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In Chicago’s Woodlawn, community development sparks talk of neighborhood renewal

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Can an Obama Library bump add more momentum to the city’s South Side?

A rendering of Woodlawn Station, a new transit-oriented development by POAH that just broke ground.
Preservation of Affordable Housing

For an authoritative take on the pulse of development in Woodlawn, a neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, it’s a good idea to check with a man whose name is emblazoned on a nearby street sign. Rudy Nimocks, a retired police officer and former chief of police and director of community partnerships for the University of Chicago, Woodlawn’s neighbor to the north, can claim a residential stretch of roadway on the north end of the neighborhood, at 61st and Greenwood, as his namesake.

As a longtime neighborhood fixture who has called the area home since 1952—he was often spotted patrolling Woodlawn in his red Mini Cooper—Nimocks probably knows this part of the city as well as anybody else. And he’s seen change come over the past five years that may have been unimaginable just a few decades ago.

“When I was growing up in the ’50s, this was one of the most desirable neighborhoods in Chicago,” he says. “You didn’t see any of the vacant lots you see now. Things started to thin out after the riots in the ’60s. But we’ve done a great job organizing—we’re one of the most organized neighborhoods in the city—and the change in demographics recently has been dramatic.”

Part of Chicago’s Black Belt—a collection of South Side neighborhoods that, due to redlining and segregation, became a self-contained “Black Metropolis” and center of the city’s African-American life in the middle of the 20th century—Woodlawn has been a neighborhood greatly impacted by its geography. Bounded by two of the city’s legendary public spaces, Jackson and Washington Parks, as well as the prestigious University of Chicago and the Lakefront, the area was a magnet for the middle class, who were initially attracted by the wonders and work opportunities presented by the famous 1893 Columbian Exposition. But discriminatory postwar housing practices, white flight, and disinvestment created a downward spiral that turned an area known in the ’60s for jazz clubs, culture, and community into one scarred by economic damage and crime.

Recently, Woodlawn has entered a new era of development and investment, highlighted by the announced arrival of the Barack Obama Presidential Library on the western edge of Jackson Park, a half-billion-dollar prestige project expected to land on the neighborhood’s doorstep by 2021. It’s the latest in a series of developments that have made Woodlawn an up-and-coming destination. Real estate brokerage Redfin just named it one of the city’s hottest neighborhoods for 2017, and Curbed readers voted it the best neighborhood of 2016.

“A number of new housing developments laid the groundwork for the confidence boost the neighborhood is currently experiencing,” says Benjamin Van Horne, home builder and owner of Greenline Homes, who has worked in the neighborhood for 17 years. “The Obama Library announcement took that existing confidence level and doubled, even tripled it.”

The Obama Library Foundation announced last year that Woodlawn would be the new home of the highly anticipated library.
Obama Library Foundation

In addition to new housing developments, commercial corridors on 63rd Street and Cottage Grove are seeing renewed interest. A public golf course in Jackson Park is even being redeveloped by Tiger Woods’s company, a powerful symbol of promise, as well as anxiety.

The “rediscovery” touted by some developers doesn’t take stock of the area’s history, or many of the residents who, like Nimocks, have called the area home for decades. Many may see the beginnings of the stereotypical story of gentrification in news of Woodlawn’s renewed growth, or remain skeptical of growth in an area that still faces significant, though steadily declining, crime problems (a mother shot while walking her baby in Woodlawn became national news when the story was tweeted by President Trump). But many boosters say Woodlawn’s recent surge tells a different story, centered on the importance of small-scale projects, holistic development, and local involvement.

Bill Eager, vice president of the Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH), a group that’s played a big role in building new affordable housing, says “it takes a village to raise a village.”

“It’s really has been a group effort,” says Eager. “We’ve contributed to a much wider effort. Increased levels of block club and community organizing and activity, among neighbors and neighborhood groups, have had a big effect. People are looking at Woodlawn differently than they have for a very long time.”

A release from the Obama Library foundation that announced its decision to locate in Woodlawn read: "The plan is for the center to be developed in a way that benefits everyone in the community, uses broad collaboration with the community and embraces engagement with the entire community." The former POTUS and community organizer might take heart, then, since that development, spurred on by an initiative introduced during his time in office, already appears to be taking place.

A photo from 1955 showing pedestrian traffic and CTA buses under the 'L' at 63rd & Cottage Grove, a main thoroughfare in Woodlawn.

