Up on the Roof

The Anthony J. Overton Building is located at 3617 S. State Street directly across from Stateway Gardens. It is one of several historic buildings that anchor both the past and the future of the neighborhood that has come to be known as Bronzeville.

The Overton is being developed by the Mid-South Planning and Development Commission. (Visit Mid-South at www.midsouthplanning.org [site is down as of 3/06; see archived cache] to learn more about the organization, its programs, and its plans for the Overton.)

The following is an edited version of remarks made at a community meeting convened by Mid-South on November 1, 1997. At the time, a Neighborhood Conservation Corps crew composed largely of Stateway residents was engaged in the interior demolition of the Overton. Today the questions raised in this piece are immediate, as Mid-South seeks tenants for the building and in so doing shapes the character of the Overton as a neighborhood institution.

Picture of the Overton from the street.

My colleagues in the Neighborhood Conservation Corps and I have had the privilege of working in—and, in a sense, inhabiting—the Overton Building in the first phase of its rebirth.

I have a few things I want to say about the work we’ve been doing, about the men who have been doing that work, and about how it has affected us. But I want to start by describing the view from the roof of the Overton.

Chicagoans live close to the ground. It’s one of the things I love about this city. From the perspective of the neighborhoods, most Chicagoans look out at the skyline with our feet on the ground. I, too, live on the ground floor. So it’s always an adventure to ascend in a building and look out the window.

I have sometimes wondered why the view from a fifteenth floor office downtown is so different from the view from the fifteenth floor of one of the buildings at Stateway Gardens. When I go downtown to the offices of government officials, developers, and foundation officials, I’m unsettled. There is a hubris, a fatal pride, that the “commanding views” from those windows both engenders and expresses. It’s the social engineer’s view of the world. It’s a perspective that yields a certain kind of planning, a certain kind of “community development”—the kind that benefits the developer more than the community, the kind that treats the social ecology of a neighborhood as a blank slate on which developers impose their vision of “community.”

The perspective from the upper floors of one of the seventeen-story buildings at Stateway is otherwise. The view itself isn’t so different. It takes in the skyline. You see sailboats slicing through the Lake. But it doesn’t feel like a commanding view. It feels like a view from the edge, from the margin. I have sometimes wondered if this is the way the world looks to boat people offshore.

Now, let’s go up on the roof of the Overton. The building is only four stories tall. Yet from its roof you can see the entire Mid-South Side. Looking north, a great view of the skyline. Looking south, the State Street corridor of public housing, the largest concentration of poverty in the nation, stretching to 54th Street. Looking east, the streets and alleys of reawakening Bronzeville. Looking west, Stateway Gardens and beyond, like a space ship hovering in the air, so close yet so remote, White Sox Park.

Two men working in the Overton.

From the roof of the Overton, you look out in all directions on the scene of a great unfolding drama—the redevelopment, the recreation, the re-imagining of Bronzeville. At night the lights of the downtown skyline, once so distant, now look like the campfires of an approaching army. And to the south the public housing high-rises stretching to the horizon look like an armada of boat people offshore. The sight poses an inescapable question: what place will our fellow citizens who live in public housing have in the emerging neighborhood? Can we come up with a more creative and humane plan than simply sinking their boats?

The remarkable thing about the view from the roof of the Overton is not only that you can see so much of the South Side but that you can see the faces of people you know on the street and on the grounds of Stateway. It’s a perspective from which it’s hard to lose sight of the human consequences, for good and ill, of development—a perspective from which it’s possible to maintain a sense of the human measure.

Since we have been working in the Overton, my colleagues and I have had much occasion to think about such matters. Everyone in this room, I suspect, knows the history of the Overton as a beacon of black enterprise—the site of a bank, an insurance company, and assorted other businesses—during the heyday of Bronzeville. But there is a later chapter in the history of the building that has not been much talked about or documented. For much longer than it was a bank, the Overton was a flop house.

