Chicago Park District Renames Park after First MPC Executive Director - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Chicago Park District Renames Park after First MPC Executive Director

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 rename city Park #316, located at 2914 N. Leavitt St., 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 of 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 us.

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 Chicago ’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 extermination efforts in Chicago.

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 community 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 school, Chicago’s 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: the enforcement of housing standards, the collection of housing statistics, and the development of neighborhood planning.

Operating on a budget that hovered around $700 a year through the 1930s, MHC spent its early years acquiring, clearing and redeveloping Chicago ’s slums. The Council’s Women’s Division took a lead role in identifying neighborhoods and homes in need of redevelopment.

In 1937, MHC influenced passage of the Illinois Housing Cooperation Act of 1937, which led to the establishment of the Chicago Housing Authority.

By 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.

It 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 of the CHA. Wentworth Gardens Park, in the center of the Wentworth Gardens public housing community, and Carver Park, near Altgeld Gardens, are two living examples of Wood’s trailblazing instinct to design neighborhoods around common open space.

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.

“It 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.

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For more than 80 years, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) has made the Chicago region a better place to live and work by partnering with businesses, communities and governments to address the area's toughest planning and development challenges. MPC works to solve today's urgent problems while consistently thinking ahead to prepare the region for the needs of tomorrow. Read more about our work »

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