To understand just how much Woodlawn has changed from Nimocks’s childhood in the ’50s to now, look at its population figures: At its peak in 1960, the neighborhood had 81,279 residents. Now it has fewer than 25,000 (alternatively, 2016 was the first year of population growth in decades).

Woodlawn was hit especially hard by the urban flight of the ’60s and ’70s—Lorraine Hansberry’s famous play A Raisin in the Sun, in part about a black family moving into a white neighborhood, was inspired by her experiences living in the neighborhood—as well as the Great Recession. Though the area never experienced riots, it did suffer through a string of insurance fires in the late ’60s and ’70s that drove away commercial interest, and it continues to suffer through the city’s recent waves of violence (a 1995 Tribune article said the area alderman had compared it to “war-torn Beirut”).

The scene of a house in Chicago's Woodlawn neighborhood on Sunday, February 26, 2017 on the 6600 block of South Champlain Avenue.
Getty Images/Chicago Tribune

“Violence has been the sole descriptor for Woodlawn for so many who live outside of it, and the story, history, and beauty of the area gets lost,” says Joel Hamernick, executive director of Sunshine Gospel Ministries and Sunshine Enterprises, an organization focused on youth outreach and community development. “I have never spoken with someone who grew up in this neighborhood in the ’50s who said it wasn’t an amazing place to grow up. You discover there’s a collective identity here. It’s still a great neighborhood. And people want to see it redevelop and be greater.”

This isn’t Woodlawn’s first bid for investment and redevelopment. In the ’90s, Bishop Arthur Brazier, a celebrated civil rights leader and the head of Woodlawn's Apostolic Church of God, a community anchor, successfully pushed for the teardown of out-of-use elevated train tracks along 63rd Street. The move promised the beginning of commercial and residential development along one of the neighborhood’s busiest corridors. However, plans stalled and never took root (Brazier’s son, Dr. Byron T. Brazier, who now runs the church and its real estate investments in the community, declined to speak to Curbed for this article).

Many point to the re-development of Grove Parc Plaza, a Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH) project that started in 2008, as an early catalyst. Located on a three-block section in the center of the neighborhood on Cottage Grove Avenue, the mid-rise public-housing development built in 1968 struggled financially from the beginning, says Eager, and buckled under the weight of decades of deferred maintenance (at one point, HUD sold the partially abandoned complex to a developer for $1).

Plagued with crime, it was considered “beyond salvation,” as he puts it. “A lot of people thought we were crazy when we took it over,” he says. “But we jumped in with both feet and got some momentum going.”

POAH demolished the buildings to create more upscale, yet affordable, mid-rise apartments called Woodlawn Park, and made it a point to avoid displacement; any tenant who wanted to stay was welcome. A key to the organization’s success was obtaining a HUD Choice Neighborhoods Initiative Grant in 2011, which provided funds for housing paired with community-development programs.

POAH used the $30.5 million grant to accelerate and expand their plans and build a 10,000-square-foot Woodlawn Resource Center in the center of the development, which provides case management as well as social and mental health services. The Choice Grant also funds job placement programs, which have helped more than 200 people find position over the last few years.

All in all, POAH says the Choice Grant has helped bring $400 million worth of investment to Woodlawn. “The idea was redevelopment without displacement,” says Eager. “We had a master plan and a vision with the community, not for the community.”

POAH has transformed the rundown stretch of buildings, demolishing 500 units (many of which were abandoned) and replacing them with 165 new units. POAH has also expanded its footprint in the neighborhood with additional projects. Under construction at 61st Street and Cottage Grove, the 24-unit Trianon Lofts building will be the first market-rate rental housing in the area in more than 40 years, and on 63rd and Cottage Grove, Woodlawn Station, a four-story transit-oriented development with affordable residential and retail just broke ground.

Through a partnership with Neighborhood Housing Services and Community Investment Corporation, POAH also created Renew Woodlawn, which purchases distressed property and sells them to potential homeowners at a subsidized discount. More than 20 properties are currently under contract.

Other builders and community members say POAH’s work has been seen as a “green light,” a catalyst and sign to invest in the area, which had been gut-punched by the recession: In 2009, there were 4.5 foreclosure auctions for every 100 residential parcels in Woodlawn, the second-highest rate in Chicago, and neighborhood home values dropped 83 percent from 2006 to 2012.

