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Dual labors of love: Documenting a Chicago neighborhood that would not die

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Chicago-based triple-threat Martha Irvine – a national writer who now reports in text, photos and video – has always been interested in telling stories about the city’s neighborhoods that buck stereotypes. So when she was approached by a property attorney who was volunteering his time to a grassroots project to “reclaim” abandoned housing in a neighborhood on the city’s South Side, she visited the neighborhood and launched a multimedia project.

Irvine also applied for and received a Restorative Narrative Fellowship from ivoh.org and the Michigan-based Fetzer Institute – funding for journalists to tell the stories of people coming together to solve problems. The fellowship allowed Irvine to spend a bit of her own time pursuing the story,evenings and weekends,in addition to time on the clock. Emily Leshner,now a New York-based AP producer and shooter,also became interested in the project,spending a weekend in Chicago to shoot with Irvine.

Some neighbors were wary at first. But Irvine – who describes the project as “a labor of love” – just kept showing up and worked her contacts,eventually finding Hasan Smith,a former gang member who was rebuilding a foreclosed home for himself and his wife,Mary,with the help of others returning from prison. Irvine decided to follow him through the process of rebuilding the home,checking in regularly to document the process. She also spent time interviewing neighbors and community organizers who would be “supporting cast” in the story, explaining the nuts and bolts of just how this neighborhood was making its comeback.

Irvine also documented various examples of the community collaborating,while not sugar-coating continued issues with crime. She spent an evening riding along with violence interrupters from a group called Cure Violence,formerly CeaseFire.

In fact,Chicago police statistics showed that violent and property crimes in the neighborhood have dropped a stunning 45 percent since 2008,when the mortgage crisis first hit.

After she compiled and edited her work,Irvine worked with the Top Stories producing team – Shawn Chen,Samantha Shotzbarger, Alyssa Goodman and Phil Holm – on the multimedia presentation for the AP News site and app.

The story ran in an array publications and websites – from Fairbanks,Alaska,to Billings,Montana, to the Christian Science Monitor and the Daily Journal of Commerce.

On the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune version of the story a reader posted: “Think about what those houses have seen and the stories they could tell. Makes me want to be a part of it.”

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An apartment building at 62nd Street and Washtenaw Ave. in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood of Chicago shown Nov. 15, 2013, top, and again on April 19, 2016, bottom. The building was the first of scores of vacant buildings that have since been rehabbed and reoccupied in Chicago Lawn. – Southwest Organizing Project via AP

The social media response was strong all of Thanksgiving week – from Twitter to Facebook and LinkedIn. The Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation was among many that retweeted the story to followers.

Calling the packaged “incredibly uplifting,” one woman added: “Loved the video,too. Inspiration station.”

And one reader emailed: “It’s always been my feeling that there aren’t enough models out there of unity,determination and success,and if there were more of those,what seems hopeless could probably be turned around. I wish to God we could read more articles like yours! A constant diet of news about terrifying threats to our democracy,racism and viciousness,is just pouring salt in our wounds for absolutely no useful purpose,because most of us can do little or nothing about those problems, and thus feel increasingly hopeless and helpless. It would be good to know if there is anything we could do to help with the terrific work the folks in Chicago are doing. Thanks for the bright spot.”

For an all-formats package that shed light on a Chicago neighborhood’s success story and resonated with readers, Martha Irvine earns this week’s Best of the States award.

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