“If you flip the map of Chicago, Grand Boulevard would be where Lincoln Park is,” Harold Lucas says with a smile. He’s worked for nearly two decades as a community organizer in and around the mid-south side, which includes Grand Boulevard, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Over the years he’s been a sort of community development chameleon, focused on the rehabilitation of the neighborhood but constantly reinventing his approach.
“I want to be a grassroots millionaire,” Lucas says now, sounding a bit like an opportunist. He’s the executive director of the Black Metropolis Tourism Council, and he hopes to reanimate Mid-South as a hot spot for conventioneers and tourists. But Lucas is different from your run-of-the-mill entrepreneur: he advocates using private investment and new construction to lift up Mid-South residents by creating jobs and business opportunities. He also believes that an influx of higher-income people could help those who’ve long called the area home. That puts him at odds with some community activists as well, since these tactics have usually given rise to gentrification, commonly regarded as one of the greatest enemies of the urban poor.
“We’ve got to get them out of the cycle of welfare dependency,” Lucas says. “Welfare is a state of mind that says, “Somebody owes me something.’ When in a free enterprise system, nobody owes you nothin’, and you got to get what you got to get.”
Lucas says that the futures of poor black teenagers should be tied to the redevelopment of their neighborhoods and that these projects are worth investing in. He points to new housing construction that’s trained area youngsters in the building trades, and he’s currently using federal Empowerment Zone money to link three high schools and nine grammar schools to the Internet.
But Lucas has picked an unlikely spot to become a millionaire. Mid-South covers three-and-a-half square miles on the city’s south side–between 22nd and 51st streets, from the Dan Ryan all the way to the lakefront. It includes the area that was once known as Black Metropolis, the lively artistic, political, and economic center of black life in Chicago. Black Metropolis was also the title of the noted 1945 study by sociologist St. Claire Drake and Horace A. Clayton. The book presents an unflinching look at how the urban black ghetto was created, but it does more than illuminate the effects of racism. Black Metropolis draws a portrait of what’s now one of the bleakest neighborhoods in Chicago as it was 50 years ago: a vibrant, self-sustaining city within a city, home to such luminaries as Joe Louis, Scott Joplin, and Richard Wright. When Lucas talks about redeveloping Mid-South he’s looking at Black Metropolis as his model: a diversified economy supporting a mix of income levels.
For years urban planners have tried to address the problem of cities being split between the rich and the poor. But the reality of mixing economic classes has proved difficult, if not impossible. Lucas’s convictions place him at the center of the debate over whether you can “redevelop” blighted city neighborhoods while still “empowering” the low-income people who live there. Residents of Mid-South and the surrounding communities have formed numerous organizations over several decades to fight for a say in the future of their neighborhoods. Some area groups and churches have even started their own development corporations to help build affordable housing. Yet at times these efforts have been criticized for scaring away private money. And now that private developers are showing an interest in the area, what happens to longtime residents? People like Harold Lucas insist that all attempts are doomed to fail without community involvement.
Ironically, Black Metropolis owed much of its vigor to white racism. Since whites jealously guarded its boundaries, Black Metropolis included African-Americans of all incomes and professions who were forced to live together and conduct business among themselves. But once these boundaries began to ease a bit, many middle-class blacks fled the overcrowding and moved farther south in the city or to the suburbs.
In 1950 the population of Mid-South was about 193,000. Ten years later it had dropped by one-third. The decline was accelerated by an ambitious plan initiated by the area’s two most prominent institutions: the Illinois Institute of Technology and Michael Reese Hospital. The plan called for taking down seven square miles of ghetto in order to build a clean new city of concrete towers and parks. The plan remains unfulfilled, and today, amid acres of cleared land, abandoned buildings, and empty lots, there are only about 66,000 people living in Mid-South.
When Lucas comments on the geographical proximity of Grand Boulevard and Lincoln Park to downtown, he’s also pointing to the gulf between his south-side community and the wealthy north-side neighborhood. In 1990, Grand Boulevard’s population was 99 percent black. The median household income was $7,908 (when adjusted for inflation household income had dropped by 19 percent since the 1980 census). The average home value was $49,700, and 36.8 percent of the land was vacant, making Grand Boulevard precisely the sort of neighborhood that has made more than one observer throw up his hands and say, “Redevelop? Who would move there?” To these people, Lucas’s dream of Black Metropolis tourism can only sound bizarre. Never mind that the area’s right under McCormick Place–Mid-South has only 32,204 housing units, and over a third of them are in Stateway Gardens and the Robert Taylor Homes.
Yet in the shadow of these public housing projects, there’s the Gap, a tiny scrap of real estate about six square blocks in size. It’s called the Gap because for years it was a sliver of blank space that fell between the boundaries on everybody’s planning maps. Now the Gap has handsome new houses next to vintage rehabbed homes, and its residents are described by other Mid-Southers as the very class of upwardly mobile black professionals that people had long maintained would never stay in, let alone move back to, the inner city.
If you’re wondering how the Gap came to be the place that it is, where it is, it’s worthwhile to look beyond the boundaries of Mid-South to two other areas, also in the general vicinity of Chicago’s mid-south side. To the east of Mid-South, near the lake, lies North Kenwood-Oakland, and, skipping south over affluent and reservedly integrated Hyde Park, there’s Woodlawn. Residents of these neighborhoods will assure you that there are many differences; Woodlawn, for instance, consists largely of multifamily rental properties, while North Kenwood-Oakland is better known for owner-occupied single-family homes, many of which are old mansions. The city has designated North Kenwood-Oakland a “Conservation Area,” which implies that there’s valuable property to conserve.
