South Side resurgence

Linda Greenwood rehearses for a Palm Sunday performance at Apostolic Church of God, 6320 S Dorchester Ave

New housing stirs hope and some fears in Woodlawn, Washington Park

New condo developments vie for buyers’ attention on three of the four corners at the intersection of Kimbark and Marquette avenues in the South Side neighborhood of Woodlawn. One is a handsome red brick multi-unit conversion, another is a new-construction project ready to break ground, and the third is a restored graystone.

The grassy verge outside the graystone is covered with litter, shattered glass, empty beer bottles and other debris. The lot on the fourth corner is vacant except for tufts of grass here and there.

North of the graystone on Kimbark, in the midst of more vacant lots, an impossibly grand-looking masonry house stands in defiant, almost splendid isolation, gulls squawking overhead.

The scene at once conveys a sense of opportunity, neglect, abandonment and optimism, and it might be the perfect snapshot of Woodlawn and its neighbor to the west and north, Washington Park, in 2006.

Beginning in the 1960s, white flight, disinvestment and a wave of “insurance fires” tore the fabric of these neighborhoods. The population rapidly changed from being predominantly white to African American and poor. In time, that impoverishment translated into a pockmarked landscape of vacant lots, failed businesses and neglected housing.

Condo craze

But by 2006, Chicago’s decade-long real estate boom and the continuing efforts of community groups had created a resurgence of new housing and new hope in Woodlawn and Washington Park.

Chicago artist Lorado Taft's Fountain of Time

Woodlawn is bounded by King Drive, Lake Shore Drive, 67th Street and 59th Street. Washington Park, a long, narrow neighborhood, runs from 51st to 63rd streets between King Drive, which runs alongside the park the neighborhood is named for, and the Dan Ryan Expressway.

During the last decade, and especially the last five years, developers have bought up vacant land and existing buildings at bargain prices. Similar property on the North Side, this close to the lake and the Loop, is literally twice as expensive as in Woodlawn and Washington Park in many cases. Of course, just finding an available lot or structure to develop is a challenge on the built-up North Side.

Property is comparatively plentiful on the South Side, and this too has attracted developers, who not long ago never would have considered building south of Cermak Avenue. They have been rehabbing and converting small and medium-sized apartment buildings in Woodlawn and Washington Park and building new townhouses and single-family homes.

Courtyard on the Park, 5936 S King Dr

Condo prices in these neighborhoods were generally well below Chicago’s median price of $285,000 in 2005. In Woodlawn, the median condo price was $199,000 during 2005, a jump of 75 percent from 2000, according to the Chicago Association of Realtors. In Washington Park, the 2005 median was $185,900, up 32 percent from 2000.

The pace of condo development can be measured by sales volume over the last five years. In 2000, 44 condo and townhome units were sold in Woodlawn, according to CAR, and 19 changed hands in Washington Park. Last year, 187 units sold in Woodlawn and 186 in Washington Park.

Lower prices are luring buyers squeezed out of high-priced North Side neighborhoods. Employees of the University of Chicago, which sits just north of Woodlawn, also have been buying into the neighborhood, where prices are much lower than in neighboring Hyde Park. South Siders and suburbanites who want to live in the city but can’t afford more expensive areas are taking a second look at both Woodlawn and Washington Park.

Natural beauty

Despite Woodlawn’s challenges, it’s easy to see the attraction. The neighborhood has good public transportation, and on a good day, it’s a 15-minute drive from downtown. Despite obvious signs of decay, the neighborhood is rich in natural beauty. To the east, sits Jackson Park, one of the city’s prettiest parks, designed by landscape architect Frederick Olmsted as the site of the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893.

Today it offers rambling trails, a Japanese Garden, a golf course, tennis courts and access to Lake Michigan. Another lush green belt, the Midway Plaisance, borders Woodlawn on the north, separating it from the University of Chicago campus.The Brickyard Community GardenFurther to the west and north, in the Washington Park neighborhood, the eponymous park stretches nearly the full length of the community, which is bordered on the west by the expressway. The park offers residents relief from the urban jungle, with its lagoons, landscaped gardens, running trails, soccer fields and basketball courts.John Kos and his fiancée Brenda Walker were renting in Lake View before they bought a three-bedroom unit at developer Foreit Properties’ Courtyard on the Park, a converted apartment building at 5936 S. King Drive. The 28-unit development is one of a growing number of condo projects along august King Drive and has views of the tennis courts in Washington Park.

The couple paid $219,000 for the condo, which included parking, and they bought a second parking space for $7,000.

Museum of Science and Industry

“We couldn’t touch this place for under $450,000 in Lake View,” Kos says. “We qualified for a big mortgage but didn’t want one.” The couple says they’d rather have money remaining after mortgage payments to spend on things like season tickets to the Goodman Theater.

Grassroots action

If newcomers feel like they are discovering a diamond in the rough, maybe that’s because a vanguard of local residents has spent a long time trying to polish it into a gem.

