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Can This Neighborhood Be Changed?

All the activism in the world won't help Roseland if the people who live there are just biding time till they can get out.

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By Kristin Ostberg

Some streets in Roseland appear to be populated by dollhouses--tiny homes with miniature turrets and little rose windows, bungalows with imitation-boulder siding, Italian-style villas with ornate cement arches, and Tudor cottages with swooping eaves. Wrought iron decorates nearly every door and window, and the residents--a hefty 66 percent of whom own their homes--evidently take great pride in their sculpted shrubs and nicely manicured lawns.

Yet this storybook setting is undermined by periodic pockets of decay, which might be as small as a single burned-out house sitting ominously on the corner, or as large as a listless business strip with shabby storefronts and vacant buildings. A recent trip to visit Willie Lomax of the Chicago Roseland Coalition for Community Control attracted the police even before I reached his office at 110th and Michigan. A patrolman rolled down his window. "Do you know where you are?" he asked a bit wearily. "Where are you going? Do you know where that is?" He sternly instructed me to get into the back of his squad car: "This is not a safe neighborhood."

Roseland's story is a familiar one. For many the neighborhood became synonymous with white flight and blockbusting starting in the 1960s, but the far-south-side community hit hard times when thousands of industrial jobs left during the '70s. Scores of blue-collar workers lost their homes to foreclosure, and at one point Roseland had more abandoned houses backed by federally insured loans than anywhere else in the nation. Unable to handle the number of defaults and ill-equipped to sell the properties, the government allowed many of these homes to deteriorate, contributing to the image of Roseland as a blighted area.

The neighborhood's slide was stemmed by organizations like the Chicago Roseland Coalition for Community Control. It battled for new investment and rehabbed old houses; it packaged loans and counseled first-time home buyers. Willie Lomax estimates that in the last 20 years his group has brought about 4,000 homes out of default and placed them in the care of new owners--a remarkable accomplishment.

But that's not the kind of story you usually hear coming out of Roseland. This is the neighborhood where 11-year-old Yummy Sandifer shot down a 14-year-old girl in 1994; he was executed for it three days later under a viaduct by fellow gang members. Yummy's story became an emblem of the plight of young people in city neighborhoods struggling with gang and drug problems.

Ask anyone dedicated to improving Roseland, and they'll tell you the area has been the victim of bad press--things are improving, they say, though their talk is temperate. The majority of Roseland's 56,000 residents remain squarely middle-class. At around $32,000, the median household income is slightly above the city average, and the majority of residents are part of two-parent families with children.

Over the last couple of decades, the neighborhood has presented a perplexing predicament for community developers. Roseland is home to a solid group of middle-class professionals, which would seem to place it among the most fertile areas for development efforts. But projects there have been hampered by a population that continues to move out. Leaving Roseland has become the norm. "People I guess are trying to do a little better," admits the area's alderman, Robert Shaw. "They'll stick here ten years, and then they too will move on."

Roseland takes in most of the land between Interstate 57 and the Calumet Expressway. Abandoned factories along 111th Street are only blocks from tidy neighborhoods. It all fits into the city's Ninth Ward, where Shaw has been alderman for 14 years; he first won the seat in 1979 (but lost it between 1983 and '87). He'll tell you the neighborhood has been on the mend for two decades. "We went through a hell of a transition in the 70s," he says. "This community, in certain parts of it, turned over almost 100 percent in ten years." By the mid-80s some sections were practically starting over again with a new batch of home owners. "I guess people reconciled themselves that they have to take lesser jobs, with lesser pay and so forth."

Sergeant Theo Joseph has served as a policeman in the Fifth District for 25 years; he'll tell you things got much worse during the 1980s, when the crack trade hit Chicago and violent crime escalated. In 1993, on average, four assaults were reported every day in Roseland. But in the last few years crime has actually started to decline, mirroring a citywide trend. "A lot of people don't know where Roseland is or what it's like, but they see things in the paper. I'd say right now there are 15 districts that have more crime than we do."

Maurice Williams is the executive director of the Roseland Christian Development Corporation, a nonprofit developer of affordable housing. During the 22 years he's lived in the neighborhood, he says, there's been slow but steady improvement, "no matter what the papers tell you."