But to an outsider, Mid-South, Woodlawn, and North Kenwood-Oakland would appear to have a lot in common. Their populations are mostly black and range from the middle class to the poorest of the poor. Large spans of their commercial strips are vacant and shuttered with metal gates. Much of their housing stock is dilapidated, and neighborhood blocks are pocked by abandoned buildings and laid open with vacant lots. The apparent resemblance is backed up by certain less visible similarities. For nearly 30 years, these three communities had been virtually ignored in the city’s development plans, beyond the isolated designation of one-to-two-acre spot projects known as “Redevelopment Areas.” During the darkest days of that three-decade stretch, a few community-based organizations maintained the dream of salvaging their neighborhoods in spite of overwhelming evidence that their best efforts were failing. And then, starting in 1990, each of those communities abruptly became the object of big plans.
Mid-South was enlivened by a two-year community planning process that drew together residents, city employees, and institutional representatives and resulted in the formation of the Mid-South Planning Commission, a complex body that claims the virtues of vision, resident direction, and moral authority, if little legal control over future development. That two-year process, which participants alternately describe as turbulent and exciting, led to an articulate 30-year plan. North Kenwood-Oakland was designated a Conservation Area, also in 1990, after intense lobbying by residents who wanted a plan that included legal guarantees of resident oversight. Woodlawn began to see an acceleration in the naming of Redevelopment Areas, and now the neighborhood is host to a sometimes controversial organization known as the Fund for Community Redevelopment and Revitalization, whose purpose is to spur new development in both Woodlawn and North Kenwood-Oakland.
It’s no accident that large chunks of these neighborhoods were included in the city’s Empowerment Zone, which the federal government designated in the last days of 1994. When the government decided to award $100 million for redevelopment to each of six zones across the country, it was looking for two things: neighborhoods that were among the most blighted and those capable of organized and sustained community activism. The authors of the plan argued that the lasting impact of these zones would arise from their ability to “reinvent government”: each zone’s application had to demonstrate an ability to coordinate partnerships between resident groups and government agencies, so the process had to be grassroots driven. But if the Clinton administration has bought into the idea that reinventing government means community activists working with local officials, not everyone is convinced.
Some say that community activists don’t, in fact, work in partnership with anybody–that their approach is almost always antagonistic–and that at best an ideology of “empowerment” assumes a relationship between political might and an improvement in economic well-being that has never been demonstrated to exist. At worst, critics say, the process pits community residents against city government, discouraging those who might have considered investing in the neighborhood. Others claim the idea of empowerment through community activism sends the poor off in a false direction, locking them into their present condition. These observers think it doesn’t make sense to attempt to relieve poverty by getting bogged down in the unpromising project of trying to resuscitate a blighted neighborhood.
These issues have come to a head in Mid-South, North Kenwood-Oakland, and Woodlawn because all three communities are actually starting to see the results of rapidly accelerating redevelopment. In the decade between 1980 and 1990, single-family home values in Grand Boulevard had appreciated by 112 percent, and those in nearby Douglas shot up 336 percent. Woodlawn saw home values double, while in Oakland they rose a more modest 64 percent (in keeping with the city average of 67 percent). By 1994 the Kenwood neighborhood was ranked number six in top home values in Chicago, with the average single-family home there fetching $338,155–up from $197,799 in 1985 and $89,500 in 1980.
What does this mean for longtime residents? In 1990 the median household income in Kenwood was $22,808, so obviously home ownership, which most agree is a necessary ingredient for a stable community, was already out of reach for the majority of Kenwood residents. If home values and property taxes continue to rise, it would follow that more families will be forced to move elsewhere. And the situation is even more perilous for residents of communities like Grand Boulevard and Douglas, where only 6 to 8 percent of the housing units in 1990 were owner-occupied.
But without outside investment these places would have continued to deteriorate. And now that outsiders are taking an active interest in the mid-south side, some community activists are contending that if poorer residents have no voice in future development they will not be around to benefit from the new wealth coming into their communities. Others say that the redevelopment process is still fragile and uncertain–and that a bunch of loudmouthed, bossy activists might just succeed in stifling it altogether.
While it’s clear that new development is happening in these communities at rates that almost no one would have predicted ten, or even five, years ago, no one knows how far it will progress–or what role community activism will play in it. The recent history of redevelopment, and the role that community activism played there, is a little easier to trace, though everyone has a different take on that too.
It may sound simplistic to say that the city took an interest in these neighborhoods because community action brought them there, but it seems to be true. And nowhere is it easier to trace that connection than in Mid-South.
Mid-South has a long tradition of breeding small community associations. Gap resident Sokoni Karanja is the director of the Centers for New Horizons, a “human and community development network” that runs day-care and family-assistance centers in the area. Karanja says, “There are 300 or so associations in this community–different block clubs and all that–so we have a rich soil for organizing. I think there’s always been–dating all the way back to when black folks first moved in–a very active community base.”
