Prior to the World Columbian Exposition in 1893, Woodlawn was a pastoral community founded by Dutch farmers. With the fair’s location in Jackson Park, the neighborhood experienced large scale development including hotels, apartment buildings, and the extension of the ‘L’ along 63rd St. In the 20s and 30s local landlords exploited restrictive covenants, keeping Woodlawn predominately white and insular until after World War II. As the restrictive covenants were eventually deemed illegal, African-Americans began moving to Woodlawn in earnest in the 1950s. Opportunistic landlords capitalized on the limited housing available to black families, dividing apartments into cramped units, known as ‘kitchenettes’. By the 60s, the neighborhood was mostly African-American and known for the lively jazz clubs and businesses that lined 63rd St. While the neighborhood experienced periods of decline in the subsequent decades, the expansion of the University of Chicago and its proximity to the lake and Hyde Park have led to a gradual and modest revival. With the Obama Presidential Library, restoration of Jackson Park, and the Tiger Woods designed golf course in the pipeline, Woodlawn is being touted as a neighborhood for great potential growth and transformation. Regardless of these developments, it’s already home to a substantial wealth of historic parks, locally owned businesses, cultural institutions, and organizations that merit thorough exploration.
A Great Day in Woodlawn
An enjoyable way to start a Woodlawn morning is a visit to Greenline Coffee. Opened in 2014, the sleek and modern space is adorned with subway tile, concrete floors, and a garage door that opens to the sidewalk in the warmer months. The popular neighborhood spot offers tasty breakfast items like Belgian waffles with Nutella or a breakfast sandwich on a croissant along with a variety of agreeably priced beverages such as the $2 bottomless coffee.
Taking a neighborhood stroll will reveal some of Woodlawn’s remaining historic landmarks. Just around the corner from Greenline Coffee, the Lorraine Hansberry House at 6140 S. Rhodes was the childhood home of the A Raisin in the Sun playwright. Her father, Carl Hansberry, a well-to-do real estate developer, bought the property in 1937 and took residence with his family despite death threats, outright hostility from neighborhoods residents, and a restrictive housing covenant prohibiting the residence of non-whites. His three-year challenge against the legality of the racially-restrictive covenant led to the pivotal U.S. Supreme Court Case Hansberry v. Lee, which ruled in Hansberry’s favor, allowing the family to stay. Lorraine Hansberry drew heavily from her and her family’s experiences in writing her groundbreaking, semi-autobiographical play.
Other notable Woodlawn structures are the old Strand Hotel and Shrine of Christ Church. The former housed the Strand Show Lounge, a prominent jazz venue where luminaries like John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt, and Dizzy Gillespie performed. The building has recently been partially restored and converted into a mix of affordable and market rate apartments. Just a few blocks east on 64th and Woodlawn Ave., the rebirth of the Shrine of Christ Church is still in the fundraising stage for renovations after a 2015 fire destroyed most of the interior. The neo-classical church built in the 20s was spared from the wrecking ball after a community group of priests stepped in to take ownership.
A great place to grab some lunch is the Robust Coffee Lounge. Since 2010 the modern and spacious cafe has been offering a wide range of salads, wraps, and sandwiches as well as an extensive beverage program. True to its mission, all drinks and food items are either made in house or sourced locally from vendors such as D’amato’s Bakery (West Town), Brown Sugar Bakery (Greater Grand Crossing), Central Continental Bakery (Mt. Prospect), and Colectivo Coffee (Milwaukee).
Post lunch, an essential Woodlawn activity is visiting the innovative and engaging Experimental Station. In addition to supplying affordable long-term rental space to various local, creative businesses, the non-profit is the permanent home of Blackstone Bicycle Works and the 61st Street Farmers Market. The community bike shop provides training and experience in bike repair and sales to close to 200 youth. For quality local produce, breads, baked goods, dairy products, preserves, flowers, and herbs and spices, the 61st Street Farmers Market is among the best in the city. The outdoor market runs weekly from mid-May through October at 61st and Dorchester and moves indoors during the colder months. In addition to partnering with LINK Up Illinois to provide low-income residents access to healthy, locally sourced food, the market provides food education on-site and outreach to a neighboring elementary school.
Few would disagree that Jackson Park is the crown jewel of Woodlawn. The lower two-thirds of the park are within Woodlawn’s border at 60th Street and encompass some of Chicago’s most prized parkland. Laid out under the famed collaboration between Frederick Law Olmsted and Daniel Burnham for the World’s Colombian Expedition of 1893, some noteworthy relics and manifestations from the fair remain. Though it is a much smaller reproduction of the original sculpture that towered over “The White City”, one of the most prominent symbols of the fair is the 24-foot Statue of the Republic at the roundabout at Hayes and Richards Drive. The replica (aka “The Golden Lady”) was designed in 1918 by the original sculptor, Daniel Chester French, for the 25th anniversary of the fair.
At the park’s core is Wooded Island and the Garden of the Phoenix. During the fair, Wooded Island was home to a rose garden but is now being fully restored into a prairie garden thanks to an $8.1 million project by the Army Corps of Engineers. The Garden of the Phoenix, a Japanese garden created in 1935, was the site of the Phoenix Pavilion, a traditional structure designed and gifted by the Japanese for the World’s Fair. This Japanese-American alliance is further exemplified by last year’s unveiling of Yoko Ono’s sculpture piece “Skylanding”, which is located just outside the entrance to the gardens.
Another Jackson Park gem is 63rd St. Beach. The expansive beach and protracted pier provide beautifully tiered views of the lake, Hyde Park highrises, and downtown skyline. Equally impressive is the classical revival 63rd St. Bathing Pavilion. Built in 1919, making it Chicago’s oldest beach house, the pavilion offers shade via its loggias (open air-galleries), concessions, and an interactive play fountain for kids.
A Woodlawn must is a visit to Daley’s Restaurant, one of Chicago’s most time-tested dining institutions. Irish immigrant John Daley opened the restaurant in 1892 to accommodate the surge in foot traffic from the World’s Fair, construction of the University of Chicago, and extension of the elevated tracks. Daley sold the business to two Greek immigrants in 1918, who built the current brick and mortar structure in 1937. Relatives and descendants of these proprietors have retained ownership right up to the current day. As Daley’s sees a steady stream of patrons from the early morning through the lunchtime rush, early evening is a good time to drop in to sample their soul food-diner fare.
Taking in a musical performance, film screening, or talk at the University of Chicago’s Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts is a nice way to cap off the evening. The 11-story, 184,000-square foot building designed by noted New York architecture firm Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects (also chosen to design the Obama Presidential Center) houses cutting-edge gallery and performance space for various free and paid events open to the general public. With its grand view of Hyde Park, Washington Park, and the Midway Plaisance, a sunset or city lit visit to the 10th floor terrace is worthwhile in its own right.
The Take Away
With all the development potential and speculation, Woodlawn is undoubtedly gaining a higher profile. The prospect of resurrecting 63rd St. as a thriving commercial district and new construction replacing vacant lots has many betting on the neighborhood’s appreciation. While some longtime residents fear pervasive gentrification or being left out of plans to harness the economic windfall, Woodlawn’s surplus of open land can hopefully serve to balance welcomed improvements without pushing out those with deep roots. The prevailing theme in media coverage will continue to be that Woodlawn has immense promise. For residents and the savvy visitor, there’s a great deal in the neighborhood to relish while it’s still relatively under the radar.