(Photography by Anne Ryan)

All over the map

High school students fan out to help the University’s Urban Health Initiative chart the resources in Chicago neighborhoods where there are too few.

It says nine to six. It should be open right now.”

On a Wednesday morning in mid-July, 18-year-old Jimmy Galmore stands on the sidewalk at 79th Street and Prairie Avenue on Chicago’s South Side, squinting through a locked security gate into a dark and empty Allstate insurance office. It’s a little after 10 a.m., and the heat of the day is still gathering. Behind him, traffic rumbles by.

“Can you see anything?” asks Stephanie Short, AB’13, holding a piece of paper with a grid of addresses.

“Not really.”

“OK. There’s a phone number; let’s call.”

Galmore reads out the digits, and Short dials. No answer. But voice mail picks up, identifying the office as an Allstate location. “OK,” says Short, “so put ‘unsure.’” Now she’s talking to Dajia Dampeer, also 18, who’s tapping the information into a smartphone. “The number’s still working and by and large the exterior still looks OK. So I would say, ‘closed when it’s supposed to be open but may be OK; number still working.’”

Short makes a mark beside one of the addresses on her paper, and the group moves on to the storefront next door—Branch of Divine Outreach Ministries, with a bright red sign and shuttered blinds—inching their way east toward Cottage Grove, where they’ll turn south toward 92nd Street.

This is the slow, careful work of MAPSCorps, a project of the University of Chicago Medicine’s Urban Health Initiative that each summer teams up dozens of local high schoolers with University students and recent grads to walk the South Side—and now the West Side—block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, gathering data on every public and commercial entity they find: every church and park and school, every organization and community center, every corner store and fast-food restaurant and beauty salon and home-based daycare. Using a smartphone app, the students record locations’ names, addresses, phone numbers, and other basic information, and they make note of whether each appears to be open and operating. Later, professional surveyors follow up with phone calls and site visits to verify exactly what goods and services are available inside each place. Funded largely by a grant from the Department of Health and Human ServicesCenters for Medicare and Medicaid Services, MAPSCorps launched in 2009 and is a collaboration with the UChicago Survey Lab.

The project is an annual census. Each summer the students update the previous year’s information and add new territory. To date the project has mapped more than 35 neighborhoods on the South and West Sides, collecting information on more than 16,000 businesses across about 106 square miles.

One purpose of all this is to map the resources in a part of the city that doesn’t have enough of them. That data can be put to use in lots of ways by researchers, policy makers, and community development advocates. And, maybe most importantly, by neighborhood residents themselves. MAPSCorps cofounder and principal investigator Stacy Tessler Lindau, AM’02, a UChicago gynecologist, uses the information to connect her patients with goods and services they need to stay healthy. Along with regular prescriptions, she and other UChicago doctors are starting to hand out what’s called a HealtheRx, a printed inventory, tailored to each patient’s location and needs, listing places where they can go to find fresh produce or physical exercise, mental-health counseling, social support, job training, food pantries, financial advice, after-school programs. (The data is also available online in its entirety.) “I see a real disparity between how visible the Loop is, or Lincoln Park, and how visible the South Side of Chicago is on mainstream media like Google,” Lindau says. Businesses and organizations serving low-income neighborhoods often can’t afford advertising or websites and don’t show up in online searches or lists of resources. “And if they’re not visible, then they’re as good as nonexistent,” Lindau says. “I as a physician cannot refer my patient to a counseling center that I don’t know about and that my patient can’t find.”

At a conference on urban data back in March, Lindau described the “moral distress” of a doctor who diagnoses a patient with diabetes and writes a prescription for insulin but can’t offer specific information on where to fill that prescription in the patient’s own neighborhood, or where to go for the healthy diet and exercise also necessary to keep a diabetic out of trouble. “I talk about the Physicians’ Desk Reference, which is a book this thick of all the drugs in the world,” Lindau says, holding her hands a foot apart. “And it’s updated every year. Why don’t we have the physicians’ community reference? Why don’t we have the equivalent quality of information for all those resources that people need to be healthy and live their lives?”

She stops. “I don’t mean that to be a rhetorical question,” she says. “And whatever the answer is, it shouldn’t be so.”