The 8′ x 5 ½’ stalls we have been removing with sledgehammers invite thoughts about the measure of things human. These stalls occupied every square foot of space on the second, third and fourth floors of the building. On each floor there were 125 stalls and a dormitory-style bathroom with six showers and six toilets—a total of 375 stalls. Although men slept in them, it would be indecent to call them rooms. They provide barely enough space for a man to lay down. And they provide no privacy. There is no ceiling overhead; only wire mesh and a bare light bulb.

Hallway inside the Overton.

This was the Palace Hotel: a flop house that accommodated laborers from the South who came north to Chicago in search of jobs, swelling the Black Belt. Working in the Overton from day to day, it took us a while to fully comprehend what we were looking at and then we became haunted by it. The stalls became a window on the past. Some of those who have seen them have immediately been reminded of pictures of slave ships. Several NCC members have spent time in penal institutions; they agree that the Overton stalls are “worse than jail.”

When we think of the exploitation of black bodies, we tend to think of the settings in which people labored—the cotton fields, the factory, and so on. What we have learned at the Overton is that it’s a powerful point of imaginative access to think about the places those laborers lay down at night to rest: the slave quarters, the sharecroppers cabin, the Palace Hotel, and indeed, the public housing high-rise.

The men who lay down at night in the stalls at the Overton had come to this place for jobs and in most instances had found jobs. The men swinging sledgehammers today, most of them residents of Stateway, have grown up in a society that has no jobs for them, a society that treats their intelligence, their strength, their appetite to live productive lives as superfluous. They have done what they have had to do to survive. They acknowledge that in the absence of a job, they would find it hard not to be drawn back into the criminal economy.

The purpose of the NCC is to provide an alternative. To enable men who have come through the gang life—the veterans—to move in another direction. To do constructive work. To put down weapons and pick up tools. To participate as workers and as citizens in the rebuilding of the place where they live. We are a small, humble organization. We create jobs one at a time. At this stage in our development, we are scarcely more than a ghetto business, but working at the Overton over the last few months we have glimpsed large possibilities—a vision of a distinctive style of development. It is this vision I want to leave you with today.

The location of the Overton directly across the street from Stateway dramatizes certain possibilities. NCC members are working across the street from the place where they live. They return home tired and dirty at the end of the day to their families and friends as working men. They are seen by others—and see themselves—in this role. The direct geographic link between work and home means that a single job serves multiple purposes. Imagine a process of development that was animated by this dynamic, that took its bearings from the human gifts and capacities residing in the neighborhood rather than from what those in downtown offices with commanding views say is possible or permitted.

Inside the Overton before the work.Inside the Overton after the work.

Such an alternative course is open to the Mid-South Planning and Development Commission, but it will take both vision and practical ingenuity to move down that path. For we operate within a powerful gravitational field dominated by those who control the capital for development and make up the rules—a gravitational field in which political and economic forces are so closely allied that it’s hard to see them as separate things. Unless we move with clarity of purpose and sustained vigor in our own chosen direction, we will be carried in predictable directions to predictable outcomes.

In closing, I want to go back up on the roof of the Overton—to that singular perspective from which it is possible to take in the sweep of Bronzeville and at the same time to see individual faces on the grounds of Stateway Gardens. If Mid-South’s stewardship of the Overton is informed by this combination of broad vision and fidelity to the human measure, it has a chance to make a splendid contribution, at a critical moment, to the history of the South Side.

Police Raid Stateway Basketball Tournament

Kids hanging out in front of field house

Last week CHA officials held a news conference to announce that major crimes were down 18% in public housing communities across the city during the first quarter of 2001 as compared with the first quarter of 2000. (The rate of decline for the city as a whole was 11%.)

Terry Peterson, the CEO of the CHA, attributed the sharp decline to vigorous community policing efforts by the Chicago Police Department (as opposed to other possible explanations such as the depopulation of CHA developments).

