K-Town: Greystones, block clubs and a presidential library bid

Phoebe Tollefson
For The West Side Source

He is tall and his gait is easy. Aviators block the morning sun and a black jacket hangs from his shoulders. Without looking, he points his lighted cigarette toward the AME Church behind him.

“Back there on the same block with St. Paul – when we first moved here – there was a small butcher shop. There were plenty of businesses like that up and down both Pulaski and Cermak.”

He takes a puff.

“That went away. The riot in ’68 pretty much pushed everyone else out, anybody who was trying to stick with it. The riots were like the nail in the coffin.”

This is Paul Norrington, a retired cop and vice president of the K-Town Historic District Association. He lives in the same brick two-flat where he grew up and rattles off local history like it’s the alphabet.

Norrington has seen a lot of change in the 16-block area of North Lawndale known as K-Town. Foremost in his mind these days is whether efforts to turn a vacant lot at Roosevelt Road and Kostner Avenue into the site of the new Barack Obama Presidential Library will succeed. He was eager, even anxious, to see it happen.

“If we don’t get it,” Norrington said, “there may be a depression that overtakes the community that has to be mitigated.”

With media reports crowning the University of Chicago bid as the unofficial winner, he remains optimistic.

“So what if we fall short? What do we do then?” he asked. “Regardless of the final decision, we have new opportunities.”

With this dogged insistence on progress and a small but dedicated band of neighbors, Norrington is working to bring back the bustle and vitality he remembers as a kid.

Hitting the Historic Register

In 2010, after years of door-to-door organizing and seemingly endless property record searches by Norrington and others, K-Town – named for the four “K” streets running through it: Kostner, Kildare, Keeler and Karlov – earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. Not only a boon for hometown pride in Chicago, this has become a tool to boost more home ownership in the West Side district. Residents say landlords hold too much of the property and foreclosures and boarded-up windows have begun to wear holes in the area’s sturdy social fabric.

K-Town is the mainly residential area bordered by West Cermak Road, South Kostner Avenue, South Pulaski Road and West Cullerton Street. The buildings inside those boundaries were built between 1901 and 1931 and the area preserves Chicago’s most concentrated collections of historic homes.

“K-Town—moving four blocks, you cover 40 years of architectural history,” said Matt Cole, who runs the Chicago Greystone & Vintage Home Program at Neighborhood Housing Services. “It’s got everything. It’s got Greystones. It’s got these Dutch gable single-family homes. It’s got workers’ cottages. It’s got bungalows mixed in. There’s nowhere else in the City of Chicago where you find that in this little tiny area.”

District leaders hope to use tax breaks from the historic register listing to attract new homebuyers. Under state law, homeowners who invest 25 percent of the market value of their property into historic preservation projects – like maintaining the limestone façade on a Greystone – can get an eight-year freeze on the assessed value of their home. That is followed by four years of gradual increases, bringing the assessed value up to post-rehab levels.

Norrington likes to tout these financial benefits, but he and others say they are only the latest chapter in the much longer, richer story of K-Town.

Immigrant Gateway

K-Town was built as Chicago development moved westward, spurred by the need to house the city’s new arrivals.

Originally a Czech enclave amid the largely Jewish neighborhood of North Lawndale, the neighborhood makeup changed with the Great Migration, as African-Americans left the South for the economic and civic opportunities they believed awaited them in the North.

“They wanted to find a better life up north in the city,” said Tawanna Calvin, president of the K-Town Historic District Association. “You hear the stories about how people had to pick cotton. They walked miles to school. The kids had to work just as hard as the parents, which made them the people they are, but it was hard on them. So when people were moving here, they were very determined to keep it up.”

But as banks latched onto the discriminatory practice of redlining, most black Chicagoans found themselves unable to borrow and confined to overcrowded, economically depressed areas. Those who did manage to access credit quickly found their fortunes reversed as realtors used racist scare tactics to persuade white homeowners to sell and then artificially inflated the new selling price for African-American buyers. In other cases, realtors sold “on contract,” locking all rights to the property in the realtor’s name until payment was complete.

This was the story of housing for many African-Americans in Chicago.

K-Town, too, experienced these attempts to segregate neighborhoods and squeeze more money out of African-American buyers. But these efforts were not as successful in K-Town as they were in the rest of North Lawndale. By the time African-Americans began moving into the district, organizers like the Contract Buyers League had succeeded in shutting down some of that activity.

Tellingly, when people describe K-Town, they often use the word, “intact.”

Calvin credits neighborhood stewardship during her parents’ era for the community cohesion. When her and Norrington’s parents ran the neighborhood through their various roles as block club presidents, church choir directors and piano teachers, it was a time of vibrant civic involvement.

“They had things like prizes for the cleanest block or prizes for the best Christmas decorations,” Norrington said. “If you came through at Christmastime, this whole area was just ablaze with lights. And that died out.”

The 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. changed the West Side neighborhood.

“That night, I had to go somewhere,” said Norrington. “I had to go downtown so I was on the “L,” and looking off to the north, it was just a ribbon of red, stretched for blocks. That was the buildings burning.”

Norrington’s dad had taken him to the Marcy Center on Springfield Avenue just two years earlier to hear Dr. King speak.

