Though little more than 10 miles to the south, Grand Crossing is worlds away from Downtown Chicago. Instead of the sleek office towers and luxury apartment buildings sprouting like weeds in and around the Loop, this South Side neighborhood is a jumble of empty lots, industrial buildings, and humble wood-frame and brick single-family homes. In the midst of these dreary surroundings is an almost improbable symbol of optimism—the colorfully clad, $30 million Gary Comer Youth Center, with its scrolling LED sign atop an 80-foot-tall tower that punctuates the otherwise low-rise landscape.

The building, financed by Lands End founder Gary Comer, was completed in July 2006, just months before he died of cancer at age 78. The mail-order retailer had grown up in Grand Crossing and had attended Paul Revere Elementary school, just one block from the site of the future youth center. His reengagement with his old neighborhood reportedly began in the late 1990s, with the donation of computers to Revere. Soon, Comer’s involvement with the community deepened, and in early 2004, on the basis of a recommendation from a professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology, he sought out Chicago architect John Ronan.

Comer’s desire was to build a home for the 300-member South Shore Drill Team—a 28-year-old parade performance group, whose mission is to combat teen drug use and violence by instilling kids with self-discipline and confidence. But Comer’s ambitions for the building grew, with the program expanding almost weekly, according to Ronan. The philanthropist’s vision for the center eventually evolved into a three-story, 75,000-square-foot facility that would support recreational and educational programs for all Grand Crossing youth.

The program’s expansion might have complicated site selection, but Comer had already acquired much of the available land in the neighborhood. The project “had an unreal quality,” comments Ronan. “We could pick the site and make up the program.”