Wardell Lavender, a community activist who became known as the “Mayor of Woodlawn,” died of prostate cancer on April 7. He was 80 years old.
Lavender was a man of monikers, each tied to one of the many lives he lived. “He had several different names that, in the early days, individuals would recall. Shooting pool, he was Bobby Roso. Sometimes he was called Rodriguez and people would come and knock on the door or ring the bell and ask for Bobby Roso or Poncho,” Wardell’s sibling Gethmus Lavender said.
But he came to be known as the Mayor of Woodlawn after his entry into community politics later in life. Having been devoted to Woodlawn for much of his adulthood, Wardell made his foray into activism after learning about the planned demolition of Grove Parc — a 504 unit federally subsidized development in Woodlawn that was home to low-income families.
It was in response to this plan that Wardell co-founded Southside Together Organizing for Power in 2004.
“There was some outreach happening in one of the very first days of that campaign, and Wardell, as he always was, was right out there in the neighborhood, and ran into some folks who were knocking on doors and doing some work. And he asked what was going on and then and there pretty much joined the effort to save Grove Parc,” said Alex Goldenberg, the Executive Director of Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP).
Goldenberg said that Wardell was an expert in base-building. “Because he had such deep, long standing relationships with people in the neighborhood, when he asked people to join a cause, people immediately agreed to it and asked what they could do to help. They understood that if Wardell was saying we ought to be there, he was on the right side of things,” Goldenberg elaborated.
Wardell and STOP eventually won a public commitment to preserve Grove Parc. In 2007, Grove Parc’s tenants were once again at risk of being displaced — STOP fought back harder, and worked with the tenants’ association and the Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH), a national non-profit developer. The effort culminated in a $250 million redevelopment and a one-for-one replacement of all 504 units.
In 2015, the Grove Parc Plaza tenants came to an agreement with POAH that granted them a say in the redevelopment of the complex into Woodlawn Park — a first of its kind win for Woodlawn residents.
Wardell went on to continue his work in Woodlawn housing, reaching out to different developments that were facing displacement. He ran meetings with tenants to educate them about their right to stay in the neighborhood.
A lifelong learner of Spanish, Wardell was also particularly gifted at building solidarity across communities. Goldenberg remembered that he helped lead a group to participate in the immigrant rights marches of 2006; he held several workshops in the neighborhood which included Mexican and Latine farmworkers who would talk about their experiences. “He had this worldliness and interest in building solidarity across the community.”
In 2011, Wardell volunteered to help unseat Alderman Willie Cochran and get Che “Rhymefest” Smith elected. Though Rhymefest ultimately lost, Wardell won all of his precincts.
He jumped at the next opportunity to get progressive leadership elected when Jeanette Taylor ran for alderperson in 2019. “He dived in much, much earlier and much deeper and was one of the critical pieces to help get her elected because he really moved people across the ward slowly, steadily throughout the campaign, from getting petitions signed, to getting commitments to vote for her to getting out the vote itself,” said Goldenberg.
Wardell went on to help pass, by a large margin, a nonbinding ballot referendum in support of a Community Benefits Agreement for the Obama Presidential Center.
He was also involved in other campaigns such as fighting against the closure of South Side mental health clinics and successfully pushing the University of Chicago to open a trauma center.
Gethmus said that he was a part of Wardell’s inspiration to get into activism. Gethmus had been involved in community politics for a while — him and Wardell were living together at the time, and their proximity meant that Wardell often saw him canvassing the neighborhood or attending meetings. Gethmus eventually became disillusioned with politics and politicians, and quit being involved directly — Wardell picked up where he left off. “I was shocked to see that he had taken on some of the stuff that I was doing.”
Before becoming a community activist, Wardell spent a life as the “Chicken Man” — he owned the Harold’s Chicken on 63rd and King Drive. The Chicken Man was always collected. “I never really saw him upset about anything; he was easygoing and laid back,” Gethmus said.
He was popular throughout the neighborhood. “Almost everybody in the neighborhood knew him. It was always amazing to us where any corner of the neighborhood he would go to, somebody would kind of honk their horn from their car and say hi to him walking down the street screaming. You know, he's just one of those local celebrity figures,” said Goldenberg.
Born in Mantua, Alabama, Wardell and his family moved to Woodlawn in the early 50s, where he picked up the Bobby Roso nickname in his 20s and 30s — Bobby Roso kept a snazzy wardrobe and spent much of his time in those days as a pool aficionado and a traveling barber.
“If he were around you, you would gravitate to him,” said Gethmus. “And you wouldn’t have to worry about anything when he was around. He made sure everything was good for you. If you needed something he would provide, but he never asked anybody for anything.”