The Bridge: The Woodlawn Collaborative connects students in Hyde Park with their neighbors to the south

First Presbyterian Church of Chicago, the likely future site of the Woodlawn Collective; Sam Bowman

First Presbyterian Church of Chicago, the likely future site of the Woodlawn Collective; Sam Bowman

Huge, empty fields spread across the Midway at 59th Street and the wide expanse of Washington Park borders Cottage Grove Avenue to the west. Few University of Chicago students, buildings, or student-targeted shops are spotted past these buffer zones, and fewer still go south of the traditional boundary of 61st Street. Private property stickers are plastered on the doors of University buildings, and a private police force is ready to enforce them. In Hyde Park, one-way streets and an island-like apartment complex in the middle of 55th Street complicate through traffic, setting this area apart from the rest of Chicago’s grid. There are no physical walls; these borders between the University of Chicago and the communities around it are soft and sometimes porous, but they effectively divide the geography of the South Side into separate University and community spaces. The Woodlawn Collaborative wants to change this._
Plans are being finalized, funding has been approved, and it seems likely that in the coming weeks, the Woodlawn Collaborative will open a shared community space for activism, education, and cultural projects in an unused part of First Presbyterian Church at 64th Street and Kimbark Avenue, four blocks south of the Midway. Numerous proposals for use of the space have been submitted from diverse groups–from dance troupes and community theaters to tutoring programs, literacy groups and tenants’ rights organizations–and board members will soon be elected to manage the Collaborative. If successful, the project will be the South Side’s first independently-run space shared between students and community groups.
Sitting in the center of the Reynolds Club, the main student hub at the University of Chicago, University student and Collaborative member Mike Schlegelmilch motions to the space around him and describes a different one: “Imagine a place as densely populated as the Reynolds Club, but imagine it outside of the University borders, where people get together independently and work on projects, learn from each other, teach each other.” The comparison is effective; at the heart of the Collaborative is an effort to reimagine how University space is defined. “This will get students outside of the bubble and it will give community members access to resources at this university they would not have had before. Right now student groups feel sort of atomized and separated, and it’s no secret that relations between the University and the community could be much better,” Schlegelmilch says. It is an ambitious project and the expectations are high. “I could see this project transforming what it means to be a part of the university community.”
In various forms and under different names, efforts to establish a collaborative space have existed for years. Ideas were first proposed four years ago when the student organization Naked Theater requested funding to start a storefront theater for performance and activism on University property in Harper Court. The proposal was turned down and Naked Theater soon dissolved, but its former members kept trying to set up an independent student space. After several unsuccessful petitions for money from Associate Dean of the College Bill Michel and the University Community Service Center (UCSC), the group was given $1,000 seed money. Fourth-year student Greg Gabrellas has been working on the project since his first year and remembers the initial grant. “We felt we were being bought off. But a thousand dollars is a thousand dollars.” After holding an open discussion, the group used the money to sponsor an open community fair on the Midway. Hundreds of people from both north and south converged on the traditional University border for live art, a bake sale, a flea market, and discussions. The event was a success. “We found that there was demand from community organizations and artists to work with students and we found that that coincided with the University’s desire to improve its reputation among South Side residents,” Gabrellas says.
With the momentum of success, the group submitted another proposal, this time including service and community involvement as key elements. They asked for a 500-square-foot space that could be accessed 24 hours a day. Gabrellas remembers that moment as a breakthrough for the Collaborative. “Bill Michel looked at the proposal and said, ‘You’re going to need more space. How about 5,000 square feet?’ I knew he saw the potential.” Another important success came when First Presbyterian, which had previously worked with student groups in hosting the annual Art in Action festival, first expressed interest in the project. But after an initial moment of enthusiasm came a long period of waiting. The University cited liability issues related to insurance, and there was some controversy among student groups about expanding further into the South Side. When classes at the UofC began last fall, Gabrellas made a final effort and got his first firm answer: the University offered $7,500, dependent on conditions that included security, insurance, and evaluation procedures. A mass meeting was held, and proposals began coming in from interested groups. A grant from the Uncommon Fund provided an additional $10,000, Student Government eventually awarded $8,000, and UCSC director Wallace Goode independently applied to other sources of funding that are still under consideration. A meeting will be held this week with representatives from First Presbyterian, and for the first time an opening date is under consideration. “It seems very likely that the space will be functional by third week of this [academic] quarter,” says Schlegelmilch.
Walking through the worn and empty school facilities attached to First Presbyterian, the interim pastor Reverend James Roghair describes the church’s perspective. “This idea of the collaboration is nothing new. This church has been involved in community outreach for a long time.” Founded in 1833, before the city of Chicago’s incorporation, the church moved to its current location in 1922 in what was then an affluent white neighborhood. With the immigration of black families to the neighborhood in the 1950s, many congregations relocated, but First Presbyterian made a conscious decision to integrate. During the neighborhood’s worst years in the 1970s, the church worked actively with the gangs that were in control of the neighborhood and lost several members as a result. Standing in the pews of the church’s giant sanctuary, Roghair points to chipped spots of clear glass in the otherwise beautifully colored windows. “All of that was done in one afternoon of violence in the ‘70s.” First Presbyterian was also home to the city’s first Head Start educational program, which began in the 1960s and came to define much of the church space.
In recent years, the church’s congregation has shrunk drastically. The official number is around 140, but an average Sunday service attendance is about 30. The church still plays a strong role in the neighborhood, housing an urban agricultural program, a community policing group, a hot lunch program, and a food pantry that distributes more than a hundred bags of food per week. But that role is changing with the neighborhood. In 2007, the declining youth population forced the closing of the Head Start program. “At this point the church is gray, and the involvement of youth is important–not only for our survival, but for our meaning.”

It is in the space left vacant by the Head Start program that the Woodlawn Collaborative is to be established. There are several large classrooms, a lounge, and a large gymnasium, the last of which is currently closed because of the paint flaking from the ceiling. The rooms are old, and maintenance and accessibility may be an issue, but it has clear potential as a community space. “Even though this church is a small congregation, it sees itself as growing, and growing as this community grows,” says Roghair. With the potential of new relations between the University and the community, the reverend is hopeful. “It’s exciting to see them trying to be good neighbors. Of course, because of past antagonisms, that won’t sit well with everyone. But this is the beginning of a new day.” It’s a conviction that Gabrellas shares. “Some people may detest our presence there, but I think it’s our job to sway them.”

There is money, there is a building, and there are groups who want to use both of them to share ideas and resources in new ways. But will enough students choose to venture south of the Midway to create a meaningful place? Gabrellas understands the challenge better than anyone. “This project needs to show that this place is not by nature a cultural wasteland–it’s just that there are no institutions in place that will allow exciting production to take place.” With the new student dormitory at 61st Street and Ellis Avenue opening next fall, the University geography is shifting to the south. The Woodlawn Collaborative hopes this will carry over to students feeling comfortable spending time south of the Midway. So far, there are no definite arrangements for transportation, although UCSC vans will be available and there is talk of rerouting the University’s South Route shuttle in that direction. But while there are still serious obstacles to be dealt with, the idea of a creative space shared by a broader community has never been so close to becoming a physical reality. Sitting in the Reynolds Club, the current focal space of university life, Gabrellas is compelling as he says what he and the Collaborative’s supporters have been saying for years: “This can exist.”

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