Sitting on Mary Bordelon’s expansive front porch on Ellis Avenue at 45th Street, you can take in a lot of history. Just across the street and set back among the trees is a frame house built in the mid-1880s; it was the original home of Wallace Heckman, who, as business manager for the infant University of Chicago, acquired much of the land for the campus. Looking north up the 4400 block, you can see a group of two- and three-story Romanesque Revival residences; the one at 4453 S. Ellis was the home of General Charles Bentley, a Civil War hero who served as grand marshal of Chicago’s Memorial Day parades in the late 1890s. Glancing south along the 4500 block of Ellis, you can admire a variety of Queen Anne, classical, and Romanesque styles. The building at 4559 S. Ellis, built in 1893 for Matthew Gottfried, owner of the Gottfried Brewery Company, has an unusual third floor balcony on the front that curves around to face the side street as well.
Sitting on Mary Bordelon’s front porch and listening to her describe the homes and people who once lived here, you might get the impression that she is some sort of antiquarian in an ivory tower. (As a matter of fact, her house, built in 1892, does have an onion-shaped tower as well as a monumental porch entrance.)
This is not the case. Mary Bordelon, who is in her mid-40s and has lived in this house virtually all her life, is as concerned with the present and future as she is with the past. But with her it’s hard to separate the three. Her facial expression varies little–from exasperation to indignation to irritation–as she contrasts the community as it once was with the community as it came to be. Her head is full of names and dates and events covering more than 100 years. And her home is stacked with maps, photos, plans, proposals, court documents, and newspaper clippings. “Someday this will all be put together and the story will be told,” she says. “I believe it’s the story of urban deterioration not just in this little corner of Chicago but in every major city. What’s happened here is a holocaust.”
A bit of overstatement, perhaps, but as you move around Bordelon’s community you have to wonder what happened. Along Oakenwald and Lake Park avenues to the east are great stretches of open land overgrown with brush where mansions once stood. Woodlawn Avenue resembles an English moor, with but one stately relic of the bygone era standing near 45th Street like an ancient castle. (In 1890 it was the home of the Cook County Republican Committee chairman.) Other streets are pocked with vacant lots and abandoned, crumbling hulks. More than half the buildings that once stood in this neighborhood are gone, and the population, which reached 27,000 in the 1920s, is now 5,300, according to the 1990 census. “Can there be any doubt,” says Bordelon, “that the plan is to get rid of the last of us, knock down these magnificent old buildings, clear the land, and bring in some whole new development?”
Bordelon, however, is not a fatalist: she has this conviction that what’s left here can and must be saved, and she’s determined to push, pull, and scream until it happens. In recent years she and her friend and comrade-in-arms, Ruby Harris, have become the unpaid, unappointed gadflies of the community: two people so passionate in their beliefs they take on everybody–urban planners, city officials, private developers, timid residents, community organizers. No one is immune from their opinions and their wrath. They want redevelopment, but not at the expense of the current residents and not at the expense of Kenwood’s history.
To be sure, they are not the only players on this small stage, not even the most important ones by official reckoning. The future of North Kenwood is technically in the hands of a conservation community council, whose members, appointed by the mayor, are not lacking in good will or commitment. Neither Bordelon nor Harris is on the council, though they attend the meetings, record the proceedings, and hold the members’ feet to the fire. The neighborhood for more than 20 years has been greatly influenced by the local citizens group, the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization (KOCO). Neither Bordelon nor Harris is associated with KOCO, and they regard their distance from it as a sign of their integrity. KOCO and its supporters, on the other hand, see Bordelon and Harris as major nuisances–people so enamored of the past that they may jeopardize the future, at least the future as KOCO would have it.
Recently, there have been signs of new life in North Kenwood. Some have resulted from renewed community interest, the efforts of the conservation council, and a more favorable city redevelopment policy. Some are the direct result of the dogged determination of the two mavericks. “If it wasn’t for Mary and Ruby,” says a longtime resident, “I think the bulldozers would have just come in and rolled right over us.”
Bordelon is constitutionally opposed to premature rejoicing. “Oh, I guess I’m hopeful,” she says when pushed. “But I see monsters. I’ve been seeing them around here for a long time.”
Once upon a time Kenwood was one community, running from 43rd to 51st Street and from the lakeshore to Cottage Grove Avenue. According to most Chicago neighborhood maps, those are still the boundaries. But in reality there are two Kenwoods, with 47th Street splitting comfortably affluent South Kenwood from its poverty-stricken northern brother. Scarcely anywhere in Chicago is there a starker contrast between haves and have-nots. To the south of 47th Street is a stable, integrated, upper-middle-class community with beautiful, well-maintained homes, manicured lawns, and Volvos in the driveways. Immediately to the north of 47th is a largely crumbling territory, much of which looks like London after the blitz.
