Aaron “Haroon” Garel, 39, recounts fond memories of growing up in his vibrant south-side neighborhood, Woodlawn, during the 1980s. Block club parties were “on and poppin,’” treating neighborhood children to an abundance of candy and a free petting zoo. Stores and restaurants lined 63rd Street and at the corner of Kimbark Ave, the original three-story branch of the neighborhood public library doubled as a community center that held talent shows, dance practices and a local theater.
“Woodlawn was the place to be,” says Garel.
Longtime residents of Woodlawn characterize the community they remember as family oriented, a neighborhood where “everybody knew everybody.”
“It felt familiar and it felt homey,” says Jazmyn Taylor, 26. Tayor spent her childhood in Woodlawn before her parents moved to the suburbs during her teenage years. She returned to the neighborhood as an adult. “It felt like I was walking in a space where people saw me and saw that I belonged there. And they knew that I was a part of the fabric.”
Neighborhood landmarks that residents like Taylor and Garel fondly recall, including basketball courts and family-owned grocery stores, are now gone.
During the 1990s and 2000s, the neighborhood experienced significant population and infrastructure loss. Residents attribute the decline to a rise in drugs, crime, racial tension, and a lack of follow through on promised redevelopment. The negative stigma that clouded the neighborhood’s reputation delayed any potential population gains, leaving behind numerous vacant lots and minimal investment.
Today, Woodlawn has become an attractive location to those looking to capitalize on these vacancies. In a January 2017 Curbed Chicago article, Woodlawn was named 2016 Neighborhood of the Year.
Just this year, new developments have sprung up across the neighborhood, including the construction of a 48,000-square-foot Jewel-Osco grocery store and new homes selling for more than $700,000. In the near future, Woodlawn will see the arrival of a mixed-use medical center, massive University of Chicago dorms, and the renovation of a church into a community theater.
Much of the change is institutionally influenced. In 1964, the University of Chicago agreed not to develop beyond 61st Street, but in recent years it has expanded southward, shifting racial and economic demographics.
Sara Pitcher has lived in Woodlawn for more than 40 years, ever since her late husband, Reverend Al Pitcher, opened the Covenant Community of University Church, an apartment complex at the corner of 61st and Woodlawn. From her rooftop, she can see the towering dormitories being built by the University of Chicago, blocking the view she once had of the Midway Plaisance Park.
“I don’t necessarily consider them a great neighbor,” says Pitcher, who has helped cultivate an intentionally-integrated community that holds regular resident meetings and potlucks where decisions are made collectively.
Apostolic Church of God, a megachurch led by Pastor Byron Brazier, owns several properties in the neighborhood and was integral in the removal of a portion of the CTA Green Line in 1997, as reported by J.W. Mason in the Reader. The transit line once ran all the way to Stony Island Avenue above an assortment of small businesses and community centers.
“They got those tracks tore down and built those houses [east of Woodlawn Avenue], and that was the end of any shopping or commercial development up and down 63rd,” says Garel. “It became a desert.”
The Obama Presidential Center (OPC), which is cleared to be built in Jackson Park, is another large institution that has many residents worried about their future in a historically affordable neighborhood.
“It’s going to definitely change the community—raise the economic base of who can afford to live here. And when you think about all that, you can love Obama . . . but that’s not enough to make what it’s definitely going to change worth it for me,” says Taylor.
These changes have pushed many residents to action—sparking the launch of community organization, 1Woodlawn, and prompting a cohort that supports a community benefits agreement surrounding the OPC.
The preservation of a family-oriented culture remains a concern.
“I don’t want the family aspect and the people here to change. That’s what makes Woodlawn what it is,” says Jeremiah Holmes, 22, whose childhood apartment on 61st and Cottage Grove has now been replaced by the Jewel-Osco.
However, some residents see the neighborhood change as a positive sign.
“Look, nothing stays the same,” says Abdul Karim, 78, whose family moved to Woodlawn from Mississippi in 1957. “Either you can be a part of the progress or a part of the regress . . . gentrification can go both ways. Either you are going to control your area or you are going to let someone do it to you.”
Little remains from many longtime residents’ memories of the community. The jazz clubs on Cottage Grove from Karim’s youth have been demolished, local store favorites on 63rd are gone, and the historic Washington Park National Bank will soon become a dual office-retail center. Regardless, many residents express a commitment to being included in Woodlawn’s transition and a refusal to succumb to the wave of displacement impacting gentrifying communities across the city.
William Hill does so by turning vacant space into public community gardens. He is often found developing one at the intersection of 63rd and Stony Island, next to the Hyde Park Academy High School, where he attended over 50 years ago.
“It may be close to the Obama Presidential Center, but I want it to be a beacon of light,” says Hill. “A corridor where young people and elderly can travel from Englewood, South Shore, or Woodlawn, and it becomes a center for learning, enjoyment and appreciating nature.”
These residents have their own ideas for the community and what they hope to see preserved. Most importantly, they share why they choose to stay.
“This is my home,” says Pitcher. “I can’t imagine living anywhere else.” v
This story was produced with support from City Bureau, a civic journalism lab based in Woodlawn. If you are a longtime Woodlawn resident that wants to share your ideas and vision for the neighborhood, learn more about how you can get involved at citybureau.org/woodlawn.