The University of Chicago, Urban Renewal, and the Black Community

Ivy clad halls of the University of Chicago (Thomas Barrat/Shutterstock).

“It is not possible to operate and maintain a great university in a deteriorating or slum neighborhood,” proclaimed University of Chicago Chancellor Lawrence A. Kimpton in 1958. Testifying before the city council in support of the University-sponsored Hyde Park-Kenwood Urban Renewal Plan, Kimpton painted a dire portrait: “the very life of the University is at stake.” 

Although University officials like Kimpton did their best to avoid direct references to race while championing urban renewal, their efforts were the culmination of a decades-long racial project intended to secure the neighborhood for white faculty and students. The Renewal Plan represented the latest development in this long history. Approved by the city that year, the Plan proposed completely altering Hyde Park: 856 acres included, 638 buildings demolished, and 4,000 families displaced. Buoyed by their success, University officials decided to turn next to Woodlawn, the predominantly Black neighborhood immediately south of campus.

In recent years, scholars have devoted specific attention to the complex relationships between universities and the cities they inhabit.1 As some of the largest metropolitan employers and landowners, with private police forces to match, American universities exert tremendous influence over municipal affairs. A historical perspective underscores the fact that for the Black environs of America’s institutions of higher education the result of this influence has often been the production and maintenance of exclusion and dispossession.

During the era of urban renewal, universities were instrumental in shaping renewal policies and mobilizing them against Black neighborhoods. True, they were hardly the only players involved; a variety of interests—block clubs, community organizations, University administrators, municipal officials, even the federal government—competed, conflicted, and consolidated during these years. However, it would be wrong to read these shifting alignments as reason to exonerate the American university for its role in the violent campaigns of midcentury urban renewal. They suggest instead that closer attention be paid to ways in which the university leveraged its advantageous position to the detriment of many others. A focus on the University of Chicago lays bare how the University’s machinations served to buy federal, municipal, and, at times, local support for the seizure of land and the expulsion of those living on it. In the midst of contemporary activism challenging the academy’s historic and ongoing role in establishing and reinforcing racial inequality, this important but often under-appreciated piece of urban history might help wrest local control away from university leadership and relocate it among the dispossessed.  

The 1949 Federal Housing Act laid the groundwork for urban renewal in America by empowering local governments to acquire and clear “blighted areas” in U.S. cities through the use of eminent domain. After seizing and clearing land, municipal agencies could then sell it back to private developers. Importantly, the federal government agreed to underwrite each renewal project by subsidizing two-thirds of a city’s total expenses in purchasing and demolishing “slum” areas. Yet, for university leadership seeking to engineer their surroundings in the midst of the Great Migration and rising postwar college enrollment, the Act offered few tools. To gain greater control over the situation, the University of Chicago Chancellor began coordinating in 1957 with the presidents of Harvard, Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to lobby for university-friendly revisions to the 1949 Federal Housing Act. The result of their efforts was a University of Chicago-sponsored amendment to the 1949 Act. Passed by congress as written, this amendment became Section 112 of the 1959 Federal Housing Act.2.

Section 112 essentially transferred eminent domain powers to private universities. Under the new bill, universities, working with the municipal government, could acquire “blighted” land nearby their campuses and rehabilitate it for “educational uses.” In terms of monies, the Act stipulated that while the university footed the bill for purchasing and demolishing this land, these expenses could be credited to the city as its one-third contribution toward the renewal project. The federal government would continue to provide the remaining two-thirds. Critically, however, this federal money could be spent on urban renewal projects anywhere in the city. Thus, while the revised Act of 1959 did not necessarily offer federal money directly to universities, it represented a partnership that incentivized land clearance on both sides of the city-university divide. For the city, invoking eminent domain on behalf of the university would result in a windfall of federal money—specifically, double the total sum spent by a university for slum clearance. For the university, acquiring land through eminent domain was a much quicker and cheaper process than negotiating for it at market value.  

University of Chicago officials turned to Woodlawn in 1960, in the wake of both approval for the Hyde-Park Kenwood Urban Renewal Plan and passage of Section 112. While Hyde Park was the slightly economically and racially integrated neighborhood north of the University, Woodlawn was the Black neighborhood to the south. The University’s vision for Woodlawn involved seizing, demolishing, and developing a roughly mile-wide swath of land bounded by 60th and 61st Streets.3 As for the people who lived there, school officials viewed them with disdain. The terse assessment of one University of Chicago sociologist sums up the prevailing attitude best: “This is a community that reads nothing.”4

