Residents worry over Woodlawn

By Matt Lovett

Residents of Woodlawn voiced concern about being pushed out of their neighborhood Tuesday evening at “Considering Woodlawn,” a meeting held at the University’s School for Social Science Administration. The meeting, sponsored by the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference (HPKCC), featured leaders from The Woodlawn Organization (TWO) and the Woodlawn East Community Association (WECAN) discussing what a new wave of developments will mean for the area.

Woodlawn, the low-income neighborhood south of the Midway Plaisance, has recently begun a dramatic resurgence with new housing developments geared toward the upper-middle class springing up on its many vacant lots. It is this shift, coupled with concerns about what will become of the less well-off current residents of Woodlawn as property values rise, that prompted HPKCC to plan the meeting. “For a long time Hyde Park-Kenwood has existed as an island in some…respects,” said HPKCC President Homer U. Ashby, Jr. “It’s no longer possible for Hyde Park-Kenwood to exist in this isolated, insulated existence.”

The changes have been dramatic. In the past few years TWO, which was established in 1961, has sponsored a number of housing developments. These include the upscale Columbia Pointe Homes on 63rd Street, which are being marketed to members of the University community and will eventually comprise 160 houses, and the Homes at Blackstone, also on 63rd just east of the Metra Tracks, where ten $300,000 houses have been built.

The current population of Woodlawn, 27,000, is about half of its peak population in the 1950s. “Today, Woodlawn is 97 percent black and 30 percent poor,” said Arvis Averette of WECAN about the demographics of the neighborhood, due largely to white flight in the 1950’s and an exodus of middle-class blacks in the 60s.

Woodlawn has been characterized over the past few decades by vacant lots and sub-divided apartments to accommodate those with lower incomes, and the new developments portend a major shift. “Literally, Woodlawn is rising,” said Eve Earles, the director of communications for TWO.

TWO hopes to attract University students, faculty, and staff south of the Midway with these new housing developments and a freshly remodeled apartment complex, Jackson Park Terrace, just south of 60th Street between Stony Island Avenue and Harper Avenue. The apartment building, set to reopen in a few years with conveniences including a 24-hour doorman and television set up in every room, now contains subsidized housing which will be decreased in its new incarnation. “There will be fewer subsidized units,” Earles said.

The trade-off between bringing more wealth south of the Midway and making it harder for people who now live in Woodlawn to remain there was a topic of lively discussion at the meeting. Averette said that rising property values were a real concern for the poorer Woodlawn residents served by his organization. “We advocate for the poor but we’re trying to teach them to be middle-class so they can stay here,” he said.

Averette said the future of Woodlawn seems to be a mixed-income community like Hyde Park. “There’s a growth potential for this community. It will peak around 40,000 people in the next ten years and will basically be a middle-class community,” he said.

The concern, he said, was to find a way for that change to happen without driving out current residents as federally-subsidized housing disappears and private developers focus on wealthier residents. “We think there should be a more humane way,” he said.

Juanita Burris, a neighborhood resident at the meeting, questioned whether there was a way for Woodlawn to become a mixed-income community without forcing out many poor residents. She suggested that private developers, once interested in the community, would inexorably change its character. “How do you enable the low-income residents of this community, so that they can be active participants in this community?” Burris said. “We probably should think about what are the consequences of privatization. How do you mitigate the market forces?”

Argie Johnson, a Hyde Park resident who attends Woodlawn’s Fourth Presbyterian Church, expressed concern that many of the people who have stayed in Woodlawn and helped hold it together as the neighborhood deteriorated may be priced out. “I think it would be a real disgrace if gentrification becomes so prevalent that they can no longer afford to live here. It’s a real challenge and a real opportunity,” she said.

Laura Gloger, a University staff member who bought her first house in Woodlawn two years ago, said she too is worried about how development may change the character of the neighborhood. “I don’t like that it’s starting to be called South Hyde Park. It’s Woodlawn. We’re proud of it. I hope we won’t be gentrified out of it,” she said.

Even as new homes rise that will both revitalize and change her neighborhood, Gloger finds beauty in between the once stately apartment buildings. “I’m really enjoying the vacant lots to tell you the truth, because all the wildflowers have come back. It’s just beautiful,” she said