Gracie’s Cafe: Building Community One Cup At A Time

December 3, 2013

Gracie’s Café is the latest project of JCUA’s Community Ventures Program, which provides zero-interest loan for community development projects.  A long time coming, St. Leonard’s Ministries was able to open the doors of Gracie’s Café in September 2013 with a final push from a CVP economic development loan of $50,000. 

by Beth Filipiak
Organizing and Community Development Intern, JCUA

Gracies Cafe MenuChicagoans can certainly have their choice among coffee shops and cafés, but a few months ago in the Near West Side, a new café opened that is worth much more than a passing glance before heading onto something more familiar.  You won’t regret it.

Gracie’s Café is the latest venture of St. Leonard’s Ministry (SLM), an organization with almost 60 years’ experience of providing comprehensive residential, case management and employment development services for formerly incarcerated men and women.

Gracies Cafe from Chicago Gazette article Robert Dougherty Mike Ellert LaTonya Carter and Walter Boyd

Left to right: Bob Dougherty (from SLM), Mike Ellert (cafe manager), LaTonya Carter (cafe staff) and Walter Boyd (SLM director).

Each year, approximately 250-275 formerly incarcerated individuals reside in SLM’s four housing programs:  St. Leonard’s House, Grace House, St. Andrew’s Court and the Harvest Commons Residence, which opened late this summer in partnership with Heartland Alliance and is located in what was formerly known as the Viceroy Hotel.

Gracie’s Café, brightly lit and eco-friendly, is located on the ground floor next to the Harvest Commons garden.  In the summer there is patio seating and in the winter, friends can gather together inside and enjoy delicious year round Intelligentsia coffee and other warm beverages, light freshly prepared breakfast and lunch dishes, as well as Bridgeport Bakery pastries like apple squares and their season pumpkin bars.

The cafe staff

The cafe staff

Along with the great food and drink, customers can enjoy the warm feeling of knowing that they are supporting a great training program.

Gracie’s Café is staffed with graduates of SLM’s Culinary Skills program, which is run by its Employment Center.  As graduates of the training program, Gracie’s Cafe staff now receives valuable work experience and has the opportunity to meet with a job counselor to help them further their careers.

After training and working at Gracie’s Cafe, SLM’s goal is to move employees to stable, permanent jobs in communities and bring on new graduates to help them do the same.

As much more than a café, Gracie’s is definitely worth stopping by. Grab a cup of coffee, a bite to eat or ask about their catering options.  They are also a great venue for smaller meetings, gatherings and just a great atmosphere.

Gracie’s Cafe in the Media:

Check out their recent feature in Gazette Chicago, and watch for more information on when they will be featured in Chicago’s own 30 Good Minutes, by the Sunday Evening Club on PBS.

Cafe Info:

  • 1519 W. Warren Blvd (plenty of street parking available!)
  • M-F: 7am – 2pm; S: 8am – 2pm
  • 312.492.8800
  • Visit and Like them on Facebook

Community Development that Transforms Houses into Homes

August 27, 2013

by Beth Filipiak
JCUA Intern, Community Development

What really makes a house a home? Is it the flooring, or the façade? The paint colors or the appliances? Or rather is it the opportunity to actually call a place your own – a place for you and your family to live, to grow and to engage the community? To build that community spirit and connection, to know that this house, and the community, are yours.

Ownership is important, and that is the philosophy guiding the Breaking Ground organization as they continue to rehabilitate houses in neighborhoods like North Lawndale, Hermosa and Austin. They then sell them at below market rates, assist buyers in receiving additional government subsidies, and provide a one year guarantee on all of their construction work.

They see their work as part of a long term strategy of not only building homes, but also of building lives and the communities around them. Because of the care and dedication they put forward in their work, many of the homeowners maintain their relationship with Breaking Ground, knowing that this organization is also part of their community.

Taking a recent tour of the project were (photo at upper left) Ralph Brown, Kaitlyn Wiedeman, David Midgely, Roberta Nechin, Josh DeGraff, Zachary Braun and Judy Levey. Wiedeman and DeGraff are with Breaking Ground. Brown, Midgely, Nechin and Braun are JCUA leaders. Levey is JCUA's executive director.

Taking a recent tour of the project were (photo at upper left) Ralph Brown, Kaitlyn Wiedeman, David Midgely, Roberta Nechin, Josh DeGraff, Zachary Braun and Judy Levey. Wiedeman and DeGraff are with Breaking Ground. Brown, Midgely, Nechin and Braun are JCUA leaders. Levey is JCUA’s executive director.

As a 2010 recipient of a zero-interest loan from JCUA’s Community Ventures Program, Breaking Ground is part of the JCUA community. Hence, members of the Community Ventures Program Advisory Committee went to the North Lawndale community to see the results of their dedication first hand.

The committee learned that this particular grey stone house was scheduled for demolition before Breaking Ground was able to take over. It had been vacant, unsecured, and needed major infrastructure updates.

