With the Obama Presidential Center proposed for Jackson Park, the University of Chicago’s continuing development along 61st Street, and a myriad of other projects large and small, residents are asking: what will Woodlawn become? This is the third article in a series investigating the past, present, and future of the neighborhood. Read the first here, and the second here.
On the morning of March 7, the Jewel-Osco at 61st Street and Cottage Grove is packed for its grand opening. A half-dozen greeters welcome each new customer, and another hands out roses to those leaving. Jewel’s cyclopean, gender-neutral mascot, JoJo, makes an appearance, as does 20th Ward Alderman Willie Cochran, who, a few days prior, announced he would plead guilty in his corruption trial and resign from his position on March 17.
But back to the opening: many of the store’s products are on sale through the weekend and, as company president Paul Gossett notes, there are items from over thirty local or minority vendors. “There was a movie that came out a few years ago about dreams, called Field of Dreams,” he says, adding that, earlier that morning, forty people had waited outside locked doors for the supermarket to open. “And it’s true—‘If you build it, they will come.’”
Delivered on a makeshift stage in front of the baked goods section and a backdrop that says “Welcome to Woodlawn,” Gossett’s short speech comes after a brisk performance from the South Shore Drill Team. He’s followed by others: an eighth-grader at MetroSquash, a local nonprofit; Margaret Brewer, a longtime resident; and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who touts his administration’s success in bringing grocery stores to neighborhoods across the South Side. “If you’re gonna call yourself a Chicagoland store, you have to be in every part of Chicago,” he says. “And all of you, you’ve got a grocery store. Shop here, will ya?”
After the event has, by all indications, ended—the dais with the microphone has been removed and Rahm has shuffled off to the next item on his agenda—Cochran steps to the front of the makeshift stage and begins speaking, his voice only a decibel or two louder than the chatter of the dispersing crowd. “Who is that?” one woman mutters. After a minute, someone mercifully hands him a microphone; as it turns out, he’s making a point about who deserves credit.
“This store is here because a plan was put in place and executed. Over thirty years ago, I started working with Bishop Brazier and his son Arthur Brazier to bring more programming and community involvement than ever before. I’m proud to be standing here today and saying we played a major role in bringing this here.”
Two blocks south of the Jewel, at the intersection of 63rd Street and Cottage Grove, things are quiet. People wait for buses and a loose chain of people, separated one from the other at a block’s length, stretches to the north, south, east, and west. They’re coming to ride downtown on the train, which shakes the elevated tracks over 63rd Street at even intervals.
On one corner stands Cosmo Beauty, its wide interior an array of makeup, wigs, and jewelry.
On another, an abandoned bank building, with one foot of water in its basement and a crumbling facade. Its back door has been propped open by scrappers.
On the third corner, there is a restaurant, Daley’s, that will soon open on one end of the ground floor of a new, colorful building. The rest of its frontage is vacant.
On the fourth corner, there is a low building with a small crowd standing outside; there’s almost always a man selling loose cigarettes from under his coat. Inside, there’s a currency exchange, a now-shuttered liquor store, and several other shops, including the old Daley’s. Hardly any of those still there will remain for long—the nonprofit that built the affordable housing development across the street has bought this building, too, and told most of the businesses to leave. Some owners, like the man who runs the currency exchange, wanted to stay. “They’re trying to modernize it,” he said of the intersection. “‘Gentrify’ is a word, but I don’t know if that’s what’s going on. I’d like to be a part of the improvement.” As it is, he’ll be moving out at the end of April.
The low building, and nearly every shop in it, will make way for a commercial development that will house new, mainstream businesses in a part of the city that has not, in the past, attracted the retail and amenities many of its residents want. If they succeed, the developers think that they will prove a theory of how investment can transform a neighborhood—a theory that dictates what can stay, what must go, and, importantly, who decides.
On a recent afternoon, Jeanne Clark, a community leader from West Woodlawn, drove her car slowly down St. Lawrence Avenue, craning her neck to get a view of the sturdy brick two-flats on either side. She pointed at the homes: one on the left, then on the right, then on the left again. “Airbnb,” she said with each jab. On the weekends, people drive in from Chatham and Beverly to walk the streets that they last lived on as children, before their parents decided to move out to more stable neighborhoods. They are back, looking for open house signs.
