17th ward alderman says Englewood gets a bad rap

As Alderman for the 17th Ward for the past eight years, Latasha Thomas is determined to spotlight the area's better qualities.

Her ward spans portions of the Englewood, West Englewood, Chatham, West Chatham and Auburn Gresham neighborhoods, a swath of the South Side that encompasses some of Chicago's poorest and meanest streets.

But Thomas believes the media focuses too much on the  deficits, particularly in Englewood, where she says negative news coverage has helped to cement a reputation as one of the city's most dangerous and impoverished communities, even as a community revitalization effort has begun to yield some progress.

Alderman Latasha Thomas / Photo by B. McNair

A graduate of DePaul University law school, Thomas began her career in the city's corporation counsel offices and later served as staff attorney to a legal aid organization.

After a period in private practice, she joined the Department of Human Services (later the Department of Children and Youth Services) as associate director of the children services division in 1997. In 2000 she became the department's Director of Intergovernmental Relations.

She was appointed to the alderman position by Mayor Richard M. Daley in 2000 to replace Terry Peterson, who was named to head the Chicago Housing Authority.

Thomas was subsequently elected in 2001 and reelected in 2003 and 2007.  She currently chairs the city council's education committee.

Thomas recently sat down with the Daily News to discuss the changes she sees taking place in her ward, and Englewood in particular.

Q. Englewood is showing new signs of life with new home developments and the new Kennedy King College; however, there is a still high rate of crime in the community. How is the crime issue being addressed in the community?

Participation in CAPS is helping. Residents are more involved in decreasing crime rates. Actually, the crime rate is decreasing in the Englewood community. As we rebuild the community and put more jobs into the community, it gives other opportunities for those who see no other way but a life of crime. Sometimes having other economic opportunities helps.

Q. The new developments will bring a new class of people with different income levels into the community. What does this mean for current residents who will be affected by the changes that will come along with it? What plan is in place to help current residents keep their homes and properties?

We've learned from what has happened in Bronzeville. We're not trying to re-gentrify the community and kick out the older (residents) or the residents that were there before Englewood started moving in a positive direction.

In the 17th Ward, we try to include the current residents and their homes in the improvements with the new construction. We also have different incentives for them. A lot of the current residents that have endured the good and the bad are seniors; and we're able to make sure that they are taking advantage of all the exemptions on their taxes which allow their taxes to stay at a current rate instead of growing as their property value increases.

Q. Do you think the new Kennedy King College (at 6301 S. Halsted Street) will bring a new sign of hope to the community where education will become the focus?

Absolutely. Kennedy King is one of the staples, and a catalyst in the community of Englewood for other development. It is a sign of hope. Their enrollment is increasing, and it is an all around good thing to have in the community.

Q. Can Englewood regain the life it once had - with the retailers, movie theaters, and community resources? What needs to be done to make it happen?

Things will be different. Englewood will be different because we shop differently now. We drive more; we don't walk as much. We do have a movie theater in West Englewood; we do have retailers in Englewood. Englewood is regaining life. It may not look exactly like it did in the 60s and 70s, but it will look great.

Q. Why do you think that the growth rate in Englewood is so slow? Stereotypes from the media? The lack of "perceived" value of the community based on race, income status and other negative issues?

It (the growth in Englewood) is a bit slower than I would like. There are a lot of stereotypes about Englewood. Rarely do the media talk about the good things that are happening in Englewood - the solid community base of Englewood or all of the development that has happened in Englewood. When someone from the outside thinks of Englewood, they think of crime. A crime could happen on 87th and State, and the media will still call it Englewood.

Q. Do you have a plan in place to help combat negative stories that appear in the media?

I am putting out good stories about things that are happening in Englewood on a regular basis. We have a gospel festival in the heart of Englewood at Ogden Park on 67th and Racine every year in July. We have 20,000 people in the park all day and nothing happens. No crime. No incidents. That's a great thing. We all come together in the park to enjoy ourselves.

Recently we retired the uniforms of the Englewood High School basketball team. That was great. As the team progressed, the community supported it by coming out to the games. There were no incidents. Those things have to be reported. People need to know that Englewood is not as bad as they think it is.

Q. What type of support are residents receiving from you and the police in their efforts to change their community?

The residents in Englewood really want to see their community change. They really want to be a part of it. The police would love to see the crime go down; it has gone down. There are some things we would like to see happen more. We don't want to live in a police state. In the police department, we have teams that work with us on vacant buildings. Teams are at the schools when they are letting in and letting out; they have different missions for the hot spots throughout Englewood. We need some good reporting on the good things that are happening in the community. The whole community is not bad. There are a lot of good things happening in this community.

Q. What is the biggest change you have seen in Englewood during your tenure as alderman?

I have meetings with the community to find out the kind of redevelopment they would like to see. I hold community meetings every month. However, I hold large community meetings that draw approximately 250 people every two to three years. The residents tell me what they want to see in the community. We break out into groups after I tell them where we are and what we're doing. This is their opportunity to give me ideas on what they would like to see next.

From those meetings, the Food for Less grocery store on 69th and Ashland came into the community They asked me for that and it took 3 ½ years to get it. But we got it. It was a great improvement. We didn't have any fresh produce stores in the community.