NEWS

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November 15, 2005

Organizations seek to revitalize Woodlawn

As Woodlawn, the community to the immediate south of the University, becomes more economically and racially contiguous with Hyde Park, residents there and members of the University community are struggling to make sense of the new geographic reality.

In the third of a four-part series about Woodlawn, the Maroon reports on the demographic changes to Woodlawn and the organizations shaping the community.

When Rudy Nimocks moved into Woodlawn in 1952, his family’s home was in a desirable, mixed-income community.

“It was very stable, a very nice place to live,” he said.

Over the years, Nimocks said, Woodlawn fell into disrepair. Middle class residents moved out. Homes rotted. Lots became vacant. Drug peddling and drug consumption flourished, and along with them came violent crime.

“It became practically a ghetto,” Nimocks said. “The neighborhood just went completely down.”

Since moving to Woodlawn, Nimocks has become the director of the University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD) and chairman of the Woodlawn Preservation and Investment Corporation (WPIC), an organization dedicated to community improvement that is the lead agency behind the Woodlawn New Communities Program (NCP).

Established organizations, including WPIC and NCP, are working to revitalize Woodlawn into a vibrant mixed-income neighborhood. But newer groups have taken root, saying current development does not reflect the interests of Woodlawn residents and demanding more representation for the poor.

WPIC was formed in 1989 to help Woodlawn become a better neighborhood, according to Nimocks. The organization bought Grove Parc, the public housing complex rife with drugs and crime, from the Department of Housing and Urban Development for a negligible amount of money, Nimocks said.

“We knew that if it was taken over by developers, then all the people there on subsidized housing would be gone,” he said.

WPIC fought in the 1990s to have the elevated 63rd Street Green Line tracks, which harbored prostitution and drug peddling, removed from Cottage Grove Avenue to Dorchester Avenue, according to Nimocks.

“It was a foreboding corridor, a canyon out there,” Nimocks said.

WPIC has worked to renovate 63rd Street, which has recently seen condos built along it, and still has swaths of open land where the Green Line tracks once sat.

“The restoration of 63rd Street is pivotal to bringing Woodlawn back,” Nimocks said. “We also foresee a new shopping center.”

According to Metro Edge, a market intelligence firm, Woodlawn “leaks” about $90 million in potential revenue each year because of a lack of local business.

Alongside WPIC’s call for real estate development in Woodlawn is NCP. It is an initiative to strengthen Chicago neighborhoods through business, real estate, employment, and education.

Woodlawn NCP is backed by three organizations: WPIC, the University of Chicago, and The Woodlawn Organization (TWO). NCP started in November of 2003, and will run until May 2010, with the possibility for an extension.

Woodlawn NCP director Karen King has high hopes for the program, but knows the community has a long way to go. “There’s no social life here, there’s no cultural life here, there’s not enough businesses here,” she said.

In May 2005, the Woodlawn NCP published a report, “Woodlawn: Rebuilding the Village.” The quality of life report described living conditions in Woodlawn and presented a working list of eight strategies, including youth programming, education, business opportunities, and the creation of affordable housing.

The report is the lynchpin for the future of Woodlawn because it is the working document of the Woodlawn NCP, which is, in turn, the umbrella organization of development.

The report lists 47 projects, which include creating a chamber of commerce, opening a center for working families, and developing two new charter schools.

“To become a community of choice will require a full range of social and recreational amenities, safe streets, high-quality education for people of all ages, and an even stronger sense that Woodlawn is a tightly knit community, where residents know each other and work together,” according to the report, which includes several neighborhood-improvement projects like an injury-free playground, live-work space for artists, and health fairs and screenings.

Another focus for the NCP is an integrated child-care program, in which youth are not segregated along wealth lines.

A group that supports much of the NCP’s work but is also highly critical of it is the Student/Tenant Organizing Project (STOP).

One of STOP’s priorities has been to forestall the conversion of the Woodlawn Redevelopment Number Two project, according to STOP organizer and fourth-year in the College Alex Goldenberg.

The project, championed by the real estate wing of TWO, would transform about 100 units of Section-8 public housing in six buildings into market-rate homes, Goldenberg said. He cited a letter sent to residents in January saying the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) might not renew the affordable housing contracts.

“A few people moved out because they were threatened,” Goldenberg said. “That letter tells us their agenda is to turn these apartments into market rate buildings.”

Earlier this month, management told tenants they had to be out by next May so the buildings could be converted to condos, Goldenberg said.

Goldenberg said STOP has been trying to get Leon Finney, the chairman of TWO, to commit publicly that he will not transform the buildings.

Finney did not return multiple calls to comment for this article.

University officials, when discussing their involvement in the NCP, are quick to note that they are a “minority partner.” The University’s role is largely to provide space, expertise, or technical assistance for the NCP, according to Sonya Malunda, the University’s director of Community Affairs.

The University also has a program to help employees purchase homes, offering financial advice and a $7,500 forgivable loan, Malunda said.

There are currently 70 employees enrolled in the program, and Malunda expects another 20 more by the end of the academic year. “It’s our way of saying ‘we’re in a wonderful community.’” Malunda said. “It’s a redeveloping community in many ways. What can we do as an institution so our employees who aren’t already living here are able to purchase homes?”

According to Hank Webber, the vice president for Community Affairs, about 40 percent of the participants in the program purchased homes in Woodlawn.

Malunda said the program has targeted middle-income employees, and it includes single mothers and first-time homeowners. “We’re trying to make purchasing a home a reality,” she said. “Without our help it would just be a dream. We’re trying to turn dreams into reality.”

But STOP said that community organizations should take more responsibility for the economic forces driving out low-income Woodlawn residents.

“It’s a cop-out to blame displacement on economic forces,” said Goldenberg. “When you build housing, property taxes go up. It gets more expensive everywhere in the community. The real estate organizations here definitely have control over changes in the housing economy.”

To keep a place for current residents, Goldenberg estimates that 25-40 percent of all new home units would have to be designated low income. Citing the Balanced Development Coalition, Goldenberg said development should be split evenly between market rate homes, “affordable” homes, and low-income rentals.

When asked why developers would want to designate such a large fraction of their investments for low-income residents and therefore lose extra revenue, Goldenberg said development in the community would still be a winning investment.

STOP, which has received grants from the Ford Foundation and the Woods Fund, is active in developing organizers and homegrown activists who can articulate their desires for Woodlawn.

Many of the NCP’s projects are worthwhile but none create strong community leaders, Goldenberg said.

He gave employment as an example. “Instead of having a job fair or training, we would start a research campaign to learn about the economy, understand why there was a lack of jobs in this area, and then work to develop them,” Goldenberg said. “It’s a basic distinction of social service providing versus organizing.”

The University is the largest employer on the South Side, employing about 13,000 people, according to Larry Arbeiter, director of University communications. “Our presence here supports numerous small businesses and landlords in the community,” Arbeiter said.

He noted that an important part of the current campus plan is the University’s business diversity program, which has provided more than $100 million of contracts to minority- and women-owned businesses in Chicago in the last six years.

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