Nov. 2, 2000
Vol. 20 No. 4

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    Residents of Woodlawn seeing improvements, as a 40-year rebuilding effort starts to pay off

    By Peter Schuler
    News Office

    “The signs are everywhere, and all are welcome.” That’s how Richard Epstein, the James Parker Hall Distinguished Service Professor in the Law School, enthusiastically sums up the resurgence of the Woodlawn neighborhood south of the Midway Plaisance.

    When Epstein arrived at the Law School in the early 1970s, Woodlawn was in decay and filled with burned-out buildings and street gangs. But today, years of dogged efforts by committed Woodlawn residents to rebuild their community are finally paying off.

    Rudy Nimocks, Executive Director of the University Police Department, has been a Woodlawn resident since 1952, “when my mother purchased a six-flat in the 1600 block of Greenwood Avenue directly behind the Law School, which ironically was occupied by University students before we acquired it.” Nimocks noted that “from then on, the neighborhood started to completely deteriorate until about ’88 or ’89 when Bishop Arthur Brazier formed the organization called WPIC (Woodlawn Preservation and Investment Committee). The goal was reinvestment in Woodlawn.” Brazier is now pastor of the 15,000-member Apostolic Church of God at 63rd Street and Dorchester Avenue.

    Nimocks went on to explain that “all the while, the University was quietly working behind the scenes trying to do whatever it could to foster this revitalization. And then about ’92 or ’93, the first new housing in more than 40 years was built in the 6100 block of Greenwood Avenue. This was the breakthrough achievement toward the reconstitution of Woodlawn as a thriving middle-class neighborhood. Since then, things have looked better and better. Personally, I never thought it would happen in my lifetime. I and others who have been in the community for a long, long time are thrilled and hopeful that these initiatives will continue.”

    The University is an active participant with local groups, the City of Chicago and other organizations in the rebirth of the Woodlawn community, which is predominantly African-American. University initiatives in the Woodlawn neighborhood, led by Hank Webber, Vice President of Community Affairs, and Sonya Malunda, Director of Community Affairs, continue to grow. Mayor Daley’s commitment to Chicago’s neighborhoods has specifically included the redevelopment of 63rd Street. The community’s energetic Alderman, Arenda Troutman, has helped maintain momentum among this broad coalition of private and public institutions and individuals.

    Because of increased interest in the Woodlawn neighborhood from University faculty and staff members, the University has extended its second mortgage program for its employees to include the area between Cottage Grove Avenue and the Lakefront as far south as 63rd Street.

    Woodlawn was home to at least half of the University’s

    faculty before World War II. Its thriving commercial activity on 63rd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue was rivaled only by State Street in Chicago’s Loop. A half century later, as real estate prices in Hyde Park rise even higher, growing numbers of faculty, staff and students once again are noticing that Woodlawn’s gracious old homes and apartments are only a short walk to the Quadrangles.

    A few members of the University community made a strong commitment to the Woodlawn neighborhood long before its recent turnaround. Pat Wilcoxen retired in 1996 as Director of the Library’s Circulation Services after 40 years with the University. Wilcoxen first saw Woodlawn in 1955, when her husband, Jay Wilcoxen, a faculty member from 1961 to 1982, was a graduate student in the Divinity School. Pat Wilcoxen said, “Every Sunday we’d leave our apartment in Hyde Park, and I’d push a stroller with my children down Kimbark Avenue to the First Presbyterian Church at 64th and Kimbark.”

    In the mid-1950s, Woodlawn was changing dramatically. Restrictive covenants, which barred home sales to African-Americans and Jews, had been struck down by the courts in the late 1940s. “The whites panicked as the tide of black migration after World War II reached Woodlawn. The large homes and apartment buildings were chopped up into affordable sizes,” said Wilcoxen.

    At this time, the City of Chicago curtailed Chicago Transit Authority service to lower-income neighborhoods, and the once vibrant shopping district on 63rd Street––which was successful partly because of a CTA link with an overhead El train––deteriorated. Each year, median family income dropped along with the percentage of owner-occupied housing, and crime increased. Many buildings were vacant and “we heard the fire engines almost nightly,” noted Wilcoxen, who explained that fires were “both accidental and also inspired by slum landlords with insurance policies.”