Now, the original hardwood floors have been beautifully rehabbed, the walls painted, the bathroom tiled, the kitchen cabinets and counters redone and all major systems are more than up to code. Standing there in the house, it was difficult to imagine that it had ever been considered for demolition. Yet without Breaking Ground, it would have most likely been a vacant lot. Instead, the Breaking Ground staff are putting the finishing touches into a future home for a family that would not have been able to live there otherwise, and the neighborhood will have another family with a place to call home.

Home ownership is a dream for too many people. There are too many people in Chicago who need a place to live. As of January 2013, the Chicago Housing Authority had a wait list with more than 85,000 people, while they still have over 2,000 empty (“offline”) units. A July 2013 study estimated that 116,042 Chicagoans were homeless in the 2012-2013 school year, a 10% increase from the previous year.

Affordable housing continues to be a great need, and may seem overwhelming at times, yet JCUA continues to work toward a more affordable Chicago. To learn more about JCUA’s Community Ventures Program, click here.

Chicago’s Affordable Housing Crisis And What We Are Doing About It

July 11, 2013

by Beth Filipiak
Community Development Intern, JCUA

In Chicago, your bank teller may not have the basic financial means to afford “affordable housing” without being considered “cost burdened.” To be “cost burdened” is when more than 30% of your income goes to basic housing costs.

Chicago’s Affordable Housing Crisis

affordable housingWith the average price of a one bedroom rental unit in Chicago being approximately $850, a person needs an annual salary of $34,000 to afford such an apartment.  Yet a bank teller does not typically make that much. Neither do many public school bus drivers, nursing aids, receptionists or security guards.

This also almost guarantees that these same professionals would not be able to afford a mortgage of a home priced at $150,000 without being cost burdened (see more statistics here). Hence, Chicago lacks truly affordable housing options for many workers and the unemployed.

However, too many apartments remain vacant: some are caught up in Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) ‘limbo’ where they are not being lived in, or are being torn down, as CHA figures out their “Plan Forward.

Some units have out priced their neighborhood. Others are uninhabitable, though, incredibly, the US Census 2011 American Community Survey reports that there are still a few occupied units in Chicago without complete plumbing, kitchens or available phone service.

Even owning your own home has not meant that you have been unscathed by the recent housing crisis.  Most likely you know someone who is struggling with mortgage payments (as of 2010, almost 50% of homeowners were).

What We Are Doing About It

There is no doubt that things need to change for the better.  At JCUA we strongly believe in the positive ripples that stable housing provides; for individuals, families and communities.  This is why for over the past twenty years, JCUA’s Community Ventures Program has provided almost $4.5 million in seed funding to create or rehab over 3,600 units of affordable housing.

This is why we continue to look for partners with a commitment to restoring and maintaining human dignity by offering truly affordable, safe and secure housing.  For more information about our Community Ventures Program, visit our website.

Remembering Bobbie Johnson: A Fearless Community Advocate and Partner

November 5, 2012

by Judy Levey
Executive Director, JCUA

Judy Levey reflects upon her encounters with Bobbie Johnson, a fearless community advocate on Chicago’s south side, who recently passed away.


Bobbie Johnson z”l

On Saturday, 11/3/12, I attended the memorial service of Bobbie Johnson, a woman I was honored to be able to call my friend.

Bobbie reached out to me in 2009 in my former role as the Director of Community Development at JCUA. Bobbie re-introduced me to the Rosenwald, a historic building in Bronzville on Chicago’s south side, which I was familiar with through my previous work on affordable housing preservation. She taught me about the history of the building, what it was like to live there, why it was so hard to redevelop it, and how she had been devoting more than 20 years of her life to preventing its demolition. Bobbie was not your average activist – although in my experience, “average activist” is an oxymoron. She was truly extraordinary. She was relentless, pushy, funny, determined, and knew how to celebrate life. She was a mother and grandmother, nurse, historian, organizer, program director, social worker, grant writer, teen mentor, and a bible scholar. She was larger than life.

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Our Jewish Response to Chicago’s Soaring Foreclosure Crisis

October 26, 2012

Judy Levey

by Judy Levey
Executive Director, JCUA

An article this week in the Washington Post called attention to the economic suffering of many communities four years after the housing bust. Near the top of the list for the most suffering is our own Cook County. The article states:

The list of worse-off communities includes places such as Cook County in Illinois, where home prices have fallen nearly 20 percent, unemployment has risen and the inventory of foreclosures has soared.

Responsive to poverty and community needs, JCUA’s work addresses this devastation through our housing advocacy work and our Community Ventures Program. Community Ventures provides zero-interest loans for the redevelopment and preservation of affordable housing. The program currently funds the rehabilitation of foreclosed homes in North Lawndale and neighboring communities through a loan to Breaking Ground, Inc., in addition to predevelopment costs associated with the rehabilitation of the Rosenwald Building to create more than 230 affordable units in Bronzeville (see more Community Ventures projects here).

My rabbi, Rabbi Kensky of Beth Hillel Congregation Bnai Emunah, spoke about the need for a Jewish voice in working to combat injustice in his Dvar Torah last Shabbat on the story of Noah. He generously shared his Dvar Torah with me and gave me permission to share it here. In it, Rabbi Kensky explained:

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