Running through this flurry of interest and investment, 63rd Street, Woodlawn’s primary commercial corridor, features several hair salons and beauty stores, a church, a currency exchange, a liquor store, two schools, a café, a sit-down restaurant, several clothing stores, and a public library, among a number of other institutions. While this may sound like a lot, consider that the street runs for a mile and a half through Woodlawn and is flanked by the homes of over 23,000 residents. With people buying up property and visitors lugging bags to Airbnb’s, why isn’t 63rd Street keeping up?
As Natalie Moore described in her book The South Side, the dominant retail options in many Black neighborhoods are fringe operations like liquor stores, gas stations, and fast food joints. In a 2006 study that popularized the term “food desert,” researcher Mari Gallagher showed that Black neighborhoods, no matter residents’ incomes, can have trouble attracting mainstream food retailers. Others have gone further, arguing that food deserts are a misnomer, and that we should instead be talking about “food apartheid”—the entire system of racial and economic inequality that exists around food access and ownership.
Some developers think the solution is to bring amenities to neighborhoods where they see a need. Leon Walker is the head of DL3 Realty, which he describes as dedicated to accelerating “neighborhood revitalization efforts” by bringing “high impact real estate projects” to “rising urban neighborhoods.” In 2016, DL3 opened Englewood Square, a commercial development that includes a Whole Foods. (The name of his company stands for Data Level Three, the highest level of data review for stock transactions.)
What Moore and Gallagher might call the effect of racism, Walker calls the “additional persistent risk premium” that investors attach to neighborhoods with the “toughest reputations.”
“Being a UofC business school graduate, I understand economic logic,” Walker told me one evening over sliders at a restaurant in the lobby of a downtown office tower. He often begins a thought by recounting the detailed history of a Chicago neighborhood (he remembers taking the B train from Stony Island to the Loop as a child) and then ends it in a flurry of real estate and investment terminology. In Walker’s view, the commercial aversion to some Black neighborhoods is so exaggerated that the return on an investment can never satisfy the perceived risk. Apart from market-rate capital, Walker says, the only other options are what he calls “charity” and public subsidy, which, in his opinion, “are never sustainable.”
But Walker thinks that private capital investment will flow where there’s available land, neighborhood leadership, investment from a large anchor institution, and development projects that change a neighborhood’s “brand,” as he puts it. You can find anchor institutions—in the case of Woodlawn, it’s the University of Chicago—and available land by looking at Google Maps. The neighborhood leadership is trickier: “In some communities it’s a pastor, in some it’s an alderman. Sometimes it’s a fire captain.” In Walker’s experience, it’s easy to think you are talking to the “community” when you’re actually not.
DL3 used private investment to build the Jewel at Cottage Grove and 61st Street, which he describes as the first full-service grocery store to open in Woodlawn in decades. (A number of smaller grocery stores have cycled through the neighborhood in recent years, and a small Aldi remains open on Cottage Grove near 67th Street.) Walker’s company also recently bought the 30,000 square foot Cosmo Beauty store on the northwest corner of 63rd and Cottage Grove. It plans to expand the structure to 40,000 square feet, redesign the interior, and lease it to the headquarters of a medical provider along with a retailer—maybe a coffee shop.
Other actors are also trying to change perceptions and attract business to Woodlawn. The Cook County Land Bank Authority, which owns the abandoned, battered, and flooded Washington Park Bank Building on the southwest corner of 63rd and Cottage, is reviewing development proposals for the site. It is the Land Bank’s first large-scale commercial acquisition.
Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH), a national nonprofit developer, has been planning similar retail spaces for several years. POAH recently demolished a strip mall kitty corner to the bank building in order to build Woodlawn Station, a housing development that contains fifty-five mixed-income units and 15,000 square feet of retail space. POAH also bought 22,000 square feet of retail space on the intersection’s southeast corner—the building where Daley’s, the liquor store, and the currency exchange are located—where it will construct a commercial development named Woodlawn Crossing.
