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Filling in the Gap: new plans for a historic south-side neighborhood

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The true believers insist it's the next neighborhood on the rise, the city's next Lincoln Park. Never mind the abandoned buildings, the vacant, weed-filled lots, or the even more devastated communities to the south.

Instead, keep your eye on the new town houses, the rehabbed buildings, and the glowing write-ups in the newspapers--some so old they've yellowed--that predict it's only a matter of time, a year, maybe two, before the Gap comes back. The Gap--so called because it is little more than a sliver, really, about 100 acres of homes wedged between King Drive and State Street, running north and south from 31st Street to 35th.

But if the Gap's a sliver, it's perhaps the most intriguing sliver in the city, with beautiful and historic homes, some designed by Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, as well as an influx of energetic, roll-up-their-sleeves rehabbers. And to the list of promising indications add "The Gap Plan: New Promise for a Historic Neighborhood," a well-conceived strategy for future development written earlier this year by William Clark and Maria Choca of the city's Department of Planning.

"It's a strategy plan with a lot of symbolic value," says Leonard Mc Gee, president of the Gap Community Organization. "It represents a willingness by the city to talk with residents and businesses here--to plan with us--and see how we can make this area a catalyst for the whole south side."

Mc Gee's exuberance is contagious, if a tad overoptimistic. In the recent past, planners and journalists have viewed the Gap as a separate entity, whose success could be best measured by how effectively its middle-class residents had cut themselves off from poorer folk to the south. But Mc Gee and city planners say they don't want to slice the Gap from its environs. No, they see it as a potential lodestar that will improve the local schools and force the city to provide better services throughout the area.

"The city needs middle-class investment, that's crucial," says Mc Gee. "I'm not saying we should uproot the poor. That's not what I'm saying at all. But what we want is a community that's mixed. And if you look, it's happening in the Gap. The house I live in today with my wife once had eight people living in it. One of my next-door neighbors had 17 names on the bell. And now there are two or three.

"My wife and I went to work the other day, it was at seven in the morning. And this little kid was going to school, he says, 'Where you going?' And that question signaled to me that in his home, no one got up to go to work. One of my neighbors hired him to do some yard work. That now changes his value system. He's seeing new things. It's great for him."

Near the Gap, on the north and east, are upscale high-rise developments: Prairie Shore, South Commons, and Lake Meadows. To the west are such well-entrenched institutions as the Illinois Institute of Technology, the Illinois College of Optometry, and De La Salle High School, a Catholic school that numbers among its graduates the late Mayor Richard J. Daley.

And to the south, stretching onward past the 35th Street commercial strip, is the rest of Douglas, one of the poorer communities in the city.

"I call the Gap the diamond in the rough," says Ernest Griffin, who has lived and operated a funeral parlor at 3232 S. King Drive since the 1960s. "It's a valuable area in a community that's usually known for its blight."

The Gap is part of a larger community that got its name from U.S. Senator Stephen Douglas: in 1852, he bought about 70 acres of land between 33rd and 35th streets and developed it for luxury living. "A lot of the well-to-do of the south side lived here," says Griffin, who prides himself on being a local historian. "It was the place to live. An exclusive neighborhood."

Over the years, industry moved into Douglas, the Michael Reese Hospital was constructed at 29th Street, and the area lost its aura of exclusivity. The biggest change came after the First World War, with the great migration of thousands of blacks from the south.

"Douglas was home of Chicago's first black-owned bank, founded by Jesse Binga," write Clark and Choca in the introduction to their plan. "The Chicago Defender was founded there by Robert S. Abbott, and Provident Hospital (where the first open-heart surgery in America was performed) was also originally located in Douglas." It was also home to such great institutions of the south-side black community as the Quinn Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Congregation, the Pekin Theater, and the Wabash Avenue YMCA.

Intense racial discrimination proved to be the area's downfall. Over the years, particularly during the Depression, the congestion in Douglas became unbearable. Buildings fell apart, investors left, and the only kind of development deemed practical were the slum-clearance projects of the 50s like Lake Meadows.

"The idea was that you should clear a lot of the dilapidated houses and put in new construction," says Griffin.

The high rises helped stabilize the community, and as a result IIT and other leading institutions remained. In addition, the high rises offered homes to black professionals who might otherwise have moved to Hyde Park or the north side. But they also represented a wall of sorts against poverty--construction based on the belief that, since the city was unable to transform the slums, the best it could do was "protect" the middle class in high-rise fortresses.