In the mid-80s, with a copy of Black Metropolis under his arm, Harold Lucas was working with a Mid-South organization called the Great Community Coalition. “I consider myself a master organizer, which means that, as a leader, you have to subvert your own ego to develop the capacity of the people–to teach them to become leaders. Once you become the issue, you step down.” Eventually, Lucas felt he’d become the issue at the Great Community Coalition. Some months after he stepped down, the organization dissolved. But while it was still active the group had orchestrated some good old-fashioned pickets against banks accused of redlining. “We were in the paper every week.”
At the same time, Lucas was becoming engaged in a slightly weird pursuit for a community organizer–historic preservation. In community development circles, historic preservationists have a reputation as being the first forces of gentrification, the pioneers who venture into wild territory to prepare the neighborhood for rich people, who need to hear a few good reasons to move in. Lucas’s budding interest in historic preservation as a way to enrich the lives of Mid-South residents coincided with changes in the historic preservation community, which was trying to shed its image as a meddling gaggle of art snobs. Preservationists were now using words like multiculturalism.
Lucas found a ready ally in Tim Samuelson, a staffer at the Commission on Chicago Landmarks who was drawing attention to the historic buildings of the old Black Belt. In 1986, their efforts landed six remnants of Black Metropolis on the National Register of Historic Places. One, the Jordan Building, collapsed the day it was accepted. But the others still stand at the center of a growing circle of interested parties. Their efforts have attracted a range of government sponsors: both the Commission on Chicago Landmarks and the Illinois State Historic Preservation Agency are active in Mid-South.
The city’s now working with Lucas’s tourism group on a $3.5 million project to create a visitor’s center in the Supreme Life Insurance Building, the historic home of a black-owned insurance company at 35th and King Drive. A public library branch will also be installed in the Chicago Bee Building, which was erected in 1931 by black entrepreneur Anthony Overton to house his Chicago Bee, a weekly newspaper that was supposed to compete with the Chicago Defender.
During the years that Lucas was busy bringing together activists and preservationists, there was another coalition forming in Mid-South, though of a different sort. The Southside Partnership, a group of businesses, educational centers, and neighborhood organizations, came out of the Gap, where a community of relatively affluent professionals took a different tack than the Great Community Coalition. Past president Leonard McGhee finds the partnership’s beginnings in the birth of the Gap Community Organization, which he says was a response to the old organizing tactics used in the area. One of the group’s first actions was to approach the Illinois Institute of Technology. “IIT was being portrayed as a land grabber,” says McGhee. “We said, “Let’s stop the ain’t it awful, let’s find out what the issues are.’ We began a dialogue.”
In the early 70s, Sokoni Karanja, with a PhD in urban planning and three master’s degrees, became involved in starting day-care centers near CHA projects. Karanja saw these centers as a way to build community institutions, and soon the Centers for New Horizons was working on the development of Mid-South through education. “We consider education our primary tool–education, African studies, culture-based education kinds of programs–preparing kids to function well in any kind of academic situation,” he says, pointing out that the group even ran an elementary school “from the mid-70s up to about 1987.”
Karanja says his group became involved with the Gap Community Organization when a scouting program was started at Douglas High School. He saw the similarities between Boy Scout training and the Zulu rite-of-passage process. “We thought we ought to try to make it relevant to African-American children,” he says. The scouting program was a great success, and participation among eligible students jumped from 20 percent to 80 percent, according to McGhee.
When the two groups went on to help form the Southside Partnership, they were joined by a cluster of high-powered institutions, including the First National Bank of Chicago, Michael Reese Hospital, and IIT. The decision to enter into a partnership with large institutions was made with some trepidation. There were, and still are, concerns that institutions like banks and universities are essentially conservative, and that their ultimate interest is in their own profit, which may not reflect the interests of the community. It was feared that their idea of partnership might be finding new allies to help recast Mid-South in their own image. “My sense of majority culture is that when it invests in something, it controls it,” Karanja says. “But you know, when I look at the alternatives, I’m not sure what they are. It takes a lot of investment to create an engine to transform a community.”
In 1988, the Southside Partnership bore unexpected fruit when IIT received a grant from the McCormick Tribune Foundation. The grant was awarded to cover campus improvements, but the partners suggested that IIT extend its plans to involve the larger community. “We said, “Why not have us all involved?”‘ Karanja says.
Leroy Kennedy, who now works for IIT, was a community organizer at the time. He recalls that IIT approached the McCormick Tribune Foundation for a second grant, but the foundation suggested that the city submit the proposal. In 1990 the city received a grant to produce a comprehensive plan, bringing all the strands of activity in Mid-South together for the two years it took to complete the project. The planning group included the leadership from the Great Community Coalition as well as the institutional members of the Southside Partnership. Most importantly, as participants are careful to emphasize, the entire process was fueled by the participation of community residents. “The plan is not the creation of organizations, the plan is made by residents who live here,” says Pat Dowell Cerasoli, executive director of the Mid-South Planning Commission. “If you look at the back of the plan, where it lists participants, it is all individual names.”
Nobody argues that the emphasis on community participation made the planning process easier. In fact, drawing more people into the process was a surefire way to bring conflicts to the surface. And one of the great conflicts arose between the city and the community, both of whom thought that legitimate planning would have to begin with them because, they both believed, the ultimate accountability for whatever decisions were made would come back to them.