The division of the Kenwoods did not happen by accident; it was decreed in the 1950s when the University of Chicago, with the cooperation of city and federal agencies, formed a protective barrier around itself against the encroaching black ghetto. The northern edge of that buffer was 47th Street. Since then the boundary has achieved the stature of an inviolable line of demarcation. The south half of Kenwood was associated thereafter with Hyde Park and partook of that community’s status. Written off by the university, North Kenwood was similarly written off by urban developers and lending institutions, even historians.
In the popular book Chicago: City of Neighborhoods, Dominic Pacyga and Ellen Skerrett write glowingly of a single neighborhood called “Hyde Park-Kenwood,” which is “generally recognized as an island surrounded by the rest of the South Side. Lying south of 47th Street along the lakefront to 60th Street, the Hyde Park-Kenwood community has always been different from other areas.” The authors recognize that Hyde Park and Kenwood were originally separate communities, but they note that “in the 1950s and 1960s, the two were closely joined by the urban renewal process and by the fact that their populations were so similar. The neighborhood north of 47th Street [unnamed by the authors] experienced a complete racial turnover and became more closely associated with the all black Oakland neighborhood to the north.”
Chicago Magazine’s Guide to Chicago and Fodor’s Chicago similarly describe “Hyde Park-Kenwood” in detail, identifying its northern boundary as 47th Street. A 1978 booklet published by the then Commission on Chicago Historical and Architectural Landmarks says the “Kenwood District” extends no farther north than 48th Street.
The late Ira Bach, in Chicago on Foot: Walking Tours of Chicago Architecture, did not even acknowledge the existence of a North Kenwood. “Citizens of Kenwood are to be thanked–and congratulated–for saving the neighborhood,” he wrote. “An interracial committee of home-owners took the situation in hand. . . . They worked with real estate dealers to establish a stable, well-integrated community. Naturally, because of the kind of houses available, most Kenwood home-owners of both races have upper-middle or high incomes.” It should be noted that Bach’s perspective may have been skewed by the fact that he was director of the Chicago Land Clearance Commission during the time Kenwood was being cut in two.
The land that became Kenwood was part of a large area along the lake acquired by the United States from Native Americans in the Black Hawk treaty of 1833. When parcels were offered for sale to the public, there were no immediate takers. The first permanent settler didn’t arrive until 1856. He was Dr. John Kennicott, a dentist from New York, who bought two pieces of property, one near what is now 43rd Street, another south of 48th, close to the new Illinois Central railroad tracks. He called his estate Kenwood, after his ancestral home in Scotland, and that was the name given to the Illinois Central station that opened in 1859 at 47th Street. Kennicott thus became one of the first south-side commuters, as he took the train daily to and from his dental office in downtown Chicago.
Important Chicago business and civic leaders gradually moved into the area and built large homes. In the mid-1870s one writer described Kenwood as the “Lake Forest of the South,” and Kenwood for decades retained this distinctively rural character: fashionable estates surrounded by acres of woodland. It was unlike both Hyde Park to the south, which had a more urban look because its founder subdivided the territory into small lots, and Oakland to the north, which in its early days was the site of a stockyards, a candle factory, and a military camp. In his 1884 History of Cook County, Illinois, A.T. Andreas wrote, “The estimation in which Kenwood was held by its residents has by no means lapsed with the progress of the years; the aristocratic denizen of that aristocratic suburb esteems it as the Faubourg Saint Germain was considered by the old regime of the Parisian aristocracy. It certainly is an undeniable proposition that in the region . . . can be found as exclusive, talented coteries of society as those existing in the old Quaker circles of Philadelphia, in the Knickerbockers of New York or Brooklyn, or the refrigerative haut ton of Beacon Street. With this distinction: . . . the inhabitants are too thoroughly gentlemen and ladies to be very amenable to the dogmas of snobbery.”
Kenwood was the home of architect Louis Sullivan, industrialist Gustavus Swift, aquarium donor John Shedd, planetarium founder Max Adler, and the Museum of Science and Industry’s founding philanthropist, Julius Rosenwald.
