'Hidden gem'

Children from Carter G. Woodson Middle School bicycle down the lakefront path in Chicago's Oakland neighborhood. Pupils choose weekly classes in areas such as team building, arts, rites of passage, sports, fashion design, real estate, biking, cooking and entrepreneurship. (Joe Rondone/ Photo for the Chicago Tribune / November 17, 2011)

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.