Naomi Davis didn’t grow up in Chicago, but the city has grown on her since she moved here in the ’70s to attend law school. In some ways, her ups and downs have mirrored those of the neighborhood she now calls home—West Woodlawn. Davis, a New York native with roots in Mississippi, moved there in the wake of the foreclosure crisis that devastated large swaths of the South Side. Yet she believes her community can rise again and become an economically thriving and, what she calls, “a walkable green village.”
On Thurs., Nov. 21, Blacks in Green, which she founded in 2007, will hold a “village voice forum” titled “Who Owns West Woodlawn: And How you Can!” from 5 to 8 p.m. at Dyett High School, 555 E. 51st St.
The Reporter sat down with Davis to talk green visions, history and what makes West Woodlawn a special place.
Tell me about the “Who Owns West Woodlawn?” forum.
I ran into three very charming white prospectors on my block recently. They were eager to share with me their vision for their REIT [real estate investment trust] and their proposal to Mayor Emanuel that he pledge [to them] all the city-owned property between 31st and 63rd and between the Dan Ryan and Lakeshore Drive and the lake. … They would be accountable for developing all the housing, all the commercial strips and, therefore, that would be the way to solve the problem of the blight.
Ultimately, what’s the goal of the forum?
The whole point of Blacks in Green’s work is to have self-sustaining, mixed income, walkable villages that are anchored by a critical mass of neighbor-owned businesses and driven by neighbor-owned properties. Building the capacity of neighbors to own, develop and manage their properties is a core goal of ours.
Generally, though, the green movement is seen as a white thing. What brought you to thinking that black people need to be green?
Black people in my heritage, experience always have been green. When we talk about conservation. When we talk about land stewardship. When we talk about the lifestyle that goes with doing for self, factoring in the values of people and collaboration among neighbors—all of the new sexy, lightening-bolt ideas and things that people are talking about as part of sustainability are nothing new. Every industry you can think of is segregated. And in every industry you can think of there are a majority of whites who are considered to be the drivers of it or in the limelight of it, and the environment is no exception. … People are accustomed to ignoring the existence of black people.
You’re not a farmer, admittedly don’t have a green thumb. Why do you think gardening and farming can change fortunes?
We all have to learn to fend for ourselves. So I learned how to grow even though I’m a plant killer. I have successfully made a transition. Am I there? No. If everyone just tried to do a little bit of what they can do, we’ll be all right. You can get with your neighbors and grow something together. The point that I’m trying to make is I have within my cultural memory a family of farmers, and I fell far from the tree. I found my way back simply because I know what I know. We’re going to have to do for self. I have a long way to way, but I’m committed.
You ran for a committeewoman post and lost, but now some are asking you to run for alderman.
I’m not going to talk about that.
OK, but some people see something in you. What do you think that is?
(Laughs). You’re trying to get me to say some things I don’t want to talk about. …Let me point something out.
A lot of times I feel very alone.
But you’re also someone with no shortage of ideas.
It’s not that they’re just ideas. We [BIG] do actually have eight programs in various stages of implementation, simultaneously. It’s not as if I have some big bustling team. So when I say that I feel alone, I mean that because I work around the clock. I work every day. I make very little money. I have almost no creature comforts. And, I don’t know anyone with my intellect, commitment and energy who shares my lifestyles. So it’s a lonely world that I live in.
You’re something of an urban visionary, but you’re also something of a marketer, crafting slogans. “Educating while activating.” Is that a Naomism? “We are the crowd. This is the time.” That’s another.
I spent years making a living doing that. Theater was my first love. Writing was my first and a half love.
Do you sometimes feel that you’re in the theater of the absurd here in Chicago?
I understand the absolute power of theater to open up a heart and a mind and transform a perspective, and I believe in community performance for economic development.
Seems you also want young people to know the rich history of African Americans.
It’s not just the youngsters. My generation has squandered shamelessly the inheritance. They have no idea what grandparents went through to acquire the houses that they’re trashing and walking away from. A neighborhood trips and falls. I can’t blame anyone for leaving. My commitment is to bring in the next generation. Integration didn’t work well for us and, of course, correspondingly, gentrification never will. On Nov. 21, we are asking the question: Who owns West Woodlawn? And we’re positing ways how you can—the average man or woman living there or elsewhere. And we are determined that we are reaching back to some standard ways and creating some new ways and finding unthought-of solutions perhaps to make sure these legacy communities rise.
Why West Woodlawn?
It’s symbolic because it was Chicago’s first black middle-class neighborhood. It is symbolic because it is the tight little island that was surrounded on all sides by hostile forces. It is symbolic because the [Lorraine] Hansberry family took the case to the Supreme Court that dismantled racial restrictive covenants, which allowed people to legally discriminate against blacks. Housing is one of the great measures of wealth, exchanges of wealth over the generations. We’re going to educate people.
That’s the difficultly. You first have to get people to understand their predicament.
“I could have saved a thousand more if only they had known they were slaves.” Harriet Tubman.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Every Monday we’ll talk to a different Chicagoan in #TCRTalks.