In rec center, Auburn Gresham residents see community resurgence

In rec center, Auburn Gresham residents see community resurgence – Bowled Over

Janelle Frost

On a Saturday afternoon in March, Lori Henderson wasted no time in joining her 11-year-old niece and two 4-year-old nephews on the roller skating floor in the new Hawthorne Park Family Entertainment Center.

A little while later, they took off their skates and joined about 30 other children and teenagers in dancing the cha-cha slide with a costumed kangaroo mascot named “Roller Rue.”

The center “is in a good location because I didn’t have to travel far,” said Henderson, whose home is a few miles away in the Marquette Park neighborhood. “It’s the closest [recreational facility] to where I live.”

The 40,000-square-foot center, at 1219 W. 76th St. in the South Side’s Auburn Gresham community, is equipped with a 12-lane bowling alley, an 80-by-160-foot roller skating rink, an arcade and a restaurant. It’s owned by the Chicago Park District and run by Chicago City Skating, a private company.

Since the center opened in January, area residents have hailed it as a crucial addition to their mostly working-class, African American neighborhood. Built on the site of a failed shopping center owned by former Chicago Housing Authority chairman Vincent Lane, it’s been packed every night, already drawing about 30,000 patrons, according to staff. Residents are proud that it is on the South Side. For the first time, they say, they don’t have to leave their community for recreation.

And, for many, Hawthorne Park is more than an entertainment facility. They say it offers an alternative for young people looking for something positive to do, and for those who might be tempted by drug and gang activity. The center has also brought jobs to the community. And many residents simply see it as a sign that the quality of life is improving in a resurgent Auburn Gresham.

Over the last 30 years, the community has struggled to reduce crime and recover from an economic slide that saw businesses abandon the area or close. Residents say customers of a currency exchange on West 79th Street and South Racine Avenue were afraid of being robbed. Prostitutes worked out of a hotel down the street. Gang members sold drugs outside a nearby gas station.

Since 1999, ail of these places have been torn down. A new branch of LaSalle Bank, a Jewel-Osco grocery and drug store, a Save-A-Lot grocery, a Walgreen’s pharmacy, a senior citizens’ home and the entertainment center have opened in the neighborhood.

Charlesetta Nash-Buckley, a teacher at nearby John W. Cook Elementary School, 8150 5. Bishop St., said she’s glad that the center offers neighborhood kids something positive to do.

“I see a lot of kids on the streets, so it’s good that there’s something in the community they can walk to,” she said.

Not everyone’s happy to see the center open. Willie C. and Neathene Smith, who live a block away, do not see the need for it.

“Entertainment is good,” said Willie Smith, who, like his wife, is retired. “But what about having these kids clean up, work and all that kind of stuff? … These kids walk the streets from morning ’til night, and their parents don’t give them anything to do.”

Bad Rep

Located west of the Dan Ryan Expressway, Auburn Gresham runs from just east of South Halsted Street to railroad tracks west of Damen Avenue, and from West 75th Street south to West 89th.

Through the 1950s, almost ail neighborhood residents were white. But then a major change occurred in the I 960s as African Americans moved in and whites left. The area’s population peaked at nearly 69,000 in 1970; 69 percent of the residents were black, according to the census. By 1980, the population had become 98 percent African American, where it has remained.

Many businesses disappeared along with the white residents, causing lasting economic damage. By 2000, the neighborhood’s median household income was about $34,000, which was $5,000 below the citywide level. More than one in five households earned less than the federal poverty level of $17,000 for a family of four. And 17 percent of adult residents were out of work, census data show.

Betty Jo Swanson moved into a home on the 7900 block of South Carpenter Street in 1964. At that point, residents kept the community well-maintained, she said, and businesses thrived.

Swanson, the president of her block club, said the neighborhood had changed by the ’80s. She said people were using drugs and engaging in prostitution in vacant buildings on West 79th and West 80th streets, prompting police raids. Police and residents often referred to her block as the “worst block in the city of Chicago,” Swanson said.

Residents battled the problems, she said, but “we really had a bad rep for a while.”

Between 1990 and 1999, the 6th Police District, which includes Auburn Gresham, recorded 461 homicides, the ninth-highest among the city’s 25 districts. The district hit highs of 57 murders in 1992 and 1997.

In the early 1990s, Continental Plaza, a shopping center on the corner of West 76th Street and South Racine Avenue, became a symbol of the neighborhood’s struggles. In 1992, a grocery store, the center’s largest tenant, closed, leaving the project in financial trouble, according to federal court documents.

