South Shore – the last lakefront refuge of the middle class?

Follow Lake Shore Drive as far south as you can, and then keep going. At 57th Street and the Museum of Science and Industry, the road begins to slow. Drivers can’t help but relax as the bustling highway that skirts downtown Chicago turns abruptly into a pleasure cruise, winding through Jackson Park, past lush foliage and a boat-filled harbor, lagoons on your right, the lake on your left and coming up, an 18-hole golf course.

Lake Shore, if you haven’t noticed, is now Coast Guard Drive, a transitional street that gets you through the park and empties onto South Shore Drive. There is a feeling after this segue through one of the city’s prettiest parks, that you’ve left not only Chicago but also the year 2004 for a more distant time and place.

The South Shore Cultural Center features a nine-hole golf courseSouth Shore Drive is friendlier and more forgiving than Lake Shore, and there’s an immediate sense of grandeur here. Faded, to be sure, but at a quick glance, you get the flavor of a moneyed suburb, an Evanston or Winnetka or some other North Shore analogue rather than of a city neighborhood.

To the west sits the Jackson Park Highlands, an 80-acre subdivision of spacious yards and palatial homes – Tudors, Georgians, Queen Annes and others, most built between 1905 and 1940. To the south not all buildings are so pretty, but the denser lakefront is sprinkled with elegant Art Deco towers and sprawling brick bungalows. Glance to your right down 71st Street, and a train follows tracks through the middle of the road like the streetcars of a bygone era.

Denise Shavers fires up the barbecue at Rainbow BeachThe first thing you notice, however, on leaving Jackson Park is the South Shore Cultural Center. It was designed by Marshall & Fox in 1916 as the South Shore Country Club, and with its grand proportions, colonnaded driveway and nine-hole golf course, its exclusive roots are more apparent than the influence of the Chicago Park District, which bought the property in 1974.

It is this building – the most photographed in the community – that more than any other symbolizes South Shore, a neighborhood that stretches from 67th to 79th and from the lake to the Illinois Central tracks just west of Stony Island. The original clubhouse, a much more modest structure, was built in 1906 by white upper middle-class protestants fleeing nearby Washington Park, which had been invaded by the working class Irish.

South Shore already had been annexed by Chicago, but at the turn of the century the city’s grip on the community must have seemed tenuous. There was something idyllic about the neighborhood’s large homes, open spaces and sandy beaches – all less than 10 miles from the heart of downtown. The prosperous middle-class residents who had left the increasingly crowded, urban streets of Washington Park felt they’d found paradise to the southeast.

Meanwhile, African Americans in search of better conditions crossed the color line of Garfield Boulevard during the 1920s and moved into Washington Park, as the Irish and then the Jews had before them. The more prosperous of Washington Park’s Irish and Jewish residents already had begun moving to South Shore, and that migration expanded rapidly as the city’s “Black Belt” widened to include Washington Park.

The apartment building the author's parents lived in after emigrating from IrelandIn South Shore, Jewish residents from Washington Park founded the South Side Hebrew Congregation, the neighborhood’s first synagogue, and others soon followed. Irish Catholics built up the parishes of St. Bride, St. Phillip Neri and Our Lady of Peace, churches that still operate today. Large apartment buildings sprang up along the lakefront, and the population of South Shore more than doubled during the ’20s.

This was the neighborhood my parents moved to when they emigrated from Ireland in the early ’60s. My father came over first, staying with my Aunt Kathleen, who’d earlier moved from Ireland and was living in a three-story red brick apartment building at 78th and Saginaw. When he found work as a carpenter and then an apartment – a one-bedroom opened up across the hall from my aunt’s place – he sent for my mother and oldest brother to join him.

A new Starbucks at 71st and Stony IslandI grew up on stories of South Shore, though my parents always referred to it as the East Side, probably because my family eventually ended up about nine miles directly west, just south of Midway Airport. Of course there would have been something romantic about my parents’ first real home together (in Ireland they’d lived with my grandmother, saving the money to emigrate) no matter where it had been. And it must have been a good time to move to Chicago from Ireland, with Richard J. Daley in city hall and John F. Kennedy, who’d broken barriers as the first Catholic president, in the White House.

“It puts a shiver through me,” my mother, June, said when I recently took her on a tour of the neighborhood, her first trip back since she moved 40 years ago. “It’s the first place we lived after we were married, the first place I had my own four little walls. I loved it here.”

But what was so special about South Shore?