“We have been in sort of continuous conflict with the city,” Karanja admits. “The people who are doing the work on the front lines don’t agree with the city on most things . . . well, on many things, not on all things, but on many things.”
Dowell Cerasoli gets some of the credit for not allowing this conflict to torpedo the process. When it began, she was among the top city staffers on the project. Two years later she left city government to head the resultant community body–the Mid-South Planning Commission.
The Mid-South Strategic Development Plan: Restoring Bronzeville describes itself with pride and justification as “a blueprint for the rejuvenation of one of the most historically important areas of the city of Chicago.” It divides Mid-South into ten quadrants, and lays out a 30-year vision for redeveloping those quadrants until Mid-South is able to “comfortably accommodate 100,000 people, approximately 50 percent more than live in the area today” (and almost 50 percent less than lived there in 1950). To this end, the plan addresses everything from retail and industrial development to public safety, health services, transportation, employment, and linkages to surrounding communities. For the most part, the plan envisions Mid-South rebuilt with single-family homes, and places a strong emphasis on home ownership, which the plan argues will begin with current Mid-South residents: “Initially, existing residents who are renters will be purchasers of new homes. In later stages, households from outside the area will be attracted to Mid-South.” The plan asserts at the outset that the “mission of the Mid-South planning process is to formulate an improvement plan to enhance the quality of life and maintain the cultural heritage of the indigenous people who live and work in the Mid-South Planning Area.”
While the plan was impressive for fostering cooperation between residents and a number of outside parties, a great many questions were left unanswered. How many of Mid-South’s renters would be able to afford to buy homes, for instance?
By 1994, when President Clinton announced the Empowerment Zone plan and the resurrection of “community action” as a federal philosophy, the people of Mid-South were ready to take him at his word. Though a local government body would submit the actual application, the federal government required that the proposals be formulated at the grassroots level. The city decided to hold a series of hearings in which local coalitions would present their own recommendations and the final application would be compiled out of their best ideas. For residents of Mid-South, the Empowerment Zone application process was a natural: the city wanted plans that were able to draw in a large number of partners, and Mid-South already had an array of community organizations, institutions, and individuals working together.
Still, many of the participants in the application process felt the city was not taking the community’s input seriously. These feelings were even recorded in the city’s final application, which stated that the original work plan “expected the community’s role to be one of consultation and review. . . . As the strategic plan evolved following Zone selection, the community asserted its right to be more fully incorporated into the decision making.” This culminated in a virtual coup at one of the citywide planning assemblies last May at Malcolm X College. In the middle of the meeting, community leaders began to gather at the back of the room. Coming to agreement among themselves, they approached the microphone and stopped the hearing. They asked the city staff, who were running the meeting from a stage, to leave the room so the community residents could confer among themselves–and city officials agreed.
Some hours later the grassroots contingent called city staffers back into the room to let them know that public participation would now be at the center of the decision-making process. The city’s final application describes the scene with some humility: “Once the community had seized the floor of the assembly, it was possible for a genuine partnership [to begin] between the City and the community.”
Today some activists complain that the city has become less willing to listen to them now that it actually has the federal money. It took ten months after the zone was named for the city to finally appoint the coordinating council, partly because of a struggle over who would appoint them (the mayor won). Even then the mayor’s office took months to release a list of candidates. None of the famous $100 million could be spent until the coordinating council had been appointed.
These problems illustrate the difficulties of community-based planning. The long and difficult process of coming to an agreement about something so touchy as real estate is made more difficult by having more people involved. And the viability of community-based planning in Mid-South was later tested during last year’s controversy surrounding the Willard Square Apartments.
While the Mid-South plan called for the construction of single-family homes and home ownership among residents, it also expressed a long-range commitment to balanced development, providing affordable housing for a broad range of income groups. The plan even expressed a concern that the redevelopment of the Gap neighborhood “led to the displacement of some indigenous residents by gentrification.” And yet one nonprofit organization met unanticipated opposition when it announced its plan to build the Willard Square Apartments, a handsome complex of new, affordable housing units in North Washington Park.
“In the four and a half years that I was alderman, I wasn’t able to get anybody to come and do new construction in North Washington Park,” says Fourth Ward alderman Toni Preckwinkle. Then the Willard Square project was proposed by the Technical Assistance Corporation for Housing, an organization with a 25-year track record of developing quality, affordable low-income housing. The group’s funders specified that the plan for Willard Square must include the demolition of a vacant school at the center of the site. “The drug dealers sit out in front of the school in their folding chairs and do their business. [The group’s] funders felt that would be a detriment to anything that you put there,” Preckwinkle explains dryly.
The Technical Assistance Corporation for Housing put together a plan that would replace the school with 64 affordable rental units. “From a policy and planning point of view, it was great,” says Preckwinkle. “We made two presentations to Mid-South groups and had a good response, and made a presentation to a group of home owners, and they didn’t like it.”
The home owners had lobbied for single-family homes to be built in the neighborhood, and they didn’t want more low-income housing. The home owners who came to testify before the city planning commission openly argued that they didn’t want more poor people living next to them.
