The Future of Woodlawn’s Housing

Future of Woodlawn's Housing illustration

by Grete Grubelich


It’s an irresistible, seductive vision of Woodlawn’s future–a neighborhood reinventing itself anew as a place safe, immaculate, comfortable, and nothing like it was for the past couple of decades. No longer will neighborhood meetings be dominated by heated arguments over how to stem depopulation, crime, and failing schools. The community’s elders will not need to yearn for the days when 63rd Street had shops all the way down to the lake, when the Green Line ran all the way to Jackson Park; days when the Woodlawn Organization heroically beat back the University’s southward encroachment or when children could grow up in a neighborhood that wasn’t filled with vacant lots. Giving a future to an entire neighborhood is a tall order for any edifice, let alone a couple of mid-sized apartments, but this particular version of housing has reignited passions while also polarizing a community. One camp among them sincerely believes that the heart of Woodlawn is permanently changed for the better because of these apartments, while the other wants nothing more than to see all this supposed progress shut down.

On a clear Friday morning, Bill Eager, the Chicago director of the Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH), invites me into his car for a tour of the neighborhood. Eager is the mild-mannered public face and the Chicago leader of a national organization that is responsible for a radical overhaul of a cherished stretch of the neighborhood. Under his guidance, a three block area starting from the furthest western reaches of the Midway Plaisance southward to the commercial heart of Woodlawn at the 63rd and Cottage Grove Green Line stop will become the poster child of a new kind of subsidized housing. Middle-aged, white, and with a nervous energy that came alive when he pointed out a crumbling building that he saw potential in, he was my gateway through the looking glass and into a world where Woodlawn was a neighborhood that could hope once again.

Pulling away from the pavement and onto Cottage Grove Ave., it seems nearly impossible not to fall for the changes he has wrought as a master builder working in miniature. On one side of the street are the pastel orange and dark red exteriors, new playgrounds, the sprawling spaces perfect for a toddler’s birthday party, pristine laundry rooms, and card-controlled security systems of POAH’s Woodlawn Center South apartments. First opened in 2011, the 67-unit complex was only the first phase of a great change in the way residential Woodlawn is going to be, as POAH embarks on residential redevelopment that Eager hopes will “change the face of Cottage Grove”.

Headquartered in Boston, POAH was tasked in 2008 with taking charge of the failing Grove Parc complex along Cottage Grove, demolishing it and building in its place the forward-looking structure that stands there today. Up next for them is Woodlawn Center North, a construction site currently festooned with scaffolding touting the stringent environmental standards obeyed by this particular crew, each recycling sign and LEED banner a reminder of their impeccable green credentials. Tentatively slated to open in September 2013, Woodlawn Center North is designed to closely resemble its cousin a block south. It is also a part of the Choice Neighborhoods initiative, a federal program which has the express intention of making depressed areas like Woodlawn an attractive place to live. Before that happens, though, POAH will first have to deal with the last lingering reminders of the past.

Technically, the remnants of Grove Parc lie just across the street on 62nd and Cottage Grove, but it now looks so different next to these modern visions of subsidized housing that it might as well be in a completely different world. Shabby and brown, faded signs out front state the now defunct number of the housing manager’s office, a parking lot of cracked-up tar. These portions of Grove Parc that have thus far been spared the sledgehammer have seen better days. It was once an architectural behemoth that housed upwards of a thousand people, dominating this stretch of Cottage Grove for the better part of three decades. In the mid-2000s, Grove Parc was threatened with foreclosure by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) thanks to years of physical and financial neglect.

All that remains of it now are about five squat buildings, each completely anachronistic next to its modern neighbor. In the light of day, its dirty walls seem like the last vestiges of a poverty-stricken past, its dark corners where many hid unsighted from the busy main thoroughfare the last redoubt of senseless crime and violence. Few tears will be shed, one expects, when Grove Parc finally meets its end later this year.