I asked her about this as we stood on the corner of 78th and Saginaw, outside her old apartment. The neighborhood is now almost completely African American, and as passersby nodded hello they looked a little curious about what we were doing hanging out on the street. After suffering a decline in the late ’60s and ’70s, South Shore gradually has improved. The face brick on my mother’s old building had been washed and tuck-pointed and after 40 years, it took some scrutiny before she recognized the place.

She talked about how she’d known everyone in the building, how picturesque and convenient the neighborhood was. “You were close to everything; it was just a wonderful place,” she said. “All of the stores, the ice cream parlor, grocery store, the train, the beach, everything was close to us.”

Leon's Bar-B-Q is a South Side fixtureConditions, however, were not ideal that first year. A one-bedroom apartment must have been tight enough for two adults and a toddler, but shortly after they moved in, my grandmother came for an extended visit. Soon after that, my uncle, who’d done a stint in the army after immigrating, arrived from Texas. My grandmother moved across the hall to my aunt’s, but then Uncle Mike’s wife and two kids showed up. The seven of them – four adults and three young children – lived together in my parents’ one-bedroom apartment for months until my uncle found a job and saved enough money to get a place near St. Bride’s, several blocks east.

What was so great about South Shore?

Well, in addition to the convenience and beauty of the lakefront, this was the only time, I realized, when my mother was so surrounded by family, my aunt and for a time, my grandmother across the hall, my uncle and his family a few blocks east.

And there was a larger sense of community. Standing in the alley off of Saginaw, my mother pointed out the third-floor porch from which she engaged in shouted conversations with the building’s Belgian janitor and his wife, who lived next door in another property owned by the same landlord. My mother’s accent was thick, and their English was poor. June often found herself nodding and smiling in total incomprehension, which was why the janitor’s wife showed up one day with a mobile salon, insisting my mother had promised the day before to dye her hair. Another time the Belgian wife shouted for all the neighborhood to hear, “Why do you have such gas?” after my mom described something as “great gas,” an Irish euphemism for fun.

Riding a bus down 79th Street one day my father sought directions from the driver, who ignored the question and asked what part of Dublin he came from. Cabra, my dad said in the story my six siblings and I heard endlessly growing up. Me too, the driver said. What street? Jarlath Road. Me too, the driver said. What part? And in a denouement frighteningly similar to the punch line of an old ethnic joke – don’t worry, it’s just the Murphy twins drunk again – they discovered they’d led parallel lives and started a lifelong friendship.

When I prod her long enough about why she was so fond of South Shore, my mother gives up and says simply, “Do you know the way you just take to a place?”

Two-year-old Tamarah Taylor plays Simon Says on Rainbow BeachWilliam A. Davis III, Bill to his friends, grew up in South Shore, but his grandparents, like so many African Americans of their time, first moved to Bronzeville, on the Near South Side. They road the Illinois Central north from Mississippi as part of the Great Migration of African Americans leaving the South in search of work and better conditions. They disembarked at what was then a gritty rail yard and is now the tony Central Station housing development in the South Loop, where the second Mayor Daley moved from his ancestral stronghold of Bridgeport during the 1990s.

For a time, Davis’s family lived in a public housing project at 44th and Evans while his father was in the navy and money was tight.

“Public housing was transitional back then, and that’s how we used it,” says Davis, a friendly 43-year-old who seems younger, almost boyish in his glasses, tight haircut and casual clothes. I meet him at Red’s an upscale bar at 6926 S. Stony Island – one of the few nice lounges in a neighborhood that has seen its commercial base fade over the years. The place is chic, with a horseshoe bar made of glass block, purple neon lights overhead and lush plants in the window. The crowd is friendly and upscale. Davis and I are about the most underdressed people here, and I’d venture to say I’m the only one not sporting a cell phone or Palm Pilot.

In 1964, my parents moved out of South Shore. They could not afford a house in the neighborhood, but my father found a deal that allowed him buy a home with no down payment in suburban Villa Park, a place my mother would come to hate during their brief stay there as vehemently as she loved South Shore. Shortly after my parents moved from 78th and Saginaw, Davis’s family bought a two-flat, also at 78th Street but farther west, on Constance. In 1965 they were one of the first African American families in this part of the neighborhood, which was undergoing the same sort of racial transition that had occurred in Woodlawn and Washington Park, to the north.

By 1960, about 10 percent of South Shore was African American, with most Blacks living west of Stony Island. By 1970, there were 55,483 African Americans out of a population of 80,529 in South Shore, and the trend continued during the ’70s. African Americans had followed the same trail into Washington Park and then South Shore that the upwardly mobile Irish and Jews had followed before them. They were looking, like those previous ethnic groups, for better homes, better schools, quieter streets.

Lakefront PlaceIn Davis’s case, that’s exactly what his family found.

