Crossing the Line: After forty years honoring 61st Street as its border with Woodlawn, the University of Chicago is positioning itself to move farther south


In the 1960s, the University of Chicago was subjecting Hyde Park and South Kenwood to a harsh regimen of urban renewal. It invoked eminent domain to take control of property in areas of “blight” and redevelop them, displacing many low-income residents and businesses. When it turned its gaze southward, however, it met far greater resistance to its gentrifying influence. The Temporary Woodlawn Organization (now The Woodlawn Organization, or TWO) united Woodlawn residents, activists, and religious leaders in opposition to the University’s agenda and the neighborhood’s decline. Led by then-president Arthur M. Brazier and helped by renowned community organizer Saul Alinsky, TWO protested against the unresponsive, underhanded practices of local businesses, landlords, and city officials. Its members called for an end to landlords’ neglect of their buildings and the sale of inferior products at inflated prices. On both counts they won small victories, but 1964 marked a major triumph: TWO extracted a promise from the University not to expand south of 61st Street.

Many things have changed in the forty-four years since. Having abandoned its adversarial stance, TWO now works closely with the University, collaborating on the design and implementation of a “Quality of Life Plan” for Woodlawn as part of the citywide New Communities Program. Completed in May 2005, the five-year plan encompasses essentials like housing, education, and job creation, using input from involved residents and community groups like Woodlawn East Community and Neighbors (WECAN). According to Brazier, who works closely with the UofC as chair of the NCP committee, “The University is almost like a junior partner. It is helping the community stabilize itself. It has no desire to take over parts of Woodlawn.”

Nonetheless, the UofC campus is gradually creeping up on its southern boundary. A year from this September, more than 800 University of Chicago students will move into a new dorm on the northeast corner of 61st Street and Ellis Avenue. They will eat at an expanded version of the Burton-Judson dining hall, which lies just to the north. A couple blocks west, at 61st and Drexel, a 1000-space parking garage has sprung up to accommodate the recent growth of the UofC Hospitals. Starting soon, it will also serve as the new headquarters of the University’s police department.

This is all part of the University’s “Master Plan” for what it calls South Campus, its property between the Midway Plaisance and 61st Street. (The plan also includes projected constructions for West Campus, the area from 55th to 57th Street between Cottage Grove and University Avenues.) It has been in the works for a long time, though it’s hard to say exactly how long; plans were officially unveiled in a PowerPoint presentation at a community meeting in September 2004. “The University has made a commitment to being a good neighbor during the construction,” says Sonya Malunda, Assistant Vice President and Director of Community Affairs. She names a number of community initiatives: a new charter high school at 64th Street and University Avenue, the extension of the UofC Police Department’s patrol area, and an employment program called the Career Pathways Initiative. With these, she says, the University is helping to put Woodlawn’s Quality of Life Plan into practice.

Not everyone is satisfied with these efforts, however. “They pay lip service, but when it comes to actual things they could do more,” says Deborah Taylor, a tenant in North Kenwood. “I think they tend to gobble up what they need to the exclusion of everyone else.” Taylor worries that the University’s expansion might displace people from the Woodlawn community, a concern that is echoed by others. “It’s already having a huge impact,” says WECAN founder and president Mattie Butler. “Woodlawn is gentrifying anyway–poor people are being moved out, and people who are more affluent are being moved in.” She acknowledges that the University has “done an elaborate kind of outreach” to the community in order to form the NCP committee, but she remains skeptical: “My grey elephant at the planning committee table is affordable housing and people in the community–how will they be able to stay?” She appreciates that “the University has been stepping up to the plate when we ask them to provide services” like education and job training, yet she harbors no illusions about its participation in the Quality of Life Plan: “They have their own agenda, which has nothing to do with the reality of this community, except that they are part of this community.”

“Community” is always a nebulous thing, and this is especially the case in Woodlawn today. Gone from here is the grassroots unity that once characterized TWO; in its place, the organization has gained the kind of entrenched power regarded as more typical of the Establishment than of its 1960s activism. As resident and blogger the Woodlawn Wonder describes, “They’ve been doing this for a long time…[Reverend Dr. Leon] Finney [president of TWO] has currency with the University, so they’re the ones in the driver’s seat.” Since the ‘70s, TWO has been channeling federal funds into social services like health care and early childhood development programs. It also owns and manages housing for more than 10,000 residents through its development branch, the Woodlawn Community Development Corporation (WCDC). One result is a strange reversal: many Woodlawn residents now know TWO primarily as their landlord. “The WCDC has a lot of buildings now that are project-based subsidies,” explains Butler. “They control those people’s households–they have the say-so whether they’re going to keep them subsidized.”

In light of TWO’s transformation and, some might say, ossification, a number of smaller groups have sprouted up in Woodlawn: some, like the Grove Parc Tenants Association, have coalesced around a specific issue or need, while others such as Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP) pursue a more general goal of community self-determination. If the kind of spirit that galvanized the protests of the ‘60s is still present in Woodlawn, it is among these groups that one is most likely to find it: the same sort of grassroots organizing is taking place in the campaign to save Grove Parc Plaza, a 504-unit public housing complex on Cottage Grove Avenue from 60th to 63rd Street. “It’s a lot of door knocking, passing flyers, planning meetings,” explains tenant Dessie Williams. Last August, she and about thirty other activists protested the possible demolition of the complex with signs, chants, and linked hands in a demonstration they called Hands Around Grove Parc. The fate of the buildings has yet to be decided; because of their deteriorated condition–Williams recalls the roof falling in on her neighbors–some residents will have to move off-site. However, along with many of those involved, Butler believes that the University is “not happy with 300 poor families still living on that property–they’d probably like to see that disappear.”