DL3’s proposed medical facility, CCLBA’s bank building, and POAH’s Woodlawn Station and Crossing will transform the intersection and what Walker calls the “additional persistent risk premium” that hangs over it like the heavy “L” tracks. But, as Walker pointed out, it is easy to think you are talking to the “community” while planning these developments, when in fact you are only talking to a particular subset. What community is shaping these changes at 63rd and Cottage Grove?
If you want to do something in Woodlawn, there’s one group you must speak with: 1Woodlawn, headed by the Reverend Byron Brazier. Brazier, who is also the pastor of the 15,000-member Apostolic Church of God, describes 1Woodlawn as a “designation” of the Network of Woodlawn (which he also leads) that allows residents to gather, discuss, and, ultimately, control what their neighborhood looks like.
As far back as 2005, community leaders and a number of residents drafted a community plan that envisioned new commercial developments at the intersection of 63rd Street and Cottage Grove. By mid-2018, the various projects on each corner of 63rd and Cottage were underway. POAH, the CCLBA, DL3, and the UofC’s Office of Civic Engagement joined in a partnership they called the “four corners strategy” to coordinate them. They met regularly to share ideas and tenant lists, and hired the international architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to study the intersection’s potential. DL3 estimated that, in sum, the offices, eateries, and stores in the new developments could employ up to 500 people. 1Woodlawn email chains started to hum and fliers went up in bus shelters and shop windows announcing a meeting where the developers would explain their work.
At 6pm on August 23 of last year, hundreds of people assembled in the banquet hall in the Apostolic Church of God at the corner of 63rd Street and Dorchester Avenue. As the several dozen ten-tops filled up, the vast room echoed with friendly conversation. One woman who lived nearby said that she was looking to buy property in Woodlawn. Another man identified himself as a landlord.
The conversations ended when Brazier stepped forward, a speck at the front of the room to those in the furthest corners. Brazier’s relaxed fingers held a microphone, which projected his voice over the heads of the audience and through two pyramidal chandeliers. Behind him, a projected slide read “Vision – Self-Determination and Sustainability.” “If we don’t make sure the community is self-determined,” he told the audience, “someone else will make the decisions for us.”
Brazier invited Rob Rose, executive director of the CCLBA, to outline the Land Bank’s participatory development process. “It’s my third meeting here today, and I’m out of RFPs,” Rose told the audience, referring to the draft of a Request For Proposals that would guide the redevelopment of the bank building on Cottage Grove. “I didn’t know I had to bring 500.” A gentle, rolling laugh rose through the hall.
The Land Bank acquired the decrepit building in 2017, taking it over in a tax sale from Leon Finney, the longtime community organizer who, along with Brazier and Brazier’s father, has steered the direction of much of Woodlawn’s development for the past half century. After the acquisition, Rose wanted to set the tone for the development by involving neighbors in determining its ultimate use. He learned that Kendra Freeman, the director of community engagement at the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC), had a method to do just that.
The MPC’s Corridor Development Initiative consists of three public meetings, online polling, and a final report that the MPC’s website says allows developers to “understand local opportunities and values” and gives residents a “starting point for discussions with developers.” 1Woodlawn, with its resident base and organized sub-neighborhood leadership, could have been a one-stop-shop for Freeman to invite the community to the process. Instead, she twice convened an advisory council comprised of about fifteen people from several neighborhood groups: the Woodlawn Summit, Blacks in Green, Harris Park Advisory Council, West Woodlawn Coalition, Woodlawn Chamber of Commerce, Woodlawn Neighbors Association, and 1Woodlawn, as well as representatives from the Chicago Public Library, Cook County Land Bank Authority, and the Chicago Park District. The advisory council’s outreach efforts were supposed to draw a large cross-section of Woodlawn residents to the meetings.
At the first meeting in January of 2018, however, only twenty-six percent of attendees (about 100 people) lived in Woodlawn. (Thirty-one percent said they neither lived nor worked in Woodlawn.) Fifty-one percent of the respondents were homeowners—contrast that with the more than seventy percent of the community area’s residents that are actually renters.
Afterward, the advisory council took measures to involve more renters and local residents. They made calls, knocked on doors, and left fliers at the POAH property management office, the Strand, Parkway Gardens, local libraries, Park District buildings, and schools, with a special focus on locations west of Cottage Grove, which had a low showing at the first meeting.