“As a matter of fact, they called themselves elitists,” recalls Lucas, who was at the hearing. “One guy came to the microphone and said he was an elitist.” Lucas smiles a little incredulously. “It’s sad. But it was clarified by people saying, “I’m working poor, but I do own a home. I can’t rub two pennies together, and I worry about the value of my home.”‘
Lucas characterizes the Willard Square Apartments controversy as a conflict between an old-style ward politician and a group of poor home owners. “The alderman, she figures she’s going to put in more low-income housing, but the home owners’ reaction was, “You’re doing this behind the scenes.’ And so the planning commission didn’t vote on it. They told the alderman she had to go back to the community–“These done deals you’re talking about, you have to go back to the community and redo the whole plan.”‘
The Technical Assistance Corporation came back with a plan that would build affordable housing on Saint Lawrence Avenue and single-family homes on Champlain. “The alderman and I have been canvassing the community, door-to-door, every weekend,” said the Technical Assistance Corporation’s Fred Bonner in preparation for a meeting with the Community Development Commission last November. The project was eventually approved by both the city planning commission and the Community Development Commission, though some opposition remains.
Lucas maintains the lesson is simple: “In a democratic society, the voters do have judgment over the elected official, who is in fact elected to represent the people of the community.” Nevertheless, the class tensions inherent in the conflict held a deeper message for Lucas, who’s intensely aware of the history of social stratification in Mid-South. “The book Black Metropolis was the best kept secret in town because it exposes the duplicity of the black middle class,” he says. It describes how a society oppressed by discrimination from the outside also maintained a rigidly stratified class system of its own. Lucas says this stratification has been perpetuated as blacks have found their way to positions of power in local government and in social service agencies. “Black people in leadership basically have these networks. And if you’re not part of the network, because of the patronage aspect of employment opportunities, they’re not amenable to [working with you].”
Frictions similar to the ones raised by Willard Square can be found in other neighborhoods on the mid-south side. As in Mid-South, much of the momentum for new development in North Kenwood-Oakland and Woodlawn has come from the activism of community groups, and the city’s present interest in these communities has a lot to do with local initiatives to entice them there.
In each of these neighborhoods, everyone’s stated goal has been to revitalize the community with “balanced” development: ideally, the ability to entice middle-income families back into the community while maintaining a place for the poor who already live there. But class conflicts may determine how development proceeds–particularly whether these neighborhoods can achieve the goal of balanced, mixed-income development.
WECAN stands for Woodlawn East Community and Neighbors, a group with a determined focus on the interests of Woodlawn’s low-income residents. The vast majority of Woodlawn residents were low-income as of 1990, when the median household income was $13,680.
WECAN’s executive director, Mattie Butler, is a petite woman with a deep voice and a big laugh. Surrounded by a bluish aura of cigarette smoke, she’s sitting in her office on the second floor of a graystone on 63rd Street. Every available surface is stacked with papers, and there’s a steady stream of staff, volunteers, plumbers, and electricians. The phone rings incessantly.
Butler says that her neighborhood will be thoroughly gentrified in the next five to six years if development proceeds at its current pace. It’s true that new housing priced at about $150,000 is selling as fast as it’s being built in Woodlawn; but the area is still intimidating, and a quarter of the land lay vacant in 1990.
Butler’s fiercely proud of WECAN’s status as a grassroots-driven organization, and she says that’s why WECAN finds itself increasingly at odds with an organization called the Fund for Community Redevelopment and Revitalization, which is headed by Pentecostal bishop Arthur Brazier. WECAN and the Fund have distinctly different relationships with the Daley administration. Butler complains that the Fund is run as a top-down organization and has been placed in a meddling position between WECAN’s constituents and their elected officials.
“The Mayor appointed Bishop Brazier to develop the board of the fund,” Butler says. “So he commissioned him and gave him all kinds of power from that commission, which in effect superimposed another structure on us that went higher than our alderman.”
Brazier says this is not true. “The city didn’t start [the Fund]. But we were able to do this because we knew the city would be amenable to working with a group like this.” Brazier pulled together community organizations and individual residents to create an organization to assist Woodlawn’s existing community development groups, both nonprofit providers of low-income housing and private home builders. The group has been awarded a three-year, $1.2 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation.
Generally speaking, city staff say, the Fund assists the Department of Planning and Development with soft costs, like marketing studies. It’s an intermediary organization, designed to draw investment into Woodlawn and North Kenwood-Oakland and to provide technical assistance to community-based groups that already exist.
“The function of the Fund,” according to Brazier, “is to do everything that we can to assist other community groups who come to us for help. To act as a developer, if that becomes necessary. It’s not our primary role, to be a developer. We serve to be a catalyst, to the degree that we can have some say and some control over what’s going to happen in these two communities.”
Brazier doesn’t believe the Fund coordinates activities in Woodlawn as, say, the Mid-South Planning Commission could be said to clear much of what goes on in Mid-South. “You can’t coordinate if someone doesn’t want you to coordinate. I don’t want to come in and say, “We are the coordinators here.’ We may cause some people to feel, “Wait a minute–who named you to be the coordinator?”‘
Carrie Ponder is the executive director of Covenant Development Corporation, which, like WECAN, focuses on low- income housing. But Ponder says she doesn’t have a problem with the Fund for Community Redevelopment and Revitalization. “They give a lot of workshops in the community on different things like home buying and what the banks are talking about at this time. I think they’re good–you can go ahead and hear the banks talk about what they have to offer for the community.”