The beauty of the Gap, most observers agree, is that it represents the last sliver of Douglas as it was intended to be.

"Somehow with all the construction and demolition, the Gap survived," says Griffin. "Not that people didn't talk about tearing it down. It's just that those plans never got off the ground."

At one point, in the 1960s, developers talked about razing the houses in the Gap and building a development there the size of Carl Sandburg Village, according to Thom Finerty, vice-president of the Chicago Urban League Development Corporation.

"The big backer of that plan was Fred Hubbard, who was then the alderman of the 2nd Ward," recalls Finerty. "What happened was that Hubbard got in trouble, as you may remember, on charges of misusing federal funds. And when he left office, those big plans died."

But over the years the Gap has welcomed a slow but steady stream of urban pioneers--young, black professionals, most of them--who saw in the old, sagging buildings an opportunity to build the castles of their dreams.

"I bought my house in 1977 for $12,000," says Thomas Gray, a senior staff analyst for Amoco. "I had some apprehension, then, sure I did. You're always going to have some apprehension about an area where there is decay. But the way I look at it: if there's not risk, there's no gain."

One of the greatest challenges, Gray recalls, was finding backing from a bank or mortgage company.

"It's a bottom-line deal," says Gray. "You have to prove your case to the bank, you have to show them the numbers. Their concern is that if I put all of my money into rehabbing a building, I won't be able to pay back my loan. I have to show them that I can handle the payments."

In time, other rehabbers followed Gray there, but the development has been sporadic. For every spruced-up building, there are at least two in horrible shape. The much-acclaimed Frank Lloyd Wright town houses on Calumet Avenue are in sparkling order. But just next door there is a boarded-up Queen Anne, its roof falling apart. Next to that is a weed-filled lot.

All over the Gap, there are Victorian, Queen Anne, and Italianate structures amidst weeds. Clark calls them the "gaps within the Gap." Overall, he estimates that individuals have pumped over $4 million into the Gap over the last decade. The money represents the investment of about 50 home owners, most of them rehabbers. Still, despite their efforts, about 25 percent of the land remains vacant.

"It's a slow process of development in any neighborhood," says Choca. "Lincoln Park was slow to develop. It took two decades in the making. And it had the help of a massive influx of federal funds. The Gap doesn't have those advantages, so it will come a little slower."

"The key for the Gap is not another Carl Sandburg big-boom development," adds Clark. "Instead, there should be a unity of construction so that it conforms with what is there."

Along these lines, one developer is building seven town houses at 31st and Indiana. At least five have been purchased, sources say, at an estimated cost of $125,000 each. The Chicago Urban League Development Corporation plans to build 56 town houses at the corner of 33rd Street and Giles.

"We don't want a high rise," says Finerty. "That's not what the community wants either. We want to build units of up to 1,500 square feet, about three stories high, to match the existing building height, with a semblance of Victorian design. My guess is that they will go for $130,000 a unit.

"Sure, there will be a demand for them. There are several pent-up markets in the area. There are a lot of people living in Prairie Shore and South Commons and Lake Meadows who want to move up to a family unit."

Coordinating such activity is the city plan devised by Clark and Choca. The plan outlines the vacant areas that should be filled with housing. And it calls for, among other things, closing down Giles Avenue from 32nd to 33rd streets for a park, as well as routing a grassy walkway along 34th Street from Michigan Avenue to King Drive, which would be landscaped. "When the city widened King Drive years ago to make it a boulevard, the homes on the west side of the street were torn down," explains Clark. "That means the back sides of the houses face King. It's unsightly."

The estimated cost of such improvements runs well into the millions of dollars. Choca hopes that state or federal dollars can be used for the effort.

But in general the big push will have to come from the private sector, where so far there has been little interest, particularly from commercial investors. The 35th Street business strip is home to several fast-food restaurants and liquor stores. But the kind of upscale commercial development that traditionally follows middle-class investment has not emerged.

"I'd love to see commercial development on 31st Street, and I'm very happy to see the Chez Helene restaurant move there," says Mc Gee, referring to a New Orleans-style eatery that recently opened. "There's room for more development there. Right now we don't have the amenities of a Lincoln Park or a suburban community. But I tell you, it's coming. It's only a matter of time, but it's coming."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alex Galindo.

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