Written by Charles Leeks
Even in Chicago, many people don’t know much about K-Town.
K-Town is a collection of north-south streets west of Pulaski Road whose names begin with the letter K. On Saturday, November 13, the entire country learned a bit more about the 16 block area in the North Lawndale neighborhood on the near west side of Chicago, which boasts a unique mix of Chicago residential and commercial buildings and a very large concentration of Chicago’s unique Greystones.
Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago, community residents, and the North Lawndale Historical and Cultural Society worked with the Midwest Office of the National Trust and Elizabeth Logman of Midwest Preservation for at least two years on the Trust’s “Cornerstones of Community” initiative that was funded by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. While a purpose of helping those communities not traditionally included in conversations about historic preservation, it is my opinion that this initiative was an overwhelming success. A significant outcome of this effort was that on November 13, Mike Jackson from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency signed a certificate officially recognizing the listing of K-Town on the National Register of Historic Places.
A resident of the K-Town neighborhood, Paul Norrington--who just arrived back from Austin, TX, where he was a diversity scholar at the National Preservation Conference--spoke eloquently about his memories of the area when he was growing up the 1960s and 1970s.
It was particularly gratifying to me to see Paul and so many residents of the area, who remember fondly what the neighborhood was like for them twenty or thirty ago, as they began to learn more about the boarded historical record of the community: Who built the homes? Why did they choose the area? What happened to the communities of folks who moved on to other areas?
We held the signing event at the St. Paul AME Church on West Cermak Road, which is prominently located in the new Historic District. Even though there is beautiful terra cotta above the front door and dates on the sides of the building, Reverend Johnson and the congregation admitted that they did not have a keen sense of the building’s history. The building was built in 1905 as a memorial to the Bohemian free-thinker, John Hus, and it served as a sort of community center for the Czech and Bohemian community that settled and built much of North Lawndale. When St. Paul AME recently replaced its roof, the roofing contractor found a treasure trove of pictures with scenes of the community from the late 1800s, sparking an interest in the congregation to learn more about the history of their building and the neighborhood. The pride exhibited by the congregation and the community residents at the signing event was palpable. They now see how all of the pieces of the built environment, the community stories, and the layers of culture fit together in a narrative that makes their corner of North Lawndale so special.
Paul Norrington wondered in his remarks, “Now that we are a Historic District, what’s next?” At a minimum, there are discussions about “branding” this area with banners and plaques to call attention to its history and its recent designation. And, several homeowners have expressed interest in utilizing the services of Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago, along with the Greystone Design Guidelines established by the Historic Chicago Greystone Initiative, in making some historically sensitive renovations to their homes that will be compatible with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards. This will allow these homeowners to take advantage of tax incentives as they preserve the character of the neighborhood.
From where I sit, these benefits to individual homeowners are certainly important, but it is the bigger picture that really resonates with me. Partnerships and collaboration, good ideas, and historic preservation have created a path forward in community development, and in communities that have not traditionally been included in conversations about the benefits of preservation.
Charles Leeks is the Neighborhood Director for the Neighborhood Housing Services North Lawndale Office in Chicago.