But if there's been improvement, David Hunt says, he hasn't seen it. A former Roseland resident, Hunt's been a longtime activist for affordable housing. "I see a community that has been on the verge of going either way for quite some time, and that's just been maintaining itself."

Architect and planner Mike Shymanski has lived in Pullman, just to the east of Roseland, for almost 30 years. He argues that Roseland is hardly a uniform community; it's "made up of at least half a dozen distinctive neighborhoods," some affluent, others not.

Alderman Shaw agrees, pointing to Altgeld Gardens. "We have 2,200 [public] housing units...and that's a community. I guess the average income there is maybe three or four hundred dollars above the poverty line....But once you leave out of that area and come north, [the average income] shoots way up. We go from one extreme to another."

Shaw says disagreement over the community's economic well-being is due in large part to confusion over what area constitutes the neighborhood. "Many people don't know the boundaries of Roseland," he says, between drags on an endless series of menthol cigarettes. The Ninth Ward laps over the east end of Roseland, he says, to include Pullman, West Pullman, and Rosemoor, all affluent areas around Roseland. "Indiana to Halsted, 103rd to 119th Street--that's Roseland." He's referring to an area that's sometimes called the core of Roseland.

On the city's community area maps, the neighborhood begins all the way up at 87th Street, with its northern boundary trending south to 95th Street at Cottage Grove. The eastern boundary is defined by Cottage Grove and the Metra tracks, the western one by Halsted and Stewart. Some people claim the southern boundary is at the city limits, but according to maps it lies at 115th Street. It's a big area: about four square miles, containing some 18,000 homes. Roseland proper swallows affluent Rosemoor.

When University of Chicago sociologist Ernest Burgess mapped out city neighborhoods for the first Local Community Fact Book in the 1930s, Roseland was a coherent area held together in part by its lively Michigan Avenue shopping strip. Over the last 40 years, this strip has deteriorated, and the community has broken into smaller neighborhoods. "A lot of people don't understand the difference between a community area, which is a series of census tracts, and a neighborhood," asserts Shymanski.

Then why talk of Roseland at all? It's a community marked by divisions, the most obvious being between the affluent north and the poor south. On closer examination, it becomes clear that Roseland's pockets of affluence are only a few blocks in size, and the geographic distance between stable parcels and troubled ones is not so great.

Perhaps the mixed results of community development efforts can be traced to the ill-defined notion of what constitutes the community. Revitalizing the Michigan Avenue shopping district has become a major focus of development groups, and earlier this week an ad hoc collection of 25 neighborhood organizations met with city planners to lobby for the strip's official designation as a redevelopment area. This quest might be viewed as a move to reclaim a community that has ceased to exist for many of its residents.

When Shymanski first moved to Pullman three decades ago, Roseland's Michigan Avenue business district was thriving, drawing people from all the surrounding areas to its movie theater, its restaurants, and its department stores. The community's industrial base was booming. Roseland was mostly white then; blacks had already started to move into the area in the 1920s, but by 1960 they made up only about a quarter of its population. The neighborhood began to change rapidly, however, as lucrative factory jobs allowed many blacks to buy their first homes. By the early 70s more than half of Roseland was black; this change occurred just as factories like U.S. Steel, Wisconsin Steel, and International Harvester began to shut down. As whites fled, community institutions began to disappear. "People built these institutions over the years--the American Legion, the Lions Club, the Athletic Association," Shymanski says. "With the racial change, their members moved out to the suburbs, and the organizations did not actively recruit blacks moving in."

The Chicago Roseland Coalition for Community Control was one group founded in this vacuum. Started in 1975, CRCCC spent its early years fighting redlining by banks and insurance companies as well as by the federal government, which was ruled by the courts to be excluding Roseland residents from programs designed to help prevent the unemployed from defaulting on their mortgages. Advocacy groups in Roseland took an active part in fights that resulted in the Community Reinvestment Act, which holds banks accountable for their local lending records. CRCCC won large court settlements from lenders.

Ironically CRCCC achieved its astounding results just as Roseland's problems were growing. When Hunt calls Roseland a community "on the verge of going either way," he's also quick to recognize the work of people like Lomax: "I mean, imagine if those guys weren't around."

