CHICAGO -- When Hyde Park Bank wanted to tout its commitment to community affairs, it came up with what it thought was a clever idea.
The bank decided to put together a promotional booklet, and, in a twist, held a contest for elementary school students, who were asked to submit poems, essays, and illustrations about their neighborhoods.
The bank, which has $180 million of assets, is based in the affluent Hyde Park area, where single - family homes typically sell for more than $200,000. But under the Community Reinvestment Act, its lending territory encompasses most of the city's South Side, which includes some of the city's poorest neighborhoods.
So the bank solicited responses from students at 53 inner-city schools - and got a lot more than it bargained for.
"We thought we would have brightly colored, childish drawings of trees and houses, and funny little stories about the postman and the people on the block," said Timothy Goodsell, the bank's president. "The responses we received stunned us."
A Fearsome World
What the bank received were disturbing portraits of children imprisoned in landscapes of urban decay:
* "My neighborhood is like a hellhole," wrote Carolyn Bradley, age 11.
* "Leaving for school is scary. You never know when you might get shot," wrote Demetrius Jones, 13.
* Ten-year-old Nicole Lampkin wrote:
My neighborhood is so bad,
It makes you sad
It's not fun,
Because they have guns.
Don't go outside to get a ride,
Because they might skin your
"I've lived in the South Side for almost 20 years," said Mr. Goodsell. "I thought I had a very good picture of what life is like in these neighborhoods -- and this was news to me."
The 600 responses so stirred the bank that it published a paperback collection of the most moving entries, called "My Neighborhood: The Words and Pictures of Inner-City Children."
"We viewed this as an opportunity to serve this community by trying to educate the public in some small way of the problems that prevail here," said Mr. Goodsell. "We think there is a lesson in this for the banking industry: There are needs in this society that aren't being met."
With its efforts, the bank has also earned some good will in the community. "It indicates to me that the Hyde Park Bank is concerned about their community," said Nancy Stevenson, chief executive of Voices for Illinois Children, an advocacy group. "Anything that raises the consciousness about what we can do to help children is positive."
The initial printing of 5,000 copies sold out within weeks. Another 5,000 have been published, and the bank is weighing a third printing. It is also speaking with a national distributor.
Proceeds from the book, which sells for $15.95, will go to the bank's foundation, which provides grants to local schools for enrichment and attendance incentive programs, said Linda Waldman, the public relations executive who wrote the text introducing the children's work.
The bank also awarded savings bonds of $500, $250, and $100 to the three best entries, plus $1,000 in cash to the school of the first-place contestant.
Mr. Goodsell said that what he thought was a sharp promotional campaign has become an eye-opening experience.
"The lesson for society in this is that there is a problem festering here that will come back to haunt us," he said. "The business community has got to play a larger role in developing a political consensus" on the problems of the inner city.