Commander Ernest Brown, who directs the public housing division within the CPD, spoke of changes apparent along the South State Street “corridor” dominated by the Robert Taylor Homes and Stateway Gardens. “If you ride along the State Street corridor now,” he said, “you’ll find the parks occupied, as opposed to two years ago, [when] nobody could play in the parks.” Then, according to Brown, residents “were afraid of gunfire. Now you find kids in the parks.”

The following article, first published in the June issue of the University of Chicago Free Press, presents a strikingly different view. It describes the impact of police practices on a park facility that is central to the life of the Stateway Gardens community. And it raises important questions about the meaning of “community policing” in the setting of public housing.

Jamie Kalven

Read the letter from Francine Washington, president of Stateway Gardens resident council, to Police Superintendent Terry Hillard

Listen to Steve Edwards on WBEZ 91.5 FM program Eight Forty Eight interview Stateway residents about the police raid

When the Cops Step Out of Bounds: A Police Raid at Stateway Gardens and the Question of Accountability

By Larry Schwartztol

At Stateway Gardens, a gloomy but familiar irony of urban life persists: the place where effective policing might be most productive turns out to be exactly the place where tension between citizens and cops seems to be most firmly built into the social dynamic. While residents of Stateway Gardens are in general more likely to encounter illicit activity than those who enjoy more privileged surroundings-—unconcealed drug-dealing occurs only a few feet away from children playing—they are also far more likely to have experienced or witnessed violent and illegal actions perpetrated by officers of the law. This situation, ironic though decidedly unfunny, seems naturally to reinforce itself, with hostility and distrust conspiring against progress.

So most Stateway residents were shocked but not particularly surprised when a small army of Chicago Police interrupted a neighborhood basketball tournament and subjected everyone there to extensive personal searches. The ages and occupations of the approximately 250 people searched varied widely, but everyone there did have two things in common: they were all black, and they were all searched despite the fact that the police lacked a search warrant or any (apparent) probable cause.

This incident has become the subject of a federal civil rights lawsuit that is being handled primarily by U of C law professor Craig Futterman and his students in the Law School’s Mandel Legal Clinic. The class action suit, which names eight individual plaintiffs, accuses about twenty police officers—including Ernest Brown, Commander of the Public Housing Unit of the Chicago Police Department—of undertaking illegal searches in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights of those attending the game. The suit’s significance, of course, extends beyond compensation for the individuals allegedly wronged at the game; it has become a dramatic centerpiece in the complicated discussion of appropriate police practices in places like Stateway Gardens.

We tend to associate ‘police raids’ with Elliot Ness-era speakeasies or well-fortified militant compounds-the police initiate raids when they need to penetrate a potentially dangerous layer of criminal activity. The events at Stateway, however, seem not to fit this picture. According to the lawsuit and anecdotal reports (the city has yet to file a response and a spokeswoman for the city’s Law Department would not comment on the case, so no official rejoinder has been made), police began arriving at the Stateway Gardens Field House sometime between 7:00 and 8:00 p.m. on the evening of February 22nd. The Field House’s gymnasium was packed with spectators for that evening’s event: a pair of basketball games played as part of the Stateway Roundball Classic, an annual tournament which runs from February to April. The game was populated by kids and grandparents, residents and neighbors. Sometime during the first game police started filtering in and positioning themselves by the doors. One resident heard an officer remark, “Damn, there’s a lot of thugs in here tonight.” After the game ended, the police ordered everyone to line up near the outer doors and submit to searches of their person and belongings. No one was permitted to leave without undergoing the required inspection.

The police never obtained a search warrant, and, according to Professor Futterman, tapes of police radio communications from that evening reveal that there was no emergency or other extreme circumstance but, rather, that the police seemed to have planned and coordinated the raid ahead of time. The police say they had a reliable tip that something was about to go down at the game, but it’s not clear how much legal mileage this will get them. Without a warrant to search either the premises or the particular individuals present, the constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure require the police to have individuated probable cause for each person they detain and search. “I really can’t imagine a straight-faced response by the Police Department that they had individual probable cause to search everyone there,” Professor Futterman said.

