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Land of Opportunity

A new luxury condo at 43rd and Michigan? Wanda and Louis Martin hope to transform the south side one building at a time.

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When Wanda and Louis Martin bought their first apartment building on South Michigan Avenue, there were many vacant lots on the block and boozers drank beer and wine and whiskey in the alley. Almost 20 years later, the winos are gone--chased away by Wanda--but many of the lots remain vacant. The Martins own several more buildings in the area, but unlike many developers on the north side, they would rather rehab than tear down--and they actually live where they work. "It's a little different down here than it is up north," says Wanda. "The land boom's not as big, it's not as loud. As a matter of fact, I wouldn't exactly call it a boom. I'd call it a little squeak."

The Martins, well-known on the south side, own and manage six multiunit buildings--almost 90 apartments--between 41st and 48th on Indiana and Michigan avenues. "I know this area in my heart," says Wanda. "I was born just down the street, at Provident Hospital. This is where my roots lie."

Her mother, Wanda Bridgeforth, grew up in the area, moving from one apartment to the next during the 1920s and 30s. In those days most of Chicago's swelling black community was contained within a long, narrow slab of land between 32nd and 71st and Cottage Grove and Wentworth. City planners called the area Grand Boulevard and Washington Park, but most old-timers know it as Bronzeville, a name coined by an editor at the black-owned Chicago Bee.

"In my day, this was where the black people lived," says Wanda Bridgeforth. "And I mean all the black people--the doctors, the lawyers, the teachers. There wasn't any integration back then. Everyone was on the same block."

In 1939 Bridgeforth graduated from DuSable High School, part of the first class to spend all four years at the new school. "I knew Harold Washington, Dinah Washington, Dempsey Travis--they were all at DuSable around that time," says Bridgeforth. "Nat Cole, well, he went to Phillips."

After World War II Bridgeforth got married and moved farther south. The old neighborhood had become severely overcrowded as thousands of new residents poured into the city from the south. It was a particularly turbulent time for race relations in Chicago, as many white residents across the south side greeted their new black neighbors with bricks and stones.

By the time Wanda Martin was in high school, her family had moved even farther south, this time to Chatham. She graduated from Harlan High School, earned a college degree in education, married Louis--who was a contractor and carpenter--had a son, and started working as a high school art teacher. "In those days they were transferring teachers a lot," says Martin. "I got transferred three times in three years, and every time I got transferred I'd start to cry. Finally my husband said, 'Hold it. We're not going to cry about this. There's a building at 95th. We'll buy it. I'll fix it up, and you can manage it.'"

The building was a brick six-flat on 95th near Cottage Grove. "We called the lady who was selling it, and she said she had a verbal agreement from someone else," says Martin. "I said, 'Verbal doesn't mean a thing to me.' The next day I was in her doorway with a certified check for $6,500. The property was ours, and I never went back to teaching. We fixed that building up, rented it out. And a few years later we were ready to buy a new one in the old neighborhood."

Her story resembles the roll-up-your-sleeves stories north-siders offer when they recollect the good old days in Lakeview or Lincoln Park. The difference is that the Martins' new building was a 24-unit one at 4854 S. Michigan, in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, just a block from the Robert Taylor Homes.

It was 1981. Interest rates were rising, and the city's tax base was declining, as thousands of residents continued to move to the suburbs and hundreds of factories and manufacturers went under. The unemployment rate in many black neighborhoods rose above 50 percent. It was a bad time to buy a run-down building anywhere, much less on the south side.

"The building was in bad shape," says Martin. "We bought it on March 1, 1981. On March 15 the boiler quit. All of our money was in the down payment--we had nothing for repairs. Well, the repairman came out, and he looked at the boiler. He looked at me and he says, 'You seem like a nice lady who pays her bills. I'll tell you what. I'll do the work, and you pay over a period of time.' He came through for us, and we paid him back."

Within a few months they were making other repairs and evicting bad tenants. "I had a tenant who was selling drugs, so I evicted her," says Martin. "Well, my friends drive by and see this woman on the street with a wheelchair, and they say, 'Wanda, how can you do that?' I said, 'That woman doesn't need that wheelchair. She's got her drugs in her lap under the blanket.'

"I've seen it all. The neighborhood was down. It couldn't go any further. One day I'm driving up the alley and there were seven men with bottles of beer and wine on my Dumpster. I said, 'The 48th Street bar has got to move, gentlemen.'"

Within a few years the building had new fixtures and appliances, the floors and trim had been refinished, new lights had been installed, a garden had been added to the back. The Martins opened an office in the basement and went on expanding. By the late 1990s they had added a 24-unit building at 43rd and Indiana, a 12-flat at 4400 S. Indiana, a 20-unit building at 4420 S. Michigan, and a 6-flat at 4330 S. Michigan. They set the rent at about $700 for a two-bedroom and $600 for a one-bedroom.

"We bought a house on Michigan, which we rehabbed, and it's where we live," says Martin. "It's our intention to rebuild the community and keep something good alive. The funny thing is that my mother knew the first building we bought on Michigan. When I told her where it was, she said, 'Does it have a sunporch in the front?' Turns out her Aunt Lucretia used to live there. Mama used to stop off there for cookies on her way home from school.

"There's hundreds of stories like that down here. This is the cradle of black Chicago. That's why I believe so much in preservation. Every time we demolish one of these grand old buildings a little piece of our past is lost. For a while the city was in this big, fast-track business. You'd have a building where someone was dealing crack, and there would be a big push to tear it down. Well, it's not the building's fault that people were doing the drugs. We lost a lot of good buildings that way."

Despite the vacant lots, Martin doesn't foresee a rush of development anytime soon. "When you see all the vacant land you can understand that this area's ripe for speculation," she says. "Of course, speculation's a double-edged sword. I'm glad people are showing an interest. It's just that when money's being made, it's usually not by us.

"We're still a long, long way off from [gentrification]. I laugh when I tell this story, but one day I drove by and saw this white man and white woman out in front of a building on Michigan. They were gardening. I said, 'Wow, something's not right with this picture.' I screeched on the brakes and pulled over and said, 'Hello, my name is Wanda Martin, and I own the property down the street. Who are you?' They turned out to be a very nice couple who'd been looking for a beautiful house at an affordable price in a neighborhood that was convenient to public transportation."

Eventually the couple moved. "There are many psychological barriers that have to be crossed before this area becomes like the north side," says Martin. "Listen, Harris Bank [one of the Martins' lenders] would bring buses of people down here to see what we did. I'd trot them through, and the people were amazed. You'd go down stretches of streets of vacant lots--and all of a sudden you have a beautiful rehabbed building. Louis and I are rehabbing the six-flat at 43rd and Michigan. It's going to be luxury condos with outdoor decks and parking. Bigger and better than anything you'd get on the north side--and starting for $190,000.

"But I'm not kidding myself. There's no great transformation going on. It's step by step by step. When one of you builds some houses in a cornfield, 100 others come rushing in. When one of us comes down here, no one rushes in. They say, 'You can't go down there! Are you crazy?'

"I don't think I'm crazy. I look at it this way. I want to make money, but I want to give something back. I tell my younger tenants, 'I'll rent to you, but I don't want to be renting to you five or ten years from now.' I tell them, 'I love you when you pay your rent, but I'm only going to love you for 30 days. Then you have to pay me again.' I tell them all, 'Save your money, buy a building, come home. Rebuild your community.'"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kristina Krug.

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