Janet Smith knows the neighborhood

Janet Smith

Janet Smith, co-director of the Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement, collaborates with communities to improve the quality of life for people in low-income neighborhoods. “It’s nice when you’re able to help someone with a problem they have,” Smith says. Photo: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin/UIC Photo Services

Janet Smith, who studies neighborhood change as co-director of UIC’s Voorhees Center, is someone who’s been there.

“What informed me was my experience in the neighborhood,” said Smith, who grew up at 85th Street and Stony Island Avenue in the Marynook community.

“We went from a mixed-race neighborhood to me being one of the last white kids on my block.”

The Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement, part of the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, has been around for 34 years.

“Most of our work is with communities in the city, with people of color and low income who need resources and research to help improve their quality of life,” said Smith, co-director since 2004.

Before the Chicago Housing Authority began moving residents into mixed-income housing a dozen years ago, following massive demolition of high-rises, Smith led a team from UIC hired to do a rental market study.

In a related project, with several other consultants, the center produced a report for CHA tenants — labeled as “a comprehensive vision for the future that would see the city provide quality housing to many more low-income families.”

The center’s work with CHA residents is an example of its general approach, said Smith, associate professor of urban planning and policy.

“We don’t just parachute in, do a study and leave,” she said.

“People come to us and we shape the project to fit their needs. It’s best when the client takes ownership of the product. It’s a real collaboration.”

The center is doing an affordable housing study in Hyde Park, involving data collection and analysis on the loss of rental housing.

On the national scene, Voorhees is part of a team that includes Access Living, a disability rights organization, studying housing discrimination against people with mental disabilities.

The center is part of a five-year effort to look at access to employment and community services for people with disabilities. The study is a collaboration with Americans with Disabilities Act centers across the country, including the Great Lakes ADA Center in the College of Applied Health Sciences’ department of disability and human development.

Another national project by the Voorhees center, under way for the U.S. Defense Department, concerns the impact on local communities of the realignment of 56 military bases in the U.S. and Guam.

“How do communities plan and adapt for losing or gaining a base?” Smith said, adding that schools, employment, housing, transportation and congestion are affected.

Internationally, Smith is an adviser for a seven-year University of Toronto research project looking at neighborhood change in six cities across Canada.

Building off its research on race, community politics and immigration shifts in the Chicago region, the center co-organized symposiums in Chicago and London to compare the U.S., Europe and the UK.

The Voorhees Center has 10 research assistants, all pursuing master’s degrees or Ph.D.s in urban planning.

“We have them for two years,” Smith said. “By the time they leave, they’ve probably worked on five projects, with their responsibilities increased to the point of managing a project.”

As for Smith, who also teaches urban planning, “I lead research projects, make sure things are moving, initiate new projects, find out how to get funding and develop projects,” she said.

“I do research, too, write research reports and crunch numbers.”

She finds it extremely rewarding to collaborate with communities and the center’s students.

“It’s nice when you’re able to help someone with a problem they have,” Smith said.

Among her biggest challenges is prodding the university into motion — it’s too big an institution to be nimble.

“It’s easier to get a million-dollar project than a $5,000 project,” she said.

Smith earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at UIUC before completing a Ph.D. at Cleveland State University. She came to UIC in 1997.

She lives in Printer’s Row with her husband, James Loellbach, a chef at the Pump Room. They met when both were undergrads, working as short-order cooks in an Urbana restaurant.

Any children? “No kids, no pets, no house plants even,” she said. “And no car, we sold it in 2005.”

Smith loves cooking, especially for dinner parties, and learning about the cultures associated with food.

She and her husband are avid bicyclists.

“I like exploring the city,” she said. “Anywhere I go, I want to know what’s happening.”

And with her interest in neighborhood change, that’s most true when she’s talking about where she lives.

“I want to understand the politics and dynamics of what’s happening in my neighborhood,” she said.

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