The first thing you notice about Oakland is the quiet. This is good news and bad news.
The good news: Except for the hum of nearby Lake Shore Drive, this South Side residential neighborhood has no tangled street corners with blaring car horns and no more gunfire from the now-demolished Ida B. Wells public housing development.
The bad news: This tiny enclave of 5,900 people is largely devoid of the familiar hustle and bustle of urban life. Even the geese on its barren land are silent squatters.
You have to know where to look in this mostly residential community to find activity. Women meet at the hair salons. Men wait at the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) to help unload the next food pantry shipment. After church, families meet at Norman's Bistro, a popular neighborhood restaurant.
About four miles south of the Loop, Oakland only covers one square mile, tucked between 35th and 43rd Streets. Go any farther east, and you'll get wet.
It is so small, few people say "Oakland." Real estate agents call the greater area Bronzeville, but natives call Oakland "the low end," said KOCO lead organizer Shannon Bennett. "That sounds negative, but it comes from the low street numbers," he said.
Oakland's landscape is still smarting from the blight of the Ida B. Wells complex, whose elimination triggered the beginning of the neighborhood's renewal and crime reduction.
"I lived across the street from (Wells) in the 1970s," recalled community leader Shirley Newsome. "No one would come to my house. We heard shooting regularly. The businesses left."
Oakland's population shrunk by two-thirds from 1960 to 1990, leaving the neighborhood nearly 100 percent African-American. Those who stuck around, like Newsome, "had had enough," she said. They launched an ongoing revival that includes working with the police, establishing community services for the jobless and luring new home developers to the empty lots that Bennett calls Oakland's "missing teeth."
Norman Bolden, owner of Norman's Bistro, developed a block-long commercial strip. But residential growth stalled when the economy tanked.
At least the tension of past crime rates is gone, said activist Harold Lucas, of the Bronzeville Visitor Information Center. "The older homes are passed down through the black families," he said. "The new homes are owned by professional blacks and a few whites who aren't afraid of living with the blacks."
"Kenwood gets the glory, but Oakland is a hidden gem," said Newsome, who said it is poised for growth when the recession ends. "We're on the lake, we have houses that are built to last, we're a few minutes from downtown and close to highways."
Add "some more Normans" who are willing to invest in its renewal, said Lucas, and Oakland will thrive.
Named by developers in 1871, Oakland was an elite neighborhood in the 1870s and 1880s, when many of its stately homes were built. Its older homes and churches include architectural treasures such as the cottages designed by Cicero Hine.
But from the Depression on, Oakland declined, weathering successive crises: discriminatory real estate practices, then blockbusting and race riots midcentury; the El Rukn era of the '70s and '80s; rock-bottom poverty and crime in the early '90s.
KOCO and other community groups led the revival of Oakland. The Parade of Homes in 1994 helped kick off prerecession redevelopment.
Things to do
Neighbors meet at the playgrounds or basketball courts at Mandrake, Ellis and Oakland parks. When temperatures rise, they cross pedestrian bridges to Lake Michigan beaches.
Norman's Bistro is the neighborhood weekend hangout, where couples can share a Sweet Potato Dream, which the chef described as "sweet potato pie to the 10th degree," or listen to live jazz on Sundays. For celebrations that merit a dance floor, folks gather at Room 43, a reception hall and event space on 43rd Street. Both venues double as galleries of African-American art.
Art lovers also like the quirky Oakland Museum, an informal collection of sculptures that spill from artist Milton Mizenburg Jr.'s yard into neighboring lots.
At 636 E. 35th St., history buffs can find the memorial and tomb of Stephen A. Douglas, known for the famed Lincoln-Douglas political debates of 1858.
Oakland's housing is an eclectic quilt of glorious old graystones with stained-glass windows, new brick condos and fixer-uppers.
Many new-home developments are near completion. Oakwood Shores has some row houses, town houses and condos available, with base prices from $178,900 to $534,900. Condos at Lake Park Crescent start at $249,800.
Recent single-family house sales ranged from an 1885 stone "as-is" for $52,000 to a 2006 brick four-bedroom for $450,000, said real estate agent Sheila Rugege Dantzler of Weichert, Realtors – First Chicago. Condos range from a 2007 three-bedroom that went for $150,000 to a 2008 duplex that sold for $260,000.
CTA bus routes Nos. 1 and 4, among others, serve the area. To get to the suburbs, residents catch Interstate Highway 90/94 or jump on Lake Shore Drive to link to Interstate Highway 55.
Grade-school children attend Donoghue (pre-K-5), Jackie Robinson (pre-K-3) or Melville W. Fuller (pre-K-8) elementary schools.
Oakland has no high schools within its boundaries, but Chicago Public Schools lists five nearby.
Nearby parochial high schools are Hales Franciscan High School and De La Salle Institute Campus, both for boys.