Woodlawn tour reflects racial, economic strains among South Side communities

By Chris Ross

A tour organized by the Southside Solidarity Network (SSN), a Hyde Park activist group, led students through the Woodlawn neighborhood south of the Midway on Saturday, highlighting the community’s racially charged history and strained relationship with the University.

The tour, which began at South Woodlawn Avenue and East 60th Street and ended at East 63rd Street and South Cottage Grove Avenue, made stops at new condominiums that are frequently too expensive for area residents and at co-ops designed especially for lower-income families. Many of these buildings were once subject to segregation codes.

Along the way, the tour group met Woodlawn community leaders, including Carlene Fuller, an area resident of 40 years who is active in community service, and Wardell Lavender, a 65-year-old activist.

Both discussed their experience with gentrification and personal involvement in maintaining their South Side community.

Community members have been at odds with developers and the University since the 1960s over issues of development and gentrification, said tour leaders and SSN members Alex Goldenberg (A.B. ’06) and Ebony Stevenson.

“You’ve got to find a balance with how much help you want the University of Chicago to give and at the same time not let it take over the community,” Stevenson said.

One of the stops on the tour was at the Grand Ballroom on East 63rd Street and South Cottage Grove Avenue. Once a popular dance-and-dine venue in the 1920s, the ballroom fell into disrepair until developer Andres Schcolnik restored it a few years ago.

Schcolnik said the ballroom is often rented by elected government officials and University administrators, and tour leaders later said that members of the immediate community cannot normally afford the rental fees.

According to a handout distributed by the tour leaders, the last 10 years have seen the greatest growth in housing construction since the 1930s, but most of this growth has come from market-rate condos and single-family homes.

Third-year Leo Gertner said he went on the tour to see new parts of the surrounding area. “I’m interested in these issues, and I wanted to learn more about the South Side,” he said. “A lot of kids graduate from this school with a degree and a lot of earning potential. But places like this remain invisible.”