Community groups like The Woodlawn Organization (TWO) and St. Edmund’s Redevelopment Corporation, in Washington Park, have played pivotal roles in encouraging real estate investment and affordable housing. They have worked with the city to cut crime and to improve social services, while trying to attract commercial investment to their neighborhoods.

Ceremonial African tribal masks at House of Africa, 1510 E 63rd St

Since the 1980s, TWO has developed affordable and market-rate apartments and condos in Woodlawn, helping to stabilize the neighborhood and encouraging the owners of rundown buildings to do the same.

New developments

TWO’s latest project is two new phases at Columbia Pointe, a 200-unit development of single-families, townhouses and three-flats on a vacant site bounded by Englewood and Woodlawn avenues between 62nd and 64th streets. The project, which sold out a first phase in 2004, is the result of TWO’s collaboration with the non-profit Local Initiatives Support Corporation and for-profit Magellan Development Corporation. At press time, sales were slated to open in fall of 2006, and prices had not been finalized. About 20 percent of the project will be affordable housing.

New townhomes in Woodlawn

TWO’s pioneering projects have inspired a range of smaller developments, particularly along the eastern side of Woodlawn. In early 2006 Mak Browne & Associates was selling two-bedroom units at The Kimbark Classic Condominium, 6601 S. Kimbark Ave. At press time, the units were priced from the $120s to the $140s. At The Woodlawns, 6531 S. Woodlawn Ave., R&B Realty was offering three-bedroom condos from the $250s.

“We’ve taken Woodlawn, which was a community of last resort through the 1970s, to becoming a community of choice,” says Dr. Leon Finney, chairman and CEO of TWO. “That means that for a period of time when we were known as a home of gang-related violence, no one who could choose to live elsewhere would move to Woodlawn. Today, 35 years later, people are clambering to get into Woodlawn.”

J. W. Smith was one of them. Smith grew up in Woodlawn but raised his family in Roseland. He and his wife, Deborah, bought a townhome on 63rd Street in 2001 because they were drawn back to what Smith felt was “an up-and-coming community with a lot going on.”

“We aren’t far from the lake, and Jackson Park is very pleasant,” Smith says. “We play tennis and walk along the lakefront.”

Displacement concerns

Lower condo and townhome prices have made homeownership possible for many in Woodlawn and Washington Park, but some locals say that same development is displacing poor residents.

Ald. Arenda Troutman, whose 20th ward covers the majority of the Woodlawn and Washington Park communities, says developers are paying $200,000 cash for six-flat buildings. Building owners have “never seen so much money” and are “kicking tenants out” and selling, Troutman says.

Enduring a Haircut at the YWCA

“It’s unfortunate and it’s unfair, and it’s not good,” she says. The alderman hopes that Brinshore Development’s upcoming rental project, Keystone Place, will provide some relief. The 17-building development, on scattered sites between 63rd Street, Marquette Road and Ellis and Minerva avenues, will provide 61 affordable rental units and 38 units for CHA tenants.

At press time, Rich Sciortino, president of Brinshore, said affordable condos would be priced from the $150s and market-rate units from the $190s to the $300s. Single-family homes will be priced from the $400s, and two-flats will start in the $500s. Sales were slated to begin in the fall of 2006, with first occupancy scheduled for winter 2007, Sciortino said.

Some locals are taking the issue of affordable housing into their own hands. Two years ago, a group called the Student / Tenant Organizing Project formed to protest the loss of affordable housing and to organize tenants to oppose evictions. A spokesperson, Ebonee Stevenson, says STOP is trying to find a non-profit organization that will help tenants buy their apartment buildings.

Courtyard on the Park, 5936 S King DrFinney, from The Woodlawn Organization, argues that local residents are not being displaced by the new condo developments because there is a range of affordable housing, including TWO’s projects. The group also convenes tenants’ rights workshops and advises tenants how to convert their buildings into co-ops.But Stevenson thinks some residents are being left behind. “There are ‘affordable housing’ projects in Woodlawn, but affordable for who?” she says. “The median income in the 2000 census was $18,000. When you have [condos] coming up as $130,000 to $140,000, it’s still not affordable housing for someone on $18,000.”

Mixed feelings

Residents like Dorothy Pytel are of two minds when they see the development around them.

Clarence Brown and Dartanion Evans fish at Jackson ParkPytel has watched with sadness as three African American neighbors have been priced out of Woodlawn, and she fears losing something close to her heart.
Pytel is one of a group of residents who tend the Brickyard Community Garden, 6117 S. Woodlawn Ave. Residents transformed the double city lot into a vegetable and flower garden 30 years ago, when the land was vacated after a suspected insurance fire. The garden sits on city-owned land that Pytel estimates is worth about $150,000. “It’s not as economically yielding as a six-flat, but it would be a major mistake to sell it because of all the community-building that goes on here,” she says. “I have mixed feelings. Clearly some development is good. But it’s one-sided; it’s all condos. We all hope to see retail, but that will take years.”

Retail therapy

If there is one thing that everyone can agree on, it’s that both Woodlawn and Washington Park are starved for retail, despite the growing market for residential real estate.

Neither Woodlawn nor Washington Park has a major supermarket, and residents have to travel to produce markets in Hyde Park or South Shore for groceries.