In 1889, Kenwood and the communities around it were annexed to the city of Chicago. Large sections were then subdivided by developers, and smaller homes and row houses (most of which would be considered mansions by present standards) appeared throughout Kenwood. With the extension of streetcar lines on Cottage Grove and on 47th in the 1890s, the demand for housing grew, and Kenwood gradually became urbanized. Apartment buildings were erected in the 1920s. Many homes of the “Lake Forest” era were demolished; others were subdivided and transformed into rental properties. In the 1930s and 1940s, Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, Japanese Americans, and blacks settled in Kenwood. By 1950 the area was one-third black, with the vast majority of the blacks clustered north of 47th Street.
Perhaps the most significant single factor in the eventual racial transformation of North Kenwood from white to black was the construction, a couple of miles north, of the Lake Meadows housing development in the late 1940s. Financed by the New York Life Insurance Company, the Lake Meadows project involved major slum clearance on the near south side. Some 26,000 families were uprooted through the city’s power of eminent domain and their dwellings leveled. In his book Making the Second Ghetto, Arnold Hirsch cites an incredible “lack of concern” on the part of Ira Bach’s Land Clearance Commission for accommodating the displaced. Since the poorest had nowhere to go, public pressure mounted for a major expansion of public facilities, thus triggering the erection of Chicago Housing Authority high rises. Those who were financially able to rented or bought homes in the communities immediately south of the cleared area: Oakland and Kenwood.
Among the home buyers was Frances Atkins, whose two gray stone houses on Cottage Grove had been seized by the city and demolished to make room for Lake Meadows. Atkins purchased the home at 45th and Ellis, and after her death it passed to her nephew Leon Bordelon, who moved from his native Louisiana to Kenwood with his young family in 1952. The Bordelons have remained rooted in the community ever since, purchasing three other homes in the immediate vicinity. One of Leon’s children is a Chicago elementary school principal, two are lawyers, and his daughter Mary is the scourge of North Kenwood.
“This was a wonderful neighborhood to grow up in,” says Mary Bordelon. “Whites, Asians, blacks–race made no difference. You could take a walk through Drexel Park in the evening and never give it a thought. I used to go to the library at 49th and Blackstone any time and feel perfectly safe. People would leave their houses unlocked. This was an active, concerned community.”
Bordelon attended the University of Chicago in the early 1970s, studying premed, and it was during that time that her once idyllic community came crashing down. “There were major fires almost every night,” she says. “Buildings were demolished, crime got out of control, a lot of people just packed up and left. It was all so wild and crazy and I didn’t understand what had happened.”
What had happened was that the powers that be at the University of Chicago had observed the effects of near-south-side slum clearance–and the massive movement of displaced black families in their direction–and taken preemptive action. The university neighborhood had to be preserved, officials argued, for staff, faculty, students, and research operations. And so the largest urban renewal program in the United States was created, with wondrous cooperation between public and private sectors. The so-called final plan involved the re-creation of almost the entire area between 47th and 59th streets, Cottage Grove and the lake. More than 100 acres were cleared, 6,000 dwelling units (especially older, low-rent apartments) demolished, and 4,000 families uprooted. Streets were closed or reconfigured to divert traffic from the campus, some 2,000 new homes were built, and money was made available for the renovation of older homes. The cost, most of it covered by federal and city funds, was $26 million. The result was a brand-new showpiece neighborhood.
Throughout the upheaval, debate raged concerning both the motive of the university and the process by which it was achieving its will. Wasn’t this urban renewal program simply a publicly funded scheme to keep out blacks? Not at all, said the university’s chancellor, Lawrence A. Kimpton, since the redeveloped area would be (and still is) well integrated. Was this not a case of a major private institution reconstructing part of a city to suit its own interests, without considering the needs of the larger community? No way, argued Julian Levi, director of the South East Chicago Commission (the aggressive, university-backed organization that carried out the “stabilization” of the local environment), since a great many residents of Hyde Park and Kenwood (South Kenwood, that is) applauded the overall effort. Besides, what was good for the U. of C. was good for Chicago.
The debate rages today only in academic circles. What is certain is that millions of dollars that might have been spent in seeking a citywide solution to racial change were dedicated to the salvation of one community, which is now, as Chicago walking guides boast, a model for the nation. It is equally certain that North Kenwood, Oakland, and sections of Woodlawn were abandoned to their fate. Owners neglected their properties, tenants fled, housing codes were not enforced, and gangs moved in. No Chicago guidebooks advise walking tours through any of these neighborhoods.
In the early 1980s Mary Bordelon quit working as an interior designer, set her jaw, and began to condemn injustice. “We were cut out, squelched, sacrificed,” she says. “The good old boys, the Ira Bachs and the Julian Levis, they sat down at breakfast and decided who would live and who would die.”
