Eighty-five years ago, the woman who wrote the most important American play about real estate was born. Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play, “A Raisin in the Sun,” describes an African-American family in Chicago that is presented with a chance to escape poverty and realize the American dream by buying a home. The neighborhood that inspired the story has seen its dream deferred, but it now has the opportunity to emerge from years of neglect and shine again.
In the play, Mama Younger uses a cash windfall to buy a home for her multigenerational family and escape the ghetto. Their new house has three bedrooms, a yard—and a catch: It’s in an all-white neighborhood, Clybourne Park.
Clybourne Park isn’t a real place, but it’s based on the Washington Park subdivision of Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood, where Hansberry moved with her family as a child. Woodlawn has seen its fortunes rise and fall, and played a part in national history along the way. It was a favored location for Chicago’s elite in the early 1900s, as well as a steady stream of blue-collar workers, and it saw a flowering of African-American culture during the first half of the 20th century. But when industrial employment dried up in the 1950s and ’60s, it descended into poverty and crime.
With a location just south of the ever-expanding University of Chicago in Hyde Park, however, Woodlawn’s prospects seem promising. Especially now that both proposed Chicago locations for the Obama presidential library are in Woodlawn—one is Washington Park itself, the other is Jackson Park, on the lakefront side.
It was in Washington Park that Hansberry’s father, Carl, a successful real estate broker, in 1937 decided to buy a home. Back then, the neighborhood was mostly Irish and entirely white. And back then, black people couldn’t buy a home just anywhere, no matter how much money they had. White neighborhoods had restrictive covenants—contracts among homeowners that legally restricted sale or rent of their home to African-Americans. Carl Hansberry needed the help of Harry H. Pace, a prominent black businessman, and several white real estate agents to secretly buy the four-bedroom, 4,822-square-foot house at 6140 S. Rhodes Ave.
The Hansberry family moved in, but they were menaced by white mobs throwing bricks and stones and threatening to set the home on fire. When members of the white community sued to force the Hansberrys out of their home, the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. The 1940 ruling in Hansberry v. Lee cleared the way for the Hansberrys to remain in their home.
It was a case that was closely watched by Chicago’s black residents, said Abdul Alkalimat, a professor emeritus of African-American studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“This attempt to break down the restrictive covenants was really about the ability of African-Americans to be counted as first-class citizens,” he said. “While [the Hansberry case] didn’t end the whole situation, it certainly confronted it.”
But even as restrictive covenants crumbled, segregation persisted. Lorraine Hansberry’s play takes place in the 1950s. Mama Younger doesn’t have to hide who she is in order to buy the home in Clybourne Park. She doesn’t even necessarily want to be the first black family in a white neighborhood.
“I just tried to find the nicest place for the least amount of money for my family,” she says. And that’s something that anyone looking for a home today can relate to, especially with the limited supply of available, affordable homes.
A member of the neighborhood council tries to buy off the Youngers to keep them from moving in, but in the end they, like the Hansberrys, decide to become pioneers in white territory.
The play ends there, but in real life, as more black people moved into Woodlawn and other formerly restricted neighborhoods, white residents moved out. At the same time, the well-paying jobs in railroads, meatpacking, steel mills, and manufacturing that had drawn many African-Americans up from the South after World War I went away, Alkalimat said. Those industries decamped for nonunion states where labor was cheaper. Without employment for its residents, the neighborhood declined and gangs arose.
“When middle-class people left, there’s little investment in housing stock,” Alkalimat said. “But at a certain point, housing is reappropriated and a new generation of middle-class people move in.”
Hope + Obama = Change?
That time could be now. Hasani Steele owns a real estate consulting company that specializes in transitional neighborhoods. Steele said he’s been selling in Woodlawn since 2006.
“Some of the best architecture and housing stock is down there,” he said, noting that because it’s an older part of the city, the lots are bigger. “You have a lot of beautiful graystones and 100% brick buildings—with today’s construction costs, it’s hard to reproduce those buildings.”
One of his projects that’s now for sale, at 6543 S. Woodlawn Ave., is an elegant, four-bedroom, 3.5-bath home that took two years to design. Steele envisions the buyer as a “forward-thinking” professional, maybe an attorney, who knows and loves the South Side. More people from other parts of Chicago are coming to recognize the area’s appeal, he said.
“There’s a lot of people that were shocked that Obama lived in Hyde Park and then they went down there and looked and were like, ‘Oh my God, look at this,’” he said.
The University of Chicago, which was a party to restrictive covenants in the past, today is a partner in the winning bid for the Obama library. The university is also spending hundreds of millions of dollars on renovation and expansion of its Hyde Park campus.
Still, crime remains a problem in Woodlawn—particularly on the Washington Park side, which is farther from the university. The neighborhood is tied for 19th place for violent crime reports in the past 30 days out of Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods, and it ranks 24th for property crimes.
Community leaders are holding their breath as they await the final decision on the site for the Obama library, which should be made in six to nine months. But they’re also rushing to ensure that the library, which will no doubt revitalize the neighborhood, won’t push out residents and small-business owners.
Carol Adams, a South Side resident and cultural historian who spoke at the May 12 announcement of the Chicago choice, acknowledged the community’s storied past but also its recent neglect.
“The bold decision to erect this presidential library in an urban, inner-city community is transformational, and we eagerly await the economic, cultural, and educational development that is sure to follow,” she said.
No one can be sure what will happen, but Woodlawn, like the Hansberrys and the Youngers, will certainly be pushing into new territory as its leaders try to bring the American dream to life in their community.