Food sales promote Woodlawn building developments

By Carl Pickerill

Students passing Cobb Hall on Fridays this month may have noticed University alum Matthew Ginsberg trying to persuade them to enjoy South Side culinary fare: fried chicken, fried fish, and black eyed peas. His efforts are part of Meals for Affordable Housing, a program to empower Woodlawn residents to take control of a housing situation that could soon be in dire straits.

The organization running the soul food sell-a-thon, the Student Tenant Organizing Project (STOP), made $350 this week. after breaking even in their first week of sales. While the organizers are content with the profits, they have higher goals in mind. According to Ginsberg, the group sees a problem with gentrification, or efforts to raise real estate values through renovation. The group wants residents to purchase buildings that are in the path of new development. The end result, advocates said, would be a cooperative living arrangement for residents who choose to buy into the idea.

“Even if you don’t make a profit off this stuff at first, it’s a good way to be more visible to make sure that the issues are noticed by the university community,” Ginsberg said. “Of course, it doesn’t hurt to make a little money to gain a bit of financial ground to build this thing on.”

The idea to create student/tenant cooperatives rose out of Woodlawn East Community and Neighbors (WECAN), a social service agency, that initiated meetings with Angels of DEF, the University student research and activism group. WECAN proposed making Woodlawn tenants aware of the impending regional development and encouraging them to take the matter into their own hands.

“The people at WECAN insisted to us that the only real way to fight gentrification is to build tenant power,” Ginsberg, also a member of Angels of DEF, said. “After saying that they would like to engage in a project with us, we started speaking with residents at buildings owned by WECAN.”

The group recognized other areas that could benefit from tenant organization, including Grove Parc, a housing complex running north from the 63rd elevated tracks along Cottage Grove. Some residents refer to it as a very poorly managed housing complex.

“The Grove Parc apartments are in deplorable condition,” said Woodlawn resident Sharyn Fayne, who cooks the meals for the Meals for Affordable Housing program. “Tenants try to ask the management to get things fixed, but they always pull something to keep them away. They put up with mice, bugs, doors being nailed shut—lots of stuff.”

Fayne underlined the need for affordable housing in Woodlawn and added that she feels Grove Parc may not be available to residents in the near future.

“We keep telling the residents that will get tired of Grove Parc and will sell to the highest bidder,” Fayne said. “Tenants think they will get a Section 8 voucher to be able to rent a new apartment, but this is not a Chicago Housing Authority building—they’ll have 60 to 90 days and you will have to find a new spot to move.”

Fayne said that selling dinners is a step in the right direction. She said she realizes the challenges in “starting from zero and building up,” yet hopes that future projects will be equally successful.

Ginsberg mentioned a few of those projects. Homemade cakes, brownies, and cobblers will follow the soul food line-up of coleslaw, corn bread, and fried fish outside of Cobb Hall. But the selling won’t be limited to University grounds. STOP plans to bring their selling savvy to the black community, selling to local barbershops and beauty salons. The Ford Foundation has made a large monetary donation to STOP, but there is no University collaboration on the project.

Ginsberg is still holding out hope. He said it would be nice if the University would provide financial support to help Woodlawn tenants acquire their own cooperatively owned housing. But currently, the only University donation has been three dollars from the wallet of Henry Webber, University Director of Community Affairs. He was passing by the Cobb entrance.

“Mr. Webber seemed very curious to know where we wanted to develop our co-op,” Ginsberg said. “After he made some reference to it ‘being a good idea,’ we took care not to tell him.”

Meals for Affordable Housing will be on sale again on Friday outside of Cobb Hall and the Reynolds Club.