The dying went on and on and on. “You can’t possibly imagine how many beautiful homes have been destroyed here since the university preserved its enclave,” she says. “Look at that vacant lot over there. The house was demolished by the city one day in 1986 while the owner was at work. And that other lot down the street–we were trying to find a buyer for the house, and before we could get the details worked out the place was gone. Land clearance is what we’ve had!”
Bordelon says she and other family members stay because this is their home and they firmly believe that “if something is broken you fix it, you don’t destroy it.”
Ruby Harris is a 37-year-old single mother who was raised in Woodlawn, graduated from Lindbloom High School, and studied industrial design at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In 1985 she was looking for a house when a friend suggested she consider North Kenwood.
“I said, ‘Are you serious?'” she recalls. “I knew the area and I thought, yeah, gangs, demolition, trouble. But I came and looked around anyhow, and I was fascinated.”
She eventually bought a row house on Lake Park and hooked up with Mary Bordelon. “I really got interested in what’s here,” she says. “Even got interested in what’s gone.”
As she and her daughter stroll down Lake Park, Harris becomes an animated tour guide, commenting on features few passersby are likely to notice. “Look at the rooflines,” she says, pointing to a cluster of century-old, three-story row houses. “See how each one has a different border–very creative. And see how the stones they used on the front have different colors. And just look at the leaded glass and the bay windows! Isn’t that something? Each house has its own personality.”
Harris stops at a narrow graystone farther down the street to chat with Walter Pitchford, who has just arrived with some materials in his pickup truck. Pitchford purchased the home for about $25,000 last year, and he’s now in the process of renovating it. He’s completely gutted the place, and he plans to spend about $125,000 transforming it into a home for his wife and two children. “I live in Hyde Park now,” says Pitchford, “but I couldn’t afford as fine a building over there. This place is solid. It may be a hundred years old but it’s good for another hundred.”
Near 46th and Oakenwald, Harris chats with Arrelia Johnson, who has lived 43 years in a huge, three-story, six-bedroom, Gothic graystone styled like a miniature French chateau. There’s a coach house in the back. Her daughter stands in the yard, looks down the block, and starts calculating how many old homes on the block have disappeared in her lifetime. “It’s about 30,” she says finally. “Some fires, most sort of crumbled when folks moved out.”
Just around the corner is a nondescript frame house that was designed by Louis Sullivan and lived in by his brother. The vacant lot next door was the site of Sullivan’s own house, which he designed, reportedly became a storehouse for gang weapons in its latter days, and was destroyed in the 1970s.
So spread out are the remaining homes on Oakenwald and Lake Park that the area seems more rural than urban–an ironic echo of the era of Dr. Kennicott and his aristocratic neighbors. “It’s a funny thing,” says Harris. “It’s safe to walk around here again. It’s a small community; people know one another and they’re always watching. Nothing happens without somebody knowing.” Graffiti, she notes, is almost absent on these blocks.
At the corner of Oakenwald and Lake Park, Yvonne Bernard is working in the flower garden of the rusticated graystone she, her husband, and her two children bought three years ago. The house, surrounded by a magnificent wrought iron fence, was designed by Robert Rae Jr., a leading Chicago architect in the 1890s. It has been beautifully restored. “We did the total rehab ourselves,” says the Jamaica-born Bernard, referring to her family. “We even did the landscaping.”
“She’s a workaholic,” says Harris. “Never stops.”
Farther down the block on Oakenwald, another home buyer (who declines to be identified) complains that it’s too hard to get a rehab loan. “How come there’s all this money for Lincoln Park and Bucktown?” he asks. “And we need a place to shop around here, too. I like the area, but man, it’s frustrating.”
Everyone in the neighborhood seems to know Ruby Harris; they treat her like an informal community organizer, and she’s quick to hand out names and phone numbers of relevant city officials when there’s a question of filing a complaint or acquiring a vacant lot. She, Bordelon, and a few others formed the Kennicott Park Advisory Council several years ago. There is no Kennicott Park here or anywhere else, but they liked the historic name, and they’ve succeeded in getting the Chicago Park District to install several playlots on vacant land. More recreational areas are in the planning stages, says Harris, who also sponsors flower arranging and senior exercise classes for interested neighbors.
According to Don Tillery, a broker at ERA Sack Realty in Hyde Park, interest in the old buildings of North Kenwood is on the rise. “It’s hot,” he says. “There’s actually more interest than properties available.” Biracial couples have shown the greatest interest, he adds; some are buying now and boarding up the homes to await future rehabilitation. Deteriorated buildings, some “in horrible condition,” are going for $35,000 and up, he says; a reconditioned mansion near 43rd and Greenwood recently sold for $150,000, and a rehabbed multiunit building on Ellis went for $250,000 last year.