Six years ago, when MAPSCorps was still an intention in search of a concrete idea—“use science to improve health on the South Side” was part of Lindau’s broad directive from the Urban Health Initiative—Lindau and the project’s other cofounders began holding meetings with neighborhood leaders and residents. They wanted some guidance; they wanted to make sure they didn’t spend time and money on something less than effective.

Those encounters provided some crystallizing moments. At one meeting in Hyde Park, a woman challenged Lindau on the concept of wellness. “Your definition of health, Dr. Lindau, is not my definition of health.” That’s how Lindau remembers the quote. She was the only white person in the room that night. “And what I heard the woman saying was: you’re white and I’m black; you don’t look like me. And you’re coming from that ivory tower over there. And you’re a medical doctor. And for all those reasons, your assumptions about what it means to be healthy cannot possibly align with my assumptions as a community member, as a black woman, as an expert of the neighborhood.”

The woman was angry, and she was standing with her finger raised. Listening, Lindau realized the woman was right: “We should not make assumptions about what we think is health.” So Lindau began searching for a broader definition than what medical science offered. She landed on the one used by the World Health Organization: health not just as the absence of disease or infirmity but as social and mental wellbeing too. “Where we live, learn, work, play, how we age,” Lindau says. “All of these things are what make us healthy.”

And jobs—especially for young people. In all those early meetings, there was an urgent sense that without jobs there could be no health in a community. And when Lindau and other MAPSCorps cofounders asked for suggestions about how to shape the project, they kept hearing one thing, repeatedly, from different people on different days in different neighborhoods: find a way to involve the kids. That’s how to change the trajectory of neighborhood health. “That was their number one stipulation,” Lindau says. “And I remember the day where this was said for the first time. I remember it being a stop-in-your-shoes sort of moment.”

The high schoolers who make up the vast majority of the MAPSCorps workforce out in the field are as central to the project’s purpose as the data they gather. They’re South Siders too, who spend eight weeks mapping some of their own streets, taking a close and sustained look, sometimes for the first time, at the neighborhoods where they grew up (it’s an experience that some choose to repeat, coming back for more than one summer). Some days the students are given additional assignments, to take pictures of objects that are harmful or beneficial to the community—potholes, a box of cigarettes, a planter full of flowers—or to approach residents with set questions about the health of the neighborhood. “We ask them, like, ‘Do you feel like your neighborhood is safe?’ Or, what is their definition of success for a neighborhood?” Dampeer says. Some people talk; some people don’t. “There are some people who are willing to talk and just give their whole life story.”

“At the end of the session, the high schoolers begin to think about neighborhood in a way they didn’t before,” says UChicago pediatrician Daniel Johnson, LAB’73, another MAPSCorps cofounder. “They begin to talk almost like a community development person. Because they begin to talk about what’s in their neighborhood.”

Heading down 79th Street in the Chatham neighborhood and turning south on Cottage Grove, Galmore, Dampeer—both from Wrightwood-Ashburn, a couple of neighborhoods to the west—and Short, who now works for the Survey Lab, pass beauty supply stores and storefront churches, nail salons, chop suey joints, wireless stores, and corner stores selling food, liquor, and clothing. A McDonald’s, Larry’s Barber College, First Come First Serve General Merchandise (“great savings!”). A tailor, a florist, a clothing boutique, a barbershop on the corner where everyone inside is singing with the radio. They see empty storefronts, a vacant lot. The group spends several minutes in front of a tax service, trying to determine whether it’s bolted shut just for the season or for good. They ask a man standing in another doorway if the air-conditioner repair shop next door is ever open. He shrugs. “They keep strange hours,” he reports. Dampeer notices that they don’t see many health clinics or grocery stores or bookstores. “A lot of churches,” says Galmore.

People notice the students. They’re hard to miss in their matching turquoise T-shirts with “MAPSCorps” printed across the front (in designing them, the project team was careful to choose colors that wouldn’t get students mistaken for gang members or immigration officers). Some people say hello—a woman rushing two children across the street, a man sweeping up trash with a broom and a snow shovel. An old man in a pressed yellow suit and a white fedora tips his hat. Others just stare. When the group stops into a coffee shop at 79th and Calumet for brownies and iced coffee, the owner comes out from behind the counter and buttonholes Galmore. What is MAPSCorps? She wants to know. He explains the project, tells her what the acronym stands for: Meaningful Active Productive Science in service to communities. She asks what grade he’s in, whether he’s going to college. He and Dampeer are both high school graduates who are starting college this fall, he at Roosevelt University and she at Denison University. The coffee shop owner smiles. “Good,” she says.

