Saving greystones with blood, sweat -- and branding

A community developer turns to a trick of commercial real estate

March 9, 2013

Greystones are to Chicago what brownstones are to Brooklyn. And while many of these stately, limestone-faceted beauties line the grassy boulevards of wealthy North Side neighborhoods, many others exist in a state of neglect, disrepair or abandonment.

These decrepit greystones are generally located in some South and West Side neighborhoods whose residents were historically deprived of mortgages and subject to redlining. They're struggling now with low rates of home ownership and high rates of vacancy that have only gotten worse thanks to the real estate collapse. Add to that the stigma that comes from poverty, and you have a recipe for neighborhood neglect.

The last few years have thus been quite troubling for preservationists and community developers who want to both help struggling neighborhoods and save an iconic part of Chicago’s native architecture. One affordable housing developer phrased the essential question this way: “How do we start potentially building a market to rebuild interest in greystones and get people into these vacant buildings?”

That developer is Matt Cole, who runs Neighborhood Housing Service’s Historic Chicago Greystone Initiative. The program is aimed at preserving, restoring and modernizing these buildings, and NHS offers both educational and financial resources to owners and potential buyers, whether it’s advice on how to remodel or affordable loans that make it possible to do a full gut rehab on a neglected two-flat.

But in addition to these traditional sorts of community development strategies, Cole and his colleagues have turned to a tactic more common in commercial real estate development: neighborhood branding.  

Anyone who’s ever been offered an apartment in “West Bucktown” knows that developers will often rename a gentrifying neighborhood in order to lure a wealthier set of potential buyers. But in this case, Cole and his colleagues focused their efforts on giving stigmatized neighborhoods the kind of narrative that would make existing, long-time residents puff up their chests.

Their test case was K-Town, a 16-block portion of North Lawndale named for a number of streets – Karlov, Kildare, Keeler, Kostner, etc. – that start with the letter "K."

K-Town is traditionally lumped in with the rest of Chicago’s West Side – so often described as poor, downtrodden and crime-ridden.

But this portion of North Lawndale defies that stereotype: It's actually quite stable, according to Cole, and has a striking share of Chicago’s built history.  

“It is this incredible microcosm of Chicago architecture that really can’t be found anywhere else in the city,” Cole said. “You have fantastic greystones on one side, then workers’ cottages in the middle. Then also these sort of Dutch gabled buildings on the front – these two-flats and three-flats that were built in the 1930s – then bungalows start coming in.”

Two years ago NHS worked with a number of state and local preservation agencies to get K-Town added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Charles Leeks, NHS’s neighborhood director for North Lawndale, says there have not been measurable financial results – in the form of rising property value or additional homes sold or rehabbed – since K-Town was added to the National Register. But he said he's seen a noticeable uptick in neighborhood pride and cohesion.

“The real tangible benefits from [the National Register] have to do with this question of image – how people began to think about the place and manage it themselves,” Leeks said. “Once there was this historic district designation, once it was clear, people celebrated that and rallied around that.”

K-Town residents formed what Leeks called a Historic District Committee, which has taken a highly active role in promoting the neighborhood. In addition to developing a strategic plan for K-Town’s revitalization, they’ve organized neighborhood walking tours – an unusual feature for an area often cited for its blight.

They’ve also started showing up in housing court. If a vacant building goes on a demolition list, the committee may ask the judge to stay demolition so they can preserve it and work toward finding a buyer.

Leeks said NHS hasn’t brought on any new K-Town buyers in the two years since the neighborhood was added to the National Register (although the organization is currently under contract with two buildings on nearby Douglas Boulevard).  

Instead, the Historic District Committee is turning to what it only half-jokingly calls the “K-Town alumni association” – anyone with roots in the neighborhood. “They’re reaching out to try and get former friends and neighbors to look back – and move back,” Leeks said.

It’s not always easy to get people to see their own neighborhood in a different light, especially if they’ve been there – or been away – for decades. But Matt Cole said NHS has already helped more than 200 greystone owners buy, keep or repair their buildings since the program was launched in 2006 – an investment of more than $6 million. And they’re still hoping to use historic narratives to rebrand neighborhoods and encourage reinvestment. That’s why they're taking a similar approach to another stretch of North Lawndale, the 3300 block of West Flournoy Street.  

“People are watching this – people in other parts of the neighborhood,” Leeks said. “They’ve seen what’s happening in K-Town and said, ‘Can we do that?’”

You can hear Matt Cole expound more on his group’s neighborhood branding strategy in the audio above.

Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Matt Cole spoke at an event presented by the Chicago Architecture Foundation in January. Click here to hear the event in its entirety.