Kendall Mallette, a native New Yorker and Princeton graduate, has nothing but good things to say about where her family lives — the south lakefront community of Oakland, perhaps better described as outer Bronzeville.
“I love the fact that we’re within easy walking distance of the lakefront, the beaches, a playing field a block north and tons of parks,” Mallette says of the neighborhood where she’s lived since 2006. “I have no desire to move anywhere else in the city.”
Cristina K., an Eastern European immigrant who’s lived in Bronzeville since 2008, is equally enthusiastic.
“It’s a beautiful area,” she says. “You get a lot more for your money. There’s less petty crime here than on the North Side. I’ve never regretted it for a minute.”
Kendall is black. Cristina is white. They’re part of one of the most positive developments in recent Chicago history — the resurgence of the city’s south lakefront. Once an affluent area that, except for Hyde Park, has suffered from decades of neglect, the south lakefront again is attracting the middle class.
The new residents are largely black college graduates along with a growing number of Asian Americans and whites. This offers the prospect of something rare in segregated Chicago — communities that are middle-class, multi-ethnic and stable.
“I think it’s fantastic,” Mallette says. “As someone who grew up living in a melting pot, I’ve been waiting for this type of diversity for a long time.”
Still in the early stages, the revival of the south lakefront is overdue. But it has come at a high cost, made possible by the demolition of most of the city’s family public housing high-rises, a process that began in the 1990s and concluded in 2011.
Public housing residents, some of them gang members, were displaced. Many ended up in African American neighborhoods elsewhere in the city that, until then, had been stable. The resulting conflicts triggered an exodus of black families from Chicago that has continued ever since.
Redevelopment of the south lakefront has gone through two phases. The maps here show neighborhoods where the percentage of residents with a bachelor’s degree or better exceeds the U.S. average (32% as of 2017). That’s an indication, though not a guarantee, of community revival.
The first phase was a residential boom than began around 2000, shortly after the public housing high-rises began being emptied out. In some communities, hundreds of homes were built or rehabilitated, many selling for prices previously unheard of for the area.
The boom ended with the 2008 recession. South lakefront home values fell sharply, in some neighborhoods by as much as 40%.
Recovery has been slow and uneven. Here’s a rundown:
NEAR SOUTH SIDE
Better known as the South Loop, this area once was filled with rail facilities and junkyards. It gradually has been absorbed into what Chicago demographer Rob Paral calls the “zone of affluence” encompassing most of the city’s central area and North Side. Prosperous and ethnically diverse, its stores and entertainment venues provide a commercial hub for communities with fewer amenities farther south.
Douglas is the northern half of what’s widely called Bronzeville, historically the heart of Chicago’s black community. Today, 42% of adult residents here are college graduates, more than half of them African American. Parts of the community remain deeply impoverished. Median household income ranges from $11,000 to $85,000. Since 2010, Douglas’s population has risen 14% — the biggest increase of any south lakefront community.
More than 400 homes were built in this community in the early 2000s, transforming blocks that had been mostly vacant lots. The recession brought that to a halt, but private development has resumed on a smaller scale. The community’s overall population has grown by 12% since 2010. The number of black residents is up by 7%.
In 2000, this community, the southern half of Bronzeville, was a low-income area dominated by the Robert Taylor Homes public housing project on its western edge. Today, the Taylor Homes are gone, the college graduation rate in a sizable chunk of the community exceeds the U.S. average, and much of the neighborhood south of 43rd Street is middle class.
Kenwood is on its way to achieving parity with neighboring Hyde Park. More than half of adult residents, two-thirds of them African American, have college degrees. Some parts of the community remain poor, while others have median household income exceeding $70,000.
Home to the University of Chicago, Hyde Park is widely viewed as a model for the rest of the south lakefront owing to its rich mix of incomes and ethnicities. It’s a commercial hub for surrounding communities.
Once desolate, still largely low-income, Woodlawn shows signs of revival. The planned Obama Presidential Center has spurred development at the east end of the community. The not-for-profit group Preservation of Affordable Housing Chicago has rebuilt a three-block stretch of Cottage Grove Avenue north of the Green Line terminal.
A destination for many former Chicago Housing Authority residents, South Shore is the one south lakefront community to have significantly declined after earlier gains. Median household income dropped from $32,000 in inflation-corrected dollars in 2010 to $24,000 in 2017.
For the most part, tearing down high-rise public housing has worked out fine for the south lakefront. The flip side, though, is that it has upended other areas of the city — a study in ostensibly well-intended public policy gone disastrously wrong.
So what should the city do now?
Answer: as little as possible. If the long-running fiasco known as public housing in Chicago tells us anything, it’s that government attempts to improve things often make them worse.
The south lakefront has redeveloped mainly through private initiative, with some assistance from the not-for-profit sector. The heavy lifting financially has been done by middle-class black people willing to invest in the city.
Right now, there aren’t enough of them. The city gained 16,000 black college graduates between 2000 and 2010. Since then, it’s added just 10,000.
It’s possible the problem will resolve itself. If Bronzeville were to evolve into a middle-class, multi-ethnic but predominantly African American community, that would go a long way toward dispelling Chicago’s reputation as a place where black people can’t get a break. The more that black college grads are attracted to the city, the quicker the black middle class will grow.
The city can help through timely infrastructure investment. Past initiatives such as bridges over Lake Shore Drive, beach and harbor improvements and the relocation of the Chicago Police Department’s headquarters to Bronzeville have had a positive impact. Better public transit is an obvious next step.
But the first rule must be the old medical maxim: Above all, do no harm.
This is part of the ongoing series City at the Crossroads by journalist Ed Zotti on trends affecting Chicago and choices the city faces.
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