Austin Credit: Illustration by Andrew Skwish

It’s a place where small corner grocers serve families trying to make it on a tight income. It’s also where the city’s first Wal-Mart opened recently, triggering a national debate about the need for a living wage.

It’s a place where patches of dirt lay before run-down apartment buildings. It’s also a place where one can find block after block of neatly trimmed lawns. It’s a place where street corners give way to a bustling drug trade. It’s also where the most active block clubs and community groups are found.

All of these extremes are Austin, Chicago’s largest community area and a microcosm for the challenges and promises of urban cities.

“Austin ain’t no Mercedes Benz, but it ain’t no Pinto either,” says U.S. Rep. Danny Davis (D-Chicago), who has lived in Austin for more than 25 years. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the most desirable communities in the city of Chicago.”

Austin—about five miles west of downtown—used to be part of Cicero. The community of European immigrants underwent a massive growth spurt in the early 1900s after it had been annexed to Chicago. Between 1900 and 1930, the population exploded from 4,000 to more than 130,000.

By the 1960s, Italians were the dominant ethnic group. During the following decade, however, you could almost hear the prophetic words sung by the Temptations—”People moving out, people moving in. Why? Because of the color of their skin”—playing in the background as 50,000 whites moved out and 60,000 blacks moved in.

Today, Austin is one of the city’s more socially activist communities, home to grassroots powerhouse Bethel New Life, a major player in the affordable housing movement. Recently, a battle over a new Wal-Mart superstore, which opened in September just inside Austin’s boundaries on North Avenue, made national news when Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) made a crusade out of pressing for more jobs despite labor unions’ calls for paying workers a living wage.

Small but potent groups have made a name for themselves in Austin, too. Faith Inc. staked its claim in prisoner re-entry, an issue focused on the needs of prisoners returning home. According to a 2003 report by the Urban Institute, Austin is the leading community in Chicago where most prisoners return when they are released from prison.

As Davis—and others whose eyes are trained on prisoner reentry—says, most of those ex-offenders have school-aged children who often have been left with foster parents or grandparents.

Navigating the public schools in Austin is challenging enough for families when both parents are at home. A recent flashpoint in the community is the closure of Austin High School under Chicago Public Schools’ ambitious Renaissance 2010 initiative. This fall—while the number of students enrolled in the old school has dwindled to 255 seniors—the Austin Business and Entrepreneurship Academy moved in, the first of three smaller high schools planned for the site.

LaShawn Ford, a candidate for state representative in the 8th District, has his own solution to Austin’s public education problems. He envisions transforming the shuttered Brach’s candy factory on Cicero Avenue, a symbol of lost industrial jobs in inner-city communities, into a high school. So far, CPS has been lukewarm about the idea.

Curtis Lawrence is a freelance writer and director of the Journalism Graduate Program at Columbia College Chicago.

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