This past summer, MAPSCorps employed 90 teenagers (hired through a nonprofit called After School Matters) to fan out across the South Side. This year they also broached the West Side; eventually, Lindau hopes to cover the whole city. The students work in teams of usually three to five, each led by a University student or young alum acting as field coordinator. They learn about data, why it’s important, the science of gathering it properly. On Fridays the students get a day off from mapping. Instead, if they choose—and most do—they can congregate at Ida Noyes for workshops on issues like nutrition, finances, sexual health, and sexual violence. They do yoga, they dance. Besides all of that, and besides the job, the paycheck, and practice in what it takes to stay employed—that, as Johnson says, “you come dressed a certain way, you come prepared to work, you come on time, you have a certain set schedule, you can’t leave early”—the interaction between College students and high schoolers, he adds, is good for both. The younger students get a taste of what college might be like, from people who are more grown up but still young enough to talk to them as peers. UChicago students, meanwhile, learn about the South Side, from people who live there and go to school there. They get a glimpse of what life is like there.

Short seconds that observation. As a College student, she says, she ventured outside Hyde Park more than some of her classmates; she had a car, and she tutored students in Englewood. But walking the neighborhoods offers a deeper, slower lesson, a view into the reality of South Side residents’ lives. Yes, the neighborhoods can be tough—on her first day out someone tried to snatch her MAPSCorps smartphone out of her hand—but not always, and not only. It’s a complicated place. “We’re all people living on this earth,” Short says.

At Ida Noyes this past June, tables full of new mappers and field coordinators packed the first-floor library for the MAPSCorps orientation session. In her presentation to the group, Lindau stood at the podium and declared them all to be scientists. “It’s important that you know that,” she told them. “It’s important that you believe it.”

Later, talking in her office, she says it again. “The kids who are working for us this summer are acting as scientists for our lab. They are collecting data that we will analyze for human good. And that makes them scientists for the summer. So it’s true to say it, and somebody should say it.” Thinking about those high schoolers, Lindau is reminded, she says, of Marie Curie.

The famous physicist and chemist who helped pioneer the study of radioactivity grew up poor in politically oppressed Poland, and if she had been less obsessively driven to finish her education, she might not have. Curie worried, Lindau says, about “people who came from poor countries, young people especially, with brilliant minds that would go wasted because they were undiscovered. That there were scientists everywhere, regardless of class or upbringing, and that the scientific mind could go undiscovered and that the risk of this would be even higher in low-income communities, struggling communities. That really spoke to me. I share that concern.”

Lindau knows that to many, perhaps most, of the high schoolers she calls scientists, the title may not mean much. Asked at the orientation session to raise their hands and explain why they’d joined MAPSCorps, students said they needed money for gas, or to buy shoes, or to save for tuition. But one student said she was interested in public health, and another wanted to be a doctor, another an engineer. “And so for me,” Lindau says, “MAPSCorps is in part about making sure—how do we make sure that the scientific minds among the 860,000 people who make up the South Side of Chicago do not go unnoticed? And how do we give kids, at a point when their brains are still forming, the privilege of curiosity?”

After Dampeer, Galmore, and Short finish the day’s mapping assignment, they take the bus back to 79th and Racine Avenue, to the neighborhood organization they’ve been working out of for the past few days. MAPSCorps collaborates with local groups throughout the South Side, and the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation is one of many temporary home bases for mapping teams.

Soon other MAPSCorps teams show up, returning from their own assignments in the area. It’s almost 2 p.m. They crowd around a conference room table for the day’s last work: a discussion led by field coordinator Beth Knopf, a College third-year, about neighborhood assets and how they “promote the success of the community.” Knopf passes out Post-it notes and asks the dozen or so students to write down the important assets they’ve come across while mapping. They offer churches, parks, hospitals, youth centers, block clubs, summer programs. By far the most common answer, though, is schools.

“OK, what do schools help promote?” Knopf asks.

Several kids answer at once: “Education.”

“Future jobs,” another says.

“What else?” Knopf asks.

The students consider for a moment. “Safety,” one says.

And then another: “Health.”