To garner support for the urban renewal project in Woodlawn, referred to by planners as “South Campus,” the University used the prospect of Section 112 grants to both coerce and deceive the city. In publicity materials, the University announced that it would spend $7,000,000 to develop the land, thereby providing the city with a $14,000,000 federal grant. For University officials, this federal money would guarantee municipal approval. They were unabashed about their position, proclaiming “We have a gun at the head of the city!” Many observers agreed. One Chicago newspaper referred to the federal urban renewal funds as the University’s “trump card” while the editor of a different paper expressed disbelief that some could oppose South Campus: “It is inconceivable to us that anyone would want to stand in the way of the university’s proposition.” Still, others cried foul, alleging that the University had obfuscated the precise relationship between the federal money and South Campus. According to publisher of one paper, a sizable amount of the $7,000,000 was intended to be spent on renewal projects in Hyde Park and not Woodlawn, meaning the federal grants would have accrued to the city regardless of what was decided regarding the latter.

Of course, residents of Woodlawn had their own vision for the neighborhood. Beginning in 1958, church leaders had sought to establish a community group that could turn the tide on urban renewal by putting it to use for Woodlawn’s Black residents. Organizing in Woodlawn hit its stride after the University’s South Campus announcement provided a catalyst for action. In many ways, the University served as a useful adversary against which to rally. With “self-determination” as the watchword, Woodlawn’s pastors advocated for a community-sponsored “overall-plan” that emphasized citizen participation and public housing as opposed to redevelopment by “special interest groups.” To them, the colonial allegory aptly described their neighborhood’s treatment at the hands of the University of Chicago. “Those people over there have got to realize once and for all that Woodlawn is not their private colony,” asserted Reverend Arthur Brazier. By 1961, Woodlawn’s pastors had organized The Woodlawn Organization (TWO), a community group comprised of local block clubs.

In response, the University did its best to undercut TWO. In one instance, University officials tried but failed to engineer a grassroots organization in Woodlawn. In another, they pressured the University’s student newspaper to run a hit-piece on TWO that claimed Woodlawn’s Black churches were effectively supporting a “hate group.” Their most effective tactic, however, was inaction. Although TWO had drafted its own plan for Woodlawn, University officials likely understood that due to the nature of the federal grant system the city would be disinclined to move forward on renewal without University support. In the end, it was TWO that forced a settlement in order to get any action on what was quickly becoming a housing crisis in the area. The concessions were enormous. In exchange for a low-cost housing development built along a strip of land at the edge of Woodlawn, the University was allowed to build South Campus. 

These events have had lasting impact. Because demolition for South Campus preceded the construction of new housing in the area, many living in Woodlawn were forced to resettle in neighborhoods far away. And while the low-cost housing development was eventually built, it has struggled over the decades through bankruptcy and deterioration. Meanwhile, University construction proceeds on the land between 60th and 61st Streets to this day. In fact, the University opened the 891 unit “Woodlawn Residential Commons” during the ongoing pandemic. It will house approximately 1200 students. Its presence is a consequence of the work done in the name of Chancellor Kimpton’s 1958 pronouncement—dispossession so that the University might live. Such a legacy demands a reckoning that has yet to come.

  1. See LaDale C. Winling, Building the Ivory Tower: Universities and Metropolitan Development in the Twentieth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017); Davarian L. Baldwin, In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities Are Plundering Our Cities (New York: Bold Type Books, 2021)
  2. Charles Fels Special Projects Editor, NT Adams et al., “The Private Use of Public Power: The Private University and the Power of Eminent Domain,” The Vanderbilt Law Review 27, issue 4 (May 1974): 706-8
  3. The University already owned roughly half of the land in this area and planned, in part, to use the newly acquired land to build an addition to the law school. See Georige Anne Geyer, “War Over Renewal: The UC Campus Siege,” Chicago Daily News, April 12, 1962; This is also made clear in Newspaper Clippings — Associations: Woodlawn Organization, Chicago History Museum, Box 1, Folder 1
  4.  Jane Jacobs, “Chicago’s Woodlawn—Renewal by Whom?” Forum, May 1962, CHM.
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James Bradley

James Bradley is a PhD student in history at the University of Chicago. His research focuses on cities, universities, and urban renewal. Follow him on Twitter @_jamesjbradley

Comments on “The University of Chicago, Urban Renewal, and the Black Community

  • Excellent summary/example of how universities (at times using hospital construction as cover) ethnically cleanse Black/Brown urban centers. In someways mirrors an essay I wrote focused on U Penn and Temple Univ. gentrification of key parts of Philadelphia. Great work.

    Reply
  • This is a another example of gentrification that happens all over the country. I worked at the University of Southern California (USC) and they did the exact same thing.

    Reply
  • Anyone know of efforts to address this at UChicago? I did a continuing ed certificate there and live in the area. Have been looking for ways to be involved in justice/reparations.

    Reply

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