It is no secret that Washington Park and Woodlawn have seen better days. Economic depression and consistently declining populations since the 1970s have led to collective downturn. Currently, the neighborhoods are caught in the crossroads of the lingering memory of a thriving local culture and middle class and the issue of how exactly revival can be effectively stoked. Two newly fashioned courses point to answers: one fostered by communal organizations of both neighborhoods, and the other led by the University of Chicago.
No matter what part of the city you’re coming from, getting to University Village/Little Italy isn’t difficult. Aside from the Pink and Blue line stops at UIC and the Medical District, more than eight bus routes snake through the neighborhood. While taking the 8 north up Halsted is the easiest way to bisect the neighborhood, you get an impromptu lesson in Chicago history if you take an east-west route. Driving west brings passengers near the Jane Addams Hull House, the site of the former ABLA homes, and the Original Al’s Italian Beef.
When Benyamin Macabee, owner of the only Black-owned art space in Chicago between Hyde Park and the Indiana state line, talks of South Shore, there is a pride in his eyes that doesn’t falter, a steadfastness that mirrors South Shore’s own spirit. “The work I’m doing, the work we’re all doing here, is the work of the universe.” Here, between 67th and 83rd Street, the road to community development is music-, art-, food-, and soul-filled, as evidenced by its unusual smorgasbord of claims to fame: the largest group of Black sailors in the country, a comic book collective called Team Visual X, soulful vegan, vegetarian, Chinese, Mexican joints, a huge public golf course, public and private beaches, weekly jazz concerts and musical jam sessions, are all located in the neighborhood.
It’s a bright Saturday morning in the South Loop. The men in suits who rush off during the weekdays to Chicago’s bustling Loop have retired their formal wear and turned to the comfort of colorful Hawaiian shirts. Couples, both young and old, are out strolling through the neighborhood before the humidity settles on the city. The gentle rustle of trees mixed with chirping birds and the occasional passing car creates a serene, urban lullaby. For residents of the South Loop, the neighborhood can feel like the city’s best-kept secret.
From their arrival in 1849 until George M. Pullman began to build his utopian Town of Pullman in 1880, the Dutch settled the Lake Calumet Region. To this day, these early settlers have left their impression on the area, and vice versa: an exhibit on Roseland is currently on display at the Eenigenburg Museum in the Netherlands commemorating those early settlement years.
I live right up here, on top of the bakery. I have been living here since 1973…well, since I opened the shop. I remember that I bought the bakery back in the seventies. In those days they were giving money away. That is to say, when I came to Pilsen back in the day from Mexico I met a man who talked to me about opening up my very own bakery. He said, “Come with us. You open the business, and we’ll provide the money.” It was hard to believe, having just come from Mexico, where at the time things like this were just not happening, but in Pilsen it was so easy. This neighborhood welcomed countrymen like me and gave us opportunities.
Little Village, bordering Pilsen, North Lawndale, and Cicero, is a neighborhood that comes with many a mythology, from the first port of call for many immigrants from Mexico and Central America to the oft-mentioned economic powerhouse that is 26th Street, with its blocks and blocks of quinceañera dress stores and botanicos. We interviewed some Chicagoans who call Little Village home about what makes the neighborhood tick.
Start with the University. You must, because its gravitational force–money, prestige, vision–is what constitutes Hyde-Park-as-such in the first place, gives it its distinctive topography and limits. Without the UofC, Hyde Park would long ago have dissolved into the surrounding South Side. And yet the University’s directive force only sculpts the neighborhood-scape to a certain extent. Into its crevices and blind spots, the South Side languidly but ineluctably flows, filling in available space, moving over when diverted, then back again.
I met Susan Garza, 10th Ward alderwoman, in her office on 106th and Ewing, an expansive space where staff answered emails and calls and walked in and out of a strategy meeting in a large improvised conference room in the back. Garza stood proudly over it all in the front, and every resident who walked by waved through the windows. Her comfort in this new office (she was elected only months ago) comes from having known the Far Southeast Side—loosely bounded by Indiana on the east and the Calumet River on the west and north, but described as nearly all of the 10th Ward by Garza—since birth. She left only for college, returning to raise her kids and carry on her father’s union striking tradition as a part of the Chicago Teacher’s Union. Her father’s campaign poster, “Ed Sadlowski: Steel Workers Strike Back,” hangs proudly at the entrance to her office, which she pointed out before telling me about the community she lives and works in.
This was a true blue collar community, and the steel mills just drove everything. We used to have nine steel mills just in this area, just in the 10th Ward, and with those mills came restaurants and stores, and there was a tavern on every corner that ran continually. It was constant, it was vibrant, it was exploding with life, and when the mills started to close, the community just lost hope.
My family was the third African-American family that moved into the community. I did experience the change, I did experience some of the racism that I endured as I was brought up in Englewood. I graduated from Henderson School in 1979, and I went to Gage Park High School, and you’ve probably heard about the racism, the riots there. Then I had my kids, then I went to Chicago State, where I obtained my Bachelor’s. So I’ve been working in Englewood a long time.