The last time activists from the southwest side made the news was in the wake of Harold Washington's first mayoral victory. Their mostly white working-class communities were under siege, they said, threatened by Washington and his civil rights agenda. If the new mayor wasn't kept in check, thousands of whites would flee to the suburbs.
Seven years have passed, and portions of Washington's civil rights agenda have been implemented, but the predicted white flight never occurred. In fact, the area (running roughly from Western to Kedzie avenues and from 47th to 75th streets) is as stable as ever.
What's more, a group of church, business, and community leaders--the Southwest Catholic Cluster Project--has emerged to tell the city the good news about the southwest side. Boosterism, plain and simple, is their purpose. Forget fear and panic, they say. No community is safer, more convenient, or more reasonably priced than the southwest side.
"It may be a secret to some, but we represent the best real estate deals in the city," says Jim Capraro, executive director of the Greater Southwest Development Corporation and a leading member of the project. "We've got what people want. The housing stock here is new; most of it's post-World War II. With the southwest transit line starting [in 1992], we're only 20 minutes from the Loop."
To aid in the prospective boom, priests at ten southwest-side churches have distributed to their congregations copies of a 15-page pamphlet called "The Future of Southwest Chicago: Where Are We Going? How Will We Get There?" Written by Capraro, the pamphlet predicts a new age in southwest-side real estate, with thousands of Loop office workers and professionals moving to Gage Park, Chicago Lawn, and other nearby communities.
Some of these new residents will be white, but many will be black, Hispanic, Asian, or Arab. Instead of resisting them, the pamphlet maintains, current residents should welcome them. Any interest in the area, it's argued, guarantees a good market, and therefore stability and higher home values.
"I've heard it a dozen times from well-meaning friends who say, 'When are you going to get out of that neighborhood?'" says Capraro. "We're all supposed to go to the suburbs and live like the Brady Bunch. Well, we'd like to prove that living on the southwest side is not something only a fool or romantic would do. We want to prove that it makes economic sense to live here--that it shows moxie."
It's a hard sell; for many young professionals--particularly those who live on the north side--the southwest side is a distant land. Because much of the area west of Western was developed after World War II, it has a suburban feel. And until the southwest transit line opens, the area's only public-transit link to the Loop is the Archer Avenue bus--which means a bumpy ride on a torturously slow carrier almost always jammed at rush hour.
Beyond that, there's the southwest side's history of racial tension. In 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led open-housing marches through this area. When the marchers reached Marquette Park, at 67th and Kedzie, they were greeted by bands of rock-throwing thugs. Cars were overturned, fires lit. King, who was himself bloodied by a rock, said, "The people of Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate."
In years following, local schools were shaken by angry antibusing protests. The Nazis opened an office not far from Marquette Park, and in the 15th Ward's 1975 aldermanic election, one Nazi picked up roughly 10 percent of the vote. Whether the stereotype was fair or not, the southwest side became synonymous with bigotry and racial intolerance.
"There's no question that we were hurt by these moments in our past," says Dominic Pacyga, a member of the project and professor of urban history at Columbia College. "Overall, I don't think this area is any more bigoted than the rest of Chicago. But this is where the open-housing marches happened."
The tensions may be partly the result of fear caused by years of racial change. Whites and blacks had always lived on opposite sides of major arteries on the southwest side. But as poor blacks from the south poured into the city during the 60s and 70s, many of the racial boundaries began to change. First Halsted, then Ashland, then Damen became the racial dividing line. Now most blacks live east of Western Avenue, although some hotheads complain that if whites don't "look out," blacks will "take over" and Kedzie will become the new dividing line.
Over the years, various leaders have emerged to "defend" the neighborhood from becoming all black. Some of them--like former 15th Ward Alderman Francis X. Lawlor--were pretty pugnacious. They called those who opposed their tactics hypocrites, noting that many white liberals lived in all-white enclaves. After Washington's election, one local group, the Southwest Parish and Neighborhood Federation, joined forces with a group on the northwest side and established a "white ethnic agenda."