    As racial and class tensions escalated during the 1960s, the relationship between the University and the Woodlawn community reached its lowest ebb. Community organizer Saul Alinsky and others formed the Temporary Woodlawn Organization, a ministerial alliance that challenged a proposed South Campus expansion plan. A compromise was ultimately reached. However, a succession of community programs in Woodlawn over the next 30 years proved consistently unable to reverse the area’s downward slide.

    Wilcoxen watched these changes as she and her husband pursued their careers and maintained a commitment to social justice through their campus and church affiliations.

    One day in 1964, Alabama police brutally clubbed civil rights marchers in Selma. “I heard it on the news,” Pat Wilcoxen said, “and I immediately bought him (her husband) a plane ticket to Alabama, because I knew he would want to go.” Jay Wilcoxen and eight other Divinity School faculty, along with hundreds of other clergy, traveled to Alabama to support Martin Luther King Jr. and the marchers.

    Pat Wilcoxen, who grew up in San Juan Capistrano, then a small, quiet Southern California coastal town, said, “I missed the supportive, diverse and intergenerational human network that I’d grown up in.” In the late 1970s, she and others who attended University Church at 57th Street and University Avenue, including the late Divinity School professor and noted civil rights leader Al Pitcher, began to think about ways they could create a community that nurtured such values. They also wanted to help address the critical social needs of the lower-income neighborhoods near the campus.

    “After many, many meetings and many cups of coffee, we decided to form what we called the Covenental Community. In 1979, we decided to buy an empty building to create our dream, and Woodlawn had plenty of empty buildings. We found one owned by a slum landlord that was within walking distance of the campus and the church.”

    The group purchased the property, a site of gang warfare and arson in the 1960s, and sought to create a diverse community composed of different races, genders, age groups and income levels. “Unfortunately, the people who approve and finance buildings in Chicago didn’t want to deal with a project as complicated as that.” Though the courtyard building at the corner of 61st Street and Woodlawn Avenue is not the ideal the group had desired, it continues to provide affordable rental housing for lower-income and other residents of Woodlawn in a heterogeneous group of residents. Wilcoxen lived there from 1981 to 1986.

    Wilcoxen and her neighbors and friends remained determined to create a residential community that would reflect the original goals of the Covenental Community. In the early 1990s, they formed the Woodlawn Development Associates to provide an organizational structure for their efforts, which has now expanded to educational and financial programs for the community.

    The group also learned of an international movement begun in Denmark in the 1980s called cohousing or intentional community. The Denmark community, which was based on shared “small town” values, was similar to the concept Wilcoxen and her friends had hatched over coffee in the basement of their church. With one successful project under her belt, she and her colleagues undertook another project called Greenway Park. They identified and invested in a group of properties on Kimbark and Woodlawn avenues between 62nd and 63rd streets. The first phase of the project, a rental building on Kimbark Avenue, was completed earlier this year. Rehab work on the second phase, condominiums in two six-flats on Woodlawn Avenue, is in progress, and most of the units have been sold.

    Jim Nitti, Director of Computing in the Humanities Division, has purchased one of the condominiums. “Since I’ve known about the Greenway Park project, I’ve seen a remarkable improvement in the area immediately surrounding it. It’s as if the sense of community that the residents of Greenway Park feel and their connection to each other is contagious.”

    Townhouses and a “common house” for meetings, shared meals, and other social gatherings essential to the cohousing concept are planned for a third phase of construction. Because all residents have a chance to voice their opinions, “that means many meetings, but everyone has a say in the key decisions,” said Wilcoxen.

    It has taken almost 20 years, but their initial goal of a residential community in Woodlawn of shared values, and diverse incomes, ages and ethnicities, is now being realized.

    Phillip Hall (A.B., ’85), current president of the Woodlawn Development Associates, said of the Greenway Park project, “I strongly believe that this effort will preserve what has been best in Woodlawn’s history and will be a pillar for the future of what community really can be here in Woodlawn and in Chicago.”