Jahmal Cole runs the group My Block, My Hood, My City (MBMHMC) to encourage Chicagoans to explore the different neighborhoods of the city. MBMHMC takes young people monthly to visit new areas. In April 2016 he started a series of walks to encourage the public to see places they might not otherwise visit. My husband and I joined “Explore Englewood”.
We boarded a southbound bus in our neighborhood of Hyde Park. In Woodlawn we transferred to the 63rd Street bus going west to Englewood. The area wasn’t far from our home, but I’ve never been there. It’s somewhere I don’t generally feel comfortable walking on my own. Meeting a group did encourage us to make the trip.
Everyone gathered at St. Benedict the African-East Church. Tables were set up with information from neighborhood groups and maps with points of interest. Then everyone left on their own to explore and meet together later at a café for lunch. My husband and I began to wander the area.
As we walked Englewood I noticed all of the lots and lawns had been neatly mowed. In its glory days Englewood was a grand neighborhood filled with expensive mansions. In recent times, it has fallen on hard times. However, there are still people who obviously take pride and care for the area.
Upon closer inspection I began to notice that, unlike the North Side, few of the old homes were completely restored. Pieces of the houses were sometimes gone, such a missing spire from a turret, or more perplexing, a spire with a gap where the turret should be. We often saw deferred maintenance, missing or boarded architectural elements, and lots of siding.
I’d read an article in the South Side Weekly about how the housing market crash and subsequent foreclosures continues to devastate certain areas of the city. After Riverdale, the next highest vacancy rates are a cluster in Woodlawn, Englewood, and West Englewood. Even so, I wasn’t prepared for the overwhelming number of boarded homes and vacant lots.
I’d been to East Garfield Park, which experienced high rates of fires and looting during the April 1968 riots. Many buildings in that area of the West Side were burned and later removed, leaving numerous vacant lots. Almost every business and factory left. Still, East Garfield Park seems more stable now than some areas of the South Side.
According to what little is remembered about the South Side, rioters in April 1968 marched along 63rd Street from Woodlawn to Halsted in Englewood, once the second busiest shopping district in Chicago. It was the same route we’d followed on the bus. Later accounts claimed, because of stronger community leadership, the South Side April 1968 riots were quickly quelled and the communities didn’t suffer the same fate as the West Side.
Regardless, the resulting long term damage from the 1968 riots seems to be similar for both neighborhoods. There was a mass exodus of businesses and many buildings have been reduced to vacant lots in Englewood, just like East Garfield Park. Except the foreclosure crisis hasn’t deeply impacted many places as badly as here. Englewood continues to erode from both historical and recent crises.
The only complete blocks of well-maintained homes, without empty units, appeared to be the newer charity or public housing projects, at least where I walked. Otherwise, nearly everywhere was distressed. It was common to see people living in between boarded and vacant units. I would also see second stories occupied while the first floors were closed off. While sealing the lower levels of abandoned buildings was common, only some had the upper windows boarded.
Homes with people living in them had their curtains drawn and windows closed, despite the beautiful Saturday afternoon. No one seemed to feel it was safe to leave them open. Some of the boarded buildings had a window or two exposed, where the boards were removed. Reportedly they are used for illicit activities, like gangs, drugs or prostitution.
Most of the areas we walked were eerily quiet. With all of the green vacant lots it reminded me of being in the country. We heard lots of crickets. Despite the warmer weather kids weren’t playing out in the fields or parks. Almost no one was walking around. Residents stayed on their porches and kids were only allowed a few feet from their front doors. The playgrounds we passed were completely empty.
Later I was told a railroad company was buying a section of Englewood, tearing the buildings, to expand their railyards into the neighborhood. I suddenly wondered if that was the section we’d traveled? It would have explained a lot. After researching I found out we never saw the railroad expansion area.
We met back with MBMHMC at the Dream Café. Despite the continued distress in Englewood, there are people working to make improvements. New investments are happening, like the building of a Whole Foods grocery store. Local entrepreneurs have met with the store about marketing their products.
There are people who clean trash in front of vacant buildings and plant spring bulbs. I saw an active Little Free Library; which volunteers were keeping stocked with giveaway books. I saw a planter of flowers placed out by the road to enliven the entire street. Residents are fighting to restore their neighborhood.
We enjoyed lunch. My husband tried the jerk chicken and rice, while I couldn’t resist sampling chicken and macaroni and cheese. The pasta had some extra peppers and spices. Afterwards, we walked over to the Aldi grocery store. My husband wanted to see it, as he’s read a lot about how the store significantly undersells Wal-Mart. They’ve brought affordable groceries to food deserts, particularly on the South Side.
I didn’t have a quarter with me to unlock the grocery cart. Aldi gets customers to return carts by charging a deposit. They operate on almost no staff and limited selections of only a brand or two for each item, which lowers their costs. Inside we found the store clean and well lit. Cashiers were extremely fast. We managed to grab a couple bags worth of food and the cashier graciously lent us a cart to bag them.
I’ve seen the location of the H. H. Holmes “Murder Castle” (of Devil in the White City fame) listed as the Aldi store in Englewood. Others cite it being across the street, where the post office is now located. Not surprisingly, the post office is rumored to be haunted. That’s where we caught the bus home.