February 22, 2008

Webber leaves legacy of community involvement

After 11 years of occupying one of the University’s most influential—and complicated—posts, Hank Webber is stepping down as vice president for community and government affairs this week to accept a similar position at Washington University in St. Louis.

During his time at the U of C, Webber has overseen every University project that engaged with the Hyde Park community, including the launch of the Urban Education Initiative and the opening of four charter schools. Most recently, he defended the University’s policy concerning Woodlawn housing projects, informed the administration’s response to the murder of Amadou Cisse, and directed negotiations concerning the closing of the Co-op Markets and the introduction of the forthcoming Treasure Island grocery store. He was a member of many community boards and a familiar figure at Hyde Park meetings and events.

In a speech at a farewell event for Webber, Associate Vice President and Director of Community Affairs Sonya Malunda described her colleague as “approachable, down-to-earth, and respectful. And despite his tight schedule, he always made time to listen, learn, hear your point of view, and be open to criticism.”

Webber explained that he is moving to St. Louis in order to apply the lessons he has learned in Hyde Park at the U of C to a similar development process at another institution.

“I’m looking forward to being able to hopefully contribute what I’ve learned here to a city that has all the same problems as Chicago but is less far along in solving them,” he said in an interview. “St. Louis has not gone through the kind of economic revitalization that Chicago has in the last 20 years, and if I can contribute to a revitalization, that would make me enormously pleased.”

“I think it is true that I’ve done what I can do here,” he said. One of the major themes of Webber’s tenure has been the development of Hyde Park within Chicago’s wider social and economic transformations. When he arrived here in 1986, Chicago was still considered what he called a “Rust Belt city” but has since evolved into a major American and international metropolis. Webber said he believes that the development and investment in the South Side are positive trends that will continue into the future.

“The fundamentals of areas south of the Midway are very strong—a strong location, strong local institutions…. Their long-term future should be very bright,” he said.

At the same time, Webber predicted that his successor will likely face a more difficult economic situation, at least initially.

“Their biggest challenge will be improving the retail environment in the wake of a difficult economic period, which I’m afraid we’ll be in for a while. We’re already seeing rising foreclosure rates and a slowdown in the condo market. Hyde Park is protected by the University…but we can expect to see a slowdown in retail openings,” he said.

Nonetheless, Webber pointed to the sharp downturn in crime in the last five years as evidence of an overall positive trend in Hyde Park.

“Obviously, we had an horrific incident this fall,” he said, referring to the November murder of 29-year-old graduate student Amadou Cisse. “But I think the general trend toward falling crime will continue.”

He added that economic growth will be greatly accelerated if Chicago is selected to host the 2016 Olympic Games, for which he predicts “we have a really good shot.”

Webber said that more than anything, he will miss “the sense of living in a village in the midst of one of the world’s great cities. I mean going into Noodles with my daughter and knowing half the people there. Also, it attracts interesting, intellectual, eclectic folk. And in a world where diversity is constantly talked about, it is a truly diverse place. I think it’s incredible that a member of our neighborhood, Barack Obama, an African-American, has broken every barrier imaginable in politics and is now the favorite for president of the United States.”

But Webber said he is looking forward to enjoying a real spring in St. Louis and a Major League baseball team that is not the Cubs.

“And I’m still going to live here on the weekends for another year, since my daughter is still in high school,” he said. “So I’ll still get to shop at Treasure Island.”