We continue to grieve Elijah Sims this week, our high school student who days ago fell to Chicago’s senseless gun violence.  While we face our own daily challenges here, those challenges pale compared to Austin and other depressed areas of Chicago.  The encroachment of urban violence and the effects of neighboring poverty into our own community may be our biggest challenge yet.

Residents, schools, police, government, businesses, healthcare – all aspects of our community are impacted.  That has always been true, but Elijah’s death drives home a sense of urgency.

The poverty, disinvestment and accompanying violence endemic to many of the surrounding communities have grown to such proportions that we cannot look away.  They are on our doorstep, threatening our way of life – or, in Elijah’s case, taking life.

Despite suggestions of a presidential candidate, we cannot simply “build a wall” to protect ourselves from the difficulties facing our neighbors.  Nor will cul-de-sacs or higher property taxes immunize us against the socio economic ills beyond our borders.

Violence, crime, loss of life and loss of hope – these are the symptoms of much deeper problems, rooted in a history and society that won’t easily change course.  We literally must stem the bleeding to give us time to systematically address the inequities, lack of opportunity, racism and limited access to capital and services.

Embracing local economic regionalism is part of the solution.  Only recently have we talked about collaborations with Forest Park as a partner in the economic health of our area, rather than a competitor.  The same must be true of our eastern neighbor.   Violence doesn’t stop at Austin Boulevard, but nor does opportunity, investment or relationships.  Our businesses have customers from Austin.  Our professionals have set up businesses on the west side of Chicago.  Our residents have friends in Austin. Churchgoers cross the boulevard every Sunday in both directions.

Our community’s prosperity, safety and opportunity must expand beyond our borders. Regionalism is no longer just proactive or even speculative.  The best way to protect our community is to expand its benefits to those around us through intentional investment and involvement.

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Cathy Yen

Cathy Yen is the Executive Director of the Oak Park River Forest Chamber of Commerce.  She has lived in Oak Park for 21 years and done business locally, first as a retailer and then as a small business...