The next year, Vincent Lane, then chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority and one of the plaza’s owners, told a bank that another supermarket would open in the space. He secured a $1.9 million loan to keep the shopping center afloat.

But Lane had not reached an agreement with the supermarket, and had instead concocted a “worthless” lease, a grand jury later charged. In 2000, Lane was indicted for fraud. A federal jury convicted him of making false statements to secure a loan, and he was sentenced to 30 months in prison.

In the meantime, the City of Chicago had taken control of the site, and in 1998 transferred the property to the Chicago Park District. The building on the site was demolished.

Moving Up

Over the last few years, residents have been working closely with police and the 17th Ward alderman’s office, said Swanson, who is a beat co-facilitator for the Chicago Police Department’s community policing program, known as CAPS. The 17th Ward includes most of Auburn Gresharn and parts of Englewood.

Police data show that the 6th District’s homicide totals have dropped over the last few years, to 39 in 2002, though the area continues to experience some of the city’s highest numbers of assaults, robberies and burglaries.

Through an abandoned building program, the city has torn down 294 troubled properties in the 17th Ward since 1998, according to the City of Chicago Department of Buildings.

Swanson said two new homes have been built at the end of her block. “I’ll say we’re on our way back up the ladder now,” she said.

With government subsidies, developers are currently building more than 300 affordable homes in the 17th Ward, said Alderman Latasha R. Thomas.

“You try to develop a community where you can shop, live and entertain, and you leave it if you want to, but not because you have to,” Thomas said.

In 1998, Chicago Park District officials, Terry Peterson, then the 17th Ward alderman, and the Rev. Michael Pfleger, pastor at nearby St. Sabina Church, organized a meeting to get residents’ ideas on community improvements. More than 400 residents attended the meeting, according to Peterson and Pfieger, and most voted to put in a rolier rink or bowling alley at the site of the failed shopping center. Peterson, now the chief executive officer of the Chicago Housing Authority, and park district officials worked on a plan that would include both.

Construction started in January 2002 and was finished in a year. Of the $9 million tab, the park district contributed $7 million and the city $2 million, according to Angelynne Amores, the park district’s press secretary.

But Edith and Horace Thompson were concerned when they learned that a bowling alley and skating rink was going up.

The Thompsons were among the first blacks in the neighborhood when they moved into a home at West 77th and South May streets in 1965. At one point “we had to go out of the neighborhood to shop,” said Edith Thompson. Recently, though, “79th Street has just livened up.”

The couple worry the center could attract gang-related violence. And Edith Thompson believes the community could use a training center where young people could learn job and social skills. “Somewhere along the road, parents lost the ability to teach their children these things,” she said.

Between five and 15 off-duty police officers work as security guards at Hawthorne Park every night, according to general manager Rod Chaney. He said gangs have come to the center and tried to “ciaim their turf,” but police have made them disperse. “We have zero tolerance of violence,” Chaney said.

And other residents believe the neighborhood needs safe places where young people can have fun.

Michael B. Toney, youth pastor at Southside Tabernacle Assembly of God, 7724 S. Racine Ave., believes the center offers an alternative for bored or troubled youth who hang out on the streets. During its opening weekend, Toney, 24, visited the center with about 15 teenagers, most of them from broken homes, he said.

“They love it because it gives them something to do,” Toney said. “Before, they didn’t have anything in arm’s reach.”

The center has also brought badly needed jobs to Aubum Gresham. In December, 994 people applied to work at Hawthorne Park, according to Byam Alexander, executive director of the Employment Resource Center, a job training and placement program at 7907 5. Racine Ave. funded by St. Sabina, the city and the state. The resource center helped interview applicants.

Currently, the center employs 74 people, according to Chaney, and 95 percent are from the community, though less than 5 percent work full time at the center. The pay is anywhere from $6.50 to $8.50 an hour.

Henderson said she plans to bring her niece and nephews back. She noted that, while South Siders have always valued their neighborhoods, Hawthorne Park “is an asset to have, and it’s good for the neighborhood that they considered us to put it here.”

RELATED ARTICLE: Jobs Needed

Auburn Gresham continues to fight high levels of poverty and unemployment.

Auburn Gresham:

2000 Population: 55,928

African Americans: 98%

Households in Poverty: 21%

Adults Unemployed: 17%

Note: “Adults Unemployed” includes residents at least 16 years old who are looking for work, even if they have not applied for unemployment insurance.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau; analyzed by The Chicago Reporter.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Community Renewal Society

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