Punching a punching bag

Beyond the technical questions of whether the police satisfied all the relevant constitutional constraints there is the less tangible but, from the perspective of Professor Futterman and his allies, nonetheless significant issue of the manner in which cops treat citizens. The stories of the individual plaintiffs highlight this point—the issues at stake cannot be reduced to a mechanical insistence on adherence to formal protocols, they revolve fundamentally around the expectations imposed on police officers in their interaction with citizens. Brenda Williams, for example, was forced to put her one-year-old daughter, Breshontae, on the floor in order to facilitate the inspection demanded of her; after Ms. Williams was searched, the police proceeded to search Breshontae. Anthony Jackson was slated to play in the second game that night. When police searching his gym bag carelessly threw his belongings around, words were exchanged. Then, when police demanded that his two young sons submit to searches, Mr. Jackson objected more vigorously. He was handcuffed and arrested for disorderly conduct. (Unsurprisingly perhaps, these charges were later dropped.) According to Andre Williams, another plaintiff, the police were preparing to leave with Mr. Jackson, who was wearing only his basketball uniform until Mr. Williams insisted that Mr. Jackson be allowed to put on warmer clothes (remember, it was February). Mr. Williams, who has lived at Stateway for all of his 27 years, perceives a fundamental insult in the systematic and indiscriminate searches: “Everyone’s not a criminal. They’re not supposed to be treating us like this.” He was also supposed to play in the evening’s second game, but said that after the raid ended the demoralized players and spectators mostly left, and the teams had to recruit onlookers in order to play the game.

The raid on the basketball tournament takes on obvious weight—both legal and moral—by virtue of the fact that it was such a large-scale operation. But the impact of this police action seems to exceed the multiplicative effect of having involved so many people. The fact that the police entered one of these basketball games seems to have struck many residents as a particularly violent offense. Professor Futterman and his students are fond of referring to the basketball games as a “sacred” institution at Stateway Gardens; while this vaguely theistic formulation probably overstates the point, it seems hard to deny that the games have a special significance and that this disruption thus caused extraordinary distress.

Francine Washington, the President of the Local Advisory Council at Stateway, explains that Stateway’s basketball tournaments—the Roundball Classic as well as midnight leagues—have functioned as a progressive community institution for years. The games essentially displace destructive activities: rather than inhabit the streets and encounter violence and drugs, kids from Stateway and the surrounding neighborhood would choose to pass their time at the games, venues everyone knew were drug- and gun-free. She says there has never been any incident of significant violence at these games. Stateway resident Pete Haywood describes the “sense of peace” prevailing at the games, due largely, he says, to the pacifying effect the events had on members of otherwise-rival gangs who would interact amiably in the Field House. “But that night,” says Ms. Washington, “the police probably didn’t have nothing to do. So they wanted to come to Stateway and make an example out of people for no reason at all….It was distasteful and disrespectful.”

But the sanctity of these events and the indignities suffered by the eight named plaintiffs is not the whole story. The February raid might best be regarded as the most overt and public display of a usually subtle but pernicious trend. The mass-search highlights what many Stateway residents and activists see as a systematically oppressive police presence.

Jamie Kalven is the Adviser to the Resident Council at Stateway Gardens and the director of a community-organizing group called the Neighborhood Conservation Corps (NCC). While careful to emphasize the desire of most Stateway residents to have cooperative and productive relations with the police, he discusses at length the “abusive, disrespectful, and predatory police conduct” that prevails throughout the neighborhood.

Doing some pushups

The spectrum of behavior he describes stretches from thinly-veiled disregard to naked criminality. It is not uncommon, according to Mr. Kalven, for police to employ the following tactics against drug dealers: “Grabbing guys who are involved in the drug trade, often beating them up, taking drugs, money, and/or guns off them, and not making arrests. Residents sometimes joke about the area [where this takes place] as being the policemen’s ATM machine.” Other activists in Mr. Kalven’s office report that a resident had recently come home to find her apartment ransacked—door off the hinges, belongings strewn about—and learned that the warrant authorizing the raid had her address, but someone else’s name. Mr. Haywood tells stories about police officers engaging in gratuitously sadistic games in which neighborhood kids are made to stand next to puddles so that the cops can speed by in their car, splashing their victim as they enjoy a good laugh. “The disaffection between police and the population here is so pronounced,” Mr. Kalven says, “that people sort of shrug their shoulders and say, ‘Who are you gonna call, the police?'”