If Ponder’s aware of the tension between WECAN and the Fund, she doesn’t let on. “I have a very good relationship with these groups. Because, let me put it this way, I have not gone to any of them since I’ve been here, in this position, to request anything that I have not gotten. Maybe I haven’t stepped on anyone’s toes, but this is the way it has been. If I get on the phone and I call them and I want certain things, if I want certain information, they will gladly give it to me.”
Brazier explains, “These organizations in the community who want to do things differently than the Fund wants to do, we’ll give them aid and help to the greatest extent possible if what they want to do is not totally opposite to the policy of the Fund. In other words, if there is a group who says, “All we’re going to do is build low-income housing and we’re going to try to fight anybody who tries to do anything else,’ obviously we would not be disposed to being very helpful.”
Maybe that’s why Butler remains suspicious. She mentions a building WECAN has successfully rehabbed for low-income housing. “Our 6230 South Dorchester project was in the Department of Housing for funding before the Fund was created. A whole year before the Fund was created. After the Fund was created, they made us go back to the community and present our package to the Fund before they gave us the money.
“I refused to go back to the Fund, saying, “This has nothing to do with the Fund. This decision should have been made before the Fund existed, and how dare you tell me to take it to somebody who doesn’t live in my community to get approval for it, and I live here. How dare you tell me to go get someone else besides my elected official who has already approved it.”‘
Brazier may not live in Woodlawn, but in the end Butler still found herself in the Fund’s administrative offices. “He picked up the phone and called [city housing commissioner] Marina Carrott and said, “Now you can release it.’ Now if that is technical assistance, I’ll take off my big toe.”
Butler’s suspicions about the relationship between the mayor and Brazier are all the more intriguing because Brazier, who operates from an elegantly appointed office in the thriving Apostolic Church of God on 63rd Street, began working in Woodlawn 30 years ago, organizing the community against the administration of Richard J. Daley and the University of Chicago, which has traditionally exerted quite a bit of influence over its black neighbors. It’s difficult to connect Brazier, the snowy haired, gently assertive man of outstanding manners, with the stereotypical picture of the wild-eyed community activist.
Brazier explains that the Fund was created to cover two noncontiguous neighborhoods–North Kenwood-Oakland and Woodlawn–because they have a common anchor: Hyde Park, which, to some people, reads as a euphemism for the University of Chicago. But Brazier emphasizes a different factor: Hyde Park’s a stable, middle- to upper-income, racially mixed community. Brazier remains circumspect about his working relationship with the University of Chicago. “We don’t want to demonize them,” he says, making little horns with his fingers. “But we don’t want to pull them to our bosom like long lost brothers either.”
Brazier says he’s open to the possibility that old-style community action still has a role in current politics, but he thinks it’s difficult to be protesting against the government on Tuesday while trying to convince them to fund one of your development projects on Wednesday. Today Brazier seems to enjoy the esteem of the Daley administration and private developers such as George Thrush, who’s recently developed projects in Woodlawn with assistance from the Fund. Thrush Development Company had never done a project on the south side, and Thrush attributes his current involvement in Woodlawn directly to the Fund, which he describes as an organization that’s done remarkable things in a troubled community. Thrush attributes the success of the fund directly to Bishop Brazier–“a tremendously influential person” who has “influence in City Hall,” so he’s able to “get the attention of the Department of Planning.”
For his part, Brazier is quick to emphasize that Daley fils is an entirely different politician than Daley the elder, as far as the Woodlawn and North Kenwood-Oakland communities are concerned. And, of course, the current mayor has taken a much greater interest in investing in the black neighborhoods of the mid-south side than his father or any other white mayor ever did. But now that Brazier, the old community activist, finds himself in a productive relationship with the mayor, how will this affect the future face of Woodlawn?
Butler thinks there won’t be room for the current residents of Woodlawn. She’s skeptical about the real commitment of the Fund and the Daley administration to a truly mixed-income version of Woodlawn. “Their overall comprehensive plan for the area is to gentrify it.”
Brazier admits that he’s committed to luring people of moderate means back to Woodlawn. “I think since the 60s and 70s very little attention was paid to those people and those families who were upwardly mobile and who could make choices. All of the interest was targeted toward people with deep subsidies. And since no one was paying attention to [the needs of the moderate-income residents] they left the city.”
When Brazier says he wants to lure those families back, he’s voicing the hope of many of the residents. There are those who say it will never happen, that the move of the middle class back to places like Woodlawn will never be anything but a trickle. Brazier replies calmly, “That is not my experience. Our first effort at market-rate housing–we built eight houses at $150,000–they were all sold before we finished. We’re on the second eight, and they’re almost all sold. We’ll be breaking ground next month on 25 new homes, and we’ve got at this point in time 15 people listed who have shown an interest–before we’ve even broken ground.” Brazier believes that this kind of development is crucial to making the middle-class home owner feel comfortable about moving back to a neighborhood like Woodlawn.
While everyone talks about redeveloping Woodlawn as a mixed-income community–one with room for both rich and poor–it’s not always clear what balanced development is understood to mean. Sometimes it depends on who you’re talking to.
“No one wants to attack that man for being what he is,” says Doug Gills, railing against the same mayor that Brazier considers helpful. “He’s anti poor people.”
Gills has been working with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization to improve the housing conditions of the poor in North Kenwood-Oakland since the late 70s, long before the larger city took much of an interest in the neighborhood. Today, KOCO is struggling to maintain its place in a flurry of activity. “Daley’s been able to stave off the more aggressive, grassroots, democratic organizations that challenge his policy. That’s what’s happening.”
