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The New Face of Woodlawn

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DILLON: Okay, so then John, I need to get your signature on this final doc, which is your RESPA

KEITH: Okay

DILLON: this will be sealing your deal…

John Keith sits with a mountain of papers in front of him, preparing to make the biggest financial move of his life. His lawyer, Joan Dillon, walks him through it.

DILLON: By executing this, you’re going to be finalizing this transaction, we’ll be getting an explanation of the keys and remotes, so are you happy?

KEITH: I’m very happy.

DILLON: Okay, let’s get you signed here….

VAN HORNE: Here’s your remote to the parking gate and here’s your Greenline Development bag of keys.

KEITH: Wow, that’s fantastic. I have never in my life had so many doors. That’s great.

Just two hours later, John drives down the 66-hundred block of South Maryland Avenue, past a couple of boarded up buildings. He manages to find the right key to let himself into his brand-new two-bedroom brick condo.

(Sound of key turning in lock and door opening)

KEITH: Oh, I don’t know where the alarm is, and I have to go turn it off, don’t I?

Inside, sunlight gleams off the hardwood floors and granite countertops. John says he fell in love with the place the minute he walked in. But he wasn’t there as a buyer, he was just visiting his realtor friend who was showing the condo. When John heard the price of 229-thousand, he said no way. But love is a hard thing to shake. So he went back to his lender.

KEITH: And I said, I know the last place I asked you about was 100-thousand, but this place is two and a half times that, can you run those numbers for me? And he emailed the next day and said I can make it happen if you’re comfortable with the payments.

John teaches English at a charter school on the South Side. He says his mortgage payments at first will be about 15-hundred dollars – more than half his monthly income. Then when his taxes kick in after a year or so, the payments will jump to about two grand a month. But he locked in a 30 year mortgage at six percent and tapped into a city program to cover his downpayment. He says he’ll be stretched thin, but he’s lived simply before. He was previously a Peace Corps volunteer in South Africa. In fact, technically this isn’t the first home he’s owned. His first was a mud hut.

KEITH: You know, I like nothing more than to go see a movie downtown and go out to dinner, or go to the bookstore and browse for a while and walk out with 7 books, you know, and if I can’t do that anymore, well I didn’t do it for two and a half years, and I didn’t miss anything.

So staying within budget wasn’t top of John’s priority list. His top priority was to live in a neighborhood where he’d be in the minority as a white man. Woodlawn is 95 percent African American. And although more middle-class people like John are now moving in, the city says the median household income was 18-thousand dollars as of the year 2000.

KEITH: I feel really comfortable in communities where there is a sense that I’m the outsider, where I don’t quote unquote belong in that community, I like that, I like doing my tiny little part to break down whatever barriers exist.

And in that respect, he has a kindred spirit living two floors above him.

(Sound of walking up stairs)

Benjamin van Horne is 32 years old and the developer of this building. He’s moved into the top floor unit, which has floor to ceiling windows overlooking a ramshackle stretch of Cottage Grove Avenue. His interest in Woodlawn goes deeper than making money – he’s an amateur historian who collects vintage photos and postcards of the neighborhood.

VAN HORNE: This is where the IC tracks are now today and you can see in the distance the buildings of the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, so you can see this was kind of empty fields, looks like a suburban subdivision being built…

He flips through pictures on his computer of stately homes and hotels that no longer exist. The neighborhood fell into severe disrepair in the 60s as gangs took hold and arsonists burned down hundreds of buildings. When van Horne went looking for his first building to develop in 1999, he found a burned out shell of one on this block of South Maryland Avenue. He bought it for 35 thousand dollars on his credit card and teamed up with another developer to rebuild it into condos. He says selling those 20 units was difficult because of the boarded up buildings and thriving drug trade on the street at the time. He did succeed and kicked off his career. But he’s a developer with a heart, after watching his neighbors lose their homes in Washington DC growing up.

VAN HORNE: I remember that developer who kicked out our neighbors walking down the street. He was a tall, bald guy and my mom would call him the bad man. That stuck pretty clearly in my mind and I think it’s a strong reason why I decided I’d never kick anybody out of their home.

So van Horne says he’ll only buy empty lots or abandoned buildings. Right now he’s building affordable condos through a program in which he buys city lots for a dollar and sells the two-bedroom units for 179-thousand dollars. He says most of his buyers are professional African Americans from outside the neighborhood, but he has sold some units to people from Woodlawn.

(Sound of soda blasting)

A couple doors down, his workers are finishing up a six-flat. Across the street, Minnie Williams is getting ready to plant flowers in her garden. She’s lived here 32 years and says the neighborhood really started to improve after van Horne finished the 20-unit condo building. Some people have rehabbed their homes and there’s less trash along the street.

WILLIAMS: It’s not as bad as it used to be, where they get out and fight and drink and cuss and clown. You know, pretty good right now.

GROSS: How do you feel about white people moving in?

WILLIAMS: Oh I love that.

GROSS: Why?

WILLIAMS: I love that. You know, it’s better for the mixed peoples. I like that. They gonna be more quiet with them here, they not gonna do all that crazy stuff around here, I don’t believe they will.

Williams says she has heard from neighbors who worry their taxes will go up as the neighborhood gentrifies. But she says she’s happy the area is improving. Aldi supermarket plans to build a store nearby on Cottage Grove. And John Keith says he’s hopeful there’s a way to improve the community without displacing people.

KEITH: I’m a white person moving into a black neighborhood and I’m against gentrification, so it seems maybe hypocritical, but my hope would be that in order for this community to grow and become what I think it could be that that’s not synonymous with a bunch of white people flooding into Woodlawn and pushing out the African-American community that’s been here for so long.

(Cell phone ring)

KEITH: Hello?

But for now he has smaller things to worry about.

KEITH: Yeah barely. You know what I just found out after buying this place is that I don’t get reception here. You didn’t hear me?

So his cell phone doesn’t really work in his new home. But he says he’s thrilled to be here – quite a step up from a mud hut. And he says he’s excited to help shape the future of this street as it continues to evolve. For Eight Forty-Eight on Chicago Public Radio, I’m Ashley Gross.

OUTRO: We’ll check back with John Keith again later this year to see how it’s going in his new place and new neighborhood.

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