The proposition on the floor is so well intended and seems so incontrovertible that its backers can’t imagine it will engender much debate. It says that the city should “give priority to existing residents [of Kenwood-Oakland] in all phases of community development.”
But no, a fellow in the back row wants the statement amended. He wants to include local business owners as well as residents.
Seems fair enough, but several residents object. A debate ensues, voices rise, the debaters wander from the topic, and suddenly 90 minutes have passed and it’s time to go home. The proposition is tabled, to be attacked at another meeting; and the redevelopment of some of the city’s most desolate, impoverished acres is put off for another night.
“I know, it’s slow,” says William Clark, a city planner for the Department of Planning, which sponsored the meeting, held October 4 at a south-side college. “You could say we’re dealing with some distrust.”
That’s an understatement. Clark and his two colleagues from Planning, Martin Goldsmith and Stephanie Barnes, are attempting yet another rendition of neighborhoodbased planning, but sometimes even just agreeing on goals can seem next to impossible. They’ve been at the Kenwood-Oakland planning project since the summer, but it’s still in the early stages; by next spring, they hope to emerge with an actual blueprint designed by the locals–a wish list that will shape future development in the south lakefront communities of Kenwood and Oakland.
The planners don’t always receive thanks for their efforts. Feuding factions take to name-calling; and sometimes it seems the only thing folks can agree on is that they distrust the city. “I didn’t think it was going to be easy [here],” says Clark. “But if people stay with us, I think they’ll be satisfied.”
Anyone who lives, works, or owns property in Kenwood or Oakland is welcome to participate. First all interested parties divide up into subcommittees, focusing on economic development, for example, or crime. The subcommittees hammer out long-range goals (like the one already mentioned about who gets priority in community development). The nitty-gritty planning begins once the reassembled full group–called the neighborhood planning committee–accepts these goals. That’s what the Kenwood-Oakland committee is trying to accomplish.
The goals, even when hotly disputed, can tend to seem innocuous to outsiders. And sometimes the means to achieve them are nonexistent. In a similar process last year, residents of the Gap, an up-and-coming area just south of the Loop, agreed to the goal of a vibrant and economically diverse community; then they plotted how to accomplish it. Working with Clark and Maria Choca, one of the Planning Department’s assistant commissioners, they suggested rerouting streets and landscaping lots, and even designed town houses to be built on vacant land. Some changes were effected immediately, like turning the local public school into a magnet school; the more ambitious proposals, the ones requiring massive public or private funding, were not.
“People always feel that they can’t control their community’s development,” says Clark. “Well, this is a process by which the people can establish some control. So they can work with developers who come there and say to them, this is what we need and what we want.”
It sounds good, but it’s not easy. In the case of Kenwood-Oakland, the problems start with definitions. There is no such community as Kenwood-Oakland. Kenwood and Oakland are two neighboring communities that seem worlds apart. Oakland, which runs roughly from 39th on the north to 43rd on the south, with western and eastern boundaries at Cottage Grove and the lake, is an economically depressed community of subsidized high rises for low-income people and dilapidated smaller buildings. About 45 percent of its land is vacant; according to the 1980 census, it is the poorest community in Chicago.
Kenwood, which runs from 43rd to 51 st streets, has something of a split personality. The blocks south of 47th are lined with mansions and sweeping, well-manicured lawns. Property values here are rising; it’s one of the city’s most stably integrated and economically self-sufficient sections. To the north of 47th Street, however, is an inner-city world of boarded-up buildings and weed-filled lots.
Despite the similarities between North Kenwood and Oakland, many Kenwood residents do not like to be lumped together with the poorer neighborhood. Still, when it comes to plans for economic development, city officials regard Oakland and this section of Kenwood as the same.
“The city treats us like we live in an old slum that should be cleared for urban renewal, and that’s a mistake,” says Excell Jones, who lives just north of 47th Street. “Instead the city should provide better services. We have city-owned lots that are never trimmed or cleaned. There’s a lot of good people who live here. We’ve got teachers, a high school principal, lawyers, and a TV personality on my block. We take care of our property; if the city did its share, we’d be in much better shape.”
A closer examination of North Kenwood does reveal many signs of investment (sandblasted buildings, landscaped lawns, painted shutters) amidst the decay. City planners should help preserve the Queen Anne row houses and Victorian mansions, Jones suggests, and use them to lure middle-class home owners. “We’re only seven minutes from downtown, we’re close to the University of Chicago, and we’ve got the lake,” says Jones. “I’d like to see this place look like what’s happened north of North Avenue [in Lincoln Park]. If the city [would] stop listening to Lucas–like he was the only person in Kenwood–maybe that would happen.”
Robert Lucas has been the executive director of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) since 1975. This organization, like the city, is also suspect for lumping the two communities together. Still, many observers regard Lucas as the area’s unofficial spokesman–and this riles Jones and her allies no end. “Lucas doesn’t represent Kenwood or Oakland,” says Mary Bordelon, a Kenwood resident. “He doesn’t live here, and a lot of the people he drags into meetings, saying they’re part of his group, don’t live here either. I don’t know why [the Planning Department] gives him a vote in this process at all.”
Lucas lives in Beverly, on the city’s far-southwest side. But he and KOCO have been the chief agents for what little development has occurred north of 47th Street over the last few years. Jones and Bordelon criticize him for these efforts, however.
