WHAT IS THIS PLACE? Northwestern prof sees gold rush in his old neighborhood
Steven Rogers believes there’s gold in the blighted Englewood community on the South Side. Gold, you say? “Yes, gold,” he confirmed, figuratively speaking, of course. “That’s why one has to be a visionary to see it in the fertile land over there.”
Rogers, 50, an entrepreneurialfinance professor at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management and the Media Management Center at Northwestern University, has built his reputation on forecasting the next wave of opportunity. He’s following the pulse on Englewood’s transformation.
“If I were smarter, I would have been buying a lot sooner because the community is about to be revitalized,” he said. “Something extraordinary is about to happen.”
Part of that “something extraordinary” is the new $263 million Kennedy-King College campus in the heart of the community from 62nd to 65th and Halsted streets. The 40-acre campus, one of seven City Colleges of Chicago, includes a state-of-the art television and radio station, the Washburn Culinary Institute, library, theater, swimming pool, athletic field, day care center, science labs and employment center and faculty offices. It also offers career programs in business, computer technology, auto technology, culinary arts, communications, graphic design, dental hygiene and nursing, among many other programs.
Some see the new KennedyKing College as the anchor for dreams of the upcoming generation. “If the community grabs hold to this brass ring called education, they will be able to increase their earning power and improve their quality of life,” said Wayne Watson, chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago.
Watson grew up in Englewood, and remembers when times were good. “Englewood was the second busiest business district next to downtown,” he said. “We had Sears, Goldblatt’s and Wieboldt’s department stores and two theaters — all gone. Moving forward, the challenge will be to help the Englewood community restore and reaffirm its values, critical thinking skills and culture so that it can heal itself and grow,” Watson said.
“Let us not buy into the newspaper headlines and sociologists’ definitions that continue to dehumanize this community,” Watson said. “The residents of Englewood have a proud history and deserve a chance.”
Likewise, Rogers’ enthusiasm for Englewood extends beyond zeroing in on the next real estate deal. It’s about a passion and love for the community where he grew
up. In 1986, the millionaire-turnedprofessor purchased his mother’s old house near 60th and Stewart. He has been restoring it ever since, while buying and holding onto relatively cheap vacant lots until the gold rush comes, so to speak.
“Englewood left an impression on me,” he said. “It’s how I define myself. As a kid, I saw folks getting up every day going to work. It was a beautiful thing. I’d love to own the whole block that we lived on. I believe in the community that much.”
Rogers envisions the Englewood area becoming a new, gentrified community of mostly middleclass blacks, similar to neighborhoods like Bronzeville and the South Loop. This new economy, he said, probably will replace many poor residents, forced out by soaring property taxes and high-priced homes, although the city maintains its commitment to build more affordable housing.
Asked about what happens to those who might be displaced, Rogers said, “They will be going mostly to the south suburbs with Section 8 vouchers or dispersed among those who are doing well.”
If Rogers’ forecast is true, the effect in Englewood would further Mayor Daley’s agenda of making the walls of the neighborhood landscape invisible between the haves and have nots.
Strip away the broken dreams, crime and neglect and you too might begin to see the valuable nuggets of possibility Rogers is talking about in the rebirth of the mostly African-American community that is seven miles south of the Loop and spreads west from the Dan Ryan Expy. to about Western Avenue and south to 75th Street.
At the moment, Englewood’s comeback looks painfully slow, and will take decades of work to revive the community structurally and spiritually with jobs, housing, mental health and other social services, quality businesses and major retailers, many observers say.
“It’s a marathon in Englewood, not a sprint,” said Ald. Freddrenna Lyle (6th). “The community is coming back, but it is not experiencing the phenomenal growth of a Bronzeville or a South Loop, for obvious reasons.”
Lyle ticked off a few of those reasons, including the community’s high crime rate, longer distance from the Loop, housing that is primarily made up of singlefamily homes and rental apartments and high percentage of economically depressed residents. About 85 percent of residents are at the national poverty level, figures show.
To combat systemic problems, City Hall is steering a massive $150 million plan to the South Side to build 550 single-family homes to restore the community that has become a national symbol of urban decay. There are more than 5,000 empty parcels.