House of Africa, 1510 E 63rd St

Woodlawn’s retail mix includes a small cluster of shops on the 1500 block of East 63rd Street, including a Curves health club, a high-end shoe shop, an African clothing store and a spa. Residents have two main dining options, the popular Daley’s Restaurant, 809 E. 63rd St., which serves home-style cooking, and H&A Restaurant, 432 E. 63rd St.

A study commissioned by the city in 2004 found that Woodlawn residents spent $243 million each year outside the neighborhood on groceries, clothing, restaurants and household goods.
Under the 63rd St el tracks

“You have to go to the North Side or downtown for everything – Trader Joe’s, Costco, Ann Taylor, the Gap,” says Paula Schuler, who moved to Woodlawn from Streeterville five years ago. “But that’s its virtue as well as its fault. It’s quieter, I like the low density.”

Washington Park offers only slightly more retail options. A shopping center at 5401 S. Wentworth Ave. – no one seems sure what to call it – contains about 20 stores, including Walgreens, Payless, Subway, Popeye’s and three athletic shoe stores, as well as an army recruitment center.

“I call them rinky-dink shops,” says Tasha Baker, a community development worker with St. Edmund’s Redevelopment Corporation. “There are vacant lots that stretch two city blocks – why can’t we get a grocery store? Developers buy land and then sit on it, waiting for it to appreciate before they do anything with it, and in the meantime, they hold the community hostage.”

Supermarket coming?

Ald. Troutman says she’s in talks with several supermarket chains, including Ultra Foods. Woodlawn and Washington Park will have a supermarket of their own within two years, she says.

Woodlawn’s giant institutional neighbor to the north, the University of Chicago, is in the throes of a massive redevelopment of its south campus, which observers hope will attract retailers and boost the residential base that gives commercial developers the confidence to move into an area.

Mattie Gibson Jackson, a waitress at Daley's RestaurantBy the fall of 2008, the university plans to open housing for 900 students as well as parking, office and retail space on a site between 60th and 61st streets that runs from Drexel Boulevard to Dorchester Avenue. Plans also call for a 550-seat dining facility, a convenience store and a café, all open to the public. Completion is planned for fall of 2008. And in winter of 2009, a mixed-use building at 61st Street and Woodlawn Avenue containing university offices, parking and 20,000 to 40,000 square feet of retail will open, says Sonya Malunda, assistant vice president for community and government affairs at the University of Chicago.Struggling school

University officials also are working with civic leaders on another of the neighborhood’s biggest problems – troubled local schools.

All eyes are on Hyde Park Career Academy, which, despite its name, is situated in Woodlawn, at 6220 S. Stony Island Ave. The school, which in the past has been praised for its International Baccalaureate Diploma, was dogged by overcrowding and discipline problems in early 2006.

YBA basketball team

The problems arose after 300 extra students were admitted to the school in 2004. Under the Daley administration’s Renaissance 2010 program, failing schools were closed and the students transferred to high-performing institutions like Hyde Park Career Academy. School officials could not be reached for comment, but a Chicago Sun-Times investigation in March reported increased violence at the school, committed by the transferred students, along with low teacher and student morale.

Ald. Troutman says she hopes some of the problems will be addressed by the University of Chicago’s plans to open a new charter school in Woodlawn in late summer 2006.

Woodlawn High School, 6420 S. University Ave., will initially open to 161 students in grades six and nine, says Linda Wing, deputy director of the university’s Center for Urban School Improvement. In coming years, the school will expand to accommodate 590 kids from grades six to 12, Wing says. Students from Woodlawn will have first priority in enrollment.

Tackling crime

Drug dealing and gang activity in Washington Park and Woodlawn are related to the problems of ailing schools, though community leaders say they have seen signs of improvement.

Enjoying a meal in Woodlawn

In the 3rd district, bounded by the Dan Ryan, 70th Street, the lake and 60th Street, overall crime dropped by 12 percent between 2002 and 2005, says District 3 Commander Ernest Brown. Between 2004 and 2005, overall crime rose 1.4 percent in the district, while it dropped 6.7 percent citywide.

Brown, and Finney, from TWO, say progress has been made in suppressing violent crime, though gang problems persist in areas like 63rd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue. TWO has initiated a program in which former gang members pressure the active ones to stop the violence.

A new homebuyer in Washington Park says he hears gunshots maybe once a week. “But there is a lot of stuff that goes on in Lincoln Park that doesn’t get the play that things do down here,” he adds.

Bright future

Tasha Baker, from St Edmund’s, is driving toward the corner of 61st Street and Indiana Avenue. “This is drug central,” Baker says. “This is where most of the police action happens.” An undercover police car goes past, instantly recognizable by the municipal license plates and dark blue color. Farther down the street, a bleary-eyed woman exchanges money with a man furtively scoping the block.

Baker’s car enters Washington Park. It’s early spring and people are playing basketball, and strolling along the edge of the lagoon. “This is the vision of what this neighborhood is going to be, what in some ways, it already is,” Baker says. “It’s changing, and we tell people to get in on the ground floor.”

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