Because we are

It was easy to tell, just by gauging the ambiance of the congested atrium, how things had been going since last year’s First Annual Woodlawn Community Summit. The lambent morning’s beams washed over the crowd that had gathered to develop a “blueprint for [the neighborhood’s] success.” To my left, a middle-aged woman with at least a dozen ivory hoop-earrings was manically penning something about urban agriculture; to my right, a young alderman, a police commander, and a mayoral ambassador–Shaquille O’Neil lookalike–were swapping business cards. The volume and diversity of the crowd alone were enough to justify the distinct impression that what was only recently imagined as a grassroots campaign to take back the streets had finally stepped out of the house.

The theme of the Summit seemed to be community responsibility and ownership for a neighborhood that badly needs it. Taking cues from  similar neighborhoods across the country, Woodlawn’s public leaders realized that, as Ald. Freddrenna Lyle put it, “business as usual is no longer going to cut it…[and] government can’t do it alone.” Roundtable discussions led by aldermen and local activists detailed new efforts to promote “creative solutions” by inspiring informal leadership–everything from education to crime prevention to neighborhood beauty.

However, the community’s deeper problems cannot be listed so discretely. Thomas Trotter, the new principal at Hyde Park High School, eagerly emphasized in his presentation the role of the South Side public school as not only a place to educate local kids, but also, and perhaps more crucially, a consistent safe-zone for young people who live in gang turf. In this way, making school a more attractive avenue for students can reduce crime, which is one of the chief antagonists responsible for Chicago’s notorious educational achievement gap.

While some of the speakers and organizational leaders in attendance–Rudy Nimocks, for example, former chief of the University of Chicago Police Department–remember well the South Side’s heyday, everyone seemed quite confident that Woodlawn’s best times are yet to come. Vance Henry, speaking on behalf of the Mayor’s office, reminisced about the times when the neighborhood matriarch–more precisely, his grandmother–was all the muscle you needed on the streets of Woodlawn. Calling on everyone to remember, or at least imagine, such times, he stepped down with an African proverb that could easily become Woodlawn’s new motto: “I am, because we are.”