Yet, not everyone sees it this way, and there are significant pockets of opposition to POAH’s intervention in the community. A disparate group of homeowners and residents who describe this construction as an imposition on the way their neighborhood is run lacks a coherent leadership, but is still no less vocal in their desire to see the end of subsidized housing in the neighborhood. A laundry list of complaints about POAH crop up time and again when talking to this politically-connected group of residents, a good proportion of whom work in white-collar occupations and comprise a middle class that anyone lacking nuance may be surprised to find in Woodlawn.

A local resident who best embodies these criticisms, Corey Howard, is especially vehement in his desire to see POAH’s development of the Cottage Grove corridor halted. A man of strong libertarian leanings, he decries the huge amount of Section 8 housing in Woodlawn: “There’s just too much multi-family housing–what we need are people with a steady income and a job in this neighborhood.” Reliable figures are impossible to come by–he states that 54% of Woodlawn residents live in subsidized housing, while James Poole, another statesman of the community,  approximates it at closer to 25%.

Regardless, the broad consensus is that this proportion is far too high, and that the great preponderance of the poor and jobless in Woodlawn is holding the neighborhood back. How were they meant to solve the intractable problems of crime and poor economic prospects if organizations like POAH built more housing that catered to those that needed vouchers? To Howard, Bill Eager and his organization are doing little more than concentrating poverty: “He won’t create a utopia, he’ll create a housing project. If you think you’re building a utopia, why aren’t you moving your families to this neighborhood?”


James Poole (Photo by Ethan Tate)

James Poole (Photo by Ethan Tate)


This doesn’t necessarily constitute a great gulf between POAH on the one hand and these homeowners on the other, though. Even Bill Eager and POAH go to pains to point out that their organization had no intention of expanding the amount of Section 8 recipients, with the number of voucher recipients allowed capped at a level that was already living in Grove Parc before the process of its demolition began in 2008. Built into his objection to Howard’s characterization of his organization’s efforts was an insistence that they did intend to increase the level of homeownership in the neighborhood. To that end, all of Woodlawn Center is designed to be a “healthy” mix of subsidized and market-rate tenants, and POAH is also actively buying up individual distressed properties, rehabilitating them and selling them off to reliable homeowners.

Conspicuously missing in these arguments, however, is any sense of a deeper concern about where those least able to absorb the shocks to the housing system would go if the pool of housing available to Section 8 recipients were tightly capped, or even allowed to further dwindle. The stock of housing currently available to voucher holders is approximately 70 percent of what it was in 2000, and this broad agreement that increasing the number of Section 8 homes would represent an unambiguous negative for the neighborhood is not a good portent for those who would want to see the introduction of more affordable housing in Woodlawn.

In Cook County, the 2013 income limit to qualify for the most extensive Section 8 assistance for a four-person family is $36,800. In Woodlawn, the median household income currently stands at $27,413, and with that in mind it seems unsurprising that there should be so many residents who should rely on external assistance to keep a roof over their head. Considering these figures, it will take a huge income increase in the neighborhood and even more development before subsidized housing is to disappear for good.

Opposition to this new development isn’t purely financial, of course, and present too is a sentimental attachment to the way Woodlawn once was, memories of the past that inform a rejection of the promises on offer by organizations like POAH. James Poole is a lifelong resident of Woodlawn, a self-termed citywide activist and a man with a seemingly endless supply of stories of the neighborhood. He lived in Grove Parc as a teenager in the 1980s, back when it was still called Woodlawn Gardens. As he remembers it, though, 30 years and a couple of name changes haven’t actually changed a great deal in the way these buildings looked.

Walking outside of his now vacant old apartment at the corner of 61st and Evans, he tells me that it looks just about the same as when  a fire forced his family out of the complex in the early 80s. What has changed is the amount of people currently living on the block–once a hotbed of action, families and no hint of vacancies, today this old apartment of his is boarded up with plywood, and he doesn’t think anyone’s lived there for a while. This is hardly an isolated phenomenon. Pointing to an empty building next door, now with doors boarded up and long abandoned, he wistfully remembers the halcyon days of his childhood: “This right here used to the be the community center. We used to come down here every day after school, all us kids in the neighborhood.”

