SPECIAL REPORT: A Tale of Two Cities - WEEK.com: Peoria-area News, Weather, Sports

SPECIAL REPORT: A Tale of Two Cities

PEORIA, Ill. -- Depending on who you ask, or where you live, Peoria is either the *best city, or the worst, when it comes to quality of life.

Just a few years ago, Peoria was declared an *all American City, but this year it was ranked *the worst place to live for African Americans.

When Charles Dickens wrote It was the best of times...it was the worst of times', he dared to put two contradictory concepts together. 
Is it possible to have best and worst in the same place? Consider Peoria.

Ahh Forever Young! Peoria's Rod Stewart look-alike leads a parade in an edited video that wins over the All American City Judges....Peoria recognized as a place where citizens work together to identify and tackle community wide challenges and achieve uncommon results.

"A fun video celebrating Peoria and all of its accomplishments and it was very fun to see...and then just a few years later to hear the news and some of the reports that it's one of the worst places in the world for somebody like me...uh, it's kinda crazy to think about," said Josiah Williams.

Organizers of this teen summit are thinking about the 24-7 Wall Street study and what it means for these young people...making sure they feel they are a part of the greater society, despite the socio-economic and cultural challenges facing the All American city.

"We received that award for a lot of our civic engagement, and there's no better issue that we need to be engaged around than trying to deal with the issues of economic disparities within our communities. And if we tackle it with the same type of vigor, we can address it. We can move the needle in the right direction," said Peoria City Manager Patrick Urich.

Making the right moves is job one for the men in the Lowry household.

The man of the house Ryan Lowry, an engineer by trade, is determined to have his sons succeed, and knows for them to do so, they must beat the odds.

"Things are not as bad as perhaps we make them seem, but for certain they are bad enough that things need to be done," said Ryan Lowry.

Lowry and Urich were among those invited to a forum held at Manual Academy, where scholars and everyday folk discussed the study.

"Those of you who are African American and were not surprised, raise your hand."

"Has Peoria changed a lot? Not that much," said Floyd Jackson.

Longtime barber Floyd Jackson says he sees the 24 7 Wall street findings--'24 7.'

From his vantage point on southwest Adams, Jackson says he has seen the city evolve, but some harsh realities, like staggering unemployment remain.

The study cites the black jobless rate in the metro area at 15 percent, three times the white unemployment rate.

Jackson says jobs have always been hard to find.

"When I was much younger as a teen, the only jobs you could get as a kid during the summer months is washing dishes or as a golf caddie, or shining shoes," said Jackson.

And with the poverty rate for African Americans in Peoria four times that of white families, social service agencies are busy year round.

"We've had situations where clients have come in looking for daycare, and yet, the children are hungry...so before we fill out the application, we go get them something to eat," said Laraine Bryson.

I asked the Urban League's Laraine Bryson whether years of discriminatory practices in housing and hiring, have created some call permanent barriers, as the study cites median black family income as half white family income.

Bryson added, "there was a time in housing where you had to be 18 to get an apartment, and the man/father could not be there, so in effect what you've done is broken up that family."

And at a time when the nation grapples with strained Police/black community relations, the study says Black Peorians are nearly nine times more likely to wind up in jail or prison than whites.

"Because I am active in the community...outside of being a Police Officer and growing up on the south side of Peoria in Harrison Homes, I think some of it is true," said Guyton.

But City Manager Urich and Forum organizer Dr. Marwin Spiller say when you factor in the Greater Metro area, the numbers are not as bad.

"Certainly those numbers don't reflect the day to day experiences that people are having in the city," said Spiller.

"What the message needs to be said is that if it's going to be that we're the worst city in the country, it really should be that we're the worst region. But when you just continue to say 'city', you're giving a pass to the 260-thousand people who live outside of the city of Peoria that live in the metro area, if they're using that data. That's not to sugarcoat this and say that we're not addressing these issues, we are," added Urich.

The City Manager says staffers are already in the process of developing strategies to promote economic development--working with the NAACP to boost hiring of minority contractors...an effort that can't come soon enough for Sam Hobson.

"They know we can do the work...they just don't want to hire us to do it," added Hobson.

So perhaps there is nothing to reconcile.

Perhaps the very definition of an All-American city is one that includes the ugly reminders that we have not yet overcome.

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