Map project will give South Siders new view of neighborhoods

  • By Peter Sachs
  • Staff Writer
  • July 27, 2009 @ 9:00 AM

One morning last week, the block-by-block grunt work of verifying a database of businesses in Kenwood was anything but glamorous for college students Juan Lindstrom, Ruben Ornelas, Lauren Foster and Johana Muriel-Chandler.

But the payoff, a searchable map of every type of business in parts of the South Side, will shed light on what services residents have at their disposal in a way that Google Maps can’t touch.

That’s the idea behind the University of Chicago’s Resource Mapping Project.

“What does the environment look like?” says Colleen Grogan, the co-director of the project. “What’s the economic vitality in the community, what are all the social services provided?”

Shortly after 8 a.m., the team met their first hurdle: There were no listings in their database for the strip mall of a dozen stores on a busy corner at 47th Street and Lake Park Avenue.

The four students split into pairs and spent 20 minutes recording the business names, hours and types of services: a 24-hour laundromat, three restaurants, a game store, a currency exchange and a dentist.

The slice provided some insight into what the project hopes to accomplish. For residents in this part of Kenwood, the offerings are adequate. There is a Walgreens across the street, and many of the shops in the strip mall provide useful neighborhood services.

But in other areas, like in much of Woodlawn, the offerings are much more sparse.

Much of last week’s survey in Kenwood meant verifying business listings on residential streets, checking buzzers on homes and condominiums to see if business names were listed.

“We do know that a lot of these people do have businesses where they work from home,” says Ornelas, a senior political science major at the University of Chicago.

That’s something the survey team will verify later, because people such as accountants who work from home provide useful services that also need to be included, even if they don’t have a sign hanging out front.

Lindstrom says most people they encounter, especially when they hand out fliers to let residents know about the project, are curious and eager to start using the service.

“Even the people you’d expect to throw them out, everybody reads them,” he says.

On Oakenwald Avenue, one woman driving by pulled over to chat with the team, agreeing that just such a service would be useful to residents.

Businesses, too. Not far from the strip mall, a man stopped Muriel-Chandler to see if his real estate business would be included. Muriel-Chandler says that’s pretty common, too.

“Organizations, like nonprofit organizations, are very interested about it and some of them want to get involved,” she says.

The project’s leaders hope to have the Web site up and running for the public to explore by the end of the year. At first it will have data for just six neighborhoods – East Side, Grand Boulevard, Hyde Park, Kenwood, Washington Park and Woodlawn. Eventually, the group wants to survey all 32 South Side neighborhoods. A National Institutes of Health grant for which the project has applied could help pay for that, Grogan says.

Just as important once the site is live, Grogan says, is finding ways to keep the data current, since businesses come and go.

“You might spend all this time and resources doing an asset map, but then a year later it’s not that useful anymore because its all out of date,” Grogan says.

Starting in the winter, surveyors will test three different ways to do that. Some will go out on foot and check each listing. Residents and service agencies will also be able to modify the map listings. And the survey group will try giving some people in each neighborhood a small stipend to act as editors and update listings.

“The most important thing for us is, again, this database, the community, it has to be useful to them, or the whole thing has kind of been a failure,” Grogan says.


Daily News Staff Writer Peter Sachs covers higher education. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 18, or peter [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.