One day while researching a mixed-income housing development in the south-side neighborhood of Oakland, I wound up on the 4100 block of South Berkeley Avenue—a quiet residential street lined on the east side by colorful two-story cottages and capped at the north end by a garden filled with whimsical wooden sculptures.
This stretch of Berkeley stands out for its unique collection of houses by architect Cicero Hine. Built in the 1880s, the residencies’ modest size belies the prestige of their first inhabitants, who were all white—lawyers, professors, and city officials. Some of the structures are brick, with narrow bay windows and ornate woodwork in the gables; some are gray stone, with little onion-domed turrets; the third variety have rounded front windows with stained glass, tiny front porches, and second floors slightly larger than the first.
During the Great Migration, as Oakland became a black neighborhood and its population burgeoned due to segregationist housing policies, some of these homes continued to be inhabited by the well-to-do families, while others turned into tenements. Eventually, public housing high-rises, promising to fulfill the dream of clean, safe, affordable rental properties, sprouted between Berkeley and Lake Shore Drive. But as the projects lapsed into neglect and disrepair, Berkeley Avenue also deteriorated in their shadow. Some of the cottages became drug dens, and violent crime was common. By 1990, Oakland was the poorest of Chicago’s 77 community areas.
Still, some saw opportunity on Berkeley, and within a decade black homeowners’ investment in the cottages began to pay off as the projects were redeveloped into low-density mixed-income housing. One of the block’s steadiest inhabitants was sculptor Milton Mizenburg Jr., who chainsawed abstract forms and African figures into dead tree trunks and made gardens for his creations on two empty lots he christened the Oakland Museum of Contemporary Art. Over the years other vacant lots on this stretch of the street were beautified into miniature community spaces where kids play and neighbors gather for spontaneous barbecues and cocktail parties.
“I call it Sesame Street for adults,” says musician Lloyd King, who lives in one of the cottages.
Today more and more cottages are restored by and sold to whites. King, who’s black, describes the gentrification with ambivalence. On one hand he’s disappointed each time he sees a new white lady walking her dog on the block; on the other he’s thrilled about property values soaring. As middle-class families build equity in the neighborhood, there’s also a concerted effort to keep out lower-income households. Oakland now has the highest rate of racial discrimination complaints from people searching for rental housing with Section 8 vouchers, and according to King, many neighbors would like to purge a six-unit apartment building (the only one on the block) consisting of Section 8 households.
Ultimately the block is a testament to the way race and class have shaped this city; but it also shows how communities can find strength and beauty within themselves to persevere against the odds. Kitty-corner from his museum, Mizenburg (who died in 2016) was commissioned to create a sculpture in front of the mixed-income development. It’s a lumpy bronze figure called Restoration, which faces toward Berkeley with its back to the lake. The inscription reads: “This sculpture is dedicated to the men and women who remained in the Oakland community during difficult times and worked hard to restore its former beauty.” v