How would you describe North Lawndale?

It's hard to tell you a little because there's a lot about North Lawndale. The population is roughly 41,000 and probably 95 percent or so African-American. Its peak population was 120,000 in the early 1960s. At that point, it was probably the second largest—if not the largest—African-American community in the country. Before that, it was the third largest Jewish community in the world.

  • Credit: Nathan Kirkman

Historically, it had a very, very large industrial base. All that's gone now. The major commercial strips—most of those streets are vestiges of their former selves. We interviewed longtime residents, and people will talk about the intensity of Roosevelt Road, with banks, insurance companies, department stores—it's all gone. But we're starting to see some [city incentives] along Roosevelt and more interest in doing development in emerging markets.

How can residents help revive the neighborhood?

I think we have to get people who live in North Lawndale to feel invested, to be stewards of this incredible built environment. Lawndale has the largest concentration of graystones in the city. Graystones are to Chicago what brownstones are to New York, but we haven't really celebrated the graystone in Chicago.

What has been the response to the Historic Chicago Greystone Initiative, encouraging residents to buy and renovate graystones?

People innately knew there was something serious and interesting about the buildings. They just hadn't thought about it, for the most part. I've been astounded at the amount of support and recognition, the “Oh, yeah” factor. They really do get it.

What do you want to see in Lawndale 30 years from now?

There was a design competition [the 2006 Burnham Prize Design Competition, held by the Chicago Architectural Club] to get architects pushing the envelope and thinking about what could happen in the future. Many entries that looked at housing development picked up on the idea of the graystone. I was very pleased with the kinds of things folks did. People who live in poor communities also are entitled to good design. I'd love to see good buildings, an aesthetically engaging place. … [A] smart, clever, interesting place to live—and one that looks good.