Kenya Richmond, a 26-year old former Stateway resident and NCC activist recently had a run-in with the police. In the late afternoon of March 19th he was at work when a fellow NCC worker came into the office and reported that the police had just hit a kid with their car and were taking him to jail. Apparently the police had been pursuing him—they ultimately found drugs on him—and ended the chase by smacking him with their moving car. When Mr. Richmond arrived, he observed the police dragging their suspect out from under the car and promptly placing handcuffs on him. A crowd had formed, and many onlookers were urging to police to bring their prisoner to the hospital.

Mr. Richmond also asked the police to take their suspect to the hospital. His suggestion prompted four plainclothed officers to immediately place him under arrest. He was not told why he was being arrested, though one officer did give him the familiar admonishment of authority, “Mind your own business.” The car ride to the police station consisted of relentless verbal abuse. The officers assaulted Mr. Richmond with racial slurs—the worst you can think of, which I’d prefer not to print—and derided “children of the ghetto.”

Then the ride got even wilder. As they cruised down State Street they saw another young man who, it turned out, was running away from some gambling buddies he had upset. The police car screeched to a stop and sped backwards. One of the officers jumped out of the car and ran toward the unlucky gambler. The kid saw that he was cornered and stopped running, but that didn’t stop the officer from delivering “a football tackle” right on the concrete. The newcomer was quickly cuffed and arrested and the three prisoners were taken to the station. The officers exchanged a round of high-fives in celebration of the tackler’s performance.

Professor Futterman has been working with Mr. Richmond and is considering bringing a civil rights lawsuit on his behalf. He thinks the case raises relevant First as well as Fourth Amendment issues, as Mr. Richmond was arrested for speaking out against what he considered callous policing. But the cowboy bravado of the fast-driving, hard-hitting cops also exemplifies what Professor Futterman characterizes as a “pervasive attitude of disregard for the lives of African American people” among many inner-city police.

The primary issue is clearly not one disrupted basketball game. The larger project for Professor Futterman and his students concerns fundamental questions of how police function in areas like Chicago’s South Side-areas populated by poor people and people of color. This fall he started the Police Accountability Project at the Mandel Clinic. The Project’s goal—aside, of course, from its pedagogical priorities with respect to its students—is through litigation and community work to limit the ability of police to abuse their authority. “We want a police force that will patrol the neighborhood effectively but will also protect people’s dignity,” Professor Futterman said.

Even before the Stateway Gardens raid the Project was working with Kalven’s office at Stateway to establish an infrastructure for community-based responses to improper police behavior. The goal is to document police conduct, foster the right habits in residents, and institutionalize systems of recourse within places like Stateway Gardens. This has a lot to do with the attitudes of the people police have conditioned for mistreatment. Mr. Haywood laments a self-perpetuating complacency among many Stateway residents: “People think there’s nothing to stop whatever the police do. People think because the police do that, that’s just the way it is and we’ve just got to accept it.”

One of the points emphasized by the folks working on the Stateway raid lawsuit is that a comparable event in a richer (or whiter) area is unthinkable. Could similar police tactics ever be implemented in, say, Lake Park? Methods of policing are, no doubt, intimately tied to a complex of other social factors; but it seems possible that well-crafted litigation and activism could rattle the perverse irony of inner-city policing.

