Q&A: District 1 Council member Jackson seeks revitalization, progress on Peoria’s South Side
Denise Jackson says her motivation and inspiration for serving on the Peoria City Council is to improve the quality of life for residents of the South Side and the entire city.
Just over a year into her first term representing Peoria's First District, Jackson says the city needs to pursue economic development and infrastructure improvements on the south side to stem population loss resulting from years of disinvestment in the area.
In a broad conversation with WCBU reporter Joe Deacon, Jackson says the needs for affordable housing and infrastructure improvements in the 61605 zip code have been overlooked for too long, and that she’s hopeful the redevelopment of Western Avenue and federally funded sidewalk upgrades will help begin to revitalize the area.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
What do you see as the biggest issues, priorities and needs for Peoria as a whole, and specifically for the first district?
Denise Jackson: We want to make sure that we get a handle on the crime situation, and also jobs. Jobs are critical, very critical. So those are big, big priorities and they almost go hand-in-hand. When you have a situation kind of similar to what we had last year (with) more homicides in previous years, that can tend to cast a negative impact on the city, especially at a time when we're trying to promote Peoria and make it attractive to potential businesses. If crime gets out of hand, then that can be a potential problem for attracting new businesses and spurring on economic growth.
That kind of leads into my next question: How effective do you feel the police department's latest efforts to reduce violent crime have been, and what more do you think needs to be done to cut down on gun violence?
Jackson: Our new Chief (Eric Echevarria) is off to a great start. He has begun working with other law enforcement agencies; there's a task force has been put together, and since that group has been put together, they have been very successful in conducting checks. The chief often sends us that information, but it's just amazing the numbers of confiscated illegal weapons, drugs, and on and on and on. So the chief said every time they've conducted those checks, nobody has complained – not a single person. So I'm just happy that he is utilizing some things that we have not seen in the city of Peoria. But we've got to take it a step further.
By taking it a step further, particularly in light of the council deadlocking on the Cure Violence Program, what do you mean by taking it a step further? What more would you like to see done?
Jackson: Well, the city has had crime initiatives in the past, but right now we're in a position where we can really put some meat into the program. We want to see the Cure All program come to Peoria; I had an opportunity to visit Rockford several years ago, when they were implementing the Cease Fire program. I actually walked the streets with the team and it was very, very effective. Cure All is just the same thing as Cease Fire, it's just been tweaked a little bit.
That program is supported by lots of evidence that has shown that in communities – Baltimore, Chicago, other big cities, Rockford, Decatur – where it has been implemented, it's been very effective in deterring crime. So why not continue down that path and bring a program like that here to Peoria? If we're going to do it, let's do it right and let's try to get the kinds of results we would like to see here in our community.
So how disappointing was it then to see several of your colleagues balk at that $25,000 initial investment?
Jackson: Well, it takes time. Sometimes people have to do their due diligence. They have to be willing to kind of think outside the box sometimes. But two weeks ago, we did get two council members who agreed to support the project, and I was very happy. As a matter of fact, I got a phone call from (at-large council member) John Kelly, and he wanted to go ahead and give it a try. And I was very happy, because if we don't begin to do some things that we haven't done … how can you expect different results if you do the same old things over and over again? So we're in a position to do some things that I think will make a real difference here in the city of Peoria, and I believe that the council will ultimately move in that direction.
You also mentioned jobs, and it's often documented that the 61605 zip code is among the most distressed areas in the nation. What would you hope can be done to revitalize the area and encourage more employment and more economic development?
Jackson: Well, we have to bring more people into the community; we have lost nearly 4,000 residents in the 61605 zip code. My parents purchased a house there several years ago, and after they passed away I made the conscientious decision to stay there because of what we would like to see accomplished in 61605. So we've got to, first and foremost, bring residents back to that community.
We have not had an inventory of new affordable, decent housing for people to take advantage of in 61605. So consequently, when you have years and years and years and years of disinvestment, people move away. And so it becomes very difficult to try to promote any type of substantial economic development when you have what's been basically an exodus for several years.
With that exodus, what are your thoughts on how the new district boundaries were established earlier this year?
Jackson: I was very happy. I've had an opportunity to go and meet with some of my new constituents up in the Uplands, some of them in the Moss-Bradley neighborhood. So I'm happy; they've been very receptive to working with the new representatives. It basically kind of puts them in a good position, because we already have some at-large council members that stay in some of those areas. So they're getting the best of both worlds by having advocates that's going to work on their behalf.
From an infrastructure standpoint, the city is going to spend $150,000 on sidewalk improvements on the South Side, and U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos is requesting additional federal funding. How will this help the community, and what other infrastructure projects are needed in the area?
Jackson: Well, I was very happy when I heard about Rep. Bustos doing that; as a matter of fact, I wrote a letter in support of that – and we're actually hoping to get much more than that amount. So that is one step in the right direction, but we have so many infrastructure deficiencies in the First District. So we have begun the process of removing old structures.
As you know, the city has allocated $2 million going towards each McKinley and the old Harrison school, and Congresswoman Bustos was able to secure an additional $1 million towards Harrison. So those buildings are finally, finally coming down, especially McKinley. It hasn't been open as a public school in probably 50 years. So we're in a position to get rid of some of those huge eyesores and begin to move forward in this next phase of redevelopment, which many people hope are new affordable homes.
Yeah, affordable housing is definitely a need. Is that kind of what you'd like to see in those vacant properties when those school buildings come down?