At the second meeting, one week later, the proportion of respondents who were homeowners went up to sixty-eight percent.
Freeman said that the advisory council did a good job of reaching out to residents. She noted, however, that trying to get people to meetings by leaving fliers, or even door knocking, doesn’t always work when people have multiple commitments, multiple jobs, or childcare responsibilities. To revise Walker’s formula, then, the advisory council’s experience suggests that you might know exactly who in the community you need to talk to—and even where they live—but still be unable to reach them.
The Land Bank’s final RFP, based on the input of those meeting participants and online respondents that said they lived in Woodlawn, echoed Walker’s concept of risk premium. “The greatest impediment to sustain growth in the community,” it noted, “is the public perception that the area is not safe.” It calls for a “high-quality” development including “retail, commercial, medical services, and local and national tenants, that reflect the tastes, incomes, and needs of the immediate neighborhood and broader communities.” It states that this will “draw more people to this intersection, improve people’s perception of safety and…disrupt negative activities currently taking place.”
Several developers submitted proposals to an RFP committee created by the Land Bank, which then asked for more information on financing and floor plans from three finalists. DL3’s plan, submitted together with another development company, is to demolish the existing building and erect a commercial structure that might house a major bank—it’s one of the finalists. The Land Bank is expected to pick the winning proposal later this week.
The “negative activities” mentioned in the RFP are clustered along the south side of 63rd Street. Getting rid of them has become a target of the organizations that created the “four corners strategy”: Rob Rose, of the Land Bank, thinks that removing or renovating the “blighted” bank building will “discourage stuff happening in front of it,” and POAH plans to turn the low-slung building across from the bank into Woodlawn Crossing, its planned commercial development.
On a cold November day, several men in heavy coats stood on the sidewalk outside the low-slung building. Several feet away, on the corner of Cottage Grove, plush toys and an empty liquor bottle propped against a small wooden cross formed an impromptu memorial. Outside the currency exchange, one of the men had an open pack of Newports tucked inside his coat, which he produced for passersby with a dollar. He ducked into the exchange between sales to warm up.
He said he knew where the exchange was going to move when POAH demolishes the building. “Over there,” he said, pointing to a vacant storefront next to the new Daley’s location in POAH’s Woodlawn Station.
But it’s not that simple. When it bought the building, POAH coordinated with the UofC, DL3, the Land Bank, the Network of Woodlawn, and 1Woodlawn to decide which of the old tenants—among them the currency exchange, a liquor store, a food mart, a Boost Mobile store, and Daley’s—would be invited across the street into the newly completed Woodlawn Station, and which would see their leases expire and be told to move on.
Ultimately, of the low-slung building’s old tenants, only Daley’s got the green light to move in. Konrad Schlater, the Chicago-area vice president at POAH, said that ten years of work redeveloping the affordable housing complex called Grove Parc, of which Woodlawn Station is a part, provided his office with an idea of what kind of things Woodlawn residents wanted to see at the corner of 63rd and Cottage Grove. At multiple 1Woodlawn meetings and elsewhere, he recalls residents asking for a dry cleaner, coffee shop, and sit-down restaurant. “Improving the commercial amenities in the neighborhood,” he recalled, was a theme.
So long as tenants have a business plan and can help POAH pay off its loan, Schlater says that POAH is open to startups and local entrepreneurs, and is “really trying to support Black-owned businesses.” POAH’s retail selections, he said, should be viewed as “keeping our promise to the neighborhood.” Apart from Daley’s, POAH plans to lease space to a yoga studio called Blue Lotus and a Black-owned UPS franchise.
Some, however, think that POAH’s plans are flawed.
Just like the man selling Newports had said, the owner of the currency exchange wanted to move into Woodlawn Station. He does not want to reveal his name due to security concerns—he said that he lives within city limits, and is the person with the key to the money box. Once POAH bought the building, the owner of the currency exchange got a meeting with Schlater, at which he presented a booklet outlining plans for a “modern and clean storefront,” including a basic architectural rendering for new teller booths. “I’ll build a nice store,” the owner, who owns two other currency exchanges in nearby neighborhoods, says he told Schlater. He argued that, with approximately 59,000 individual transactions during 2018, the exchange “could be a cornerstone to the building [Woodlawn Station]” that would fuel economic activity in neighboring shops. According to the owner, Schlater said, “You don’t fit with our plan.”