Van Horne and his company, Greenline Development (a reference to redlining), are working on more than a dozen single-family homes in Woodlawn, including a home at 6510 South Dorchester, six homes planned for the 6100 block of Ellis, a cluster of eight net-zero homes at Marquette Road and Kenwood Avenue that feature sustainable design and solar panels, and a new project at 6118 South Langley that’ll be the first single-family home built west of Cottage Grove in decades.

“The fundamentals remain strong, and have only gotten stronger,” Van Horne says. “Four years ago, homes here were still worth pennies on the dollar, and condo investment was toxic. But at the same time, a lot of important, impressive things were happening on the neighborhood level that laid the groundwork for what’s happening today.”

Because the neighborhood never had the kind of high-rise housing developments found in other parts of the South Side, such as the South Shore neighborhood, there are more brick two-flats and open space for developments and new homes. Other developers have taken note, suggesting that perhaps this isn’t a false start. KMW Communities, better known for high-end homes in trendy Bucktown on the near northwest side, have also broken ground on single-family homes.

“There’s potential to do comprehensive community development without displacement,” says Eager. “There’s room and a little bit of momentum. It could be a wonderful example of community improvement that involves the people living here.”

Community engagement has been key to that transformation, according to Van Horne and Eager. A web of neighborhood groups, such as the Woodlawn Public Safety Alliance and 1Woodlawn, have helped foster community development and fight crime. And recently, Woodlawn’s biggest neighbor has become more involved.

The University of Chicago and Woodlawn have had a tense relationship throughout much of their history, according to Eager. While Hyde Park, a regal area of grand homes and Gothic campus architecture, has benefited greatly from being close to the school, Woodlawn, just a few blocks away, has only recently received more attention.

When the city sought to develop areas of North Woodlawn in the ’60s, a neighborhood group protested and forced administrators to agree to stop developing past 61st Street. That agreement held steady for decades. The University of Chicago’s new charter school on 63rd Street, which broke ground last fall, is the school’s first substantial investment in the area in a generation and a sign of recent re-approachment, including offering faculty financial incentives to live in Woodlawn.

“When I first built here in the neighborhood nearly 20 years ago, the U of C was something of a boogeyman,” says Van Horne. “Everybody assumed they owned all the empty lots, that they were some kind of hidden power. There was a lot of distrust, and the university has made huge strides in that area.”

In the last few years, Van Horne says development has spread from the northeast corner of Woodlawn, the one closest to the university. Significant immigration has brought new diversity to that area, a reduction in street crime, and school improvement.

“Education and public safety, those are the two pillars,” Nimocks says. “You know as well as I do if a young couple is moving from Lincoln Park [a wealthy neighborhood on the city’s north side] to Woodlawn, the first two questions are, ‘How are the schools and the crime?’”

With an upswing in housing and residential construction, the neighborhood needs additional commercial development, according to Hamernick, who says retail shops have totally evaporated in the last two decades (Eager agrees, admitting commercial development hasn’t taken root as fast as he initially expected). Two coffee shops, Robust and Greenline, have opened in the last few years, but empty commercial spaces on 63rd Street and Cottage Grove suggest there’s plenty of possibility. Hamernick believes now is the time for locals to invest in homes and start businesses, to help them take advantage of the upswing coming with the Obama Library.

Children cool off with water as they play and piggy-back ride each other at Woodlawn Community, Chicago, Iillinois, 1973.
Image courtesy John White/US National Archives. (Photo via Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Image

“As a stakeholder in the community, it’s about how we can get people in the neighborhood positioned to benefit from that wave of investment,” he says. “We’re focused on finding ways to give neighborhood entrepreneurs a chance to revitalize. 63rd Street is ripe for businesses that go beyond day care centers, barber shops, corner stores, and beauty shops. It’s a natural corridor to invest.”

Van Horne has seen his share of potential buyers with deep-seated prejudice against the South Side. While the beginnings of a Woodlawn resurgence offer a contrasting narrative to the negative coverage many of Chicago’s neighborhoods receive in the national media, the builder admits it’s outside his power to change everyone’s opinion. But he’s also noticed that more and more buyers are willing to make a long-term bet on Woodlawn.

“People who do their own research and spend some time in the neighborhood usually come away impressed,” he says, “and curious to know more.”