Woodlawn & Washington Park

Temple Shipley

The communities known as Washington Park and Woodlawn, in many ways, are symbols of Chicago’s South Side. Anchored by the park itself, Washington Park was once a large blue collar community made up of workers from the nearby stockyards and steel mills.  Out of those homes came some of Chicago’s most distinctive cultural contributions–Garfield Boulevard was one of the city’s jazz epicenters from the 20s to the 50s, as was 63rd Street in the 60s. Yet the neighborhoods were also forced to grapple with the full brunt of forces much beyond their control. With the onset  of deindustrialization and decreasing opportunity people began to leave, and kept leaving. Today, Washington Park has only 25 percent of the population it had in 1960.

For some, the campaign to bring the 2016 Olympics to Chicago brought hope that the two neighborhoods would be reborn. The Olympic Stadium was to be built in Washington Park, and the surrounding area would be a focal point for subsequent development. Others expressed concern for unchecked gentrification and worried about the city of Chicago’s track record with large projects and the promises of jobs that follow them. Yet the bid failed–the area today looks like many other South Side neighborhoods, with some beautiful housing and unique retail scattered amongst foreclosed properties and empty lots.

While Usain Bolt will not be declaring victory in Washington Park in 2016, some change may be on the horizon. In addition to University of Chicago-lead redevelopment projects and community engagement programs, including the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts and the Washington Park Arts Incubator, Garfield Boulevard has been slated as a possible corridor for the new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) that’s being piloted on Jeffrey Boulevard. The DuSable Museum of African American History on the park’s eastern boundary is in the midst of an expansion to double their space. Questions remain whether Washington Park and Woodlawn residents have much power over the way their community changes and develops–currently the University of Chicago, as well as faith-based and business stakeholders in the neighborhood seem to dictate the neighborhood’s development. Yet there’s still reason to be optimistic that these neighborhoods are making a comeback.

Best Vaudville You’ll Never See
Willard Theatre
The Willard Theatre used to stand high at 51st and Calumet, a thousand-seat home for movies, jazz, and vaudeville. Among the acts that performed there were “Englewood’s Favorite” Leila Shaw, and Chico Marx with family friend Arthur Gordon in a 1911 vaudeville act entitled “Marx and Gordini.” The Marx Brothers lived at 4512 Grand Blvd. (now King Dr.) from 1912 to 1917. The front of the Willard Theater was torn down, but a space that may be the old theater  can be seen from the elevated Green Line station across the street. The building is now a center that helps direct people to resources for alcohol and substance abuse. 340 E. 51st St. (Teddy Kent)

Best Bread Pudding
Miss Lee’s Good Food
Many dishes from Miss Lee’s could be featured in a Best Of issue, but the full-flavored, textured bread pudding stands out from the rest. A dish doesn’t get richness from being low calorie, and Miss Lee almost certainly employs a fair amount of butter to create the perfect balance of moisture and breadiness in her bread pudding. The menu features a number of different pies and cobblers, and while they may not all be available, Miss Lee is usually pulling a freshly baked dessert out of the oven. The purple-haired firecracker has enough love for everyone who walks through her doors, and while you’ll have to take the food to go, the homemade touch travels well. Specials rotate every day of the week, except her famous herbal chicken, available any time. It takes some nerve to put “Good Food” in the name of your restaurant, but in Miss Lee’s case, she backs it up. 203 E. Garfield Blvd. Tuesday-Sunday, 11am-8pm. (773)752-5253 (Teddy Kent)

Best Spot for New Chicago Rap
64th and Ellis, 64th and King
The “East Side” is the new epicenter of rap for Chicago, and East Side rap is beginning to dictate the sound of rap nationally.  Rappers are referring to the area on the South Side east of State Street as the East Side, and rappers like King Louie (from Dro City, which is centered in Woodlawn) and the controversial Chief Keef (who stays with his grandmother in Washington Park) are gaining the attention of Soulja Boy, Wiz Khalifa, and Kanye West. The raw, street-influenced beat has a characteristic bounce to it and is easy for others to put their stamp onto (thus, Kanye rediscovering his Chicago roots on a remix of Chief Keef’s “I Don’t Like” with Big Sean, Jadakiss, and pusha T). Word spread through CPS through local DJs and YouTube videos on cell phones, and now for the first time since Twista, Crucial Conflict, and Do or Die in the mid-90s, “Chicago rap” has a voice again. (Teddy Kent)

Best Place to Hear Musical Talent
KLEO Center
Between the South Side Free Music Program and the open mic nights on Fridays (known as “Friday Night Live”), this after school center on Garfield Boulevard is oozing with young musical creativity that harkens back to the neighborhood’s jazz past. The South Side Free Music Program is run by University of Chicago students, who share their musical skills and knowledge with South Side students at KLEO as well as at Sexton Elementary in Woodlawn and the University’s Goodspeed Hall. High schoolers and twenty somethings comprise most of the audience at Friday Night Live, and the performances showcase both heavy hip-hop beats and flow from up-and-coming South Siders as well as romantic R&B. The emcee, Tobias Pitman, is as entertaining and animated as hosts come, and his often improvised performances combine the swagger of Chris Brown with the soulfulness of Trey Songz. 119 E. Garfield Blvd. (773)363-6941. kleocenter.org (Teddy Kent)