The revitalization plan comes equipped with community resources. A new police station is under construction near 63rd and Bishop. Massive tax subsidies seek to lure developers, for as little as $1 for a vacant lot. Qualified first-time home buyers will find low-rate mortgages and special lending programs — as much as $40,000 up-front cash available toward a down payment.
“In many ways, the city is connecting the dots to bring together a larger development strategy,” said Ellen Sahli, acting commissioner for the Department of Housing. “One thing alone won’t do it, but it’s the new homes investments, the new Kennedy-King College investment; it’s the rental housing investment — all these things working together — to create the market that will be attractive to people.”
That strategy features eight affordable housing developments — single and multifamily — as well as rental apartments that have been completed over the last seven years, Sahli said. These include the 114-unit St. Bernard’s Place near 63rd and Yale Street and Phase II and Phase III of Antioch Homes near 65th and Normal.
Four other housing developments in Englewood and nearby areas are scheduled for completion within five years. They are Rebirth of Englewood, near 65th and Normal; New Birth, near 67th and Sangamon; the converted Strand Hotel with condos and artist lofts, at 63rd and Cottage Grove, and Phase II and Phase III of Columbia Pointe, near 63rd Street and Woodlawn in Woodlawn.
The price cap for many of the new affordable homes for sale is $195,000.
“These are the first new homes in the community in decades,” Sahli said. “This is building on a substantial city investment to preserve rental housing and build affordable for-sale housing that can meet the income guidelines to ensure there is place in the community for everyone.”
Some community activists aren’t swallowing the city’s affordable housing strategy whole. Leon Jackson, executive director of Teamworks Englewood, a nonprofit initiative providing technical support to existing organizations, draws this scenario:
“Let’s be positive and take a working family with two small children with a gross household income of $30,000. They purchase a home for $165,000 with a 7.5 percent interest rate. Housing typically takes up one-third of a family’s household income. Even with the incentives, the question be- comes: ‘How will they be able to live after they pay the mortgage?’”
Today, the Englewood community area includes six wards — the 3rd, 6th, 15th, 16th, 17th and 20th — most of which constitutes the 1st District of U.S. Congressman Bobby Rush (D-Ill). Four of the six aldermen are new: Pat Dowell (3rd), Toni Foulkes (15th), Joann Thompson (16th) and Willie Cochran (20th). Incumbents are Freddrenna Lyle (6th) and Latasha Thomas (17th).
Attracting major retailers and, at the same time, tearing down negative stereotypes about the community continue to be among the most difficult hurdles to overcome, Lyle acknowledged.
“The fear that people have about the Englewood name is generated in part because of the violence that occurs. The other part is the media’s attention to the problem. Years ago, the media labeled any area west of 22nd Street and the Dan Ryan — where someone was shot — as Englewood. It’s not all Englewood. It’s taken a while to get the news media to differentiate between the different neighborhoods.
“It affects our ability to bring in retail development to the area,” she said. “But for the people who live and work in Englewood, they have a different perception. They know that on many of these blocks nothing bad has happened. There are people who have been there for 30 and 40 years who would go no place else.”
Although change is slow, Lyle sees hope in some of the young professionals either purchasing newly constructed homes or rehabbing old houses as well as in the sprinkling of whites and other racial groups choosing to live in the community.
“Englewood will soon see the trend of continuous development and growth that other Chicago neighborhoods have seen,” said Sanina Ellison, a broker for Keller Williams Realty Chicago Consulting Group. “There are a lot of developments driving the area.”
During the first half of the 20th century, Englewood appealed to German, Swedish and Irish immigrants in search of a better life. They would later move out as blacks came from the South in search of the same dream. Over the last three decades, the community has dwindled from about 90,000 residents to about 40,000 residents, according to U.S. Census figures. Rates of crime, mortality, unemployment and poor achievement are among the city’s highest.
Tracey Robinson-English is a Chicago- based journalist and senior media consultant at Northwestern University's Media Management Center. Reach her at TraceyEnglish@aim.com.