"The traditional history of socioeconomic change in Chicago has been segregation, integration, and then resegregation, as blacks move in and whites move out," says Pacyga. "The changes are usually sudden and violent, and both blacks and whites suffer. We want to change that."
The irony is that those who panic over racial change have exaggerated the area's problems, which for the city are minor. In fact, despite the histrionics of some local leaders, Gage Park and West Lawn have lower crime rates than most north-side communities. Most of the property there is well kept, and city services are good. Many of the commercial strips are ailing, but that's true of most neighborhoods--black, white, and Hispanic--throughout the city.
It's not likely that the neighborhoods west of Western will become all black, because the migration of blacks to Chicago has fallen off since the 70s. Over the last few years, most people moving to the southwest side have been Hispanic, Asian, and Arab.
Besides, project members argue, there's no reason to panic even if blacks do move into the community. Many black neighborhoods--Chatham, Pill Hill, and Jeffery Manor, to name a few--are as safe and orderly as Marquette Park. The hottest real estate in Chicago is in Lincoln Park, Lake View, and other integrated north-side neighborhoods--property in the shadow of Cabrini-Green, for example, is now worth millions.
It's inevitable that some of this prosperity reach the southwest side, Capraro says, if for no other reason than that the price of north-side housing is so high.
"What's happening is that the economy is transformed," says Capraro. "We're becoming a service-oriented economy. The kind of working-class people we will see are very different than the ones we've known. Men in coveralls with ink or oil under their fingernails are being replaced by women in Reeboks who wait at bus stops to go downtown and work at the word processors. These people are going to want to live somewhere. Many of them will want to buy a home. And we want them to look at our community!"
Whether they buy on the southwest side may hinge on whether the area can overcome its reputation for bigotry.
"Most young middle-income home buyers don't want to live in a neighborhood which plays host to the antics of racial extremist groups," Capraro wrote in his pamphlet. "They will not desire an environment where their children will witness bigotry and bad behavior. These new working-class families have the assets to choose to live elsewhere. If they don't select our community prices will not increase. IT'S A MATTER OF SIMPLE ECONOMICS."
Capraro emphasizes throughout the pamphlet the economic value of the southwest side. He notes that homes that would sell for as much as $250,000 in high-crime areas north of the Loop go for about $60,000 in Gage Park and West Lawn. "If a house costs $120,000, you're looking at a $1,300 mortgage," says Capraro. "But down here you're talking a $600 mortgage, or maybe even $500. It's no better in the suburbs. I bought my 24,000-square-foot home for $50,000. That would cost you a quarter of a million dollars in the least expensive suburb."
The project's leaders hope to model their area on suburbs like Oak Park, Evanston, and Skokie, which boast of their housing stock, good schools, and racial tolerance.
"I attend meetings all over the city, and a couple of weeks ago I was in Edgewater," says Capraro. "This woman told me that her property has doubled in value, but she can't go out at night because she lives in a 'high rape corridor.'
"A little while later I was in Humboldt Park, and this real estate dealer told me that prices there are going through the roof. I said, 'What about crime?' And he says, 'We have a lot of murders, but things are getting better.' Well, when I drove home to the southwest side, I was thinking, 'We don't have a lot of murders, and people aren't worried about getting raped, and yet there's all this talk about our property prices going down. It doesn't make sense.'"
The pamphlet was the project's first step toward changing perceptions of the southwest side. It has also been reproduced as a two-page ad in the local newspaper, and in the next few months, the group hopes to distribute other pamphlets.
"The other day I met this fellow who works for a very large real estate firm," says Capraro. "He's very successful, and he told me that he and other investors were buying bungalows on the southwest side near the proposed stops along the new elevated line. He figured that property would appreciate in time, and then he could sell them for profit.
"It's speculation, and we don't like to see too much of it because it would drive up taxes and drive out a lot of people who would settle their families here and make a solid contribution to the community. But my point is, that was the first time we'd heard of real estate speculation in this part of town. If that's the most of our problems, we'll be doing all right."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.