Lomax acknowledges that racial tensions undermined Roseland's sense of community, but he also recalls that people came together around important economic issues. Today, he says, that's changed. Now the only events that bring people to public meetings are murders: "I've seen some get involved, then it dies out. So they wait for another killing." He attributes the lack of community involvement to Roseland's economic stagnation. "It seems like, 'Why get involved? I'm barely keeping my kids clothed.'" Poverty, he says, contributes to feelings of helplessness and a lack of self-worth. "They're depressed. They feel that, 'If I go to that meeting, there might be people who might look down on me, and I'd rather not go.'"

"It was better," says Henrene Valdez, a Roseland resident for 25 years, "then it turned to cancer." Valdez says she believes community revitalization is tied to the actions of ordinary people. "If I see kids getting ready to fight, I will stop my car. My kids will be saying, 'No, mom, don't do it. They'll shoot you.'" She laughs. "But I get out and tell them to stop."

Valdez is not alone. Roseland has its share of committed residents--parents forming patrols to ensure their children's safety on their way to and from school, church groups deploying mentors to provide guidance, hospitals holding free public health days. Joseph mentions a program in which Fifth District police officers host summer classes in the martial arts. But if these appear to be exceptions, not the rule, it's probably tied to the continual flight of the middle class--the abrupt transformations from one block to the next reflect larger divisions within the community itself. "I've had parents tell me that they're afraid of their 13- or 14-year-old," Valdez says. Such feelings of helplessness might explain why people seem compelled to leave.

Lomax says he made a commitment to the neighborhood early on. "I was the first black to move to the east side here of 111th Street," he says cheerfully. "First black. My kids would go to school and get beat up by white kids....They'd burn crosses in my yard. But I stayed. I said I wasn't going anywhere. You know, I want to be part of this community." He recalls working as a janitor at a Walgreens on Michigan Avenue. "I was sweeping the floor, trying to earn money. They spit on the broom I was sweeping with. 'You don't belong in this neighborhood.' I said, 'Well, eventually I'm going to buy property in this area.'"

That kind of determination is echoed by John Edwards, owner of Edwards Fashions, a clothing store at 114th and Michigan. He moved to the area and joined the local chamber of commerce in 1974, believing that Roseland would stabilize. "That has not proven to be totally true," he admits, "but fortunately we've had an increase in business every year, except for one period--we were flat for about two years in the 80s."

Steady in his commitment, he's impatient with people who leave. One of his customers has a story that Edwards repeats to make his point. The customer visited a successful professional who had moved to the suburbs, and the new suburbanite said, "I had to get away. I had to get away from the gangs." The customer replied, "But you brought the gangs with you! There they are--your sons. Their friends come to visit them."

All of Edwards's anecdotes seem to share this theme: it's not the place that makes the difference--it's the people in it and their commitment to the community. He says that too often people don't recognize the importance of their own roles. "In a lot of communities, it would be hard for you to go in and move somebody's furniture without someone next door knowing it. And you read about it happening all the time."

Edwards doesn't live in Roseland; he lives to the east in Stony Island Heights. In his neighborhood, he says, if people notice gang activity in a particular house, the block club will pay a visit. He explains that homes often become sites of gang activity when people without much commitment to the neighborhood inherit their parents' property. His block club has made a difference, he says. "Most of these descendants living in the buildings, they were raised there, and they understand people are not going to tolerate [gangs]."

He tells another story about gang members coming into his store to check out the merchandise. As they left, he says, they told him, "You have a really nice place here. We're leaving, but we'll be back at the end of the month for our share."

He says wearily, "I told them, 'You come back. I'll be ready for you.'" The gang members didn't return. "Some of these merchants are foolish enough to think if they give them $10 they'll go away."

Edwards laments that the other merchants on the Michigan Avenue strip are not as committed to the neighborhood--they're constantly leaving, he says, and their transience weakens any attempts to obstruct the gangs, "a very small group," he reasons. "But they're organized. The community's not organized, and that's why the gangs come around.

"We ask merchants bimonthly to give two hours of their time in the afternoon, but it's hard to get these people together."

