But such a community does exist, just a two-hour drive south of Chicago, in the town of Rantoul. In Hope Meadows, 38 kids from troubled families who were in foster care are now living with adoptive parents in eight families. Those children and families are supported not just by each other but also by 42 senior residents (ages 55 and older) who work as tutors, playground supervisors, and crossing guards, and who often become mentors for the kids. Everyone lives in a five-block community on a former air force base.
Most of the kids (80 percent) are African-American; that's because African-American kids are significantly overrepresented in foster care in Illinois, as they are nationally. Sixty-four percent of the seniors are white and 36 percent are African-American. They range from the affluent to the low-income. The total community is 58 percent African-American, 40 percent white, and 2 percent Hispanic. (Not many Hispanics live in or near Rantoul.)
Diversity has been "one of our fundamental principles," says Brenda Krause Eheart, the University of Illinois professor and researcher who cofounded the community 18 years ago. "I think diversity helps us learn from each other." When people from diverse backgrounds live together, "they become more tolerant of each other," she says. "Tolerant isn't quite the right word—people become friends, good neighbors."
Whites and blacks don't always become good friends just because they live near each other. In Chicago, mixed-income communities were formed on the sites of some of the high-rise projects that were razed in the last 20 years. Some of these communities are racially diverse; but barbecues and other social events designed to promote rapport between races and classes have had middling success.
People are motivated to live in such a community "by the specific social challenge it addresses," Eheart wrote in 2009, in the journal Children and Youth Services Review. "The challenge serves as the focal point for organizing their work on behalf of the community, and becomes a fundamental source of identity and cohesion." The challenge also makes seniors feel genuinely useful, Eheart says—which often doesn't happen when seniors continue living independently or move to retirement villages. And their care for kids has often been reciprocated: as the seniors have grown older and needier, Hope Meadows children have helped care for them.
In 2008, Eheart, won the "Heinz Award for the Human Condition"—one of many accolades she and the community have received. Eheart "has succeeded in breaking down walls—real and metaphorical—that have segregated those who can truly benefit from one another’s support and love," the Heinz Family Foundation said in a statement then. Eheart has used the $250,000 grant that came with the award to help fund a nonprofit development company, Generations of Hope, that's spreading her model.
Communities inspired by Hope Meadows are now operating in Easthampton, Mass., and in Portland, and Eheart has more communities on the drawing board. They have a variety of missions. One slated for New Orleans will help veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan; the senior residents will be Vietnam vets. A community planned for South Carolina will focus on adults with developmental disabilities; another community would help kids who've been in the juvenile justice system. Eheart tells me she's had preliminary talks about establishing a community in Chicago.
She acknowledges that Hope Meadows had a big advantage when it started: after the air force base closed in the 1980s, she was able to acquire the property and its buildings "for a song." But "I think the model itself can work anywhere," she says.
Chicago officials and nonprofit agencies who'd like to further integration here should study Hope Meadows closely.
On Monday evening, Kartemquin Films and The Black Cinema House will host "Chicago: Segregated City," a screening and discussion of three films from the 1970s about race in Chicago, plus a sneak preview of 63 Boycott, a film Kartemquin is making about the 1963 boycott of the Chicago Public Schools by thousands of black parents and students. Filmmakers Gordon Quinn and Peter Kuttner will discuss the films afterward, a discussion I'll moderate. The event starts at 6 PM, and it's at the Greater Grand Crossing library, at 73rd and Ellis (1000 East).