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Here’s what Woodlawn needs for its middle class to grow and thrive

Revival began long before the announcement the Obama center would go there. But more investment is needed. And class divisions have to be put aside.

“The breadth of African American experience here is like nowhere else,” George Davis says of Woodlawn.
“The breadth of African American experience here is like nowhere else,” George Davis says of Woodlawn.
James Foster / Sun-Times

“I was Malia Obama’s soccer coach,” George Davis says, talking about what he likes about living in Woodlawn.

“The breadth of African American experience here is like nowhere else,” Davis says. “Everything you can imagine, you find black people doing. You don’t have many places with a lot of African Americans who are middle class. I wanted my kids to be around that.”

Davis, who works in financial services, was born in Arkansas. He got an MBA from Clark Atlanta University and his law degree from the University of Nebraska.

But Chicago — specifically Woodlawn — was where he and his family decided to put down roots.

“I walk my dog around the Museum of Science and Industry, the Japanese garden in Jackson Park, all the beautiful treasures this location affords,” he says. “I have amazing neighbors, all these different connections, this beautiful black culture. We’ve had a great experience here.”

Davis’s story demonstrates the potential for Chicago’s African American community to reverse a long decline and for the city to re-establish itself as one of the leading centers of black America.

It also shows why the conversation about Woodlawn as it prepares for the arrival of the Obama Presidential Center shouldn’t focus solely on affordable housing, important as that is. The real challenge is taking steps to help the community’s black middle class keep growing.

Woodlawn’s revival began long before the 2016 announcement that the Obama center would be built there. Since 2000, almost 1,200 dwellings have been built in the community, census data show. Home values have nearly doubled since 2010. In Davis’s neighborhood in eastern Woodlawn, 35% of black residents 25 or older have college degrees — higher than the national average.

“I see more plans for new housing and commercial investment in Woodlawn than I’ve ever seen working in the neighborhood for over 20 years,” says developer Benjamin Van Horne, who has built 83 single-family homes, two-flats, townhouses and condos primarily in Woodlawn.

Two of his houses recently sold for around $750,000, a record for the area.

But some Woodlawn residents say that, despite progress, the community has far to go.

“The first week we moved in in 2012, there was a shooting in front of our house,” says Reggie Weaver, a securities trader. “There was so much gunfire, our kids refused to sleep in their bedrooms.”

Weaver and his wife Myriam, a University of Chicago employee, joined with their neighbors, their alderman and the police to get an open-air drug market in a nearby vacant lot shut down and get the site fenced off.

Neighborhood residents also successfully pushed for onsite security at a subsidized housing development with problem tenants.

Reggie Weaver says he walks around the area picking up trash.

“Things have calmed down tremendously,” he says. “The neighborhood looks better.”

What Woodlawn needs now, some residents say, is more people and more investment.

At its population peak in 1960, Woodlawn had 81,000 residents and 30,000 homes.

Today, it has 25,000 people and 13,000 homes — and, of those dwellings, just 10,600 are occupied. About 20% of Woodlawn’s developable land consists of vacant lots, according to data supplied by the city and Steven Vance, founder of the Chicago Cityscape real estate information service.

“We need people with higher income to stabilize our community,” says Debra Adams, a retired teacher. “We need more homeowners who will take care of their property. We need more businesses. Above everything, we need revenue.”

Neighboring Hyde Park has aggregate income of almost $1.2 billion, enough to support a thriving local business community. Woodlawn, with about the same number of people, takes in roughly 40% as much, and even its commercial streets are lined with vacant lots.

To match Hyde Park’s buying power, Woodlawn would need another 10,000 households making the citywide average of $57,000 a year.

“We have everything but people,” Woodlawn developer Bill Williams says. “We need density and a wide spectrum of incomes to support businesses. The important thing is to make sure it’s a coordinated effort.”

Community infighting could hurt that. The current flashpoint is the Obama Presidential Center.

Last year, Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) and Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) proposed a community-benefits ordinance in the Chicago City Council to try to ensure that the Obama center would end up helping Woodlawn residents. Among its more controversial provisions was a requirement that 100% of dwellings built on city-owned vacant land in Woodlawn be used for affordable housing.

The proposal exposed class divisions.

Byron Brazier, pastor of the Apostolic Church of God, an influential Woodlawn institution, said the community-benefits ordinance would have had “a negative impact on property values because of the degree of subsidized housing.”

“People are too worried about their investments and not enough about people,” Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) says.
“People are too worried about their investments and not enough about people,” Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) says.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

“It’s always been the homeowners against the renters,” Taylor says. “People are too worried about their investments and not enough about people.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration proposed its own measure, the Woodlawn Affordable Housing Preservation Ordinance, which essentially supplanted the Taylor-Hairston proposal.

Key provisions: requirements for some — but not 100% — affordable housing on city-owned land, more money for home improvements for longtime homeowners, a loan fund to acquire and affordably rehab vacant buildings and a plan to keep existing large apartment buildings affordable by giving tenants a right of first refusal if their building gets sold.

”We’re encouraged,” says Mike Strautmanis, chief engagement officer for the Obama Foundation. “There are so many economic benefits the Obama Presidential Center will bring to the community. This is a huge opportunity for the South Side and the entire city of Chicago.”

Taylor, initially angry, seems to be taking a pragmatic approach.

“We’re going to get middle-class folks — it’s inevitable,” she says. “I will never be able to stop gentrification. And I’m not crazy enough to think that I can. What I can do is protect the people who are here now.

“We’ll negotiate numbers. We’ll see if we can meet in the middle.”

Marisa Novara, Lightfoot’s housing commissioner, says: “We are hopeful that a balanced and comprehensive package for the Woodlawn community is in sight.”

Consensus is critical for Woodlawn to get the investment it needs.

“Woodlawn is at the pivot point,” says Leon Walker, a commercial developer who put together the deal that brought a new Jewel to Woodlawn. “We need to be intentional about engaging local residents and businesses In the revitalization of their communities. We’ve got to do this as a collaboration.”

The Jewel that developer Leon Walker put together a deal to bring to Woodlawn.
The Jewel that developer Leon Walker put together a deal to bring to Woodlawn.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times