In Memory Of Eric Morse Part I

Girl on a swing in front of the Darrow Homes

On October 13, 1994, two boys, ages 10 and 11, dropped Eric Morse, age 5, from the window of a vacant apartment on the 14th floor of 3833 S. Langley, a CHA high-rise at the Darrow Homes. Tried as juveniles, the boys were found delinquent in the killing of Morse and given the maximum sentence of five years. The building where the crime occurred, shown on the left in the photograph above, has been demolished. The question of CHA liability in the child’s death, however, remains open. The Morse family brought a civil suit against the CHA and two private companies—Diversified Realty Group, Inc. and Digby’s Detective and Security Service—arguing that they did not effectively screen visitors to the building and that they did not adequately secure the vacant apartment where the crime was committed. After deliberating for five days, the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict. On June 14th the judge declared a mistrial. On June 15th one of the defendants, Digby’s, agreed to pay the Morse family $800,000 to settle its claim. CHA and Diversified Realty face the prospect of a new trial.

We do not presume to express a view from afar on the legal merits in the Morse case. We did not hear all the evidence that was presented to the jury; nor are we familiar with the intricacies of relevant law. We do know that today, at this moment, the safety of other children—and adults—living in CHA buildings is threatened by conditions similar to those at issue in the Morse case. In the developments we know best—Stateway Gardens and the Robert Taylor Homes—we see such conditions every day. Presumably, similar conditions exist in other CHA buildings elsewhere in the city, but we will limit our report to what we have directly observed.

Security.One of the issues in the Morse case was whether the defendants were negligent in that they did not provide adequate screening of visitors to the building and hence failed to prevent the boys who killed Eric Morse from gaining access. (Attorneys for Digby’s argued that the CHA did not require them to screen children under 13 years old.) Today at Stateway and Robert Taylor there is no screening of those entering the buildings—apart from that provided by the lookouts “doing security” for the drug dealers who operate in most of the lobbies.

Unsecured vacant apartments. The problem of inadequately secured vacant units in CHA buildings is chronic and has become more pronounced as developments have been depopulated. The CHA has made various efforts to address these conditions. Yet the problem persists. “In Memory of Eric Morse: Part II” will offer some practical strategies for dealing more effectively with this problem.

Robert Taylor Robert Taylor4950 South State, #1208, Robert Taylor Homes, June 6, 2001 – A resident on this floor told us that the unit had been vacant and unsecured for about two months.
More unsecure units at Robert Taylor4525 South State, #1303, Robert Taylor Homes, June 6, 2001 – We observed from the street that this unit was unsecured.

Unrestricted access to the roof. Stateway Gardens is made up of seven double-buildings (i.e., single structures composed of two tiers of apartments). Five are seventeen-stories; two are ten-stories. In recent months we have repeatedly observed that the doors to the roof in various Stateway buildings were open. When we have reported this to the management company, we have been told that the doors are left open during the day to facilitate elevator repairs. Francine Washington, president of the Stateway resident council, raised concerns about this policy with the owner of the management company on June 8th. On June 11th he reported back that “the problem has been corrected,” and that procedures have been implemented to “make sure that all doors to the roofs are secured at the end of the day.” He added: “The elevator maintenance personnel have access keys to the roof. There is no need for the doors to be left open to accommodate their work responsibilities.”

An open door on the roof at StatewayA child fleeing the roof3547-49 South Federal, Roof, Stateway Gardens, June 4, 2001 – The figure at the right in the picture is one of several children who were playing on the unfenced roof of this 17-story building on June 4th. When they saw us approaching, they ran away.
Staring into the sky from a Stateway roof

On the afternoon of Friday, June 15th, Lloyd Haywood, Andre Williams, and Kenya Richmond of the Neighborhood Conservation Corps (NCC), a resident organization at Stateway, checked all the buildings and found that ten doors to the roof were open.

On the evening of Saturday, June 16th, residents of 3542-44 South State had to run for cover, because children were throwing rocks from the roof of the building. (The roofs are covered with a surface layer of small rocks roughly the size of golf balls.) “It was like it was raining rocks,” reported one resident.