Next May the Home Builders Association of Greater Chicago and the city of Chicago will begin building a “parade of homes” in North Kenwood: a dozen single-family homes each built by a different contractor, ranging in price from $125,000 to $200,000 and compatible with the existing architecture on Oakenwald. The purpose is to stimulate buyer interest in the old neighborhood.
“I like what I’m seeing around here,” says Harris, but like Mary Bordelon she’s cautious. “We’ve been treated real bad in the past, and there’s still a lot going on we don’t like.”
Ironically, North Kenwood’s tentative road back to respectability may have begun with what Mary Bordelon regarded at the time as the ultimate insult. In 1979 the city created the Kenwood Historical District. This meant that buildings within the designated district could not be torn down or even significantly altered without input from the Chicago Commission on Historical and Architectural Landmarks. It also made major tax incentives available to owners and buyers and attached a considerable degree of prestige to the whole area. However, the northern limit of the district was 47th Street. North Kenwood was again left out in the cold.
When the question of district boundaries had come up at a public hearing of the landmark commission in 1978, veteran North Kenwood resident Robert Martin could scarcely hide his indignation. “You’ve drawn some lines, and when you draw lines you exclude people who might want to be included,” he told the commissioners. “Kenwood is not bounded by 47th Street. Kenwood is bounded by 43rd Street, and the overlooking of . . . real estate north of 47th Street, regardless of who occupies this territory at the moment and what their financial status might be, I think, is an oversight on the part of the commission.” Martin identified specific properties in his own area that were just as old and just as historically significant as anything south of 47th. But his plea fell on deaf ears.
Private developers soon began casting lustful glances on the unprotected spaces between 35th and 47th streets. Here was prime lakefront land less than five miles from downtown, and it appeared to be ripe for the taking. But local residents, none louder than Mary Bordelon, rose up in protest. Community spirit, long absent, began to spread through North Kenwood and Oakland.
In response to the pressure, the city in 1988 authorized a Kenwood-Oakland Neighborhood Planning Committee. More than 200 local citizens took part in six months of planning meetings. Bordelon was among those who advocated redevelopment, but she expressed grave reservations about trusting city officials and private developers. She was particularly opposed to a major plan proposed by Ferd Kramer, the man who’d been behind the Lake Meadows development some 40 years earlier. The plan stated on page one that “no habitable low-rise housing units will be torn down,” but maps in the back revealed that a substantial amount of house razing was contemplated.
In 1990 the city designated North Kenwood-Oakland as a conservation area, and a 15-member conservation community council (CCC) was appointed by the mayor and empowered to issue specific redevelopment guidelines. Bordelon was passed over, according to several community leaders, because she was considered “too contentious.” Harris served one year but was not reappointed in 1992–also, apparently, because of her contentiousness.
Shirley Newsome, chair of the CCC, says the arguments were unfortunate but understandable. When she and her husband moved to Oakland in 1978, they did not carry “the excess baggage” of long- remembered grievances. Like other newer arrivals, “we had no history here or allegiances; we looked at this community and couldn’t believe the laxity of maintenance. So we tried to relate to every person or agency, public or private, that could help us. We learned the art of compromise, and that’s not easy for some people.”
Nevertheless, both Bordelon and Harris agreed with the CCC’s recommendations, issued last October, that “future development of the conservation area should be consistent with its primary character as a low-density, residential community,” that “all existing housing units should be preserved to the extent it is financially and programmatically feasible,” and that “new construction should be made compatible with the density, architectural style and scale of the surrounding area.”
Their concern, says Harris, is that these fine-sounding recommendations will be twisted, if not totally disregarded, when developers sit down to cut up the pie. So while the CCC followed the road of thoughtful compromise, she and Bordelon took the route of confrontation.
In 1983 the city of Chicago launched a ten-year-long Chicago Historic Resources Survey, the most comprehensive study ever of a large U.S. city. Every building within the city limits (750,000 in all) was looked at for age and historic or architectural importance. Fifteen researchers from what is now the city’s Department of Planning and Development traveled street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood, scrutinizing structures and making their maps. Red and orange indicated high-value buildings, other colors those of less or no significance. As the team trekked through the wilderness of North Kenwood and Oakland, their maps quickly became dotted with red and orange. Timothy Wittman, a preservation specialist, was especially impressed with the number of important survivors; but he believed neither community could be designated a landmark district because its historic homes were too scattered, separated by tracts of empty land and other old buildings of no importance. A landmark district required an uninterrupted stretch of important structures. Still, he and his colleagues felt the old communities deserved something. So the staff proposed in 1990 that a block in Oakland (the west side of Lake Park and adjacent east side of Berkeley between 41st and 42nd) and a block in North Kenwood (both sides of Berkeley between 44th and 45th) be honored, since both were relatively intact.
