Betting wrong on gentrification in Chicago

Homeowner Bob Bennett has seen the price of his home in Englewood plummet over the past five years. Jolie Puidokas/Marketplace

When President Obama went to Newtown, Conn., last month after the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, many people in Chicago wondered when he would visit the Windy City. Over 300 Chicago Public School students were shot last year, 24 of them fatally. This Friday, the president will be coming to Chicago and he’ll be giving a speech all about gun violence and murder. The president's attention to the problem will be appreciated by people like Bob Bennett, who has seen the value of his home in a South Side neighborhood plummet as a result of gun violence.

Houses on a block near Bob Bennett's home in Englewood

As the housing bubble grew, so did the appetite for homes in poorer neighborhoods in major cities like Chicago. Almost 13 years ago, Bennett was one of many homebuyers who bet big on places they thought were on the way up. In fact, the inside of Bennett’s 2,000-square-foot, five-bedroom home in Englewood on the South Side of Chicago is something to behold. The place is decorated with beautiful paintings, leather couches, hardwood floors and granite countertops. But it’s another story when you look outside his back window.

“This house right here?” Bennett says, pointing out his kitchen window to a distressed property across the alley. “Board up to right, board up to the left. So, that’s three we’re looking at right outside the window.”

In fact, abandoned houses and empty lots line the streets around Bennett's home. When he bought the two-story frame house in 2000, he was betting that Englewood was about to make a dramatic comeback. He'd seen it happen in other historically black neighborhoods on the South Side.

“I was looking for a neighborhood that I thought was going to be the next Bronzeville,” he says. “And obviously that unfortunately has not really happened.”

Bennett bet wrong on gentrification. Instead of coming up, Englewood's been spiraling down. Home prices are off over 50 percent from five years ago. And the neighborhood has one of the highest murder rates in the city.

“If I had it to do all over again,” Bennett says. “No. To be honest with you, I would not have moved here.”

But neither is he willing to sell the home for pennies on the dollar. “I’m not just going to give my house away,” he says.

Bennett serves loose-leaf tea in his kitchen

Critics of gentrification say people like Bob Bennett push poor residents out. But city officials like Alderman Willie Cochran say middle class pioneers like Bennett are just what Englewood needs.

“The most important thing about that character in the community is that they have stabilized the community to the point where  I can advocate for reinvestment and redevelopment,” says Cochran, who represents Chicago’s 20th Ward, which includes Englewood.

Cochran says he needs well-educated people who make good money to help him attract new business and job opportunities.

But Bennett says the first step to economic prosperity is not attracting more middle-class families. It's stopping the violence in Englewood.

“It destroys any economic growth that you could hope for,” says Bennett. “It destroys property values. It can totally destroy a community.”

Get rid of the violence, he says... and a more prosperous neighborhood will follow.

About the author

Sylvester Monroe is a freelance editor at Marketplace and a long-time journalist. His writing career began at Newsweek in the 1970s, and was followed by reporting and editing positions at Time magazine, Ebony, the San Jose Mercury News and Atlanta Journal – Constitution.

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