HYDE PARK — The University of Chicago is cutting loose the South East Chicago Commission, its nonprofit that was once a formidable crime-fighting group and a tool used to clear slums.
The university announced late Thursday that over the next year it will spin off the 65-year-old nonprofit into an autonomous group with less direct control by the university.
Calmetta Coleman, a spokeswoman for the university, said it will reduce its funding for the organization and will give up its ability to approve new board members and appoint the board’s chairman.
Shirley Newsome, chairman of the commission’s board, said it’s time for the organization to set its own agenda separate from the priorities of the university’s Office of Civic Engagement.
“We are not at odds with the university; they are not our enemy,” Newsome said. “This is the child leaving the parent.”
The move may make sense for the organization that now pushes for economic development and beautification projects like flower boxes and bike racks on the neighborhood’s commercial strips. But for people who remember the vast majority of organization’s history, it marks the end of a long chapter of doggedly fighting off crime waves in Hyde Park unlike anything seen in the neighborhood in decades.
Robert Mason ran the organization for nearly 30 years before leaving in 2010, but said he first encountered the commission as a detective with the Chicago Police Department investigating sex crimes in the 1960s.
“There was always a lot of rapes here. I know because that was my specialty,” Mason said Friday. “A lot of people don’t remember how bad it was. There was a lot of work to be done.”
He said he liked working cases in Hyde Park because the organization's staff attorneys would make sure victims got representation and witnesses showed up to testify.
“That certainly caught my attention. That’s the first I had seen that in years,” said Mason, who spent 25 years with the department. “It was nice. You knew you would have your victim in court and witnesses when needed.”
Sections of 55th Street lost many of the bars and small storefronts that were the entertainment hub of the neighborhood, but also viewed as a source of crime. [Flickr/Eric Fischer]
In 1952 when the commission was created, Hyde Park had the second-highest crime rate in the city, according to Mason. He has kept meticulous records on crime in the neighborhood going back decades and does it for a living now as a crime analyst for the University of Chicago Police Department.
The South East Chicago Commission was a constant flow of grease on the rusty gears of Chicago bureaucracy needed to curb crime.
If a building wasn’t up to code, the organization made sure someone was calling the city’s Department of Buildings until an inspector came out. If a slumlord was in building court, the organization made sure someone was there to advocate to the judge. If a victim of a crime had a court date, the organization made sure someone got them to court to testify.
“The alderman was doing their job as best they could, but they didn’t have the staff or time to have people in building court or calling the Building Department five days a week,” Mason said.
The organization was a tacit acknowledgement that the system only really worked when someone was watching.
Mason said it was expensive for the university to be those eyes and ears at all times, but the problems felt dire on the South Side.
“Other executive directors were envious of our budgets and salaries,” Mason said of the organization that received no government funding until around 2010. “It was essential. Neighborhood crime was out of hand.”
Mason rifled through old crime stats to demonstrate why the university was willing to shell out the money for on-staff attorneys and other staff for the manpower-intensive organization.
He said in 2016 there were 142 robberies in the commission’s old beat from 47th to 61st streets and Cottage Grove Avenue to the lake. He flipped back to 1975, shortly before he started at the commission in 1982, when there were 546 robberies, averaging more than two a day in July and August of that year.
Mason said he’s still surprised the organization was never replicated elsewhere.
“I’ve never seen another organization like that in the entire country,” Mason said.
The South East Chicago Commission lead the planning for Urban Renewal in Hyde Park and later shifted its plans to fighting crime. The group is now changing its mission again. [Flickr/Eric Fischer]
But the organization has always been viewed skeptically by the neighborhood for its role as the local planning body for federal urban renewal projects in the late 1950s and early '60s.
Gary Ossewaarde, the historian for the Hyde Park Kenwood Community Conference, wrote that the commission gained a reputation as the political arm of the university under its first executive director Julian Levi.
“He imaginatively leveraged the prestige, power and finances of the university and pursued every avenue for funding and help, from Chicago to Washington, writing and having enacted his own laws where necessary,” Ossewaarde wrote. “Meticulous cross-indexed files were kept on all suspected violators of housing or criminal codes. And Levi was prepared to use every trick, especially to hassle and drive out undesired real estate practitioners or get needed land and control its redevelopment.”
Levi's tactics, while effective, were not unlike those used to prevent Carl Hansberry, who was African-American, from buying property in Hyde Park and Kenwood in the '30s and '40s after U.S. Supreme Court rulings whittled away restrictive covenants that prevented African-Americans from buying property in the neighborhood.
Urban renewal cleared out more than2 acres of blocks deemed “slums” and took with it much of the neighborhood’s nightlife.
Nearly 50 bars, clubs and small shops along Lake Park Avenue and 55th Street were razed.
The “ones with dirty windows and rotting floors; and taverns, from whose murky interiors drunks stumbled onto the streets in early morning hours,” had vanished, wrote Julia Abrahamson, the first director of the Hyde Park Kenwood Community Conference and author of “A Neighborhood Finds Itself.” “But gone too were the familiar places run by pleasant people who had served Hyde Park well. The corner drugstore, the hardware and cleaning establishment, the repair shop and the 55th Street Post Office had all disappeared.”
The experiment took more than 40 years and a constant infusion of cash from the university, but it appears to have worked in some regards. Hyde Park now has one of the lowest crime rates in the city and has avoided some of the worst side effects of gentrification and retained much of its ethnic diversity for nearly a generation, a rarity in Chicago. The organization did have a hand in reducing the economic diversity in the neighborhood, something that never fully returned after urban renewal.
The organization hasn’t been to building court to push out a slumlord since the 1990s and curtailed many of its crime-fighting programs around the same time, Mason said.
“It was time to change its mission,” Mason said. “The university and community had accomplished what it could with those programs.”
In 2008, the organization dramatically shifted gears, but kept its ties to the university. It cut its board down to 20 members from 70 — an abnormally large board for a nonprofit that worked almost exclusively in one neighborhood. It also started to more actively push for beautification projects and economic development and expanded its work to Woodlawn, Oakland and Washington Park.
Newsome, the commission's board chairman, said a transition team is looking into how the organization could move to full independence from the university over the next two years.
She said she expected the organization to reduce the amount of funding it gets from the university.
“I think this is the time for change,” Newsome said.