“When I heard that, I thought it was a joke,” says Bordelon. “They wanted to give us two blocks. Two blocks! It was sheer tokenism.”
She and Ruby Harris launched their own survey. Peter Bynoe, chairman of the renamed Commission on Chicago Landmarks, told them that if they could establish the historical importance of additional homes the commission would consider them, and the two women needed no more encouragement than that.
For weeks, Bordelon and Harris pored over City Hall polling sheets going back to the 1890s. These revealed the names and addresses of the original residents of every home in Kenwood. And then, to discover who these persons were, they combed Chicago Historical Society documents–the Blue Book Directory, the Chicago Elite Directory, and other works published around the turn of the century. More information was extracted from old membership lists of the Commercial Club of Chicago, the Union League Club, and the Chicago Club. From the archives at the University of Chicago came 19th-century fire insurance maps that described homes in detail and gave the dates of their construction. Chicago Trust and Title Company records revealed yet more about Kenwood, back to the early 1870s. Still not content, Bordelon and Harris ruffled through second-hand bookstores and purchased some 100 old biographies of Chicagoans. This painstaking research went on for over a year.
“We were determined to establish that this area was important in the creation of the city of Chicago,” says Bordelon, “that builders and bankers and pioneer businessmen lived here, that great architects built homes here. You can’t prove all of that just by going around looking at buildings.”
Struck by the exhaustiveness of their research, Bynoe told Bordelon and Harris to present their findings in concise form lest his staff be overwhelmed. As the information came in, the number of buildings accepted as historically significant by the landmarks commission grew.
Meanwhile, Tim Wittman found a way to stretch the landmark-district concept to accommodate North Kenwood and Oakland by borrowing a page from the National Historical Register. The register had long recognized the idea of a special kind of landmark area called a “multiple resource district.” Such an area consists of a relatively small core cluster of important buildings with other buildings representing the same theme scattered outside the core, like satellites. If the federal government could have such districts, why couldn’t Chicago? The City Council agreed with the idea; Oakland and Kenwood were proposed as the city’s first two multiple resource districts–eligible for the same status (and the same protections) as that of official landmark districts.
When the commission presented its preliminary summary on Kenwood in August 1991–a 54-page document written by Wittman and based primarily on the city’s survey–many residents were pleased. Here for the first time was a comprehensive compilation of the old homes, their architects, and their early inhabitants. These structures would have to be respected by developers and maintained by owners. Included among the 198 pieces of property was the home of Jay Morton, founder of the Morton Salt Company–a home of Prairie School design attributed to a partner of Frank Lloyd Wright; the Kenwood United Church of Christ, built in 1887 and designed by William Bennington, who also designed the Chicago Water Tower; the old Shakespeare School, the first Chicago school with electricity and indoor plumbing; and scores of other homes of the city’s old movers and shakers. The original small core had been expanded to include larger sections of Lake Park and Berkeley, along with numerous individual buildings on Oakenwald, Ellis, Greenwood, Drexel, and 46th.
But Bordelon and Harris were far from pleased. “Like I told them, they were 15 years late getting to us,” says Bordelon, still fuming over the landmark status accorded South Kenwood, “so I didn’t regard it as any great concession.” More importantly, in her view, the city’s researchers had overlooked scores of buildings meriting consideration. She and Harris resumed research at the historical society, the university, and the civic clubs. In early 1992 they presented Bynoe with the results of their work–more than 100 more homes that they thought merited landmark status. “Here were all these houses built by the original people in the community, still intact, and they hadn’t even been considered,” says Bordelon. “Like the place on the 900 block of 46th Street; it was the home of Silas Strawn, founder of the Winston & Strawn law firm. And all those frame houses on 44th and 46th, among the oldest in Kenwood. Somehow they just got lost.”
The staff of the landmarks commission took the list of homes, checked the research, and accepted about a quarter of them. “They told us some weren’t stellar,” says Bordelon. “What does that mean? It was clear we were going to have to jump through hoops forever, so we asked to present our case directly to the landmark commission members.” Bynoe agreed, and the meeting took place in June 1992.
