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New chapter being written in Chicago Lawn

You can still buy bacon buns—a diet-be-damned delicacy not carried by the super-markets—at a small Lithuanian bakery not far from Marquette Park. You can, that is, after the lady behind the counter buzzes the electronic lock on the store’s front door.

It’s not like the old days, she explains, when you knew everyone in the neighborhood and they knew you.

Photo: Eric Young Smith

Jim Capraro, executive director of Greater Southwest Development Corp.

Perhaps not, but a few hundred good and energetic people in this Southwest Side community are working to bring back that feeling of knowing your neighbor. Indeed, getting to know, respect and trust one another, regardless of race or ethnic background, is central to the quality-of-life plan for Chicago Southwest, the collection of neigh-borhoods surrounding Marquette Park.

Trust is a tall order, given the tumultuous history of the place. “You could say everything has changed here but the names on the street signs,” says James “Jim” Capraro. He should know. Capraro grew up in what was “white ethnic” Marquette Park. In an organizing career spanning four decades, he has won a national reputation for helping his community deal with change—racial, ethnic, economic—as executive director of the Greater Southwest Development Corporation (GSDC.)

Moving up

But one very important thing has not changed. Ever since the rust-red bricks of its bungalows were laid in the 1920s, Marquette Park has been the city’s quintessential “move-up” neighborhood.

Photo: Eric Young Smith

Sturdy and attractive bungalows have provided move-up housing for generations of Chicagoans.

It’s still where unsure immigrants become confident new Americans; where renters become homeowners; where children of families who lived day-to-day become planners of college for their kids and a modest retirement for themselves. It is an incubator of the middle class.

First it was the Lithuanians and Poles moving up from port-of-entry neighborhoods. White ethnics? Of the 51,347 people counted in Chicago Lawn in 1960, only three were “Negro.” Another 50 were “other races.” Among the rest, many had their baptism, wedding and funeral at the same communion rail. They cashed paychecks and swapped stories at the same corner tap. Rode the same buses to the same close-by factories.

This cozy world began to unravel during the early 1960s as grown children began moving up themselves, mostly to suburbia. This benign migration took an ugly turn in the late ’60s, when African-American families began moving west across the racial boundaries of Western Avenue and the B&O tracks, into neighborhoods that greeted them with fear and panic.

But first there was rage, the low point in 1966 when open-housing marchers, led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., were set upon by a mob of 2,500 whites. The violence lasted five hours. Dr. King was felled, momentarily, by a thrown rock. Cars were burned, bus windows smashed, 44 arrested and 31 sent to hospitals.

“I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the South,” Dr. King would later say, but “I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hostile and hate-filled as I’ve seen in Chicago.”

Capraro witnessed that awful day and the memory feeds still his ambition to build a better Marquette Park. It hasn’t been easy. There’s been a steady evaporation of white residents, now less than 10 percent of the local population.

Diverse and stable

Photo: Eric Young Smith

With new families moving in, the neighborhood's population had increased to 61,412  by 2000, up nearly 20 percent in 10 years.

But there has been no replay of the stark disinvestment that so devastated other Chicago neighborhoods. Indeed, there was a net gain of housing units in the ‘90s and the population grew to a record 61,412 by 2000, about one-half African-American and one-third Hispanic. The Latino families have helped rejuvenate Catholic parishes such as St. Rita, St. Nicholas and St. Mary Star-of-the-Sea. And Middle Eastern families have also discovered the good value of the bungalow.

What’s emerging may be Chicago’s best example of a truly diverse, yet stable, working-class neighborhood. But it has been a fight. For years Capraro, GSDC, Southwest Organizing Project and others have battled block-busting, red-lining and FHA mortgage scams. Foreclosures and board-ups are still a problem (see Predatory lending story). And speculators are paying top dollar for houses and two-flats, then renting to families with Housing Choice rent vouchers worth up to $1,500 per month, which drives up other rents and sale prices.

When not outbid by speculators, GSDC and its ally, Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago Lawn/Gage Park, have rehabbed and resold many a brick beauty to families looking to put down roots. They worked with the City of Chicago on the “Green Bungalow Block” at 6400 S. Fairfield, where rehabbed homes feature environmental improvements. On other blocks, once-worn houses are now showpieces.

Photo: Eric Young Smith

Tyrone and Lynn McDaniel in their vintage bungalow: "a dream come true."

“This is our dream come true,” says Lynn McDaniel of her bungalow at 60th and Maplewood. A clinical therapist for a mental health council, Lynn and husband Tyrone, a social worker, bought the place last summer from GSDC. “Our neighbors told us it used to be a drug house,” she said. “What we have now is a classic. We paid $175,000 for a vintage bungalow that, on the North Side where we were renting, would have sold for $450,000.”

Greater Southwest has made about $500 million worth of dreams come true since 1974, from retention of Nabisco’s Oreo cookie factory to the 2004 opening of the Churchview Supportive Living Facility at 63rd and Rockwell, with an assist from LISC and the City of Chicago.

That’s what Capraro and GSDC do—bring people and resources together. Creatively and methodically, they have identified and engaged neighborhood leaders from hospital CEOs to block club presidents. Chicago Lawn’s first NCP task force meeting was blessed jointly by a Hispanic priest, an African-American minister and a Muslim imam. They went on to envision a new community, set strategies for achieving it, and assign deadlines and who’s going to do what.

Will the vision be realized? Bet your bacon buns.

Contact: Donna Stites, GSDC, 773-436-1000, ext. 118, d.stites@greatersouthwest.org

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