Rocky past, neighborhood influence development plans

By Sara Jerome

Discussions continue both on campus and in the community as to whether the University has negotiated a balance between executing its development strategies and preserving the Woodlawn neighborhood in its southward campus construction projects.

Development plans south of the Midway include the creation of a new dorm, the Center for Creative and Performing Arts, parking and office facilities on Drexel and Woodlawn Avenues, and renovations to the Law School and to the former Illinois Bell Telephone building on Kenwood Avenue.

Improving Midway landscaping is also on the development agenda. The Campus Master Plan includes blueprints for a South Winter Garden between South Plaisance Drive and East 60th Street that will resemble current gardens on the Midway.

Hank Webber, the University’s vice president for Community Affairs, said the school has worked hard to establish an open dialogue with locals about south campus development. In an effort to build ties with the surrounding neighborhood, the University plans to open the new dorm’s café and dining hall to the public.

“The goal over time is to have a vibrant campus edge,” Webber said. “We’re committed to the Woodlawn community.”

Upon assuming office, President Robert Zimmer addressed communal wariness of University expansion, reaffirming the school’s promise not to expand south of east 61st Street, as laid out in a civil rights–era agreement with Woodlawn community organizers.

Nevertheless, the University faces ongoing criticism from locals wary of the school’s expansion. “Those who have a negative image see the University as encroaching within their neighborhood, encouraging the gentrification of the neighborhood, patrolling their neighborhood not for the residents, but for the University community that now lives in their neighborhood,” said Wallace Goode, associate dean of students and director of the University Community Service Center.

Local interest in University development stems from a belief that the school’s decisions have a major impact on the surrounding neighborhoods.

“Where does an 800-pound gorilla sleep?” Goode asked. “When we hiccup, the repercussions are felt [in the community].”

Webber called the University “an anchor institution” that exerts “a large economic influence” on the area. He said that 20 to 25 percent of housing transactions in Hyde Park involve people connected to the University. Of the University’s 14,000 employees, 4,000 live in the area, according to Webber.

Alderman Leslie Hairston of Ward 5 said despite its considerable influence in Woodlawn, the University is falling short in terms of positive contributions. She said Woodlawn could “use the resources the University could provide” and that the U of C has the potential to build a stronger community just south of it, rather than looking north toward “the upper class.”

University officials sometimes downplay the University’s impact on surrounding neighborhoods.

“We view ourselves as one of the citizens of Hyde Park, one of the components. We don’t get to decide [the future of the community],” Zimmer said at a brownbag lunch last month.

Webber spoke in the same vein when he described University’s activities as just one factor that shapes the neighborhood, pointing to other causes involved in rising housing costs.

“There are lots of forces that affect housing markets. The University is one, but there are many. To assume that the University drives those things is [an incomplete view],” Webber said.

Instead, Webber pointed to the federal government as the institution that’s falling short in the affordable housing arena. “The fed hasn’t been nearly as active in the last decade as they have been previously,” he said, adding that “there are very rapid changes happening in Bronzeville, without any presence of the University.”

Community views of University development are complicated by the negative reputation the school accrued in the ’50s and ’60s, when it subscribed to what many now see as racist and insular policies.

Emblematic of this, the University supported the Hyde Park–Kenwood Urban Renewal Project in the ’50s and ’60s, the city’s attempt to redevelop the area and reduce crime. Even in its time, urban renewal was criticized for displacing local businesses and forcing low-income tenants out of the area, prompting protesters to nickname it “Negro removal.”

“Some older residents of the South Side will never forgive or forget changes in the ’50s under urban renewal,” said Alderman Toni Preckwinkle, of Ward 4. “More recently, the University has worked hard to be a good neighbor.”

In fact, some see the University’s more recent “good neighbor” initiatives as a form of penance for prior actions.

“There are those who want to right the things the University did wrong with urban renewal,” Goode said. “They’ve been here long enough to right those wrongs. I have to respect them for that.”

“We weren’t always the world’s best neighbor,” Webber said speaking of the University’s past, and added the U of C has “made a lot of progress.”

The University’s new “good neighbor” initiatives have included the creation of three charter schools, the investment of $1 million in a local nonprofit organization aiming to preserve affordable housing, and the expansion of the University Police Department beyond campus boundaries from East 39th to East 64th streets.

The University also “[provides] subsidies to faculty and staff who buy housing in areas beyond the traditional limits of the University’s neighborhood,” according to Danielle Allen, dean of the Humanities, in her book Talking to Strangers.