I am writing this on the afternoon of Sunday, June 17th. I have just finished walking all of the buildings at Stateway. I found the doors to the roof open at the following addresses:

  • 3542 S. State Street
  • 3544 S. State Street
  • 3616 S. State Street
  • 3618 S. State Street
  • 3517 S. Federal Street
  • 3519 S. Federal Street
  • 3547 S. Federal Street
  • 3549 S. Federal Street
  • 3737 S. Federal Street
  • 3833 S. Federal Street
  • 3835 S. Federal Street

It’s a lovely summer afternoon. The Stateway high-rises are alive with the sounds of children playing.

April’s Kitchen

April Moore is a resident of the Stateway Gardens CHA development. She lives on the second floor of 3517 S. Federal Street. On December 22, 2000, while she was cooking dinner, a fire erupted in her kitchen. Firemen came and extinguished the fire. Her kitchen was destroyed. The stove, sink, and refrigerator were ruined; the food in her pantry was consumed by flames.

Six months later, Ms. Moore’s kitchen looks like it did moments after the fire. The charred refrigerator, stove, and sink are nonfunctional. The floor is littered with broken dishes and ashy remnants of kitchen utensils. The walls are blackened by smoke. Peeling paint hangs from the ceiling. There are no lights. And the stench of the fire remains in the air.

April Moore

According to Ms. Moore, the property management company at Stateway Gardens took no action for several days because of the Christmas holiday. After Christmas, the building manager inspected the damage. Maintenance staff boarded up the kitchen window and replaced other windows shattered by the firemen. No effort was made to clean up the kitchen or to provide Ms. Moore with new appliances and a working sink.

3517-19 S. Federal is one of three buildings scheduled to be demolished by the end of the year in the first phase of redevelopment at Stateway. Ms. Moore and other residents have received 120-day notices, informing them that their building will be closed and that they will be given the option of using a Section 8 voucher to find housing in the private real estate market or moving to a rehabbed unit on site. Construction crews have been working for months to make ready apartments in other buildings for those who want to stay at Stateway.

In the aftermath of the fire, Ms. Moore recalls, the building manager told her that the management company was not going to do anything about the conditions in her apartment because the building was scheduled to be demolished. The manager offered to move her into a vacant apartment on the 14th floor of the same building–a unit without cabinets or bedroom doors.

“Why,” Ms. Moore asks, “would I want to move into another raggedy apartment” in 3517-19 S. Federal–a building soon to be closed and demolished–when apartments are being rehabbed elsewhere at Stateway for residents of 3517-19 to move into?

When Ms. Moore moves, it will not be the first time she has had to make way for the wrecking ball. She grew up in the Ida B. Wells CHA development. In 1992 she was forced to relocate within Wells because the building in which she lived, 551 E. 36th Place, was to be demolished. Three years later in 1995 she was forced to move to Stateway because the building to which she had been relocated, 510 E. 36th Place, was to be torn down. In the course of the redevelopment process at Stateway, she will have to move at least twice; perhaps more. In view of the condition of her apartment, she wants to know why management won’t move her into one of the rehabbed units now.

The issue of the habitability of occupied buildings scheduled to be demolished was raised by resident leaders earlier this year. In response to their concerns, CHA CEO Terry Peterson initiated inspections of every unit in high-rise family buildings across the city by teams composed of representatives of CHA and various city agencies. An inspection team came to Ms. Moore’s apartment, but thus far no action has been taken.

So, six months after the fire, Ms. Moore remains in her devastated apartment, cooking her meals in the kitchens of neighbors, and trying to understand why she must bear the costs of the failure of the CHA and its agents to maintain livable conditions in a building that, while destined one day to be demolished, is today inhabited.

Where Will All The People Go? Where Have All The People Gone?

This piece was orginally broadcast on October 29, 1999 on the Eight Forty-Eight program on WBEZ Chicago (91.5 FM). An audio version is available at in RealAudio and starts at the 18 minute mark. [To play RealAudio files, download RealPlayer 8]

Recently a friend asked a favor. Several years earlier his family had moved out of the Robert Taylor Homes to a dilapidated house in Englewood. The boyfriend of one of his sisters had gotten into a confrontation in front of the house with a local gang member over a dice game. Guns were drawn. The boyfriend shot and killed the gang member, then fled. Now, my friend explained, his family–a household of women and children–feared reprisals. Would I help them move?