“And so things started falling apart,” Calvin said. “As far as with the block clubs, the parents sort of held that legacy. But then when they left, they left their houses to their children, which didn’t have the same pride as purchasing a home.”

Most of the white-owned businesses in the area were burned down during the King riots, and the owners decided not to rebuild. Companies that had supplied jobs to the neighborhood- like Sears Roebuck and International Harvester – closed up shop. This was the beginning of economic disinvestment.

‘I chose this area’

Stepping off the train at the Kostner Pink Line stop, the air is quiet. The “L” tracks are at street level, giving the place a small town feel, Norrington thinks. The yards are tidy and the streets look swept.

“There are a lot of seniors in the area, and this is a working class neighborhood, too, so people are at work,” Calvin said, explaining the stillness.

She and Norrington want to revive the block clubs and events that united neighbors a generation ago.

At a ceremony last summer when K-Town Historic District Association members hung their new neighborhood banners for the first time, plenty of the older generation came out on a walking tour of their beloved community to share their stories.

Christella Reynolds, Calvin’s mother who passed away recently, lived to see it. She sat in a wheelchair that day wearing a red sparkly baseball cap and bright orange T-shirt, commanding the attentive circle of listeners surrounding her.

“That’s my daughter there,” she said, pointing to Calvin. “And I got another one that’s older than that, so I know I got to be the oldest girl alive. Gimme a hand!” She led her own applause.

Willie Mae Bowling, another longtime resident, stood in a wide stance, hands folded behind her back, nodding and smiling at her audience.

“I chose this area because of Mason School. You may not think, ‘Roswell Mason!’ now. But Mason was a very good school. And I would like to say I had five [children] to graduate from over there. PTA president for a number of years, out on the street, fighting for everybody. We made it worth it.”

The Community Connects

Plenty of that pride and connectedness is still alive, if you ask Willie and Elise Porter. The Porters run a custom T-shirt retailer called The Goodie Shop, one of the busier storefronts on Pulaski. Before The Goodie Shop opened in 2007, the building housed Brenda’s Texas Lady Lounge.

“It was a very popular spot. Everybody who was anybody— they still come in sometimes and flash back,” Willie said. “The people who migrated from Mississippi and Memphis, they had bars where they hung out and they all hung out together once they were here. So whatever bar they chose—“

“—Yeah, they’d socialize,” said Elise, Willie’s wife. “It’s their meeting ground.”

“We’ve created our own ‘Cheers’ type of atmosphere,” Willie said, of his store.

The Porters host an annual back-to-school party in August and partner with area churches on community events. Willie Porter also helps run B-ball On The Block at the end of the summer, which brings neighbors out into the streets to eat hot dogs, play basketball and tamp down crime.

These events are good, but Calvin and Norrington would like to see more. They say there is a divide between renters and homeowners. A few long-term renters attend neighborhood events and take care of their area, they say, but in general it’s the owners who have made a financial commitment to the area who are the most active.

“Ah! Here’s somebody else doing some work,” Norrington said on a recent Friday, driving past a home with bricks piled outside and scaffolding climbing the front of the house. “Yesss! Hah!” He pumped his fist and grinned wide, seeming ecstatic. Each renovation is a victory for Norrington, and each vacant lot and boarded window a loss.

Challenges for Tomorrow

Getting buy-in from neighbors is the first step in moving K-Town forward, according to Calvin.

“Right now it’s almost like pulling teeth,” Calvin said. “Everyone thinks, ‘We’re OK. I clean up in front of my house. I mow my lawn. This community thing is just extra.’ I think they’re missing that the children that’s coming up under them are watching.”

Of course, winning the presidential library would galvanize a huge community boost.

Willie Porter said growing the business district with entrepreneurs native to Lawndale is another key ingredient.

“The businesses are from people out of the community, and they’re spending their money where they live,” Porter said. “So we’re spending our money with them to take it out of the community.”

Porter hopes classes given by the local Chamber of Commerce will help more people like him open up small businesses in the area.

Reckoning with outsiders’ perceptions is another challenge. News hits and chat pages about drug busts and gang activity in K-Town populate the Web.

“Bad news spreads much faster than good news,” Calvin said. “We do have our issues. Block by block is just a little different.”

Porter thinks the media hypes the negative stories, perpetuating the idea that Lawndale is a beaten-down victim of urban ills.

“It’s not as organized as they make it look in the papers,” he said, of crime in the district.

Calvin said another challenge would be to develop a working relationship with the ward’s newly elected alderman, Michael Scott Jr., in part to help ensure grant money the area receives serves the right purpose. She said the Lawndale Christian Development Corporation’s new multipurpose building on Ogden upset some residents.

“They think with that type of money, other things could have been built – maybe something more needed. I know a lot of the mental health facilities across the board have been shut down.”

Norrington might disagree with that attitude on the new LCDC multiuse outpost – he  is a member of the fitness center and a regular at the Green Tomato Café. But he, too, is wary of the possible downsides of development. Even the presidential library could have posed a problem.

“If a whole bunch of money is poured into an area, it’s either going to push those people out, or the money is not going to do what it was designed to do,” Norrington said. “It takes more than money. It takes change of attitude.”