“[Lucas] gives people the wrong idea about this community,” says Jones. “He makes people think we’re nothing but poor folk, so they’ll give money to his group which is supposed to help poor people. Look at the town houses he’s put up on Woodlawn; I call them ugly matchsticks. One strong wind will blow them down.”
Jones and her allies believe Lucas and the city are conspiring to replace the old, classic buildings of the community with cheap, shabbily built, low-income town houses. They offer as proof the fact that in 1986 the city’s Urban Renewal Board designated a small portion of Oakland as a “blighted vacant area.” That designation gives the city the authority to force people to sell their property in the event of any large development projects backed by the city.
“We are at point D, and we never discussed point A,” says Ruby Harris, a Kenwood resident and ally of Jones and Bordelon. “That is, we never got a chance to discuss the purpose of that urban-renewal designation. It seems like the process has been completed. I think they already have a plan for this area, maybe a plan to tear down existing buildings.”
“What they say just isn’t true, and I don’t know why they keep saying it,” counters Lucas. “Maybe they’re jealous of KOCO; maybe they’re jealous of me. Fact is, the [urban-renewal designation] was discussed at many public hearings and is supported by most residents of the community. And secondly, I don’t advocate tearing down property. About 45 percent of Kenwood-Oakland is vacant land. We don’t need to tear down; we need to build. Every building north of 46th Street that can be saved, should be saved. We would like to see the home owners have grants and low-interest loans to fix their property. We say, rehab the multi-family buildings for the market. Do in-fill housing on vacant land, but build the housing so it fits in with the surrounding area.
“I really believe in ten years you will see a much different community out here. You will see 3,500 to 5,000 new units of housing. There will be a shopping center that will hire 350 to 400 people. You will see all of the amenities that can afford to be here. It will be a racially and economically mixed community. I really believe that. There are bankers, developers, and foundations who want to develop here. But the community will design the development, just as the community got the city to start this process.
The Planning Department wouldn’t be here if the community didn’t want them. So how could [Jones and Bordelon] be against this? How could they be against the community? Are they saying that all people who don’t agree with them are stupid?”
City planners try to stay out of the no-man’s-land of this dispute. But this is only one of the conflicts with a long history in Kenwood-Oakland. There is also the problem of low-income displacement raised by some residents of the Lakefront Properties, CHA high rises along South Oakenwald just south of 39th Street.
A few years ago the CHA decided to renovate these buildings. They closed four of the six high rises and promised the 400 residents who were relocated that they could move back once the renovation was done. Soon after, however, developer Ferd Kramer stepped forward with a plan (backed by KOCO) to demolish the four shuttered high rises and build a community of racially and economically mixed town houses.
“The Kramer plan stirred fears of displacement,” says one city planner who asked for anonymity. “People said this was a plan to replace poor blacks with wealthier whites. I can’t blame them for thinking like that. The city has broken a lot of promises in the past.”
Kramer’s proposal has stalled because the local alderman, Timothy Evans (Fourth Ward), opposes it. But the fallout has a residue of mistrust. “One of the reasons we embarked on this process [the neighborhood planning committee] is because of the controversy over the Kramer plan,” says Clark. “We thought that the planning process should involve the entire community, and that it could be done without demolishing any CHA buildings. We come into this with no preconceptions, no plan of our own. We simply want to help the people build their own design.”
Unfortunately not all residents believe him, and they are not by any means afraid to speak their minds. At the October 4 meeting, for instance, Jones and Bordelon (who seem to be lieve that the Planning Department is in cahoots with Lucas) repeatedly questioned Lucas’s right to help make decisions, since he does not live in the area.
A few moments later, Carlos Roberts, a Lakefront Properties resident, rose to complain that he had not been invited to the meeting.
“Everybody is talking for us, around us, about us, but not to us,” Roberts said, his voice rising. “Nobody told us about this meeting. Everybody speaks for us, except us. They don’t want us to know.”
Goldsmith said that other Lakefront residents had participated in several subcommittee meetings, but Roberts didn’t seem satisfied. It was shortly after that that Samuel Levy, who owns the Grove Furniture Company at 4301 S. Cottage Grove, asked that the proposition saying that the city should “give priority to existing residents in . . . community development” be amended to include business owners.
“I don’t live here, but my family has run our business since 1939,” Levy said. “I have been participating in this [planning] process since the beginning. . . . If I’m not treated equally, I don’t see any purpose in participating in these meetings.”
“I’m sorry Mr. Levy feels that way,” another man said. “But I don’t think businesses should get the same vote as residents. Besides, I have a problem with the word ‘give.’ You say: ‘to give priority to existing residents.’ There’s nothing given to you, you have to take.”
A few other speakers agreed–they wanted the statement to read “to give decision-making priority to existing residents . . .”
“Without decision making, what is empowerment?” one man bellowed, his voice louder than he probably realized.
“OK, you made your point,” Goldsmith said.
“I’m sorry,” the man apologized with a sheepish smile. “I’ll control my emotions.”
And so it went. There were about a dozen subcommittee propositions to be discussed. Given tonight’s meeting, the planners acknowledge, it could be months before they get to the drawing board.
Clark points out that the Planning Department can’t seem to win. “In the Gap, they probably questioned our competence. That’s an upscale area of professionals, and they probably figured, ‘What do these city workers know?’ Here, they question our honesty, our integrity. They think we’ve got some trick up our sleeve. And we don’t. We only want to help.”