At an intimate 1Woodlawn breakout meeting in November, a disgruntled resident speculated that POAH was “pushing the currency exchange out” from the site to disperse the crowd that stands at the door. In so doing, he said, the neighborhood would lose a key business that serves people who don’t have bank accounts, sometimes due to their mistrust in banks. In the four years leading up to the 2008 financial crisis, a mortgage lender steered 15,000 Black and Latinx residents of Illinois into loans on which they paid higher interest than white borrowers. Foreclosures hit Woodlawn particularly hard. Residents left, and so did new investment.
The impact of the 2008 foreclosures made POAH’s work to turn Woodlawn into a mixed-income “community of choice” difficult. To attract investment, amenities, jobs, and housing to the corner of 63rd and Cottage, or anywhere else in Woodlawn, Schlater needed to “be able to tell a story of the neighborhood and how things are improving.” What Schlater saw when he looked at the low-slung building across the street from Woodlawn Station was not helping. Sometimes that’s showed up in more concrete ways: POAH tried to get Ain’t She Sweet Cafe, a small Black-owned eatery and bakery with locations in Bronzeville and Beverly, to open in Woodlawn Station, but the cafe backed out after the windows of their new store were shot out last year.
While a corner without a currency exchange might help investment, some neighborhood residents say it’s a necessity. At POAH’s mixed-income housing development just up the street, a longtime tenant sat in a community room with several other residents and community organizers. “We need that currency exchange in this community,” she said. Another resident seconded.
Inside the exchange on a recent day, a customer leaned into the teller’s thick glass, trying to get a glimpse of something on the other side. The teller looked at the screen of her phone as the customer craned her neck. “Happy third birthday!” she finally said, and turned the phone to show the customer her video chat with a toddler. The customer smiled widely and waved.
Stacey, one of the tellers, was happy to chat through the glass about the exchange’s fate. She said that she gathered hundreds of signatures on a petition to keep the currency exchange on the corner, which she submitted to POAH’s Woodlawn Park property management office. She lives in Hyde Park, and worked for fifteen years at an exchange in South Shore before coming to this one five years ago.
From behind the glass, the tellers build personal relationships with people. Sometimes, Stacey said, elderly customers will bring her their mail, which she reads and explains to them. She said that some people who live to the west on 63rd Street prefer to come to her, fearing that they will be robbed after using the exchange at King Drive. As we spoke, a man doing business at another teller window yelled out “Y’all my peoples!” The tellers smiled. Another man eating fried chicken from a tray of crumpled white paper entered the store. The teller told him to show her what he was eating and asked where he got it from.
The men standing outside—those pursuing “negative activities”—also have connections to the larger Woodlawn community. In the food market around the corner, a man named Warren, who lives in POAH’s mixed-income development up the street and has worked at the liquor store in the low-slung building for years, explained the impromptu memorial. It was for a man named Biggy, he said, who had hung out on the corner since around 1987. Everyone knew Biggy, though few knew his full name. Last year, Biggy walked Woodlawn’s streets collecting signatures for aldermanic candidate Andre Smith. But in the middle of the night in late 2018, Biggy died in a car accident. His father had set up the small memorial on the corner. Standing in the food mart, Warren brought up a picture of a large, smiling man on his phone. “He wasn’t a bad guy,” Warren said.
At the meeting, others expressed the opinion that POAH’s unwillingness to host the currency exchange is part of a trend in the neighborhood. A community organizer was in the room with the tenants. “Me myself, I think POAH is pushing people out of the community,” she said. “I think so too,” a resident said. “Gentrification,” another summarized. “It’s called gentrifi-push-out,” the organizer responded.
Even though POAH is not hosting the exchange, it worked to find it a new home. In accordance with federal regulations, POAH hired staff to help the exchange and other businesses relocate. They also are providing relocation payments to each business in the range of forty thousand dollars.
