By Alana Semuels
CHICAGO—When he moved back to Chicago after being away for 15 years, Maurice Samuels, 40, never thought he’d live in Woodlawn. He grew up in the area on the South Side of Chicago, and remembered its deterioration well. When he left in his twenties, Woodlawn "used to be run down," he said. There were vacant homes and walking around, he said, you didn't feel safe.
Woodlawn is the area directly south of the University of Chicago, in the heart of the city’s South Side. The university is surrounded by parks on its east and west, and by Hyde Park, the neighborhood that was home to the Obamas, on its north. But the area to the south of the university is one of the most economically challenged in Chicago, with hundreds of boarded-up homes, and barely a coffee shop or restaurant in sight.
If there’s something most people picture when they think of a "college town"— rows of bars and ethnic restaurants, posters advertising indie-movie screenings and dance performances, beautiful homes where professors can walk to campus —urban universities have more trouble achieving that vision than colleges with a whole town to themselves. The urban campuses have neighborhoods that have grown around them and that have changed over time as middle-class Americans moved to suburbs and city cores struggled with poverty and crime. Some urban universities have seen their neighborhoods’ fortunes lift as cities once again became hip—think Columbia in New York or Penn in Philadelphia—but others continue to battle blight and crime.
That’s especially true with the University of Chicago, founded in 1890 and now a juggernaut of a research university with 15,000 students and an endowment of more than $6 billion. But for all the university’s successes—it was ranked as one of the top 10 global universities last year by U.S News & World Report—Woodlawn and some of the other neighborhoods surrounding the university, including Englewood and Washington Park, still struggle with crime, abandoned buildings, and a lack of retail.
Woodlawn was a center of mortgage fraud during and after the housing crisis, and there are still homes that are so mired in confusing paperwork and ownership questions that they may have to be demolished. The empty lots are easy to spot on different blocks just a few steps from the university, gaps like missing teeth in the orderly rows of greystone and brick homes. In many college towns, employees and students hope to find somewhere to live that’s walking distance from the university; in the area around the University of Chicago, which has 15,000 employees, there’s a surfeit of vacant and abandoned homes that could be rehabbed if only they had less-murky title histories.
But that might be changing—albeit slowly—as the city, community groups, and even the University of Chicago, set their sights on certain South Side neighborhoods. Getting people into the vacant and abandoned homes in the area, planners say, could help attract more retail to the neighborhood and also reduce crime.
That’s part of the reason why when Maurice Samuels moved back to his hometown for a job at the University of Chicago a few years back, he not only decided to live in Woodlawn, but he decided to buy a home there. The University of Chicago gave him $7,500 worth of downpayment assistance, and with his new employer's help and money from the Obama stimulus bill, Samuels was able to get a three-bed, three-bath condo for $199,000 and pay less for a mortgage than he would have paid in rent in some of the pricier neighborhoods in Chicago.
The Woodlawn he now lives in is different from the one he remembers, he said.
“Now I feel safe. I bike to work,” he said. “It’s a gamble,” he said, “but I hope it pays off.”