When Gills refers to North Kenwood-Oakland’s grassroots population, he’s talking about the majority of the residents, who are predominantly lower-income renters. The area’s also host to a high concentration of public housing.
Yet North Kenwood-Oakland also has a very active population of home owners, and to understand the arguments that go on there now it’s important to understand that both groups played an active role in bringing the city to North Kenwood-Oakland in the first place. Just as in Mid-South, Department of Planning and Development staff are working with residents in large part because of community organizing among both middle-class home owners and lower-income tenants.
In 1965, as racial barriers on housing were coming down and a large number of middle-class blacks were leaving the ghetto, the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization formed to defend the interests of those who remained. For the most part these were poor tenants, and KOCO’s activities centered largely on organizing them against absentee slumlords.
But even in KOCO’s earliest days, not all North Kenwood residents were poor tenants. By the late 70s some home owners were talking about organizing themselves. They wanted to bring stability to a neighborhood that had been declining rapidly over the past decade. They wanted to pool their efforts to fix the neighborhood’s housing stock and to demand better services from the city. They began by forming block clubs. Shirley Newsome was one of these home owners. In 1979 “there were only two really viable blocks–one at 4100 Lake Park and one at 4100 South Ellis.” Other home owners found themselves on blocks where there were only one or two other standing houses. “So they couldn’t form their own block clubs.” Newsome’s group ultimately formed a single club to cover the area from 39th to 43rd streets, on the block between Drexel Boulevard and Cottage Grove.
As Newsome’s group began to imagine what they wanted their community to look like, they were drawn to their neighbors in Hyde Park. “We talked to the president of the Hyde Park Conservation Community Council, and to the University of Chicago and a number of individuals. We knew we needed legal help in getting 501c3 [nonprofit] status, and with bylaws and constitutions for block clubs.”
Both KOCO and the block club were interested in stabilizing North Kenwood, but their definitions of stability were as different as their constituencies. In 1985 a cluster of high-rise public housing buildings known as Lakefront Properties had been closed for renovation, and Newsome and others in North Kenwood-Oakland lobbied to have them demolished. Newsome emphasizes that over the past decades the North Kenwood-Oakland area has had to shoulder a high concentration of public housing. “We still have equal that number [of public housing units] and more surrounding us.” In the flurry of meetings and trips to Washington around that campaign, Newsome’s group came in contact with other block clubs scattered throughout North Kenwood.
Meanwhile, KOCO had formed a development corporation and was building quite a bit of low-income housing, though not enough to fill North Kenwood-Oakland’s vacant land, not even enough to keep up with city bulldozing. But by 1994 KOCO had rehabbed an impressive 560 units and built 70 new ones. KOCO’s development efforts were so successful that it began to generate some anxiety among North Kenwood’s home owners, who felt, like some of the home owners in Mid-South, that the neighborhood already had enough poor people.
Between 1965 and 1987 KOCO initiated nine development plans, none of which found local consensus or attracted the support of the city. By 1984, when KOCO set its sights on redeveloping the shopping strip at 47th and Lake Park–an anchor site whose redevelopment would do a lot of good for the community as a whole–it met up with local opposition. “There’s always been some degree of opposition to KOCO,” Newsome says.
The city’s planning department offered to help KOCO by designating the site “Slum and Blighted,” which is similar to today’s Redevelopment Area designation. Each area is made up of a one-to-two-acre parcel that’s supposedly so blighted that its condition justifies the city taking drastic measures. The designation would have allowed the city to acquire and clear the land, using its powers of eminent domain in the case of intractable or unlocatable landowners.
But many residents balked at the prospect of having their neighborhood labeled “blighted” and complained that there was no role for community residents built into the planning process. Acting mayor Sawyer helped bring the city and local residents together to form the Neighborhood Planning Committee, which was to have a lasting effect by naming North Kenwood-Oakland a Conservation Area and by drawing up a list of “Community Goals and Objectives.” Today KOCO places special emphasis on that list because it specified, according to KOCO’s Bob Lucas, a commitment to “a community whose stability is compatible with its economic and racial diversity.” He says it gave “priority to existing residents in all phases of community development and to assisting all residents to take advantage of the new community development opportunities through education and training.” It’s one of KOCO’s most carefully defended accomplishments that those community goals and objectives were incorporated into the final Conservation Area plan.
Conservation Areas cover much larger parcels than Redevelopment Areas, and they mandate community participation through a 15-member Conservation Community Council. These members are neighborhood residents appointed by the mayor. All new development ideas are voted on by the council. Hyde Park, North Kenwood-Oakland’s neighbor to the south, has been a Conservation Area since 1955, with admirable results.
By 1992 North Kenwood-Oakland had won the attention of the city’s Department of Planning and Development. Since then, the neighborhood has become the site of two separate historic districts, a host of rehab and new development projects, and a new Parade of Homes, the Home Builders Association of Greater Chicago’s annual promotion. Everyone’s quick to emphasize that the Parade built the first market-rate housing in North Kenwood-Oakland in 30 years.
“[We] heard about the Parade in the Gap, the first urban Parade in the country, in October of 1992,” explains Alderman Preckwinkle, “and Shirley Newsome and I went down and looked at it, and we thought it would be a good idea to have something like that in North Kenwood-Oakland. And we worked on it. It took a year and a half.”