“It was all Irish when we moved here,” says Davis, who gave up a lucrative marketing job with Loreal to run his own global sourcing business. When I meet him at the bar he is flipping through a small homemade phrasebook to navigate a cell phone call to an associate in China. “We were one of the first African American families in the neighborhood – now it’s all African American – but for us at the time, it was a blessing. It was a very rich environment.”

He mentions Jackson Park and Rainbow Beach, Our Lady of Peace and St. Francis de Sales, the “excellent” area schools he attended. But the biggest factor in Davis’s love affair with South Shore, as it was for my mother, seems to involve family.

“I’ve lived all over – California, Mississippi, Paris – but I’m back home,” Davis says. “This is where my family is, and the whole area is coming back.”

His sister now lives in Central Station, the South Loop spot where Davis’s grandparents got off the train from Mississippi two generations earlier. His ex-wife and daughter live in Bronzeville in a mansion he bought for $50,000, restored and recently had appraised at more than $1 million. His brother lives nearby on Michigan Avenue and is taking over the music business from his uncle, Carl Davis, who over the years worked with major groups including the Chi-Lites and the Dells. Davis’s brother is now working on a series of instructional videos for “stepping,” an intricate form of dance and percussive movement that melds folk traditions and pop in the African American community.

At the Jazz Heritage FestivalWhen he came back to South Shore, Davis bought a house at 74th and Constance that was owned by former Cub Billy Williams, just four blocks from the two-flat where he grew up and where his grandmother still lives, though he’s trying to convince her she would be more comfortable in a nursing home with regular care.

His childhood memories of South Shore are overwhelmingly positive, and he doesn’t recall any racial tension in the neighborhood, though he admits that’s a subjective view. “I’m sure there were issues my parents dealt with, but to me, it was transparent,” Davis says. “It was a safe, fun place to be.”

My mother is no help on this point. Her departure came before the racial turnover took hold and had everything to do with my father’s desire to buy an affordable house – an impossibility on his salary in South Shore.

Clairene Terry, who was the first African American woman to teach auto-shop in the Chicago Public School system, agrees with Davis. “In the ’60s, from a child’s perspective, our parents didn’t allow us to travel too far beyond the house,” says Terry, who’s also having a drink at Red’s. “Everywhere has basic problems, but it was pretty low-key.”

In his 1972 study of South Shore, Harvey Molotch argues that describing the turnover in South Shore as “White flight” simplifies what happened and ignores some larger factors, including the racism inherent in real estate practices of the day. During the ’60s, African Americans, whose choices were limited, paid a premium to live in changing neighborhoods such as South Shore, those rare areas where they could get quality housing. Whites, who had plenty of options, were not willing to pay as much as Blacks and a dual housing market that guaranteed racial turnover developed. The Whites who remained while this change accelerated saw it as a failure of integration, and their fears often were stoked both by racist attitudes and panic-peddling Realtors.

A boy at Rainbow BeachRacial change may have occurred more smoothly in South Shore than in some Chicago neighborhoods, but the mass exodus of Whites that affected so much of the inner city in the ’50s and ’60s certainly left its scars. Many businesses closed and with limited access to capital, African American residents watched helplessly as retail strips on 71st, 75th and 79th as well as on Stony Island and other streets, fell into neglect.

Like much of the city in recent decades, South Shore has struggled with problem spots for drugs and violence. By the ’70s, middle-class African Americans also had expanded options thanks to fair housing initiatives, and many left city neighborhoods like South Shore for the suburbs, again following the trail blazed by previous ethnic groups.

The Jazz Heritage Festival at the South Shore Cultural CenterBut according to Davis, the architecturally diverse housing stock in South Shore remained in fairly good shape, unlike in some neighborhoods to the north. In the Bronzeville area, endless buildings were cleared to make way for public housing, which concentrated poverty and had a devastating effect on communities.

South Shore Bank, now ShoreBank, started in the late 1960s as the musing of four friends looking for a practical way to help the community. The bank was founded in 1973 as the country’s first community development bank and since has served as a model for other cities as well as for countries as far away as Pakistan and Kenya. Many credit ShoreBank with stopping a downward slide in the neighborhood and redirecting capital into South Shore. The bank has lent more than $600 million in its largest communities since it was founded, including more than $125 million in South Shore.

A mural by the bus stop at 71st and JefferyThe Chicago Park District bought the South Shore Country Club in 1974, shortly after South Shore Bank was established, with plans to demolish it, but the community organized to save the majestic building. Renovation work is ongoing, but the stately hallways, glass solarium and grand ballrooms to the north and south – all overlooking the lake – are spectacular. The club that once denied membership to Blacks and Jews now hosts West Indian folk dancing and African American theater next door to the nine-hole public golf course. There’s something beautifully egalitarian if incongruous in the metal water fountains and colorful artsy benches – standard park district fare – that have been added to what must have been a stuffy place fifty years ago.