Early in the morning, before the street came alive, several of us arrived in pickup trucks to move the family out. We discovered that they had reason to be afraid. Someone had spray painted on the house, and a memorial to the fallen gang member blocked their front gate: a sheet of plywood festooned with balloons and plastic flowers and sentimental condolence cards. There were also roughly a hundred empty beer bottles neatly arrayed on the sidewalk in front of the plywood memorial.

Illustration of truck and pot

The family had packed their possessions–clothes, children’s toys, kitchen utensils, and so on–in black plastic garbage bags. Using the back entrance so as not to disturb the memorial in front, we loaded their furniture and garbage bags on the trucks. We then drove several blocks to another rental property that was in scarcely better condition. My friend described the woman who lived there as “someone who’s always doing favors for others.” She had agreed to store their possessions in her basement, while the family split up to live with various friends and search for new housing.

The damp basement was orderly but overstuffed. There were boxes and piles of black garbage bags similar to those we were hauling in. One room was full of furniture. Tables and sofas were stacked in such a way as to maximize the space; a row of soiled mattresses, smelling of mildew, stood side by side like books on a shelf. Every square inch was put to use.

A room full of stuff

The basement, we discovered, contained the personal effects of three other families. This was the ultimate safety net, I realized. How frail it seemed. I didn’t know the other families whose possessions were stored there; I can’t tell you their stories. But I do know that all over the city there are people leading essentially nomadic existences, living off the grid and under the radar, uprooting their children again and again, as they move in with relatives or squat in abandoned buildings.

I often think of that Englewood basement these days, as the Chicago Housing Authority’s plan for what it terms “the transformation of public housing” is debated. Under the plan, all CHA high-rises in the city would be demolished within the next five years.

“Where will all the people go?” ask those concerned about the fate of residents living in the public housing communities slated for demolition. One might also ask: Where have all the people gone?

From the perspective of a car driving past on the Dan Ryan Expressway, the South State Street corridor of public housing–once known as the largest concentration of poverty in the country–now resembles a ghost town. Over the last few years, vacancy rates have risen sharply, as residents have been relocated, evicted, or have simply drifted away. Despite a waiting list of tens of thousands, CHA has not filled vacancies. The high-rises of the Robert Taylor Homes and Stateway Gardens line State Street like an armada of landlocked ships abandoned to their fate. In some of the buildings, virtually all the windows have been boarded up, leaving the impression of vertical chess boards at the moment of endgame. If this is, as some have suggested, a war of attrition, then the residents are clearly losing.

Trash bags

There is no single answer to the question of where people have gone. In the case of Stateway Gardens, the development I know best, some have relocated and are pleased with the outcome; they have improved their circumstances. Others sought new housing only to discover that there are worse places to live than public housing; they long to return to Stateway. Many have simply disappeared.

Then there are those who remain, those who don’t want to leave. The high-rises that look empty from the Dan Ryan are in fact deeply inhabited by people for whom they are home and neighborhood and beloved community. In resisting displacement, these residents are fighting not only for their homes but to remain visible as citizens.

When a tornado or a flood ravages a town, people respond in a range of different ways. Putting aside for the moment the question of whether we should expect more from our public policies than from a natural disaster, that’s what it’s like in various CHA developments these days: the dismantling of public housing has set in motion an invisible refugee crisis.

Judging by the public debate about the future of CHA, many people seem to assume that residents displaced from these communities will either find better housing or will end up homeless. But the reality I see from day to day is something quite different. It’s as if people pass from the hugely visible high-rises, the sight of which abrades our consciences, into an invisible dimension that expands to absorb them, and then they disappear. It was only by chance that I happened upon that basement in Englewood. How many other such basements are there in the city? I am haunted by this question. And by our inability to answer it.