Woodlawn: A battle, a truce and new alliances

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Map of Woodlawn

Map of Woodlawn

Back in the 1960s, the University of Chicago was Public Enemy No. 1 in Woodlawn, the feisty neighborhood just south of campus. With help from famed organizer Saul Alinsky, more than 100 churches, block clubs and other grassroots groups formed the Temporary Woodlawn Organization in 1960 (now The Woodlawn Organization, popularly known as TWO), led by Arthur Brazier. Its main goal: Stop the university from expanding south and displacing residents.

A truce was forged several years later when Brazier and his allies won a significant concession from the university, which promised not to expand south of 61st Street.

These days, relations between the university and the community have thawed, although some residents are still deeply suspicious of the school. “The U of C has not always been a good neighbor,” says Ald. Arenda Troutman, whose ward includes Woodlawn. “Now they’re trying to be more sensitive.”

In 1987, Brazier, now pastor of the Apostolic Church of God, founded the Woodlawn Preservation and Investment Corporation, which has two university employees on its board of directors. Through the 1990s, the group led efforts to preserve and develop housing on its own and in partnership with the city and for-profit developers.

Board President Rudolph Nimocks, a longtime Woodlawn resident and executive director of the University of Chicago Police Department, says the university has been supportive of Woodlawn Preservation without trying to run the show. “They have tried to erase the imagery that they were apart from, rather than a part of, the community,” he says. One example: In response to public demand, the university’s police force expanded its services south to 64th Street in 2001.

The university also offers zero-interest, forgivable loans to encourage moderate-income employees to buy homes in neighborhoods close to campus. Most participants in the program are white or Asian, with an average income of $54,502. As of January, a third (36 of 105) of buyers had purchased homes in predominantly black Woodlawn.

Meanwhile, university students and tenants have come together to fight displacement of lower-income residents. Last year, students leaked a consultant’s report that suggested the university consider purchasing real estate in Woodlawn.

University officials strongly denied any intent to heed such advice. “We’re not going to be the developer there,” insists Henry Webber, vice president for community and government affairs. But the university is edging close to Woodlawn in its latest development plan, which includes projects that reach down to 61st Street.

Matthew Ginsberg-Jaeckle, a graduate of the University of Chicago and a member of the Student-Tenant Organizing Project, says more residents got involved in housing issues in the wake of the dust-up over the report. The project has helped develop a tenants association in a subsidized housing complex.

On the education front, the University of Chicago has provided tutoring, professional development and technology support to existing Woodlawn schools for years. Yet achievement in most of the schools continues to lag: Only three of seven elementary schools—one a small school started by activists—are not on probation.

The university plans to take its education efforts to a new level by opening a charter school this coming fall in Wadsworth Elementary, at 6420 S. University Ave.

Most community members who spoke to Catalyst Chicago say they support the new school, but add that existing schools still need help. “I’m not against these experimentations, but I’m for the local public school,” says Rev. Gerald Wise, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, whose after-school program serves students from the neighborhood. “I want to see all of them raised up. Somebody’s got to be the advocate for just the basic school.”

The neighborhood’s sole high school, Hyde Park Career Academy, was once lauded in a national newsmagazine as one of the best schools in the country. Now, it’s struggling with discipline as it takes in freshmen from two schools that are being phased out. In a surprising twist, Hyde Park students are beginning to take a leadership role in improving the school climate.

Last fall, The Woodlawn Organization submitted a charter proposal but withdrew it. Chairman and CEO Leon Finney says further work is on hold. “I have to first be comfortable that Hyde Park High is going to survive.”

To contact Maureen Kelleher, call (312) 673-3882 or e-mail kelleher@catalyst-chicago.org.