The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Welcome to Mount Greenwood

The Mount Greenwood Elementary School Graduating Class of 2013.  Source: mtgreenwood.cps.edu

Everyone knows of a neighborhood like Chicago’s Mount Greenwood neighborhood.

I first became familiar with Mount Greenwood while working for the City of Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development in the early ’90s.  Around that time the planning and economic development departments of the city merged to create one super-agency.  To coordinate our work, the city was split up into seven planning districts, and I was assigned to work in the Far South district — basically everything in the city south of 95th Street.  Mount Greenwood was definitely within that area, centered at 111th and Kedzie on the city’s Southwest Side.  Previous to this I had worked principally in the Bronzeville, Washington Park, Woodlawn and South Shore neighborhoods, so I had some boning up to do.

There was a controversy taking place there at the time that sort of escaped most people’s attention at the time, and still does.  The Chicago High School of Agricultural Sciences, or CHAS, was opened in 1985 in Mount Greenwood at the site of the city’s last actual working farm.  Mount Greenwood residents had been rallying for years for their own public neighborhood high school — they had been sending their kids to Morgan Park High School, about 2 miles east, or any one of many nearby Catholic schools — but residents felt a local school was necessary.  Chicago Public Schools agreed to build a new school on the site of the farm, but, owing to the low number of high school age students in the area, made it a specialized magnet school for ag sciences.  After it opened, it maintained the specialized focus, but Mount Greenwood kids made up the vast majority of the student enrollment.

By the time I started working in the area, CPS was getting pressure from parents at other schools to open up CHAS’ opportunities to a greater number of CPS students.  If it’s a magnet school, they argued, it should have selective enrollment like the others do, and admit students like the others do as well.  CPS agreed, and in 1991 students were bussed in from other areas to attend CHAS.  This sparked major protests in the area; there were marches against the bussed-in students, raucous public meetings, and incidents of vandalism that never got solved.  CPS acquiesced, and reduced the number of “outside” students attending CHAS.  To this day, CHAS occupies a pretty unique place in the CPS school structure.

At the same time this was happening, I was assigned to be the city’s liaison to the Mount Greenwood Chamber of Commerce.  The previous liaison, a man who lived near Mount Greenwood, had recently retired.  As liaison, my role was to attend Chamber functions, make presentations about City programs and resources, provide economic development technical assistance when needed — and monitor the spending of the City dollars the Chamber received.  It was clear from the outset that I was, um, not their, well, “preferred” City liaison.  I would miss out on receiving invitations to Chamber events, and they would find ways to get out of meetings with me.  I resorted to popping up unexpectedly on occasion.

Within a few months I was replaced as the Chamber’s liaison.

Mount Greenwood is now again embroiled in controversy following the November 5 fatal police shooting of Joshua Beal, a 25-year-old African-American man from Indianapolis in the area for a funeral.  Since the shooting, Black Lives Matter activists have been showing up and protesting at 111th and Kedzie, and have been confronted by counter-protesters from the area.  Tensions were pretty high in the days following the shooting, with daily protests and counter-protests over the first week.  The protests have dissipated somewhat recently.  Residents in the Beverly/Morgan Park neighborhood, immediately east of Mount Greenwood and known in Chicago as a local model for tolerance and integration, have been working hard to bring people together.

I’ve written a lot about how a lack of understanding about the South and West sides limits their investment potential, or even any empathy toward their revitalization, but a case could be made that communities like Mount Greenwood suffer from this as well.  But more realistically, Mount Greenwood might relish its relative anonymity.  If there is one word to describe this community, it’s “enclave”.  Separated from the rest of Chicago by several cemeteries on its eastern boundary, and from several suburbs by cemeteries to the south, Mount Greenwood is set apart.   It’s a community of modest 1950s Chicago-style ranch bungalows, like these:

Many have been upgraded, like the one on the far right partially in the top picture, to include a second story.

Mount Greenwood is one of many Northwest and Southwest side neighborhoods that hold large numbers of city workers, particularly police officers and firefighters, who must maintain their city residence. Joining them in the neighborhood are well-off skilled laborers — plumbers, electricians, HVAC technicians, and the like.  Despite the modest homes, Mount Greenwood is fairly wealthy.  The median household income in 2014 was nearly $90,000, almost double that of Chicago’s.

Mount Greenwood might also be one of the whitest communities in Chicago.  In a city divided almost equally between whites, blacks and Latinos, Mount Greenwood is about 87 percent white — rivaling the high percentages of black residents seen on the South and West sides.

Mount Greenwood is a classic modest yet mature bedroom community.  It’s home to solid single-family residences, very few multifamily complexes, wonderful Catholic schools to supplement the public neighborhood schools, and a strong sense of community.  It’s been able to hold onto that status far longer than most communities; Beverly and Morgan Park, just to the east, made peace with integration many years ago.  And as long as they continue to prop up the wall of insulation around them, they may be able keep that status as long as they like.

2 Responses to “Welcome to Mount Greenwood”

  1. John Carlisle

    My friend and I have a running joke: We have two lists, \”CHI-NOs\” (Chicago in Name Only) and \”SINOs\” (Suburb in Name Only). I probably don't have to say they're modeled after RINO and DINO. Anyway, here are our lists:CHI-NOEdison ParkNorwood ParkForest Glen / EdgebrookSauganashMt. GreenwoodSINOBlue IslandCiceroBerwynEvanstonOak ParkForest ParkDebatable: Elmwood Park, Maywood, and several of the budding ethnoburbs of inner Cook County, of which there are a bunchThis isn't meant to be intense, deep planning analysis or commentary, nor is it meant to pass judgment on communities, but it's just a couple of fun groupings to point out that the city-suburb chasm in terms of lifestyle is a lot more fluid than many would like to believe. You could probably come up with some kind of data-driven index based on things like density, transit access, diversity (or a lack thereof), urban challenges, but we haven't. Feel free to add to the lists or steal this for your own use.I suppose New York could have NY-NO neighborhoods, Philly could have PHI-NOs … every major metro could have SINOs.

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  2. Pete Saunders

    I think you raise a really good point here. One thing I think really hurts strict city/suburb analysis is differences in the composition of parts of cities and suburbs. If one were to make assumptions about city and suburb in the Chicago area, you're going to take in many places that are much more like Chicago than, say, Schaumburg, and that skews the results. There needs to be a reasonable agreed-upon definition of city and suburb.

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