He says the only time Roseland's business community comes together is when it fears a crisis, like looting after a Bulls championship. But when the store owners gathered before the last championship, they got results. "We were one of the few shopping strips that had no problem," he says firmly. "That wasn't highlighted."

It's not just staying but actively taking part, says Janice Ollarvia, principal of Fenger Academy, a Chicago public high school. "The school doesn't always reflect the community itself anymore." This is partially the result of Roseland having an aging population whose children have grown, she explains. "The kids start coming from further and further away from the school building." And parents increasingly don't want to send their kids to Fenger--if they have money, they'll send them to a private school; if they don't, they'll aim for a magnet school. Some parents even opt for nearby Morgan Park. "Morgan Park High School is a controlled-enrollment school, which is not the same thing as a magnet school, but the intention is, frankly, to keep a number of white students [and] their parents from fleeing. So Morgan Park can sort of pick and choose the kids that they accept, and then they send the rest of them to Fenger."

The resultant break between the school and the community has had unintended consequences, she says. "People start to see the school as a foreign something, even an invasion. You don't take the kind of ownership and involvement that you would if your own children were coming to this building. That's a problem.

"You know how kids pull false fire alarms. The rule is that when the kids leave the building for a fire alarm--and they have to leave the building, even if we know it's a false alarm--they have to go across the street and stand on the sidewalk opposite the building. And of course they stand on people's grass--that's what kids do. So I got these calls from a couple of our neighbors, absolutely livid at how disrespectful these kids were, and couldn't I make them go out the back door?"

The fire code prevents Ollarvia from sending them out the back door. "The kids weren't doing anything awful--it's just that there are a thousand of them. If you tell them to go across the street, some of them are going to be standing on the grass." Ollarvia says she can apologize and promise to do her best to control the students, but she can't do much more than that. "I could hear this 'why don't you contain those animals' tone in [the neighbors'] voices."

Ollarvia started attending community policing meetings when she realized a lot of people thought the community's problems were coming directly out of Fenger. "My initial intention was simply to make sure that things that were not ours were not laid at our feet." Once she began showing up, she thought it might be a good opportunity to get to know some people in the neighborhood, particularly the civic-minded ones. School reforms have allowed her to open the building to local meetings of various kinds, and individual teachers and students have taken advantage of these opportunities to make connections on their own.

She mentions the murder of a young woman in a vacant lot on Halsted. A group of older neighbors wanted to turn the lot into a memorial park, and they asked if any Fenger students would be interested in helping out. A horticulture teacher used it as an opportunity to teach his students how to plant a garden. A short time after the park was completed, Ollarvia received a thank you letter from the neighbors, who also told her that some of the teens had returned on their own to maintain the memorial.

"I think it's real important to get the message out that our children are not these awful people and that we need to work together. The school needs to be part of the community and not some separate thing."

It's only natural to want to send your kids to the best possible school, just as it may seem natural to leave a place if you fear property values will plummet and crime is on the rise. If you can't imagine any possible improvements, why go to meetings of area merchants? After 30 years of mixed results and periodic setbacks, why should anyone commit to a struggling neighborhood?

Still, people like Maurice Williams have come to expect this commitment, though he understands it takes great faith. "It has to happen with a spiritual injection," says Williams, executive director of Roseland Christian Homes, a branch of Roseland Christian Ministries, a large Dutch Reform church. Williams wants to bring new, more affluent residents to Roseland. "The core community needs the role model-ship of educated people. We need more upwardly mobile people who want to invest," not just in the neighborhood but "in the people at its core."

Two years ago Roseland Christian Homes launched its Adopt-a-Block program, under which it plans to invest $1.2 million in a block at 109th and Wabash. Williams says the block is located in the core of Roseland, meaning it's not safely tucked away at the community's affluent northern end. So far the group has rehabbed and sold two homes--the second just went for around $50,000. Now it hopes to build six new homes, which would fetch somewhere around $100,000 apiece, in a bid to attract people with higher incomes. Williams admits enticing outsiders to move into Roseland's core may be a challenge, but he says it's important for African-Americans to reverse the old patterns of flight, making a commitment to their communities by living with the poor. "We want to put a family in it, but we don't just want to put the family in it and then push other people away--drug dealers, low-income folk, prostitutes. We want to bring everyone in.