For some, it is the Grove Parc situation–not the NCP program, its job training, or charter schools–that represents the future of University-Woodlawn relations. “At the core it’s a land grab,” insists Bronzeville tenant and activist Alan Thomas. To him, the University’s intentions are no better than they were back in the ‘60s. “It’s been a long time coming, but you can see it coming to fruition now,” remarks Deborah Taylor. Other Woodlawn residents disagree. “This is 2008,” says Wallace Goode, director of the University Community Service Center and Woodlawn homeowner. “Expanding southward done the right way can be mutually beneficial. There are enough people in the University who will raise questions.” The Woodlawn Wonder agrees: “I’ve lived here six years, and from what I’ve seen their expansion can’t hurt the neighborhood in terms of what’s there now. For the past thirty or forty years [the community] has tried one way, and now we need more options…The University is a wildcard–you don’t quite know what you’re going to get.”

The uncertain nature of University initiatives can be seen in the controversy surrounding the Woodlawn Collaborative, a proposal that has garnered both revolutionary idealism and skeptical distrust. About a year ago, several interested organizations approached Goode with the idea of creating a place in Woodlawn where, as he describes it, “students and the community could interact in a non-threatening space.” Such a place was located last fall in the First Presbyterian Church at 64th Street and Kimbark Avenue; all it required was a donation in the form of a grant from the University, and a written proposal that would warrant such a grant. However, by the time student Greg Gabrellas submitted a twenty-five-page plan in April, many of the original groups had bowed out. Some, such as the Southside Solidarity Network, were unwilling to back what they saw as a potential tool of the University, a first step south of 61st Street into Woodlawn. Moreover, the proposal failed to live up to Goode’s standards; he maintains that he “will not support an activist center that does not open its doors to community service and non-activist groups.” For now, he says, the WC is “on the back burner.”

Speaking to the attendees of last Saturday’s Art in Action festival, however, one gets the sense that the Woodlawn Collaborative already exists–if not in a space, then in the students and community members who have already begun to collaborate. “The University has a long way to go in community relations,” says Woodlawn resident Travis. “It seems like the Woodlawn Collaborative is doing the University’s work [for them].” In the sense in which its current participants view it, the WC represents another, more complicated model of University-community interaction–one in which students join residents in subverting their University’s expansionist agenda.

At the moment, the University has no public plans to move south of 61st Street, but that it will do so eventually seems almost inevitable. Of the 1964 agreement, Sonya Malunda says, “There may have been a gentleman’s handshake about University acquisition some years ago, but I don’t think there was ever anything in writing.” Wallace Goode frankly states his belief that the University will cross the line in the coming years, and Mattie Butler points out that “the people who initially made the agreement [TWO] since that time have rethought their strategies.” Those strategies no longer include places like Grove Parc; instead, they now focus on the development of middle-income housing–a decision many interpret as promoting gentrification.

Gentrification is another word that means different things to different people; in the case of Woodlawn, its connotation generally corresponds to how one views the TWO-University partnership. For Goode, it can be a true “win-win relationship”: he pledges, “I’ll do everything in my power to make sure this growth is a partnership. And I absolutely believe that is possible.” Alan Thomas, on the other hand, flatly rejects this possibility: he sees the University as a party in an “overarching plan” to buy up property along the lakefront and, in collusion with major developers, “to turn the whole South Side white.” The solution, he insists, is “a concerted effort” amongst tenant associations and other community organizations to help South Side tenants own their buildings.

The Woodlawn Wonder might agree with him on this point, since she considers herself “a big fan of affordable home ownership.” However, she regards gentrification as “not necessarily a bad thing,” especially in light of the fact that Woodlawn has long been “seemingly isolated socially and economically,” with an enduring lack of supermarkets, dry cleaners, and other retail. Likewise, Mattie Butler acknowledges that gentrification has the potential to be a positive force, yet “too often the outside market comes in and has no compunction about poor people–they don’t want to see poor people at all.” It is possible to gentrify in a way that includes poor people, she says, “but it’s harder to do. People don’t want to spend the time or the money.”

The Meadville Lombard Theological School is set to become the first UofC affiliate to move south into Woodlawn when it gives up its Hyde Park location for a larger area south of the Midway; this fall, it will include community service in its ministerial students’ curriculum. Though its aims may differ markedly from those of the University, the move is sure to further dissolve the 61st Street line that currently divides campus from community. This begs the question: will the line lose its symbolic meaning–in terms of mistrust and fear–or will it simply move further south with University construction? Malunda predicts that the current 61st Street construction will “give students and the community an opportunity for much more interaction.” As Goode points out, there are already a wide variety of ways for students to get involved in the surrounding neighborhood, from working with the Neighborhood Schools Program to attending Art in Action. But there are still those students the Woodlawn Wonder has seen fall asleep on the 6 bus who wake up in terror when they realize they have “passed 57th Street.” There are still the “half” Dessie Williams describes, who “seem like they try to ignore me, like I’m not there–like I’m invisible.” In spite of this, alliances between students and Woodlawn residents are growing–often in opposition to the University itself. Uniting behind the Woodlawn Collaborative or the campaign to save Grove Parc, it is they–not extended police patrols, or even detailed PowerPoint presentations–who are fulfilling Travis’s hope: “I want to think that something can happen so that one is not afraid of the other.”

Photos by Lisa Bang

1 comment for “Crossing the Line: After forty years honoring 61st Street as its border with Woodlawn, the University of Chicago is positioning itself to move farther south

  1. Michael Hogue
    June 8, 2008 at 11:44 am

    Robin Peterson,

    As a professor at Meadville Lombard Theological School and a Woodlawn resident, I want to thank you for writing this important article summarizing the history and present developments of the relationships between the UC and Woodlawn community.

    Mike Hogue

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