For better or worse, Washington Park dodged the golden bullet of gentrification in 2009 when the International Olympic Committee rejected Chicago's bid to host the 2016 games. The bid proposal included a plan for an 80,000-seat stadium in the rambling park with the same name as the neighborhood it separates from the University of Chicago campus. The Washington Park neighborhood is between 51st and 63rd Streets, Cottage Grove (800 East) and La Salle (150 East).
Last Thursday, the sidewalk along the park was one of just a few in the neighborhood that had been plowed since Tuesday's blizzard. After getting off the train at 63rd, I found most of the brick apartment complexes along King Drive—sprawling multi-units with courtyards and wrought-iron fences—shuttered by huge sheets of plywood. There was nobody to shovel the sidewalks. At the corner of King Drive and 63rd, residents shoveled out cars and hauled groceries over snowbanks, and went in and out of the few dingy stores that were still in business.
Washington Park has a sparse look: streets are punctuated by wide-open lots. New condo developments on South Michigan abut the boarded buildings. The Olympics bid sparked a short-lived real estate boom that drew interest from the U of C: in 2008 the university owned eight properties, and on its website expressed interest in as many as seven more. Today the university owns nine parcels; spokesperson Wendy Parks attributed that slowdown to the lagging economy. Home prices have plunged since the Olympic bid's rejection. In 2007 an average condo or townhome here was selling for $196,000, up 40 percent from 2002, according to the real estate news site YoChicago; by July 2010, it was going for $90,000.
Washington Park's population is 99 percent black. According to the census tract estimates we aggregated, its median household income is $20,000; the city median is $48,000. The family poverty rate here is a staggering 51 percent, second highest in the city (Riverdale, another all-black south-side community, is first).
White flight came early here. The German and Irish immigrants who inhabited the neighborhood starting in the 1860s and '70s moved to ethnic enclaves north and south, leaving a 92 percent black population in their wake by 1930.
"The neighborhood when I moved in was bad," said Cecilia Butler, president of the Washington Park Advisory Council. "That was 28 years ago. The property was extremely affordable, and Washington Park had vacant lots. Ten years later, we had more vacant lots. I saw it hit rock bottom, and I've seen it improve. There's still a whole lot more improvement needed, but it's gone from bad to"—she paused—"better."
Between 2000 and 2009, there were 81 murders in the neighborhood. (In Edison Park during that same period, there was one.)
Butler said she was inspired to become an activist 27 years ago when she overheard two young boys talking outside her window. "One little boy told the other, 'At least my mother feeds me,'" she recalled. "And I said, wow."
At Burke Elementary, a public school at the corner of King Drive and
51st 54th, 98 percent of students during the 2009-2010 school year were classified as low-income. One hundred percent were black. The school is on probation, with only 5 percent of its students exceeding state academic standards in 2010.
Brandon Johnson, executive director of a neighborhood development group, the Washington Park Consortium, grew up just across the way in western Hyde Park. Later this month he'll be moving into the neighborhood that his work revolves around: "I believe enough in its potential to get on the ground more intensely than I already am." He says that the Olympics, though a potential catalyst, weren't vital to the community's future. "Before and after, there was a lot of work that had to be done that had nothing to do with the Olympics."
Last week YoChicago reported that one developer's dream—the "Gateway to Washington Park," a Target-anchored, 12-acre business and residential complex at 54th and King Drive—has little chance of moving forward in the lousy real estate economy. Yet three years ago, when the Olympic dream was alive, YoChicago carried a piece that called Washington Park one of Chicago's "hottest" neighborhoods and said this: "At first glance, an observer might see only a desolate landscape of boarded-up stores, vacant lots, and blatant drug dealing, but, like nearby Woodlawn, Washington Park is a diamond in the rough."
When YoChicago revisited the neighborhood last year, the title of the piece was "From hot to not."