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Woodlawn’s renaissance: Chicago neighborhood poised to bloom in time for Obama Presidential Center

CHICAGO-- A South Side community is working to pull itself up by its bootstraps. Residents are coming together to design a 20 year plan that is already reducing crime and is expected to attract new business, investment and new residents just in time for the arrival of the Obama Presidential Center.

Residents of Woodlawn say they’re in the midst of a renaissance.

Jeane Clark has fond memories of growing up in Woodlawn.

“We had a penny arcade. Me and my friends would all go on 63rd street so we could buy skirts and blouses so that we could dress alike,” says Clark.

The elevated tracks between Cottage Grove and King Drive on 63rd Street one of thee most recognized in the city.

“I remember Woodlawn as a child. We didn’t live here but we came down here to shop and take care of business. I remember all the shops and stores,” says current resident Debra Adams.

That thriving community Adams and Clark once knew, is now decades removed.

“Coming back to Woodlawn, I’m driving down 63rd Street and I’m going, ‘this makes no sense! What happened?!’,” says Adams.

They were more than disappointed to find the shops they used to frequent, are now reduced to empty lots.

Well over 600 vacant properties now fill the community, where gun violence is also an issue.

Determined to help turn things around, Adams eventually found the “The Network of Woodlawn,” a community group focused on restoring this area.

“It’s up to the community to galvanize itself. To have a plan for itself,” says Dr. Byron Brazier. He heads the Network of Woodlawn, which is over 500 strong, comprised of residents and community stakeholders. He’s also Pastor of south side mega church, Apostolic Church of God.

The Network of Woodlawn is now actively working on a 20 year development plan for the community.

Planning started in 2013, but became even more crucial once President Obama announced his Presidential Center would be built in Woodlawn’s Jackson Park.

The Network of Woodlawn has named this initiative, “1 Woodlawn,” with the primary goal helping to shape Woodlawn’s development.  They are also working to prevent gentrification, as the economic boom spurs around the Presidential Center.

The group is wants to preserve affordable housing options, and have hired an urban planner, while trying to attract the type of businesses they’d like to see move-in.

“We’d like to see an historical museum. A jazz club. We’re looking at a doggie grooming place. We’re looking for ethnic restaurants. We’re looking for a gym,” says Clark.

This group is taking a hands-on approach when it comes to addressing issues like education and crime.

Malcolm Williams says when he moved in two years ago, there were 7 shootings on his block that summer.

“The community realizing that the police can’t do everything, right. We have to do our part. And so once we did that, it changed like overnight,” says Williams.  “It went from everyday to nothing.”

Dr. Brazier says gang-related homicides in Woodlawn dropped from 23 in 2012, to 4 in 2016.

“We believe we’re on the right trajectory.”

Residents say Woodlawn’s renaissance is happening right before their eyes—and they hope their plans will serve as a model for other struggling communities.

“If you’re not a part of the process, then you won’t be heard,” says Williams.

Dr. Brazier anticipates by September, the Network of Woodlawn will begin making presentations to the city about its plans.

To find out more about the initiative, check out the links below: