Woodlawn needed jobs, and something had to be done about the crime.
Joel and Paula Hamernick thought starting a coffee shop could help with both.
So in 2014, they opened Greenline Coffee in an abandoned building at 501 E. 61st St. That’s across the street from the reason they were in Woodlawn in the first place – Sunshine Gospel Ministries, where Joel Hamernick is executive director.
Sunshine moved into the neighborhood from the Near North Side about 15 years ago. Since then, the nonprofit has tried to revitalize the community through youth outreach programs and other efforts. But Hamernick thought more could be done to help transform the struggling intersection.
“People are still kind of shocked when they see Greenline for the first time,” Hamernick said. “There isn’t an expectation that you’ll find a quality business over here since it’s been so long since neighborhood businesses filled the street.”
But five years later, Greenline is still losing money. A few blocks away, on the neighborhood’s east side, Robust Coffee Lounge is thriving.
Between Greenline and Robust is Cottage Grove Avenue. It’s the border between the neighborhood’s east and west sides — and, to some, the line between boom and bust. While revitalization takes hold in eastern and central Woodlawn, progress slows as one crosses Cottage Grove. Lingering effects of crime and disinvestment make it hard to attract new business — and hard for existing ones like Greenline to thrive on the neighborhood’s west side.
Residents want a more walkable neighborhood, with restaurants, bookstores and entertainment just a few blocks away. Greenline is one of about 30 with active business licenses west of Cottage Grove to King Drive. But Irene Richards, who lives in west Woodlawn, has only a phone shop, liquor store and laundromat within a five-minute walk from her home on South Rhodes Avenue.
In east Woodlawn, with around 70 active licenses, there are multiple coffee shops, a community bicycle store and daycare centers.
Hamernick said the challenges of keeping Greenline going are worth it, thanks in part to lower costs in west Woodlawn.
And the ribbon-cutting in March for a Jewel-Osco at 6014 S. Cottage Grove gave some hope to west Woodlawn neighbors that things could turn around.
Woodlawn was widely considered a food desert, with limited access to fresh fruits, vegetables and other healthy options.
Longtime resident Margaret Brewer called the opening a “new day for the neighborhood.”
Many west Woodlawn business owners like Hamernick hope Jewel can have a ripple effect.
“With the new store, it’s likely traffic increases on 61st Street … [and] Greenline will benefit over the next couple of years,” Hamernick said — “and hopefully get to break even.”
Jewel’s ribbon-cutting in early March drew hundreds. Cars jammed the store’s parking lot. And the customers are still coming.
Greenline hasn’t felt the effect yet, but others have.
“Absolutely,” Robust Coffee’s co-owner Jake Sapstein said when asked about Jewel driving traffic to his shop. “It’s been great for us and for the neighborhood.”
Sapstein opened Robust in 2009, and said things have gone “really great” since then. Besides Jewel, his business has been boosted by other developments near Cottage Grove.
In the next two to three years, Cottage Grove could transform, creating opportunities in west Woodlawn, said Bill Eager, vice president for the Chicago area for Preservation of Affordable Housing.
Eager called Jewel a “game-changer” in speeding revitalization and shifting the outside perception of the neighborhood.
For longtime Woodlawn resident Deidre McGraw, that shift starts with those who live there. McGraw, who lives on South Kenwood Avenue, said her neighbors further west are frustrated by the lack of development.
“It’s a whole different world over there it seems — and it should not be,” McGraw said. “There needs to be a big development into that side, not just at the so-called ‘dividing line.’ Then folks will be like maybe they are invested, maybe they do care about us.”
Richards agreed, saying she feels development priorities aren’t spread evenly. She understands why it’s important to lose the distinction and focus on Woodlawn as a whole. But sometimes, ‘What’s best for Woodlawn?’ turns into ‘What’s best for east Woodlawn?’
Crime and gang-related activity in Woodlawn has dropped in the past five years — but over the past 12 months, west Woodlawn still has more violent crimes per capita than east Woodlawn.
“The public sense of safety is really a critical issue,” Hamernick said. “West Woodlawn has suffered with more of that stigma than east Woodlawn. If people don’t feel like it’s safe, it’s harder to get people to come and spend time.”
It’s also harder for businesses to open in the first place.
Ain’t She Sweet Cafe, a black-owned eatery based in Bronzeville, pulled plans earlier this year to open a third location at the Woodlawn Station at 63rd and Cottage Grove, an apartment and retail project by Preservation of Affordable Housing. Co-owner Margot Strotter said the cafe dropped out due to safety concerns after someone shot out windows at the site.
In its place, Daley’s Restaurant moved across the street to Woodlawn Station last month. Felicia Dawson, POAH’s vice president of strategic partnerships, called that an example of, “when one door closes, another door opens,” — but King Drive, she admitted, can be a “different story” than Cottage Grove.
Six years ago, the 6400 block of South King Drive was among Chicago’s most dangerous. Safety has improved, but nearby commercial disinvestment (Walgreens and McDonald’s down the street both closed in 2016) hasn’t helped change perceptions.
Hamernick said several businesses along the street “have been very problematic over the years,” which also complicates things.
Ultimately though, it’s the neighborhood’s image — and the challenges of changing it — that could determine if Jewel can have a lasting effect on the neighborhood’s west side, said Woodlawn Chamber of Commerce president Byron Freelon.
And, he added, changing the “strong distinction” people make between east and west Woodlawn needs a more holistic approach.
“We can’t think that just because you build one thing, it’s going to spur or trigger a host of many other things,” Freelon said.
Some business owners also have their eyes on new 20th Ward Ald.-elect Jeanette Taylor. During her campaign, she laid out plans to help local businesses bring in some of the people who will (someday) visit the Obama Presidential Center.
As west Woodlawn’s commercial environment improves, and investors set their sights on the area, Freelon said, many long-term residents will fear being displaced. Such fears led the city to postpone plans to seek ideas from developers for some vacant city-owned land in the area.
Financial support for start-up businesses already exists through city initiatives like the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund. But Hamernick said the city should also prioritize training and development opportunities for new owners in west Woodlawn.
The strategy that lured McDonald’s and Google to the West Loop in recent years, could be adapted for neighborhoods like Woodlawn, Hamernick said.
“Maybe it’s not the Boeings and the Facebooks of the world,” Hamernick said, “but there’s other corporations that for an incredibly affordable option could end up in Woodlawn.”
The neighborhood still has a long way to go, but POAH’s Dawson said it’s important to recognize how far Woodlawn’s come. When POAH arrived just over a decade ago, area schools were weak, community activism was inconsistent and west Woodlawn residents seemed less energized.
That’s changed, Dawson said, and the neighborhood has seen a “galvanizing of voices” committed to making it better — for both residents and businesses.
The issue now? Potential residents and developers considering Woodlawn don’t know how far the area has come, or how much effort that took.
“People love this neighborhood. But we don’t tell our story well,” Dawson said. “There’s a whole lot of stuff that’s happening and has happened, but it’s not being told right to say ‘This is why you should move here, this is why your business needs to come here.’ Once we package it better, we’ll see a lot more people here.”