Route 66 history:  Lawndale’s Dr. M. L. King Legacy Apartments

Today is the anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.  If you haven’t already done or participated in something to celebrate, there’s a memorial concert tonight in downtown Chicago (see the end of this article) … or, if you’re not up for going out, you can read this blog post about an interesting side trip off of Route 66 that honors Dr. King.

The apartment building at 1550 S. Hamlin Ave. that Dr. and Mrs. King moved into in Chicago's Lawndale area in January 1966.

The apartment building at 1550 S. Hamlin Ave. that Dr. and Mrs. King moved into in Chicago’s Lawndale area  (photo circa January 1966).

Once upon a time back during the winter of 1966, civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Chicago to raise awareness of the appalling, restrictive housing situation of Chicago’s black residents.  To do that, he moved that January into an apartment in North Lawndale on Chicago’s impoverished West Side.  The apartment building he chose was located at 1550 S. Hamlin Ave., about four blocks north of U.S. Route 66.

Dr. and Mrs. King didn’t stay there long that cold January – only about eight months, staying there a few nights a week from winter through late summer – and all the furniture they used while they resided there was obtained from a Salvation Army second-hand store.  The Kings’ rent on Hamlin Avenue was $90 a month – which was $10 more per month than what white residents paid for a comparable apartment in other areas of the city, yet the apartment and the building it was in were in much worse condition.  In the end, Dr. King’s historic stay in Lawndale may have raised the profile of the housing problem and the nation’s consciousness, but it didn’t make any difference insofar as getting more affordable housing built in Chicago.  That came much, much later.

A newspaper photo of the Kings in their Hamlin Avenue flat, 1966.

A newspaper photo of the Kings in their Hamlin Avenue flat in Chicago’s Lawndale area, 1966.

After Dr. King’s assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968, the riots that followed in Chicago (as well as other cities) destroyed much of the West Side, including a significant percentage of commercial buildings along Roosevelt Road and many homes and apartment buildings.  Most of these smoking ruins were razed soon after, and the lots stood empty.  The same fate befell the apartments at 1550 S. Hamlin Ave.  The remains of the building stood empty until 1979, when they were demolished; the lot was bare for another 30 years.

Then in 2009, Lawndale Christian Development Corporation (the development division of the Lawndale Christian Church that was founded in 1987), together with a number of other community and business sponsors including the Westside Federation of Chicago, Safeway Companies (Safeway Construction Co.), the Marcy Newberry Association, and Chicago Youth Centers, among others, got together and proposed a housing complex that would be a memorial to Dr. King’s civil rights legacy and would provide badly needed affordable housing to North Lawndale, one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods.  By April 2011, the Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy Apartments on 16th Street were open for occupancy.  The church also operates the Lawndale Christian Health Center and a fitness center, both located on Ogden Avenue, the Firehouse Community Arts Center on Ogden, and several other programs that benefit the Lawndale community.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy Apartments, completed and opened in April 2011.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy Apartments on 16th Street in Chicago, completed and opened in April 2011  (photo courtesy of Google street view; photographed in September 2014.)

The building itself is a sight for sore eyes, a marvel in the otherwise run-down area.  Designed by Johnson & Lee Architects, a Chicago firm that also designed the boathouse in Ping Tom Park in Chicago’s Chinatown, the complex cost a cool $17 million to erect.   The exterior uses a mix of bold colors and earth tones, multicolored masonry and limestone columns assembled in a slightly whimsical post-Modern design.  The ground floor along 16th Street also has a number of commercial storefronts, most of which were unoccupied when we visited five months ago.

The building complex, which has 45 housing units, was intended to include the MLK Fair Housing Museum, a memorial to Dr. King, a new campus park in conjunction with Penn Elementary School, a new job training center, a wellness center run by nearby St. Anthony Hospital, and a new public library, all on a four-acre site (see map).  All of this was to be part of a historical district dedicated to the memory of Dr. King.  The housing did get built and is a success, and the wellness center is there – but much of the rest of the planned development still isn’t there.  Perhaps this is a metaphor for the huge amount of work that Dr. King left undone before his untimely death and that must still be accomplished.

