The neighborhood, once rivaling the Loop as a shopping and commuting hub, is fractured and neglected, but its residents are far from beaten and are working to bring change.
Englewood used to be something else. In fact, like most neighborhoods in most cities, it has gone through cycles. Up, down, down further, and, if the residents of the neighborhood get their way, back up.
Before talking about the up, talking about the journey Englewood has taken will help an understanding of what it is today — and where its residents hope to go.
Today, it’s an area abandoned by business, neglected by the power structure, fled by thousands of residents who weren’t interested in seeing how much worse things could get — much less waiting for things to get better — a community in complete infrastructure stress, overrun by gangs, violence, potholes, boarded-up and foreclosed homes, pocked streets, broken sidewalks, weed-choked empty lots, trash, not a pretty place.
And yet at one time, it was second only to the Loop as a hub of shopping, entertainment and dining in the city. A transportation nexus, conveniently located, home to some of the city’s most powerful citizens.
It started humbly. The railroad came first, in the 1850s. Then, in the scramble to find housing after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, Chicagoans found their way south and started building, and Englewood starting growing.
By the 1930s, it was booming, its businesses pulling in $30 million annually, outpaced only by the Loop. In 1940 its population was 93,000; neighboring West Englewood had 64,000. Yet the Depression took its toll, affecting some of the community’s banks and businesses.
What took 60 years to build started to slide, and rapidly, in less than 20 years.
Whites first rioted to keep blacks out of Englewood and then fled. By 1970, Englewood was 96 percent black and 1 in 5 residents lived below the poverty line. Even before that, the slide of the business district caught the attention of officials, but revitalization efforts had the opposite effect and, by 1975, foreclosures in the neighborhood were so high that a community organization demanded an investigation into lending practices by banks.
As bleak as that sounds, anyone who spends any time in Englewood can easily find out that, from the inside, it’s not all bad and it’s not always bad.
Ruth McCraney, who was born and raised in the neighborhood and who with her husband raised two sons there, says, “We didn’t know we were poor.” And activists like Asiaha Butler see a tomorrow for Englewood that has it on a par with the comeback that Brooklyn has made.
BORN AND RAISED