About ten years ago, Maya Hodari says, she noticed an uptick in burglaries on her block, 65th Street and Drexel Avenue. In response, she and several other people living on her street formed a neighbors’ association, which began a series of projects—beautification, Clean and Green days, homeownership promotion—in an attempt to change the street for the better. One product of the group’s work with other Woodlawn residents was the Woodlawn Community Summit, an annual one-day neighborhood gathering entering its tenth year.
Last year, Hodari and her neighbors heard about Alderman Willie Cochran and his “issues,” as she tactfully puts it. (Cochran has been indicted by federal prosecutors on corruption charges. He recently rejected a plea bargain in his trial.) “We heard about a few people that were interested in the seat who really hadn’t been trying to do any work, and didn’t understand the dynamics on the ground, or what it took for us to even accomplish the little bit that we have,” she said. So she decided to run for alderman.
Apart from her neighborhood organizing, Hodari has worked for the Chicago Housing Authority, most recently on redevelopment projects that were part of the agency’s controversial Plan for Transformation, and sits on the board of the South East Chicago Commission, the Hyde Park economic development nonprofit that severed most of its ties from the University of Chicago in 2017. She’s also gotten support from 17th Ward Alderman David Moore, who endorsed her this past weekend.
What do you think the most important issues facing the ward are?
In my mind, it’s opportunity. I think about what I’ve experienced in the 20th Ward since I moved in about fifteen years ago, and I compare that to my life on the South Side growing up. And so to me that’s the huge disparity—it’s a very different landscape. I can’t help but go back to my childhood and all that we were able to explore. My son is not able to have that experience, and that is of deep concern to me.
Why did you decide to run for alderman?
A group of our neighbors started thinking about it after we heard about what happened with Cochran and some of his issues. A number of us had been doing a whole lot of work trying to improve our neighborhood for quite a length of time, and we felt like we had begun to take pieces and build something. So we heard about a few people that were interested in the seat who really hadn’t been trying to do any work and didn’t understand the dynamics on the ground or what it took for us to even accomplish the little bit that we have. We thought it was very important for us to continue to have a voice in how our neighborhoods change and improve.
The work itself, is it just lobbying city departments and your alderman?
No, it’s doing beautification, Clean and Green. We felt it was very important to have a homeownership program, so it’s sharing information and it’s actually trying to get very visible things to demonstrate that there are neighbors here that really care about this community. We started having forums and invited out the Cook County Board of Review to share information about how, not only can you appeal property taxes through the Cook County Assessor’s office, but your next stab at it is the Cook County Board of Review. It’s staying grassroots and trying to do tangible things to help everyday families.
What kind of policies do you have in place to promote safety? What’s your policing policy?
I want better police engagement. I think that is so critical: having consistent police that are sensitive to the community. When I first started working with neighbors, I think that’s what all of us wanted, to have a better connection to the officers that were gonna patrol our community. For me it’s the beat meetings, but it’s also having those activities [where] we try to [bring] neighbors or police officers or anybody who’s interested in our South Side communities together.
Do you have an opinion about the University of Chicago Police Department’s coverage zone that encompasses Woodlawn?
We tried to get them to push past 65th Street, to go all the way to Marquette and even to try to broaden it beyond Cottage Grove. I still think as long as they do have a presence in a portion of the 20th Ward that relationship is important. We have [Mammie Till Park] on 64th and Ellis that was a hotspot for years. And this year, some of the neighbors formed a park advisory council and began really activating it. One of the things that they did was to pull the University of Chicago police and they did a basketball game, where they were actually paired with police.
What’s your housing policy?
I’m all about mixed income development. I think that it’s something that is very important, especially at this point in time. When you look at the out-migration in 20th Ward neighborhoods since the sixties, there’s been consistent population loss. I think that there is a huge opportunity to change and improve the landscape, which has diminished to a whole lot of blight and vacancy. I think that there are a lot of jewels that exist within the 20th Ward, and the people are amazing.
So when I think about the path forward, I think about it being in a mixed-income context. I do think that Chicago is a very segregated city and we need to really start to forge a new path in that way too. So for me it’s through mixed-income development, really having round tables and a whole lot of community visioning, and neighbors have a voice in how we move forward. When I think about myself in a role as alderman, I don’t want to be the one who says, “This is what Maya dictates.” I want there to be a community board. So I love the community preservation council that exists within North Kenwood Oakland. I like the idea that there’s an advisory council in every neighborhood.
I think that we have to all be very intentional about what goes where right now. A plan should dictate that. It shouldn’t cluster for-sale [property] in any one area, or on any specific blocks. It really needs to ripple through the entire 20th Ward and look at ways to incentivize not only development in Woodlawn, but beyond King Drive. What do we need to do on 63rd and State that’s gonna take the Obama Presidential Center visitors all the way into the South Side? How can we have people coming off the Dan Ryan Expressway and working this way instead of just coming through Lake Shore Drive? [So] people are like, while I’m on the South Side, guess what, I heard about this artist loft, this amazing thing on 51st Street that is a jewel nobody knows about. How do we create these additional places where people can explore once they come to the South Side of Chicago?
Do you like the proposed Community Benefits Agreements?
If I can be a party to it. I really want to be sensitive about who has a voice. You know, I think that in my experience—just being very active, for years—neighbors want to have a voice in the decision-making and they don’t want an agency to be their spokesman. They really want to have a voice in the decision making, about what happens in our community area.
So here’s my sensitivity. I’m all about community benefit. I definitely think it’s an important thing. I like the community goals. My sensitivity is: who is the party that holds the Obama Presidential Center or the city accountable? That’s my whole sensitivity, and I’m saying as long as I’ve worked in the community ordinary people want to have a role in the decision making, not have someone else say “Yes, they achieved the goal” or “No, they didn’t.”
[Ed. note: Hodari has consistently publicly supported the Obama Center and criticized those calling for a CBA over the past four years, largely without disclosing her connections to the University of Chicago—the Center’s sponsor for its location in Jackson Park—or the CHA. At a November aldermanic forum, she said she would not commit to a CBA. At another forum later that month, she said she would support it.]
The 20th Ward has three more neighborhoods in it apart from Woodlawn. Do you feel that historically those parts of the ward have been more neglected than Woodlawn? Are there things you would do specifically to reach out to those neighborhoods?
I don’t think they’ve gotten attention. And so, when I think about the 20th Ward, my focus is not just on the Obama Presidential Center and the transformation. It’s what can happen on 63rd and State—we need something transformative on that corner. What can happen on 47th and Halsted where you have a blighted and abandoned commercial site. How can we do something across from [it] that incites development? That brings more people into New City, and takes them down 47th Street into Back of the Yards. I mean, at the end of the day we’ve seen a whole lot of out-migration. So we salute and celebrate the South Side. How can we bring our neighbors back home?
Aaron Gettinger is a staff writer at the Hyde Park Herald