Jackson: Well, obviously, we're going to seek resident input. We do know there are people, there are families who have been looking (and) waiting to get new homes. We just have not had a decent supply of them. So I do know the sentiment is out there for new affordable housing. But of course, we would have to do our due diligence, hold hearings and find out what the public would like to see. But we've been talking about housing for years, so it's not a new item on the agenda. Hopefully now we'll be in a position to move forward.
Parts of your district are considered a food desert. What more can be done to make sure people have access to fresh groceries and to assist people dealing with food insecurity?
Jackson: There are food deserts all around the country, but what we recently found out is there are additional dollars being allocated. I know there are going to be some opportunities for bringing fresh produce to Trewyn Park, and maybe the pavilion and some other places. So those are just first steps in the process. Pastor Chuck Brown has plans in (the) works for a Harvest Cafe in the old former Save-A-Lot building on Western Avenue. It's going to be a combination of cooked food and I think he's going to have some grocery products as well.
So those are good starts, but we've got to continue the process of economic redevelopment and fixing our infrastructure, because what business would want to come if the infrastructure and everything else around it has deteriorated? So you've got to begin the process of rebuilding the community. It takes baby steps at a time, so I think we're on the right path.
It seems like all these issues are kind of intertwined and hand-in-hand, trying to get everything revitalized in the area. What is the biggest key to getting everything working together and getting the First District moving forward?
Jackson: Well, we've begun some of that. We have seen Western Avenue become redeveloped over the last year. That was actually something that the Southside Community United for Change had worked with the former First District representative (Denise Moore) about; it just took a little bit longer than we had hoped. But now they are in the second phase of that project.
I can remember years ago, Western Avenue was one of our major business districts. So I believe by revitalizing some of the major thoroughfares – like we're seeing along Western Avenue – that it will begin to make it more attractive for potentially bringing maybe different types of businesses back to our community.
How would you like to see Peoria improve diversity, equity and inclusion in city government and in the entire community?
Jackson: I don't know if you realize, maybe about seven or eight years ago, Peoria was voted one of the worst cities for African Americans. It's going to take efforts on the part of everyone, and the mayor (Rita Ali) – with a recent report released about her racial equity commission, I think that's a step in the right direction.
We have to kind of raise awareness about why we have these types of problems; it's not as simplistic as it sounds when you talk about institutional racism. And Peoria is just one of several cities around the country that have been affected by federal policies, since maybe the late 1970s, and economists have written about this. These policies have worked to the detriment of poor people and minorities in many urban centers.
We've got to kind of work together to level the playing field, bring more people to the table, provide access to jobs. We still have areas within the city where minorities have never worked. So by raising awareness and talking about it, hopefully people will begin to see some of the negative impact that it has created. I think with our mayor now, and the work that the commission has done over the last years, people are very, very receptive to working together, collaborating and trying to make Peoria a diverse community.
So you think some progress is already starting to be made in that regard?
Jackson: Absolutely. I think it occurred with Mayor Rita Ali's election. So, yes.
You've been on the City Council for a little more than a year now. How have you grown into your role as a council member?
Jackson: Well, I enjoy it. I can remember years ago when I worked as a reporter, City Council was not one of those places I enjoyed covering – just because of the nature of things. So being on the opposite side now of the horseshoe, I feel extremely grateful for the opportunity because I do realize that it is a position that one can make a significant difference in terms of what happens or what does not happen in their community.
So I'm just grateful. I have spent a lot of time listening to people, listening to their concerns, listening to what they say has not happened. We've been on the same page with regards to that, so I try to make sure that any policies I support or don't support, first, we'll have the input from the residents that I represent in the First District.
Is there any part of the position that you didn't expect, or that you're still getting adjusted to?
Jackson: Yes, there is a part that I'm still getting adjusted to, and that is the pacing of how government works. Typically, your planning policy for two years; of course, there are some things that you might be able to get done a little bit sooner. But I'm a person who likes to see results sooner as opposed to later, and so I have tried to find a way to balance that whole thing about the slow pace that government seems to move at compared to what I'm used to doing: You know, “let's go out and find out how we can make things happen, bring the right people to the table, and let's get it done.”
Cities like East Peoria and Bloomington, I've been around here long enough to see what those cities were like maybe 20 years ago versus what has happened now. There has been just all kinds of economic growth in East Peoria. So I think the question we have to ask ourselves at City Council: “What are we doing wrong? What are we doing wrong?” You continue to see economic growth spurring all around you, and we have – we've seen some, but not to the degree that cities like East Peoria and Bloomington, the Twin Cities, have seen. So it's time for us to wake up and try to do things a little bit differently.
When you ask that question, if you're asking yourself, what do you think that the city is doing wrong? Is it a matter of balancing patience and action?
Jackson: I think a lot of it has to do with policies. I grew up here – I left for about 11 years and came back – and I remember in the late 1970s when, oh I would say, maybe 300-400 people were displaced through the process of eminent domain so that the city could make room for the University of Illinois College of Medicine, which has been a wonderful addition. But that whole thing came about with the promise that there would be South Town urban renewal to follow. And (now) the College of Medicine is here; they've done wonderful things. They're doing great things in terms of research. But we're still waiting for the economic redevelopment that was supposed to happen in South Town.
My grandmother lived on 6th Street, in addition to several other people who had beautiful homes. So, eminent domain – they were forced out of their homes. She has passed on. I left town for 11 years; I came back to visit every year, and at the time my parents were alive and I was like, “Mom, when are they going to start?” (but) I would never see much in the way of redevelopment.
So consequently, my parents have passed away and here I stand in their footsteps. So the question we have to ask ourselves is: “What are we going to do now that the baton has been passed on to us?” That has been my home motivation and inspiration for seeking the First District City Council seat. We want to see progress, and it is past time for progress.