Prophets of Woodlawn

Rudy Nimocks is a pear-shaped man with a pedagogically dapper bowtie and a tough scowl. But as he rises, and the din of the crowded atrium resolves into an attentive silence, a jovial grin melts his hardened visage. He’s clearly pleased by the turnout. “Before we get into the here and now,” he coos, “I want to tell you all a story about a neighborhood called Woodlawn.”

Nimocks, former chief of the University of Chicago Police Department and current Director of Community Partnerships, has lived in Woodlawn since the early 1950s. Speaking to a rapt audience of both University students and neighborhood advocates last Thursday as panelist for the public forum called “What’s Up In Woodlawn?,” he gave an account of a Woodlawn that is difficult to picture today. The neighborhood, which once laid claim to an affluent population of over 90,000, started to go downhill in the 1960s with the proliferation of narcotics and gang violence, he explained. Today, Woodlawn has just over 20,000 residents.

Nimocks, however, is confident in the future of Woodlawn. “Woodlawn is coming back!” he insisted. And he’s certainly not the only one who thinks so. Other optimistic panelists included Arvin Strange, the Program Director of the New Communities Program in Woodlawn, and fellow former Chicago police officer and current alderman Willie Cochran (20th).

Two issues emerged as the group’s predominant concerns: education and affordable housing. Speaking most to the former issue was Latesha Dickerson, who entreated attendees to volunteer as tutors for an organization called the Woodlawn Children’s Promise Zone. “If you’re not making an investment in young people,” she argued, “you’re not investing in the future.”

Questions closed the evening, and, the discussion settled on relations between Woodlawn and the University. Nimocks, who had been silent for nearly an hour, stood up. “We need to be a part of, rather than apart from the Woodlawn community,” he urged, to a final peal of applause.