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Hyde Park, Woodlawn, South Shore

North Side Alderman Tours Woodlawn As Obama Center Activists Urge Him To Support Community Benefits Agreement

Ald. Harry Osterman (48th) said he would continue working with South Side aldermen and activists — but he didn't commit a timeline for bringing the CBA ordinance up for a vote in the housing committee.

Obama Center CBA activists Ebonée Green and Deborah Harrington prepare for their trolley tour of Woodlawn with North Side Ald. Harry Osterman (48th).
Maxwell Evans/ Block Club Chicago
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WOODLAWN — North Side Ald. Harry Osterman (48th) headed to the South Side Tuesday for a trolley tour through Woodlawn, where he heard from residents who are worried about the future Obama Center pricing them out of their neighborhood.

The wide-ranging tour stopped at culturally significant locations throughout Woodlawn, from “A Raisin in the Sun” author’s Lorraine Hansberry’s former home to Daley’s Restaurant, Chicago’s oldest eatery.

What each site had in common was a contribution to the neighborhood’s sense of black community, organizers said. They’re hoping Osterman, chair of the Committee on Housing and Real Estate, was swayed enough to fight for a community benefits agreement (CBA) ordinance.

After the tour, Osterman said the city “has many different ways” to help keep communities affordable.

Osterman did not make any specific plans for bringing the ordinance to a vote in the housing committee, where it was introduced July 24. He said he’s committed to working with resident advocates to prevent displacement.

Credit: Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago
Activist Deborah Harrington shows off a 1954 photo of her and her brother standing at her parents’ sandwich shop at 63rd Street and Rhodes Avenue with Ald. Harry Osterman next to her. The property is now a vacant lot.

The tour began with a ride down 60th Street, where guides highlighted a boom in University of Chicago development that coincided with the university’s winning bid to partner with the Obama Center.

The trolley then rode past the homes of two black American historical figures, Lorraine Hansberry and Emmett Till, located a half-mile apart.

BYP100 activist Ebonée Green told Osterman that in the neighborhood, “regular folks” were able to coexist with some of the biggest names in black American history.

Among that population were Deborah Harrington’s parents, who owned a restaurant at 63rd Street and Rhodes Avenue as she was growing up in the 1950s.

Harrington, an activist and “native daughter” of Woodlawn, said years of disinvestment had dramatically changed the neighborhood since then. Her parents’ former shop beside the Green Line tracks is now an empty lot.

Now that Woodlawn has the potential to rise up again through the Obama Center, she wants to see a CBA ordinance “protect the rights” of its permanent residents.

“People don’t consider the fact that people live here, they work here,” Harrington said. “These people want to stay in this neighborhood.”

It is crucial to preserve the history created by those like the Harringtons, the Tills and the Hansberrys, Green said. That can be done by protecting the “regular folks” from rent and property tax hikes that come with gentrification. In other neighborhoods, increased growth and development has forced mostly people of color out of their communities.

Credit: Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago
Activist and longtime Woodlawn resident Deborah Harrington (left) shares how disinvestment and displacement has impacted her neighborhood, as Ald. Harry Osterman (middle) takes notes.

“This neighborhood is key to the national civil rights story,” Green said. “When this neighborhood is being developed, we want this to remain a black community.”

Rev. Jeffery Campbell, pastor of Woodlawn Baptist Church, said some members in his congregation are thinking of moving — or have already moved — as property values continue to rise.

“If I’m going to sell my house, (an increase in property values) does me good,” Campbell said. “If I want to live here, it does not.”

He sees the CBA ordinance, which would institute a property tax freeze pending Cook County’s approval, as a way to keep longtime residents around.

In the face of rising home values, the ordinance also calls for the creation and preservation of affordable housing.

The 6400 block of South Kenwood Avenue, lined with developments from the New Homes for Chicago program, could provide a model for affordable housing under the CBA ordinance, Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP) housing organizer Devondrick Jeffers said.

Similar developments could also break the stereotypes of blight and decay associated with such housing, he said as the trolley drove down the block.

“What you see here is not what folks envision when you say affordable housing,” Jeffers said. “The homes remain single-family homes and two-flats for families who make up to 100 percent [area median income] … This is a pretty well-developed block.”

Credit: Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago
The 6400 block of Kenwood Avenue, which is lined with affordable housing through the New Homes for Chicago program.

As the tour wrapped up with a stop at Daley’s Restaurant for sweet potato pie and peach cobbler, Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) told Osterman that displacement was not unique to Woodlawn.

Taylor urged the chairman and the rest of the City Council to enact the CBA ordinance and set a precedent in the city. Residents like those in Osterman’s North Side ward could face displacement in the future too, she said.

“We’ve got to get to the place where everybody in the city of Chicago is a priority, because greed has no end,” Taylor said. “It’s us today; it’s going to be y’all tomorrow.”

Former President Barack Obama has long-opposed a CBA, saying a written agreement wasn’t necessary because the Obama Foundation is a nonprofit and is bringing money and other benefits to the community that it otherwise would not have received.

“I know the neighborhood,” Obama said in 2017. “I know that the minute you start saying ‘Well, we’re thinking about signing something that will determine who’s getting jobs and contracts and this and that’ … next thing I know, I’ve got 20 organizations coming out of the woodwork.”

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