WOODLAWN — Woodlawn is growing for the first time in more than 15 years and is now outpacing Hyde Park as young African-American families return to the neighborhood.
Newly released Census estimates show Woodlawn has grown by three times as many people as Hyde Park between 2010 and 2015. Though a lot of that has to do with the University of Chicago’s push south, there’s more at work.
Wendy Walker Williams, executive director of the South East Chicago Commission, a nonprofit that advocates for economic development in the neighborhoods surrounding the university, said she thinks Woodlawn has become more convenient for people.
"Part of the allure is the location. It is easily accessible by the lakefront and transit-oriented and has a strong anchor institution, the University of Chicago," Williams said. "With this anchor comes investment from the U. of C."
Young black families are moving to the core of the neighborhood with its row houses and six-flat apartment buildings. Meanwhile, the university has caused the northern fringes of the neighborhood to skew younger and more diverse as students move south.
Between 2000 and 2010, Woodlawn saw a population drop of 3,499 people, going from 27,086 people to 23,587. But that decline has begun to reverse with the addition of 2,859 people between 2010 and 2015.
Lavell Short, a pastor, stay-at-home dad and part-time after-school program mentor, moved to Woodlawn in 2014 and said he's been surprised by how much he likes the neighborhood. He is now thinking about giving up renting and buying a home.
"After a year, I saw a lot of changes and businesses and restaurants opening," Short said. "I thought, if I stay here for five years, it will be great."
The reduction in crime and improvements in the schools also have persuaded Short to stay, he said.
"I've been shocked there are so many [top-rated] schools," Short said. "I think in five to 10 years, this will be the place to be."
He said he's unaffiliated with the university, but he likes the new university projects in the neighborhood, like a new charter school and new dorm.
A big chunk of the increase in population in Woodlawn is directly attributable to the university, which moved 787 students from Hyde Park to a new residence hall at 6031 S. Ellis Ave.
But Woodlawn also is attracting more young African-American families south of the area, where the university is exerting its greatest influence on the neighborhood.
The area from 63rd to 67th streets between Dorchester and Ellis avenues grew the fastest. With 1,200 new people in the core of the neighborhood, the population rose by 42 percent in five years.
Eric Ice-Gipson said he moved from 65th Street and Kimbark in 2012 and is now thinking of moving back to Woodlawn from Kenwood with more people he knows now in Woodlawn.
"I loved it over there. On our two blocks we had three or four community gardens," Ice-Gipson said. "It allowed people to develop the land and literally live off of it."
He said the neighborhood's reputation for violence has always been worse than the reality, and he would allow his 7-year-old son to walk the dog alone in the neighborhood. He said he thinks it's only grown safer since he moved away, and people are now starting to realize it.
Williams said she thinks the university's incentives for staff to move to Woodlawn also partially explain the increase in population.
The university has been pushing for more of its staff to live close to campus for several years, and now even offers payments for faculty and staff to move to Woodlawn that it doesn’t offer in other neighborhoods around campus. Employees can get $10,000 toward the down payment on a house if they move to sections of the neighborhood east of Cottage Grove Avenue.
From July 1, 2015, to June 30, 2016, seven employees of the university bought homes in Woodlawn through the program, bringing along 12 family members, according to Calmetta Coleman, a spokeswoman for the university.
Another eight employees took advantage of a rental assistance program through the university in Woodlawn, according to Coleman.
An additional eight employees have used the program to buy homes in Woodlawn since June 30, according to Coleman.
But there is more at work. Census data show it’s mostly young renters moving to Woodlawn, with an increase of nearly 300 occupied rental units between 2010 and 2015. Owner-occupied units fell to 591 from 659 in 2010.
The number of families has grown to 917 from 732 for the area. The people moving in are richer, more educated and younger with larger families — and all African-American.
The average household income in the area went up to $35,461 from $34,792; the average age skewed younger to 35 from 36.6; and family size went up to 3.68 from 3.02.
Williams said efforts by her organization and others to clean up the appearance of the neighborhood through grants to businesses to improve their facades, and more family-friendly events, like the Children's Soul Book Festival, are likely part of Woodlawn's new attraction for families.
"It is also the people," Williams said. "The residents in Woodlawn love Woodlawn and want nothing but the best for their community."
From 2000 to 2014, Woodlawn seemed to be becoming increasingly white, as whites moved in and African-Americans moved out in much larger numbers.
Jake Sapstein, who opened Robust Coffee in 2010 in Woodlawn and also lives in the neighborhood, said he thinks changes in Hyde Park are affecting who's moving south.
"I think people are getting priced out of Hyde Park," Sapstein said. "Hyde Park had been undervalued for so long, and now people are seeing that."
He said it's clear to him from the people coming through the coffee shop now compared to six years ago that there are more young families in the neighborhood.
African-American families are now moving into Woodlawn at a rate more than four times that of whites. The African-American population increased by 1,770 compared to an increase of 448 for whites between 2010 and 2015, and those numbers are largely explained by the move of the university’s dorm to Woodlawn.
In 2014, it looked like only a matter of time before Woodlawn would become a neighborhood as ethnically diverse as Hyde Park. As many as 3,825 African-Americans moved out of the neighborhood from 2000 to 2014, as 1,982 white people moved in. Modest increases in the Hispanic and Asian population in Woodlawn have been ongoing for at least 15 years, but they still are the smallest groups in the neighborhood.
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