Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Crossing 61st Street

posted by chicago pop

Keeping Vacant Lots Vacant in Woodlawn?

The University of Chicago has a longstanding promise, made to representatives of the Woodlawn neighborhood to its south, not to expand south of 61st Street. This agreement was made in 1964, 43 years ago.

At that time, there were two Germanies. China was closed to the outside world. Personal computers did not exist.

Is this pledge, and the anxieties to which it responds, out of date?

I have a feeling it might be. But there's no question that the issue is complicated.

After all, there is expansion through the urban renewal methods of razing and displacing, which did happen in Hyde Park, and didn't happen in Woodlawn; and there are other methods of expansion, through erecting buildings on vacant lots that would otherwise remain magnets for crime, and bringing jobs to a community that will help pay for rents and mortgages.

The University can without a doubt play a role in the latter strategy. It certainly requires sensitivity and open communication with neighbors on the part of the University, but it also requires and openness to change south of 61st Street, with change understood to mean that not all of the people in Woodlawn will always be poor, and that the neighborhood might one day approach the balance of household incomes it has known historically.

Take another look at the above picture of a longtime Woodlawn resident taken near her home. The University, in the end, never did expand south of 61st Street. In fact, it didn't do a thing in Woodlawn during the heyday of urban renewal, when it kept itself busy instead bulldozing solid chunks of Hyde Park.

Hyde Park, comparatively speaking, is now flourishing. Woodlawn has vacant lots the size of city blocks like the one above, not far from where Amadou Cisse was murdered.

The picture is taken from Monday's column by Chicago Tribune writer Dawn Turner Trice, who did the service of pointing out that Amadou Cisse was not the only one murdered recently nearby the University; in fact, two women have been found strangled and burned beyond recognition in garbage cans in or near Washington Park.

Trice spoke with two longtime Woodlawn natives who think the Washington Park homicides would have gotten a lot more media time if they had involved University students. They are probably right. The fact that the Cisse murder got such immediate and sustained attention from the media and from police, Trice argues, is part of why there are powerful racial and class tensions between the University and neighboring Woodlawn to the south.

That's certainly true. But things get a little less clear when the column takes a further turn, and as with so many issues in this part of town, brings it back to real estate. In particular, to the Big Bang of urban renewal, to which so many things around here can be traced back.

Like the idea that, instead of helping to get rid of those vacant lots, provide jobs, and partner with local organizations and developers to build market-rate and affordable housing, the University should be kept out. It all sounds very familiar to anyone who pays attention to Hyde Park politics, because in so many ways the terms of the debate were cast at this historical moment for both neighborhoods.

Trice quotes longtime resident Helen Latimore:

"People still see the University as harboring dreams of taking over our property." Latimore said. "Of waiting until Woodlawn is in such disrepair that all they have to do is swoop down and take it over."

It didn't help that a few years ago, the University hired a planning consultant that recommended the University expand south of 61st Street, which it has long said it wouldn't do. University officials quickly nixed the idea. But not before it reignited the suspicions and the mistrust among some Woodlawn residents.

Woodlawn residents, organized into the vibrant community and civil rights activist organization TWO, helped block University-led urban renewal plans in Woodlawn, and eventually elicited a sort of "61st Street Pledge" from the University in 1964.

But then, in the 1970s, long after most whites had left, most of the black middle class left, too. A neighborhood numbering 81,279 people in 1960, Woodlawn declined to 27,086 in 2000, a loss of 54,193. That kind of loss is not unlike that resulting from the incendiary carpet bombing of a large urban area. It constitutes the death of a neighborhood, if not a large part of a city. The number of vacant lots in Woodlawn and other similar neighborhoods attests to this massive depletion of human capital out of the neighborhood.

But without bringing human capital back in, and allowing investment from outside, things are never going to change.

So does this ban on University development south of 61st Street make any sense today, in the 21st century? Woodlawn may be able to fend for itself, with some of the indirect kind of help and support from the U of C described in a 2006 Chicago Magazine article. And, over the last decade or so, the market has finally started to notice Woodlawn; as the Chicago Reporter notes, "Between 2000 and 2004, the number of single- family attached units sold in Woodlawn tripled."

But this movement represents only a slow nudge towards what Woodlawn used to be. It's been hearly 50 years since things began to slide downhill for Woodlawn, and it may be another 50 before it returns to anything like what it was before it became pocked with vacant lots.

Considering that the University never did tear anything down south of 61st Street, maybe it's time to revisit this old treaty that keeps it behind an asphalt curtain.


Peter Rossi said...

something not mentioned in this post is that U of C is one of the only major universities in the country that has room to expand.

Both Columbia and Harvard came to deadends on expansion and are planning massive satelite campuses. These campuses will be a failure as they are isolated from the rest of the university.

It makes great sense to expand the university south. It can be done without tearing down much at all and will greatly benefit the Woodlawn residents with improved safety.

Jonathan said...

I never understood what the agreement was protecting, Woodlawn at this point is basically a dead neighborhood.