As a result, more than 30 homes were added to the district on top of those the staff had already accepted, and the size of the core was nearly doubled. But Bordelon and Harris still weren’t satisfied. So Bynoe asked Vincent Michael of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois to serve as an independent arbiter. Michael had followed the Kenwood project from the beginning, and from his recommendations, 20 more houses made the landmarks list.
“The whole thing was pretty amazing,” says Michael. “Here were these people from the community coming forth with compelling historical evidence and demanding that the experts take another look.” Michael was also impressed with the effect of the process on the community. On an earlier visit to North Kenwood, he had noted several old buildings on Lake Park that seemed unsalvageable. Yet when he returned in 1992, he discovered they had been purchased and were being fully restored. “Who would believe that people would invest money in that property and on that street?” he muses.
As Bordelon and Harris persisted, Wittman and other landmark staff members made further concessions. “Mary and Ruby forced us to take second and third looks,” says Wittman. “They actively lobbied everything that finally got it.” Wittman adds that he found it somewhat difficult to maintain his balance during negotiations with the two women. “I said to them, ‘Ladies, I’m not here to talk about North versus South Kenwood. I’m not here to right perceived wrongs. I wasn’t around when Kenwood was divided.’ But I think they still saw me as a representative of the evil cabal that was conspiring against their community.”
While discussions concerning North Kenwood went on for months, plans to grant Oakland landmark status proceeded more speedily, and it was approved as a multiple resource district in March 1992, with some 125 designated properties. “We tried to get people in Oakland involved in pushing expansion,” says Bordelon, “but there wasn’t a lot of interest.”
When the North Kenwood Multiple Resource District finally was established by the City Council last June, it contained 337 designated properties, some 140 of which had been added after the 1991 preliminary summary.
Was Bordelon satisfied? No way. As we drive through the neighborhood, she points out a nicely renovated building at 44th and Greenwood. “It was built in 1890,” she says wearily, “but they wouldn’t accept it.” She notes three row houses on the 900 block of 45th that were built in the 1880s–“They didn’t think they were stellar enough.” We pause to admire a renovated six-unit structure near 46th and Oakenwald–“denied because outside the core they would only consider single-family residences for landmark status. Do you see why I get so upset?”
Almost every block, in fact, has houses that she’s anguishing over. She takes their rejection very personally; they are her children.
Then we come to some North Kenwood real estate she does not like. Near Oakenwald and 44th is a 15-unit, cheaply constructed, low-rise public housing development built here less than three years ago. Bordelon has been fighting attempts by the Chicago Housing Authority to place public housing in her beleaguered neighborhood for ten years, but these were constructed without input from anyone in the community. “Somebody just pushed a button downtown and up they went,” says Bordelon. “No one here was consulted.”
At 46th and Woodlawn is a private 70-unit development called Woodlake Village. Mayor Harold Washington turned the first spade of dirt for its construction the morning of November 25, 1987, and died of a heart attack just before noon. Today the complex consists of rows of very small redbrick rental town houses that were built back-to-back, each with only one doorway. The architecture of Woodlake Village bears no resemblance to anything around it. It is a project of the Kenwood-Oakland Development Corporation, an offshoot of KOCO. “We call this place the barracks,” says Bordelon. “It’s what they’d like to do to this whole neighborhood.”
According to Bob Lucas, Woodlake Village is indeed “a model for inner-city redevelopment”: it’s moderate-income housing with a smattering of rent-subsidized units. “What we don’t want is a lot of expensive housing people can’t afford.”
Lucas has been the chairman of KOCO for more than 20 years and at 68 appears to have no intention of slowing down. He and his organization have had a stormy, controversial history. Although KOCO has rehabbed several hundred apartment units in North Kenwood and Oakland, some of its most publicized projects have flopped miserably. Community residents are clearly divided about KOCO. Some see the organization as incompetent; others see it as unlucky; still others, like Bordelon and Harris, harbor more sinister theories, viewing KOCO as a front for private developers who are content to let it muddle around until the last of the old residents move out or die off and the builings fall down, at which time the territory can be rebuilt at tremendous profit.
Seated in the KOCO office, less than a block from Ruby Harris’s home, the tall, white-maned Lucas dismisses accusations with a smile and a wave of his hand. He would prefer to talk about KOCO’s projects. Last April he announced a plan to build 5,000 housing units during the next 10 to 15 years, most of them in North Kenwood on Oakenwald and on Drexel. Presumably, many would follow the pattern of Woodlake Village. Through the KOCO-backed Fund for Community Development, Lucas and other leaders are seeking funds for the massive effort.