"We have to get people who are not so concerned about all those...worldly is-sues...people who are more concerned about God's will and what it is on this earth, or who say, 'It's part of my own personal commitment to give back to this community.'"

A couple years ago I met Van Vincent and Carl Rogers, two developers who aimed to change Roseland by focusing on the poor. "There's growth there," Rogers told me, "and people want a change. But people are afraid, especially when they've lived there for 30 years and the youngsters have taken over."

Both Rogers and Vincent grew up in Roseland, and like preceding generations they left as soon as they were able. But the two returned after Vincent helped start a community development corporation called Inner-City Growth in 1993. They bantered about their neighborhood with a cheerful optimism. "When we first started, we took a drive around Roseland, and we just laughed," Vincent said, and they both laughed again. "We said, 'Have we got a challenge ahead of us.'"

"Now the years have come and gone, and we ride around and we say, 'Man, you know what? It's not so bad,'" Rogers said.

Starting with donated materials and a grant from the United Way, Inner-City Growth acquired its first property in Roseland four years ago for $8,000; after it was rehabbed the home sold for $26,000. More important, the group's projects provided an opportunity for job training for young men in the area. After years of people leaving the neighborhood, Rogers and Vincent said, Roseland needed some people who wanted to stay.

A year after our first meeting, however, Vincent had become a private developer and loan officer, and Inner-City Growth was being "restructured." Vincent complained that there were "too many variables in nonprofit housing development. On a personal and professional level, it was hard to deal with all the restrictions--you rely on fund-raising, and your hands get tied by any changes in the rules for government money. You can be more creative with financing in the private sector."

Vincent has now moved out of Roseland, and he has a contract pending to sell his home there.

Three and a half years ago Jerry Chambers attended a weekend conference at Olive Harvey College, where community leaders from across Greater Roseland joined with members of the city's planning department to plot strategy for the area's economic resuscitation. "It was understood that the Roseland Business Council was going to work primarily with the businesses on the south end of Michigan Avenue up to 110th," Chambers said. "CRCCC was going to work up the north end of Michigan Avenue, and a couple of other organizations had identified some other areas. And we said, 'Well, we'll just take a look at what's left.' What's left is 111th Street."

Soon his Greater Roseland Community Development Corporation had two projects under way. One was a small-business incubator leasing office space at below-market rates on the tenth floor of the Pullman Bank building. The other was a deal arranged with the Ryerson Coil company for the acquisition of more than 18 acres of land--currently Ryerson's truck-staging area--in exchange for providing the company with a new access ramp to the expressway. On this land, underwritten by a $600,000 grant from the Department of Health and Human Services, Chambers planned to build a new shopping center, which would include a badly needed supermarket.

A year after the conference at Olive Harvey, Robin Clark became the second tenant in the business incubator. She owned a soft-pretzel franchise in Calumet City and a KFC at the corner of Belmont and Broadway. Within two years she was shepherding the GRCDC after Chambers died last October. She already has a full plate. In addition to running the incubator and developing the shopping center, Clark is also trying to forge ties with the Pullman Historic Foundation to foster tourism in the area, build between 100 and 125 new condominiums and single-family homes, and take part in the revitalization of the Michigan Avenue shopping district as part of the Roseland Redevelopment Designation Ad Hoc Committee, headed by Maurice Williams.

Before his death, Chambers looked out the window of the Pullman Bank and commented on the accidental success of George Pullman's plans. "Pullman left his spirit in the community. Everybody who lives in Pullman, they have a sense of preserving their community. Roseland has never identified its history."

The first Dutch settlers in the mid-1800s dubbed the Roseland area the city of Hope. And now, after 30 years of watching residents leave, Roseland's community developers hope their plans and commitment can alter history. "With vision comes change," said Chambers confidently. "I think it's going to happen." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photographs by J.B. Spector: houses at 104th and State, 110th and Perry, 15th and Lowe on cover; Willie Lomax photo, John Edwards photo, Janice Ollarvia photo, Maurice Williams photo, Robin Clark photo,.

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