After seeing Clybourne Park at the Steppenwolf a few weekends ago, I wondered what Loraine Hansberry would have thought of present day Woodlawn.
Hansberry’s play A Raisin In The Sun was based on her family’s battle to purchase a home in the then all white Washington Park neighborhood in west Woodlawn. The Hansberry’s three year legal fight led to the Supreme Court decision to ban Chicago’s racially restrictive housing covenants.
The home, which sits at 6140 South Rhodes, was designated a historical landmark by the city in 2010.
The quality neighborhood that the Hansberry’s fought so diligently to move into is a far cry from its former self.
In fact, Woodlawn didn’t decline because black people didn’t know how to take care of their own neighborhoods---a popular belief of arm chair racists---it happened because most of the residents of Woodlawn didn’t control a neighborhood's two most precious commodities; the property and the businesses.
It’s difficult to address quality of life issues when your landlord lives miles away and is crowding people in buildings to maximize rental profit.
It’s also difficult to keep a local business owners engaged when they feel little connection to their customers. Additionally, the owner may have also moved along with their friends and relatives to the suburbs.
Who wants to make that commute back into the city everyday?
Block busting real estate agents combined with a fleeing business base and absentee landlords led to Woodlawn’s decline.
It was the beginning of life as it currently exists in Woodlawn.
So let’s recap: A ground breaking legal battle was followed by a brief period of tranquility and home ownership for a newly visible black middle class. Yet eventually all of those gains were erased by absentee landlords, deteriorating housing stock and fleeing businesses.
Ms. Hansberry once described her time in Woodlawn as “hellishly hostile.”
I wonder how she would react to the neighborhood’s continued betrayal by some of its iconic institutions.
Those same institutions that claim to have Woodlawn’s best interests at heart.
She may think that the “hellishly hostile” scenes from the past can't compare to what seems like our neighborhood’s bleak emerging future.