The 1994 Parade of Homes filled in a block on Oakenwald with ten model homes, each built by a different developer. The homes sold for between $140,000 and $240,000. Each developer was given the opportunity to build on five additional lots in response to interest generated by the Parade, and those homes are still being built.
But now that North Kenwood-Oakland has a community council, residents disagree about what a representative body should look like. Newsome says that three or four members of the community council have always been KOCO board members. Doug Gills says 13 out of 15 members of the community council are home owners, while 85 percent of North Kenwood-Oakland is comprised of renters. “You can only appoint from the people who apply,” Newsome counters. “Tenants tend to be more transient,” so she says they’re less likely to participate.
Gills sees it differently. “There are people who have worked their pants off for community planning [who] over an 18-month period went to no less than 50 meetings to come up with a plan to drive this community-development process. And then they don’t get appointed? They don’t even get considered? Why? Because they’re not property owners. They’re tenants. Some of them may have parking bills they can’t pay, so they show up as a scofflaw. If you’re a senior on fixed income and you haven’t paid your water bill, the city won’t let you serve on a board. What kind of business is that?”
In the 20 years Gills has spent working to bring investment to North Kenwood-Oakland, his commitment has been to housing the poor and enabling them to participate in the governance of their community. To a large extent, this has meant working at odds with Newsome. “They say “We’re all equals as volunteers.’ That’s bullshit, it costs money to volunteer. The biggest problem with the Empowerment Zone process is that people that poor can’t afford to go downtown for meetings twice a month.”
Now that the redevelopment of North Kenwood-Oakland is accelerating, Gills is worried. “Most people will say, “I don’t want to be next to poor people.’ It’s a rational decision. “I just built a house that cost $100,000, and you want to build a house that costs $80,000, then you’re gonna drive my property value down.”‘ Gills describes a shifting balance of power in North Kenwood-Oakland as whole blocks begin to change. “This area is going to be gentrified in the next five years. We know it. We argue, but people don’t believe you. And then after a while you don’t have a base. And then the next thing you know, there’s another group organizing–the Kenwood Community Council, the Oakenwald Development Council. Who are these people? You look at their boards, there are no poor people on them. They’re all home owners.”
Naturally the home owners’ vision of future development often differs from the goals of some of their lower-income neighbors–for instance, there would not be a place for the Lakefront Properties public housing project. When the Chicago Housing Authority first shut down the Lakefront towers, ostensibly for renovation, they made a formal agreement with the residents who moved out that they would someday be able to move back to their old neighborhood. Recently the discussion has been about tearing the towers down and replacing them with scattered-site housing. But proposals for the replacement housing have been consistently resisted by the Conservation Community Council.
“When CHA entered into the Memorandum of Accord with the residents of the Lakefront Properties, the other residents of the community were not a party to the agreement,” complained Margarette Wafer and Safiya Karimah of the Residents for the Responsible Redevelopment of North Kenwood-Oakland in a letter to the Hyde Park Herald. “At present, North Kenwood-Oakland has 4,977 units of housing, of which 4,000 are Gautreaux or publicly assisted units.”
At the tail end of 1995 the Hyde Park Herald reported that community council member Izora Davis, “a former CHA tenant and one of the leaders of the group that is fighting to get CHA replacement housing built in the neighborhood,” resigned in frustration, saying she “could not serve on a council that did not represent the whole community.”
Twenty years ago, when community development groups like KOCO were beginning to take on housing development as a way of improving the living conditions of the poor, they also envisioned that their projects would make the people who lived in them more self-sufficient, active participants in the political life of the city. Some say the connection between the political empowerment of the citizens and the economic revitalization of their neighborhoods is a chimerical one, and ironically in communities where grassroots efforts have succeeded in sparking new development some activists may now be in a position to suspect this is true.
The current tensions in Mid-South, Woodlawn, and North Kenwood-Oakland have been heightened by the speed at which new development has taken off. As one foundation program officer put it, “We are all so excited that sometimes we aren’t really sure if it’s excitement, or if we are really scared to death.”
Harold Lucas remains among the most resolutely hopeful. He still says that the people who live in a neighborhood have the responsibility to make the decisions that will guide its future development. But he also acknowledges that any movement to bring economic opportunity to his own neighborhood must encourage a stabilizing influx of middle-class home owners.
“It’s only going to be resolved by wealth,” Lucas says. He quotes from memory a passage from Richard Wright’s introduction to Black Metropolis. “Will the Negro find a meaning in his humiliation, make his slums and his sweatshops his modern cathedrals out of which will be born a new consciousness that can guide him toward freedom? Or will he continue, as he does today, saying Job-like to the society that crushes him: Though it slays me, yet will I trust in it?” Lucas says, “The essence of that statement is, “When are you going to put down your buckets where you are and build an economy of substance, so you can support yourself and your people? And stop waiting for outside forces to save you, because it’s not necessarily in their interest to do so.”‘
There are those who doubt that the poor of the mid-south side can be lifted up by bringing great wealth to their neighborhood. But to those who doubt the viability of turning slums and sweatshops into the grounds for “a new consciousness,” places with the courage to plan and the hope to build, Lucas might point out that it’s already happening.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photographs by Nathan Mandell.