Englewood Community Cafe: Kickstarting Development On Chicago's South Side (VIDEO)

01/16/2013 05:19 pm ET | Updated Jan 16, 2013

It wasn't long after Lauren Duffy first arrived in Englewood in 2008 that the South Side Chicago community began to feel like home.

After spending a year volunteering in the neighborhood through a program called Mission Year, she moved into Englewood. The neighborhood was once home to a booming and vibrant shopping district in the 1930s through to the 1950s, but has since seen its population and median household incomes plunge and crime rates rise to a point where the mere mention of Englewood has become synonymous, for many Chicagoans, with underachivement, abandonment and despair.

By the summer of 2012, Duffy decided to quit her day job as a real estate agent and save one of the many vacant, still-standing ghosts of Englewood's prosperous past from the wrecking ball. She founded a "low profit LLC" called [re]create and poured herself into redeveloping a grand, century-old building into a space that will house Kusanya, a community-oriented cafe, and other commercial and living spaces as the project continues to develop.

After facing unimpressed traditional lenders, Duffy has turned to Kickstarter to help launch the buildout and, with less than a week to go, she is close to doing exactly that.

HuffPost interviewed Duffy about her effort to bring new development to a long-struggling Chicago neighborhood.

The Huffington Post: First off, let's talk quitting your day job to pursue the project of renovating 825 W. 69th St. Was that a difficult decision to make?
Lauren Duffy: As I dove into the project - the acquisition, and now, renovation -- of the building at 69th and Green, it became clear very quickly that this was going to demand my full-time attention. Identifying resources and coordinating the entire process is all-consuming. So, I ended up retaining my part-time job in market research but leaving my day job and am choosing to get by on very little while I get this thing off the ground. It was a difficult choice to make financially, but this project is my passion, and it was a sacrifice that needed to be made. I hope that working on the project so intensively now pays off in the end, and contributes substantively to the momentum and success of the entire endeavor.

HP: Englewood has a lot of negative associations in Chicago: Not just disinvestment, but certainly crime and poverty. How have stereotypes that people hold about the neighborhood, in addition to real issues, impacted this effort?
LD: There are real challenges to working on a project like this in Englewood, but there are a lot of negative stereotypes which go far beyond the reality of the situation here, and that makes things harder. My greatest concern isn’t crime; this building is on my block, and I have a lot of great neighbors who are looking out for the safety of the building and the project. My greatest challenge, rather, is finding all the resources I need to succeed. There is less money available here even for viable projects; institutions and individuals are disinclined to take risks on projects in this area. Those who are gatekeepers to resources aren’t personally familiar with the neighborhood, and aren’t comfortable getting involved. The neighborhood suffers because of that.

HP: What has the reaction been like from the community to the renovation? Has it surprised you?
LD: The response to the small amount of work that we have done so far has been surprisingly strong, in a good way. There is not a lot of development around here, these days -- a lot of deterioration, many demolitions, but little new construction or renovation. Because of that, what we are doing stands out.

On the days we are down at the building, working, just about every person who walks by stops to ask about what’s coming. There’s a lot of curiosity, and maybe even a little bit of excitement and hope. I’m excited for the day when we get to invite everyone inside -- once the first phase of the project is complete -- beyond just telling folks about our plans!

HP: The Kickstarter describes that funding for the project beyond the funding goal will be coming from investors and lenders -- what has the response been like from those sorts of avenues? Are you confident you'll hit the Kickstarter goal?
LD: The response from conventional lending institutions and investors has been profoundly negative -- total unwillingness to get involved. That said, we have found a number of individuals who have been willing to lay profit aside and lend or invest money in the project simply because they want to see this go forward for the good of the community. On the whole, the project will be financially viable and sustainable, but never wildly profitable. And that’s okay with us. But it doesn’t work for conventional lenders and investors.

We are working with a CDFI (Community Development Financial Institution) to fund the later phases of the project, and that has been a very positive experience. Hitting the Kickstarter goal would be a tremendous boost for us and allow us to move forward. It has been tremendously successful so far, raising $17,000 in about 17 days, but we still have a ways to go to hit the goal! So I’d say we are cautiously optimistic.

HP: Anything else you think is important for people to know or understand about your Kickstarter we haven't already touched on?
LD: I hope that folks in Chicagoland who encounter our Kickstarter who might not be personally connected to the South Side or to Englewood take the opportunity to show their support. I have this belief that "if people only had the opportunity…" to help change things for the better, people would do it. But often, folks don’t have their feet on the ground, so to speak, in the places or projects that would benefit from their help. But, we’ve got our hands dirty in this very tangible, ambitious, and I think, beautiful project, so this is a chance to connect. I hope that folks show their support by backing, even if it’s just a $5 donation. It means a lot.

With five days to go as of Wednesday, the [recreate] Kickstarter has raised nearly $20,000 toward their $25,000 fundraising goal. Help the campaign get the rest of the way there or learn more.

It's back! If you have a Chicago-based Kickstarter or IndieGoGo project that you'd like to see featured in "Can They Kick It?"? Get in touch at chicago@huffingtonpost.com.

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