On a cool late-spring evening in the Wild 100s of Chicago, an area on the far South Side known for its gang wars, Kurt Summers Jr. is addressing a small crowd gathered inside a once-gleaming 1920s retail building. There used to be a beauty school here; later the building housed a counseling service and a check cashing store. But even those businesses are gone. This community, built by middle- and working-class Dutch families 15 miles from downtown, never recovered from the closing of the South Chicago steel plants in the 1970s and 1980s. Today, it’s a symbol of violent crime and urban decay.
But to Summers, who grew up on the South Side, violence is only a symptom of the community’s real dilemma. “We don’t have a violence problem in Chicago, we have an economic problem in Chicago,” he tells the crowd of about two dozen residents, who applaud in agreement. Normally a deliberate talker, Summers feeds off the crowd, his speech driven by their energy and attention. “It’s like you’re sick and you have a runny nose,” he continues. “Everybody wants to run and give you a tissue for the runny nose but they don’t want to solve the sickness.”
He tells them he wants to focus policymakers’ attention on small businesses, the economic building blocks of any community. As the streetlights turn on outside the half-papered-up storefront windows, he outlines his hopes for an investment fund that will give locally owned businesses the financial help that big banks won’t. He tells them of his efforts in the legislature in Springfield to make Illinois the first state to go after predatory lending to small businesses.