The only properties still standing are along the university's southern border. Otherwise, it is vacant spaces, a few ramshackle houses and almost no retail or commercial space at all.

Seriously, what are we preserving here? Hell if they made Woodlawn a nature reserve I could understand but a neighborhood? That Woodlawn died sometime in the 1980s.

Granted, the University does have a few years before it exhausts it's room to expand.

Honestly, though there needs to be a new master plan with some way to tie in both campuses and add a protective buffer to the south.

Maybe some rezoning is in order?

Raymond said...

While this idea has merit, in my mind, I think it's a non-starter, just because the university doesn't have the appetite for this type of fight right now.

Although I suppose a new VP for Community Affairs could take this on, I doubt it will happen in our lifetimes.

Ambrose said...

There's a reason why there's been no southward expansion. It's because all the property along 63rd is privately owned and is slated for residential development ONLY.
If you'd like to know who's developing it, it's Woodlawn's very own TWO-led Dr. Leon Finney.
I have been to community meetings where Dr. Finney has openly stated that the space along 63rd St. will be Woodlawn's "living room." In other words, not a commercial zone at all, because in his view that failed a long time ago.
As you mention in your post, 1964 is definitely not 2007. 2007 is not the era of the Great Society and it's not the era of Richard "The Pharaoh" Daley, Sr. But apparently Dr. Finney is continuing to play it that way.
I'm not a long time resident of Woodlawn, I've only lived here four years. But it didn't take long for me to realize that U of C's self-imposed southern border has external influences on it.

Erin said...

My husband and I recently went to Cochran's community development meeting....there are grand plans for residential development by several different companies, some of them including affordable housing in their proposals, for the vacant lots....however, i wonder how successful they'll be without backing (read political pressure and funds) from the university to increase safety and thus encourage folks to move south of the midway. however, i remain hopeful that my neighborhood (woodlawn) will continue to get safer and vacant lots will disappear....the gentrification is already in motion and woodlawn is one of a slew of neighborhoods that remains affordable to middle income folks, who want the convenience of hyde park but can't buy a home there. and once gentrification (a dirty word to some, progress to others) gets started, it's hard to stop. the university can really play a role in working with the alderman and developers to make sure that low income residents don't get left in the cold at the same time that woodlawn becomes a neighborhood we all can live with.

Elizabeth Fama said...

I'm not sure I understand why it's not OK to buy vacant lots and build on them, if you don't displace existing residents? Is it because it's vulture-like -- what Helen Latimore described as waiting for the death of the neighborhood and then swooping in to build?

Chicago Pop, does this 1964 treaty mean that the U of C in fact doesn't own any property south of 61st Street right now?

chicago pop said...

Elizabeth, I can't say if the U of C does or does not own land south of 61st. I would presume not,but will throw the question out to readers, some of whom may know for sure.

As for why it's not OK for the U of C to expand itself, or to partner with developers in other ways, my impression is that it's an ideological hangover from a very turbulent time, but a hangover nonetheless and one that we need to get over.

I decided to post on this because I see a lot of similarities between old timers in both neighborhoods who are viewing things through prisms formed in the 1960s and unchanged since. Keep everybody out, do things ourselves. In HP, we've all heard the Pro-Harper Court, anti-density agitation, the anti-University sentiment that is no different from that behind the 61st Street Pledge; it all seems to come out of a period when things were changing very fast and people wanted to stop them or slow them down.

Obviously, those conditions do not apply on the South Side these days. We need outside investment and contributions. Tilman, a classic pillar of the poverty lobby over in the 3rd Ward, lived off this ideology, strongly anti-University, indifferent to new development, feeding resentment against the University for things that happened half a century ago (Jacky Grimshaw wrote an outrageous letter to this effect in a failed support of Tilman during the last election, hoping to scare voters away from the University affiliated winner, Pat Dowell.)

In a lot of ways, having a solid constituency of poor people is a good guarantee that, if you take care of them, you can stay in office. If things change too much, you lose your advantage and have to make way for someone else.

erin writes: the university can really play a role in working with the alderman and developers to make sure that low income residents don't get left in the cold at the same time that woodlawn becomes a neighborhood we all can live with.

I think this hits the nail on the head, and is why, if anything significant is to happen for Woodlawn, besides a few homesteads -- with ancillary benefits for HP and adjacent areas -- the University needs to be involved in more than an "outreach" kind of way. It seems that any successful program for affordable housing (or new retail) needs a partnership with a few big backers, as you say, to act as "patient capital" and the U of C is one of them.

Peter Rossi said...

the title of this post reminds me of the song "Across 110th Street" by Bobby Womack that was in the soundtrack for Jackie Brown in more ways than one.


IrishPirate said...

"Standing athwart history, yelling Stop". What that great liberal Bill Buckley said about National Review back in the 1950's.

Seems to be the idea behind The Woodlawn Organization.

That could have been a viable neighborhood if the University had expanded south.

What the agreement protected was the "right" of the neighbors and the "leaders" to keep white folks out. They largely succeeded and at the same time drove 70 percent or more of the black population out too.

That is a record to be proud of. Back in the 70's there were viable business areas in Woodlawn. Check out the politically incorrect and horrible movie "Monkey Hustle" from 1976. Which stars Yaphet Kotto. He is probably still ashamed. They have some great scenes in Woodlawn although the deterioration is present it still had retail.

I say rename north Woodlawn "Meigs Field" and let the mayor handle it.

Richard Gill said...

For the last few years, the University police have patrolled the area as far south as 64th Street and as far north as 39th Street, so the U of C now has some formal interaction with Kenwood and Woodlawn. I believe those communities have found this to be beneficial.

University development at 61st Street may serve as at least some stimulus to development south of there, but at this point in time, further University southward expansion may have to be by community invitation.

As for the residential nature of 63rd Street, that is possible because the 'L' tracks above 63rd Street between Cottage Grove and Stony Island were demolished a couple of decades ago. I'm not sure that razing the 'L' line (including stations at University and Stony) will prove to have been a good idea, but I believe it's what TWO wanted. There was a really angry debate about it in the 1970s, after the line was shut down because of a structural problem. Living next to the 'L' has come to be regarded as kind of "cute" on the North Side, but those tracks are over the alley behind the homes, not over the street in front.

chicago pop said...

Thanks for the movie reco, IrishPirate, "Monkey Hustle" is now at the top of my queue.

chicago pop said...

There's an interesting tie-in here, for Co-Op watchers: both the Rev. Arthur Brazier, and the Rev. Leon Finney of TWO are co-owners of the Lake Point Shopping Center at 47th and Lake Park, the glorious project that hosts the empty Co-Op store. They are, so I am told, the landlords of Certified Grocers, to whom our sorry Co-Op is a sublessee.

Interesting. No action on 63rd, no action on 47th, the same folks involved as landlords in both places. Hmmm.

woodlawnite said...

The non-expansion "agreement" isn't (or is no longer) one between the University and the community, but between the University and a Brazier/Finney machine that hasn't represented the community in a long time.

The machine's slow, shoddy development along 63rd St. isn't doing the community any good, as it sucks up TIF money to sit on (mostly still vacant) land that ought to be free for commercial development.

I'm not sure that greater University involvement/development in the neighborhood would necessarily face real community opposition, assuming the University does it right (by seeking community input, by promoting development that includes low-income units, etc). After all, my neighbors are all convinced that the University is already planning massive development in Woodlawn, and they look forward to it with a mixture of hope and fear: hope that the neighborhood will improve, and fear that they'll be displaced in the process. (And note that that displacement can take many forms, many of them indirect, like the skyrocketing property taxes or rents that can be attributed in part to infill development.)

I think the University has a great opportunity to be proactive in Woodlawn in a way that will both improve the neighborhood and preserve housing opportunities for current residents. But it will take a lot of work, and commitment, and a willingness to end a too-cozy relationship with Brazier, Finney and their cronies.

A last note. There's one crucial difference between the people you call Hyde Park nimbys, and Brazier-Finney: the nimbys live in the neighborhood, so they have to live with the consequences of their decisions; Brazier and Finney don't.

bornatreese said...

Too bad they didn't leave the L up and just reconfigure: turn 63rd St into the alley so that new houses and retail could have their backs to the L.

Richard Gill said...

bornatreese makes a point about reconfiguring to put the "L' over a new "alley". However, that kind of perspective just wasn't in the cards when the elevated structure was at issue in the 1970s. Too many other agendas were in play. One faction wanted the service completely restored to Stony Island; some planners wanted the entire East 63rd Street line removed. (At the time, it was called the Jackson Park Line and it ran north to Howard).

Opinions were all over the place: The "L" was essential, the "L" was a blight, the "L" should be put in a subway, the "L" should be replaced with express buses, the "L" structure should be remodeled, the "L" should be extended south, etc etc.

Probably, transportation wasn't the real issue anyway. Ending the line at Cottage Grove was how it all shook out. Literally a half-way result.

Given the importance of transit in Chicago, the need for access to jobs, and the extraordinary cost of building transit infrastructure, I believe a proposal to remove an existing rapid transit line should be weighed with the greatest care. In my opinion, it wasn't.

bornatreese said...

The Cottage Grove to Dorchester section of the Green Line on 63rd St wasn't actually torn down until September 1997--at least some part of that had actually been rehabbed during the 3 years the Green Line was closed. By 1997 we should have been reminded of what we first learned in 1974-- that cheap gas for our cars wasn't going to last forever.

On another subject, it would be interested to trace the cash that flows into the Fund for Community Development and Revitalization, the non-profit organization run (or ran) by Finney and Brazier that developed the shopping center at 47th St. Certified is their tenant. There has been a lot of silence there.

chicago pop said...

bornatreese makes an excellent point above. Two excellent points, actually -- the first, that it is crazy to ever remove or destroy transit infrastructure as happened on 63rd (Richard Gill echoes this sentiment), and also that the 47th St. Lake Point developers, historically connected to the 61st St. Pledge, need to be brought into the picture -- what IS happening to all that rent they are collecting on an empty building?

This is something readers may know more about.