Today, South Shore is poised to benefit from a reverse of the trend that hurt it in the ’60s and ’70s. Rather than fleeing the city for the suburbs, growing numbers of middle-class residents are choosing to cut down commute times and broaden their options for culture and entertainment by living in the city. Neighborhoods to the north such as Bronzeville and Woodlawn have seen a boom in development and rapidly rising property values. To the south, the former South Works steel plant is planned for 573 acres of residential and industrial development.

Mosque MaryamSouth Shore so far has not seen the kind of rehabbing and development that’s occurred in Bronzeville, and property values here have been steady, without the sort of upward spike seen in so much of the city during the ’90s. The median single-family home sold for $102,000 during 2003, compared to $79,500 in 1994, according to the Chicago Association of Realtors. During some recent years, the median home price actually appears to have gone down from one year to the next, but the wide variety of homes and the small number of sales in South Shore – between 75 and 108 transactions during each of the last five years – means that a few unusual sales easily can skew the numbers.

Development has been slower here partly because South Shore doesn’t have the proximity to downtown of a Bronzeville, no matter how good the transportation is, and it doesn’t have the institutional base that anchored areas around the University of Chicago and the Illinois Institute of Technology.

But there has been notable progress. Two new highrise condo conversions at 67th and South Shore have sold well. At press time, the Habitat Company’s Quadrangle Condominiums only had 10 of 261 units still for sale, and fewer than a dozen condos remained at Lakefront Place by Inland Great Lakes. Both feature typical highrise amenities and breathtaking views of the lake, skyline and city – across the street from two golf courses as well as picturesque beaches and parks.

Mansions like this are in the Jackson Park Highlands subdivisionStony Island, a major thoroughfare for people coming to and from Indiana, has been refurbished along with South Lake Shore Drive, both with the sort of median landscaping that’s helped transform other city neighborhoods. LaSalle Bank recently opened a branch at 71st and Stony Island and a Fifth Third Bank has opened at 79th and Stony. The biggest buzz in the neighborhood, though, is the new Starbucks at 71st and Stony Island, one of the few in Chicago with a drive-through to service truckers and motorists trekking in and out of Indiana as well as locals.

“We are trying to encourage more upscale stores to come into the area,” says Conni Miller, who works on the development committee of the South Shore Chamber of Commerce. “On Stony Island and South Chicago, these streets offer great expanses of land and wide roads, so there’s no traffic congestion. There’s enough land to develop parking without much expense, so there’s no need for underground parking.”

Neighborhood commercial strips like those on 71st and 79th will be more of a challenge. Vacancies are high and the number of boarded-up and shabby storefronts doesn’t leave a good impression. But tax-increment financing districts have been established on 71st and 79th as well as on Stony Island, and Miller says they are beginning to have an effect.

Some areas of the South Shore remain neglectedPatricia Peters, who owns four storefronts at 79th and Exchange, near the Metra station, has applied for TIF money to help with rehabbing the properties. If that corner looks familiar, that may be because it was featured in the recent Barbershop movies. Peters plans to open a coffee shop called Twenty-Four Seven – the name of the coffee shop in the movies – in the space the film company partially renovated. She sees an unmet demand for retail and service businesses in the community, and she says, growth in South Shore is inevitable.

“I lived in Bronzeville for about 30 years, and I’ve seen the changes,” Peters says. “In the last 20 years it’s really come up. I feel it’s going to be the same way in South Shore. There are a lot of working people around who could really spend a lot of money right there in the neighborhood, but there’s nowhere to spend it.”

That’s a refrain you hear over and over in the neighborhood, that South Shore is the next Bronzeville, a comparison that seems less than perfect. Bronzeville, at least large chunks of it, offered a blank slate to builders and city officials, and development was slow in starting because it meant large tracts of new construction in an untested market. Once building gained momentum, speculators drove prices through the roof.

In South Shore, there’s certainly room for new construction, but the focus is likely to be on preservation and restoration of an abundant, architecturally significant housing stock. Unlike in Bronzeville, prices are affordable, and they never sank to giveaway levels. At a time when development has slowed from the breakneck pace of the late ’90s, it’s also unlikely that property values here will quickly soar beyond the reach of current residents.

In a city where it’s becoming harder and harder for the average person to buy a home, South Shore might function in the future much as it did in the past: as a sanctuary offering a leg up for diverse members of a striving middle class.

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