Sitting in his office adorned with selections from the rare genre of exchange-themed posters (one reads, “COLD HARD CASH,” with an image of a bill encased in ice), the owner of the currency exchange leaned over to knock on the outer wall of the store, which reverberated like the steel hull of a submarine. This is the “cage,” he explained, which encases every currency exchange in the country and makes them time-consuming and expensive to build. POAH might have to provide additional relocation money to cover the price.
The exchange’s owner is eyeing Alderman Willie Cochran’s office at 6357 S. Cottage Grove for his new location. POAH agreed to extend the owner’s lease through April to accommodate the move, though the owner says that it still does not leave enough time to build a new store. Schlater says that there is no intention to push the exchange out of the neighborhood, deny residents its services, or gentrify the area. He sees the issue as a limited one, having to do with POAH’s leasing decisions in a single building, and the positive story that he needs to tell on behalf of the neighbors who came out to public meetings, said they wanted new retail, and suggested they wanted the people who stand on the corner gone.
The owner, who will soon need to either move his exchange or close it for good, explained that he can’t stand the people who stand outside his shop. “I’ve called the police—they don’t do anything.” Then again, he continued, “It’s their right to stand where they want to.” If the new owners want to address it, he’d tell them, “Get a foot soldier on the street and shoo them away.”
Mike Zar is one of the few businesspeople who will outlast the changes that the developers are bringing to the intersection. Zar will soon move into the new Woodlawn Station across the street along with the rest of the restaurant, but for now he runs the 127-year-old Daley’s from his small, paper-stuffed office in the basement of the low-slung building. You’ll have more luck finding him in the restaurant’s kitchen, where he prefers to spend most of his time. On a rainy day last November, he bunched his food-stained apron in his hand and walked across the street to show off his new space, then under construction.
“Twelve feet of grill, six burner range, six foot steam table, on-site butcher,” he narrated as he paced through the empty rooms that will become the new kitchen. Since POAH demolished the Grove Parc affordable housing development that stretched from 63rd to 61st Street along Cottage Grove and replaced it with the new, mixed-income community, Zar says that more UofC students are coming from their dorms along 61st Street to eat. To accommodate the additional clients, he has scaled up from 137 seats to 180. There is an annex for large parties as well as an online ordering app.
Few will complain about the expanded and upgraded Daley’s. Woodlawn residents have been waiting and working for decades to recoup the loss of shops, restaurants, grocery stores, and theatres that began in the 1950s. Soon, where Biggy hung out on the corner, where scrappers now mull through the abandoned bank building, and where the few shoppers who haven’t defected to Amazon roam the aisles at Cosmo Beauty, developers will transform the intersection by erecting office buildings that will hold hundreds of workers.
Leon Walker is working on reducing the neighborhood’s additional persistent risk premium. Byron Brazier calls developer after city official after hired consultant before his crowd while he judiciously checks his watch. Eyeing the currency exchange, Rose thinks that “owners need to take responsibility for what’s going on…To work closely with [the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy, Chicago’s community policing program].” POAH agrees: Konrad Schlater talked about “keeping our promise to the neighborhood,” and his colleague, Bill Eager, described what is happening as “a window of opportunity in Woodlawn to do comprehensive community development that could be a national model.”
Through the doors of Fair Discount liquor in the low-slung building at the corner of 63rd and Cottage Grove were bright lights, scuffed linoleum tiles, and customers slowly walking the aisles. The manager, working the cash register, wore blue latex gloves over his thin hands and clear, wrap-around woodshop glasses. The gloves were flaccid from overuse and yellowed in the creases. If you asked him why he wore them, he gave a close-lipped smile. Speaking quietly and quickly one day last November, he explained that the store’s lease would soon end.
A woman asked him to hand her a bottle of liquor from behind the counter. She held it gingerly in her hand and stared at the small orange sticker that read 12.99. After several seconds, the manager said, “I’ll give it to you for 9.99.” She continued to stare. “That’s three dollars off,” he said. Without looking up, she brought her purse close to her face to carefully check what was inside, and then let the purse fall by her side. She placed the bottle on the counter, told the manager not to forget the discount, and left the store. Next in line was an older man with alcohol on his breath. He sat several bottles down and asked, “You leaving?” The manager nodded. The man smiled widely.
“We need you!” he boomed.
Max Budovitch is a contributor to the Weekly.