He also discusses a more immediate proposal: the construction of 1,200 new units to be scattered throughout North Kenwood; 600 would be moderate-income homes for purchase and 600 would be public housing units to replace those closed down a few years ago at the Washington Park housing project in Oakland. Asked why North Kenwood, of all places, should be asked to accept 600 public housing units, he notes that this would help to keep the area “economically diverse.”
Wouldn’t elite South Kenwood be better able to absorb these CHA units? Lucas just laughs. “Impossible!” he says. “I could no more put them down there than grow six inches taller.”
When he’s reminded that the newly acquired landmark status (as well as the community-approved conservation plan) requires that new construction be architecturally consistent with what’s already there and not involve the demolition of old homes, Lucas says, “Yes, that’s true, it must be consistent, but only to the extent that the requirement is practical. We have to be flexible about these things. For redevelopment, like the shopping center proposed at 47th and Lake Park, you have to take down some buildings.”
KOCO has never been enthusiastic about landmark status. When the subject was under discussion more than two years ago, Douglas Gills, KOCO’s deputy director, told the Sun-Times his organization was “extremely critical” of the idea. Landmark status, he said, could raise the value of property, cause rents to rise, and thus drive out low-income tenants. According to Tim Wittman, KOCO officially opposed landmark status for both North Kenwood and Oakland. But Lucas says this is not so. “We’ve never been against it,” he says, and he even gives Bordelon and Harris grudging credit. “Those two ladies led the way,” he says. “It’s the first positive thing they’ve done around here.”
The problem with Bordelon and Harris, in Lucas’s view, is “middle-class aspirations. They want to return North Kenwood to the early 1900s; they want to make it what it isn’t and what it’s never going to be. What we want is an economic mix–moderate, middle, and low income.”
As a result, Lucas is not altogether delighted with the recent purchase of classical old buildings by private families. Excessive rehabilitation might cause real estate taxes to soar, he warns.
Fourth Ward alderman Toni Preckwinkle says she is unaware of the massive redevelopment plans Lucas speaks of, and she refuses to speculate about the wisdom of building CHA sites in North Kenwood. “That’s like asking me what I’d do if Martians were to land,” she says.
Conservation community council chairman Shirley Newsome says Lucas’s primary concern is obviously the area’s renters, while the CCC’s focus is on developing single-family housing without displacing current residents. Although the council has not approved any specific development yet, she says it is working on important infrastructure issues such as widening alleys, arranging off-street parking, and improving parks and schools–all of which are necessary foundations for lasting redevelopment. The city, she believes, “has a lot of faith in this community, and that goes all the way up to the mayor’s office.”
Valerie Jarrett, director of the city’s Department of Planning and Development, admits she has a soft spot in her heart for North Kenwood and Oakland because she grew up just two blocks from the 47th Street border. “It’s a neighborhood with a heritage,” she says, “and we definitely want to stabilize its architectural integrity.” She says future developments there should be “economically integrated,” but she adds that specific proposals, such as Lucas’s plan for thousands of units on certain streets, are proposals only.
Jarrett admits to “a lot of respect” for mavericks Bordelon and Harris. “They share an enormous amount of commitment to the rejuvenation of this community. It’s important for the city to have people like that.” And she is encouraged by the individual rehab efforts going on in the community–a trend she sees as contagious.
As for new construction, “Chicago will be supporting in the future only that which is consistent with the architectural style of the area,” Jarrett states emphatically. She disapproves of projects like Woodlake Village, which “don’t bear any resemblance to the neighborhood’s style.” But she has confidence in the intelligence and good intentions of the conservation community council, which is empowered to approve or reject any new construction. Of course, the CCC was functioning when the mysterious public housing units went up on Lake Park, but the council’s approval was not sought. “I just don’t understand that one,” Jarrett says. “One day they just appeared.”
“A lot of things appear and disappear around here,” Mary Bordelon observes sardonically, “and nobody ever gives you a straight answer.” Neighbors chat on a nearby corner, and passing drivers honk and wave when they spot Bordelon on her porch. It’s a beautiful sunny day, and an elderly Japanese American who bought a home down the street 40 years ago is mowing his front lawn. The neighborhood is such a strange mix of energy and exhaustion, hope and despair. “I do what I do because decent people lived here and still do,” Bordelon says. “Somebody has to care what happens.”
Ruby Harris shares that view. “I don’t want it said that this neighborhood became a community only when white folks moved in and saved it,” she says. “It’s a community right now, and it deserves to be treated fairly now. I’ll tell you I’m prepared to stand here with my feet in cement if necessary, and I’m saying we are here and we ain’t moving!”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Meredith.