He remembers too the sporting life, when Grove Parc used to be a haven for families and when it was a good place for children to grow up. Way back when, kids living in Grove Parc and the housing projects that dotted Woodlawn and Chatham participated in the Champlain Street Hockey League. “I knew all the kids. We had a neighborhood baseball team, we had a neighborhood street hockey league. I used to play for Champlain, and we’d play the 220s from the projects down at 63rd and Prairie.”

He continues to reminisce. “Back then, we had no vacant lots, and it was a real neighborhood. People knew each other, everyone went to the same grammar school over at [Austin O.] Sexton, everyone grew up together. They kept down gang activity, we broke bread together. Nearly all the stores were black-owned. This was maybe in 1980, when Woodlawn was at its peak. I was 20, and it really was a huge difference to what it is now.”

Later in the day, there’s a trip in his car, too, and it could scarcely have been more different to the one taken with Bill Eager just two days earlier. There’s an uncanny mirroring at work. Just as the man in charge of POAH was given to optimism about the neighborhood, excitedly pointing out a “gorgeous building” close to 62nd and Eberhart with stone exterior, ornate columns, immaculate carving above the door, and making a mental note to buy it, rehabilitate it and sell it out, Poole is moved to point out a rotten and shuttered street corner on the very same block. “You know, right there was McGowan’s bar. He provided jukeboxes and video game machines for the whole Chicagoland area.”

Half an hour in his car means being treated to an incessant list of businesses, mostly black-owned, that once were but are no more. The array is bewildering–a Church’s Chicken, the neighborhood’s biggest hardware store on a vacant lot with nothing more than weeds and an old hollowed-out couch today, a big Democratic office right across the street. An army surplus store, multiple instances of “I knew that guy who owned that building over there.” As we drive by deserted block after deserted block, past a huge house of operatic scale that collapsed earlier in the week into a mess of beams and shattered windows, it requires serious mental gymnastics to see these streets the way Poole does. He remembers how Woodlawn really was a place to be, but that neighborhood has now long vanished and he wistfully admits that he thinks it’s never coming back again.

He’s probably right. If POAH and Bill Eager have their way and carry out the grand plans they have for West Woodlawn, the neighborhood of James Poole and others old enough to remember Woodlawn in the 1980s will likely forever be lost. POAH has set its sights beyond merely building affordable housing, and potentially in the works is a hotel at 61st and Cottage Grove. Designed to serve visitors to the hospital, eager parents of University students, and academic luminaries here for a conference or a talk, it would go a long way in turning the gaze of this stretch of Cottage Grove northward, further bringing it into the orbit of Hyde Park and the University. Even if this particular idea doesn’t come to fruition, it’s hard to see how POAH doesn’t become the dominant player in this stretch of Woodlawn thanks to the great organizational impetus pushing them forward. With support coming from HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, Mayor Emanuel and Ald. Willie Cochran, these men will have to hope that POAH’s great hopes for Woodlawn truly do revitalize the community.

Yet, no matter how strenuously each side tries to make good on their desire to change Woodlawn in a specific way, it will likely prove impossible to micromanage something as formless as a neighborhood. Corey Howard isn’t going to realize his dream of Woodlawn as a homeowner’s paradise, James Poole isn’t going to excavate the neighborhood of his youth from a buried time capsule, and even a corporation like POAH cannot impose its will on a street, set down housing, retail stores, a hotel, and in one fell swoop change the fortunes of a neighborhood for the better. It won’t be for a lack of trying that each of their ideal Woodlawns will never exist, but with more than 20,000 souls tightly packed into a neighborhood huddled by a great lake, the strength of each individual desire to mold their homes, their streets and their little slices of the world in a way that is just right for them will mean that Woodlawn, like any neighborhood, will prove impervious to being packaged by a single agenda.