25, 2013


Wouldn't the Feds come in and take 35%, and the state take another huge chunk? I mean, it's not right to let poor people control their own money.

No, neither the Feds nor the state would get a dime from the poor people.

The rich dude giving away the cash would take a hit, but you were asking about the poor folks.
posted by Justinian at 1:44 AM on January 26, 2013


Thinking of Comer's $86M, and Gates Foundation's billions - how would the outcome differ if you instead invested in lobbying for tax reform?
posted by toodleydoodley at 6:09 AM on January 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


I wonder what would have happened if that money had initially been spent working with the local institutions already present. It seems that that local knowledge could have identified the most effective way to spend that money. That an outside consulting agency was brought in just illustrates how ass-backwards well-intentioned do gooders get things wrong.

Some of their mistakes could have been avoided if they had spent a lot more time actually asking people how they would change their environment. It would have taken far more time, but perhaps more creative solutions could have been made.

They might suggest more jobs instead of job training. It might mean finding a way to make transportation more effective. It could also mean the viable recreation center (chich seems to have been quite appreciated). Did they consider how institutions like the Harlem Children's Zone created a safer, all-encompassing environment? Or the importance of high-quality security? or even improved rental stock.

In Chicago there are already many innovative leaders who could use a little bit of extra cash to make their projects more viable.

I do appreciate the vision that was offered; but sometimes big vision projects are not what makes people's lives easier; it is not exactly what they need at that time. And sometimes a big vision gets in the way of learning to take small steps.
posted by john wilkins at 7:11 AM on January 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


I really think that we're at the point where we can start sending in the anthropologists to inform the reformers. Like Laurie Anderson said, "Only an expert can deal with the problem." Wealthy reformers try to manage problems they don't understand by throwing money at symptoms while ignoring the deeper difficulties.

Reminds me of a community center I used to work for. It was started by a nun who lived in the area and knew the community's needs, and for the first 30 years she tailored its services to those needs. Then they merged with a bigger non-profit organization because they needed the funding support, she had to leave because she got sick, and a new director came in.

She was more experienced with running successful non-profits and marketing, but she lived in an expensive area outside the city and knew nobody in the community. There were definite anthropological gaps, I think. Anyway within a few years all of the adult education services were being turned into more advanced training programs for nursing assistants and stuff like that. All well and good, and would help poor people get better jobs, but did absolutely nothing for the desperate locals because they were dealing with basic illiteracy. The old clients were the homeless, the illiterate, drug addicts, middle-school dropouts, people who literally had nothing. New clients came in from other neighborhoods--high school graduates, people with a little work experience. People who were still poor and needed help. The newer programs looked better to donors I guess. Illiterate drug addicts aren't a sexy client population.
posted by schroedinger at 8:08 AM on January 26, 2013 [4 favorites]


I suspect that the best thing he could've done for the neighborhood would have been to move some Land's End manufacturing there.

Yeah, as a former resident of Michigan, I'm going to say that trying to save an area by moving low-paying manufacturing jobs to it is not the way to go. You become beholden to that industry or company.

Maybe those 127 kids who went to college will never return home to this neighborhood. I almost want to say, I hope they don't. But hopefully they will have taken away a few things from growing up there. Like how education is important and we succeeded because we had access to it. We didn't do it entirely ourselves, outside resources helped us succeed.

Maybe this is a naive assumption, but I like to think this helped 127 kids move out of a poor neighborhood. And I assume that's just one HS class, there's more to come who benefit from this.

$86 million is a lot of money, and maybe this wasn't the most effective use of that money. But people often say that the poor should just move away from their poverty, and it's rightly pointed out that it's more complex than that. The opportunities provided here seems to have removed some of that complexity.
posted by formless at 2:03 PM on January 26, 2013


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