JOLIET – The East Side of Joliet has both potential and problems.
A recent candidates’ forum at the Unity Community Development Corp. office focused largely on problems. Candidates running in the April 7 election presented their own ideas on how to reduce crime and increase jobs in Joliet’s oldest neighborhoods.
“I believe that Joliet is the city of champions,” said James Foster, a City Council candidate who referred to the proud city motto. “But when I look out my door every morning, I don’t see it. I see thugs hanging out on the corner.”
Foster is an electrical contractor who lives in the Forest Park neighborhood on the East Side. He is running in District 4, which covers a large section of the East Side. Businesses that might consider an East Side location are deterred by crime in that part of town, he said.
That appears to be a dilemma: how to grow jobs in an area of high crime, and how to reduce crime in an area of high unemployment.
“I think most people would say safety,” Councilman Terry Morris said when asked about the top issue for the East Side. “But I think it’s economic development. If we bring economic development, it will bring jobs. The businesses don’t want to come because of the safety issue of crime. But people say we need jobs for these young men.”
Morris represents District 5, the other council district that includes the East Side, and he is seeking re-election.
He, too, is a business owner. Morris moved to Joliet when he bought a funeral home in town.
Actually, there are a lot of business owners on the East Side. The redevelopment of Collins Street was spurred by independent Hispanic business people. Collins Street now buzzes with retail business and restaurants for several blocks.
‘It’s still the 1980s’
But just a few blocks farther north on Collins, the old U.S. Steel mill, once one of the biggest employers in the region, stands vacant – an example of industrial blight.
“You go along Collins Street for three blocks more and it’s still the 1980s,” said Amy Sanchez, president of the Collins Street Neighborhood Council.
Oddly enough, the steel mill was still in business in the 1980s, when the old Collins Street retail district was dying. So was the Joliet Correctional Center, just north of the steel mill.
They were two of Joliet’s biggest employers in their day – places where workers built careers to support families. Both are empty now.
The city has unsuccessfully tried to put both back to use again. Sanchez said the redevelopment of the steel mill and prison indicates the opportunity that exists on the East Side of town.
“I think the prison and U.S. Steel site are prime locations,” Sanchez said.
She also thinks it’s time they were treated as prime property, instead of being neglected sites in the old part of town.
“The governor’s office needs a nudge on what he wants to do for communities like Joliet,” Sanchez said. “There has to be a point in time this is not just the East Side. We’re a part of the city. We’re a part of the state.”
Putting the prison and steel mill properties back to use could take years. In the meantime, Sanchez said, the city could start small.
“I think the city can start with bringing stores into the food deserts that exist in the Forest Park and Parkwood neighborhoods,” she said.
East Side stimulus package
More city involvement in the neighborhoods would make a difference, said Willie Ervins, vice president of the Joliet Unity Movement, which started in June and focuses on inspiring young people. The organization held a talent show at a summer picnic and essay contest with $167 prizes for the winners.
What the young people had to say in their essays was telling.
“A lot of them said they would make the school day longer because they come home and they’re alone,” Ervins said. “Some of them mentioned the creepy man next door.”
Ervins said one thing the city could do for the East Side is bring resources closer to the neighborhoods.
“We need something similar to a stimulus package so you can change what you see,” Ervins said. “There is nothing in the neighborhoods for resources and training.”
Bringing education and opportunity closer to home on the East Side help young people, Ervins said.
“A lot of them want education,” he said.
Keeping jobs in Joliet
Willie Sellers, an East Side resident who has a trucking company and is president of Black Contractors of Will County, last week urged the Joliet City Council to develop a minority contractor ordinance.
Sellers said other Illinois cities have such an ordinance to provide more opportunities for minorities on public projects. Because of the large minority population on the East Side, Sellers said, such an ordinance would be an economic boost to that part of town.
“Other cities recognize there is a segment of people being left behind on opportunities,” Seller said.
He said the city’s preference for union employees on public projects has led to the work going out of town. Minorities typically are not in building trades unions, Sellers said. And a survey his group did of three years worth of city construction contracts found only 5 percent of the workers lived in Joliet.
Sellers said East Side residents have found jobs in some of the warehouses being built on the south end of Joliet. But many of those jobs don’t pay much.
“I’ve got some nephews working in the warehouses,” he said. “But when you make $8 or $9 an hour, you can barely afford a car, much less a place to stay. I’ve seen people walking [along Route 53] to the warehouses to go to work in the morning.”
DISTRICT 4 CANDIDATES ON EAST SIDE NEEDS
James Foster – “I think the first thing would be a safe community,” Foster said, adding job creation is a close second. “I think a lot of the vacant land – the prison, the old steel mill – they need to develop that into viable business.”
Bettye Gavin – “I think the most pressing issue is crime,” said Gavin, the current councilwoman for District 4. “The city is doing its part by increasing our police force, increasing our Neighborhood Oriented Policing Team.”
Angel Guzman – Guzman said the city needs to do a better job of marketing the East Side to attract new business. “There are not enough jobs in District 4. We can do better,” he said. Guzman also said infrastructure improvements would spur business growth.
Phillip Petrakos – “More police. Neighborhood watchdogs,” Petrakos said. He said crime is the most important issue. In addition to more police, Petrakos said, “Maybe there would be citizens who would volunteer.”
DISTRICT 5 CANDIDATES ON EAST SIDE NEEDS
Terry Morris – “I think most people would say safety. But I think it’s economic development,” said the current District 5 councilman. “If we bring economic development, it will bring jobs. The businesses don’t want to come because of the safety issue of crime. But people say we need jobs for these young men.”
Leonard Thompson – “The most pressing need on the East Side is stopping the gang violence. This has been going on for 30 years. ... A lot of business won’t come to the East Side because of the violence we have.”