Map of proposed MLK Historic District on 16th Street

Map of the proposed Martin Luther King Jr. Historic District on 16th Street, Chicago

Lawndale Christian Development Corp. and its co-developers haven’t been able to get the rest of the project off the ground.  We stopped by last autumn (2014) and found an empty lot where the parkland is supposed to be on the block immediately west of the apartment complex and across from Penn Elementary.  The housing museum was to go into a unit at the northeast corner of the building along Hamlin Avenue; but if it’s there, you sure couldn’t tell from the outside.  The storefront where the Roots Café was supposed to go was still saying ‘Coming Soon’ in the window.  Needless to say, they didn’t get around to putting a new library there, either – which is a shame, because when we were last in the neighborhood in late fall, the aging Frederick Douglass branch public library in North Lawndale was locked up on a weekday (i.e., on a school day), when one might expect patrons to want to visit.  Some of the other parts of the legacy project were no doubt also delayed because of the recession and have been slow to get back on track.  Obviously, North Lawndale is still a problem area, and its residents are still poorly served with public amenities such as parks and libraries, not to mention other affordable housing projects.

Empty lots west of the MLK Legacy Apartments tht will one day be part of the historic district's development project.

Empty lots west of the MLK Legacy Apartments tht will one day be part of the historic district’s development project  (photo courtesy of Google street view; photo taken September 2014).

That said, the legacy apartments are a visual oasis in the blighted neighborhood.  It’s not the only housing program in recent years that has worked.  Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago’s Lawndale office was involved in the city’s greystone project several years ago, which helped local homeowners renovate and preserve a good number of the area’s classic Chicago greystone homes and two-flat buildings.  However, the area needs so much more help before the neighborhood can truly be called livable.

Much of the problem is Lawndale’s lack of jobs, most of which went away as industry abandoned Lawndale during the 1960s through the 1990s for greener pastures in the suburbs.  South Lawndale, now known as Little Village, likewise lost jobs – but it stands in sharp contrast to northern neighbors as one of the fastest growing retail areas of the city outside the Loop.  The Hispanic/Latino residents of South Lawndale are more prosperous, in part because their neighborhood never lost much housing stock during the riots of the late 1960s and avoided the block busting and draconian selling and financing practices to which North Lawndale was subjected, and in part because the residents of Little Village have successfully started up many businesses of their own – and shop in their own neighborhood.  Thus, South Lawndale never deteriorated as much in the first place.  That gave the area a decided edge over the neighborhood immediately to the north.

View of the apartment complex's 16th Street side with St. Anthony Hospital's Wellness Center

View of the apartment complex’s 16th Street side with St. Anthony Hospital’s Wellness Center

New jobs have been very slow to come to Lawndale; this has been true for half a century.  The opening last year of the Lagunitas-Chicago brewery and tap room at 16th and Rockwell was a welcome development.  A few more employers like that could give greater Lawndale a much needed economic boost.

At least the area is seeing an slow but steady upsurge or renovation and new housing, especially near Douglas Park.  LCDC and the Sinai Health System, which operates Mt. Sinai Medical Center at Ogden Avenue and California Avenue, have worked together to create new and renovated housing in the area immediately north of the hospital – between 12th Place and Ogden, and California and the rail lines east of Rockwell Avenue.  Phase I of that project was completed a few years ago, and Phase II is planned.  There is also slow gentrification spreading from the northeast and the booming Illinois Medical District, which has a significant number of highly educated workers and an increasing need for more housing.  How all of that works out over the next several years, with Lawndale sitting on the flourishing IMD’s southwestern border, should be interesting to watch.

Music for Dr. King’s birthday

Meanwhile, if you’re up for a concert tonight, the Chicago Sinfonietta is holding its annual MLK tribute concert at Symphony Center on Michigan Avenue, right on Route 66 across from the Art Institute of Chicago.  The concert schedule typically includes symphonic pieces and gospel music to celebrate the life, legacy and vision of Dr. King.  This year’s concert focuses on the energy and optimism of youth and includes performances by 13-year-old African-American cello prodigy Sujari Britt, readings from the group Young Chicago Authors, and choral pieces sung by the Waubonsie Valley High School Mosaic Choir.  The concert begins tonight at 7:30 p.m.at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.  For tickets, visit the Chicago Sinfonietta’s website.

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