Elizabeth Wood's Housing Reform Legacy Lives Today
The Metropolitan Planning Council
is pleased to announce that the Chicago Park District Board of Commissioners
voted on Oct. 13, 2004, to
Park #316, located
at 2914 N. Leavitt
in honor of MPC’s first executive director, Elizabeth Wood.
“Newspapers of the day characterized Elizabeth Wood as 'no-nonsense' and
a 'fighter,’” said Ann Armstrong, MPC development director and resident
historian. “She was ahead of her time and understood that healthy communities need
more than simply decent housing to thrive.”
Ms. Wood truly was a visionary.
She pioneered the rehabilitation
Chicago’s slums during the 1930s and became the
first in a long line of bold leaders who shaped the Council as one of the
region’s most effective nonprofit planning groups. Today, MPC’s staff, board and
volunteers focus on issues ranging from affordable housing to education reform,
from public transportation to neighborhood zoning. The Council has retooled its
work plan time and again during the past 70 years to stay a step ahead of the
region’s never-ending development. At the same time, MPC’s rock-solid reputation
– as well as the very nature and mission of our work – is directly attributable
to the passion and devotion of the parade of forward-thinkers who have preceded
Ms. Wood stands out among them. In
1934, she and her associates – members of a newly formed organization called the
Metropolitan Housing Council – moved two dilapidated shacks from
’s slums to the
grounds of the Century of Progress World’s Fair. Within 24 hours, they
transformed one of them into a “Cape Cod Cottage,” complete with picket fence,
green grass, flowers and furnishings from Carson, Pirie Scott & Co. Their
point was simple: We can improve living conditions – let’s do it.
That year, the Council’s first, the
bright lights, hustle-and-bustle and innovation that was the World’s Fair stood
in stark contrast to a city still in the grips of Depression-era economics.
Nearly a third of Chicagoans were living in crowded conditions in
housing built before the turn of the century. Slumlords who found
themselves in court often got off scot-free by bribing corrupt judges. Rats ran
so rampant that the federal government appropriated $200,000 for
It was in this climate that Elizabeth Wood, a
35-year-old daughter of a missionary, began what would be a long and storied
career as a housing activist. Wood was born in Japan, raised in Bloomington,
Ill., and earned a masters degree from the University of Michigan. She taught
English for several years at Vassar College and did editorial work for the Home
Modernizing Bureau before coming to Chicago to work for United Charities of
Chicago, an agency
that advocated for and coordinated social services for the city’s neediest. (United Charities
continues to operate today as Metropolitan Family Services.)
As a caseworker,
Wood engaged directly with what, at the time, was a massive low-income
in Chicago. She
witnessed firsthand how poor housing conditions destroy communities: From exacerbating
the spread of illness to reducing the likelihood that a child would excel in
overcrowded, unsanitary, unsafe housing had far-reaching negative consequences
for the entire community.
By the mid-30s, Chicago’s growing number of housing
activists decided it was time to wipe out Chicago’s blight – before blight wiped
out Chicago. On Jan. 20, 1934, the
Chicago Daily News
reported that the previous day,
“representatives of 17 social, civic, real estate and association building
organizations laid plans for a metropolitan housing council … with a view of
establishing a unified program for housing projects in the city.” On Feb. 14,
1934, members of the council’s board of directors to-be, including John. R.
Fugard, Albert J. Weisberg and Allan C. Thomas, signed a document of
incorporation for the Metropolitan Housing Council (MHC), an organization
intended “to co-ordinate the activities of the various housing committees of
various organizations, and to establish a unified program for housing projects
in the Chicago area.” On March 12, the state officially recognized MHC as a
legally organized corporation.
Wood, who was appointed the
Council’s first executive director, elaborated on the board’s mission statement
by summarizing MHC’s objectives along three lines:
enforcement of housing standards, the collection of housing statistics, and the
development of neighborhood planning.
on a budget that hovered around $700 a year through the 1930s, MHC spent its
early years acquiring, clearing and redeveloping
’s slums. The Council’s Women’s Division
took a lead role in identifying neighborhoods and homes in need of
1937, MHC influenced passage of the Illinois Housing Cooperation Act of 1937,
which led to the establishment of the Chicago Housing Authority.
that time, Wood had become a living legend among housing activists. A newspaper
column captured her essence in its description of “her candid stare, her
determined chin, her crackling speech and taut vitality.” In the midst of
establishing the MHC, Wood also served as executive secretary of the newly
organized State Housing Board.
is no surprise that she was tapped in 1937 to become the CHA’s first executive
secretary. Wood served in the role for 17 years until 1953 and during her
tenure, more than 60,000 Chicagoans would leave the slums and relocate to new,
affordable public housing units. Wood resigned from the CHA in 1953 after the
authority and city aldermen put up strong resistance to her plan to scatter
integrated public housing units throughout the city. In the wake of Wood’s
resignation, the CHA would spend some 30 years “rebuilding the slums” through
its high-rise projects, which Wood vehemently and publicly denounced.
Between her progressive ideals and her broad, inclusive sense
of community planning, Wood truly was ahead of her time. During her tenure, for
instance, Wood worked closely with the Chicago Park District to develop recreational
space to serve residents
Wentworth Gardens Park, in the center
Wentworth Gardens public housing
Gardens, are two living
examples of Wood’s trailblazing instinct to design neighborhoods around common
MPC takes pride in its rich history
and long line of bold, innovative leaders, including Ms. Elizabeth Wood. We
commend the Chicago Park District Board of Commissioners for renaming one of the
city’s many beautiful parks in honor of our former director.
is our sincerest hope that, through the Park District’s recognition of Elizabeth
Wood, generations of Chicagoans will come to know her as one of the city’s most
effective housing reformers,” said Armstrong.