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.

A Letter to Terry Peterson

Gloria Dickson

Letter from Gloria Dickson, 3544 S. State St., to Terry Peterson, Chief Executive Officer, Chicago Housing Authority

May 22, 2001

Dear Mr. Peterson;

Sample letter text

I’m writing to you because the elevator in my building has not been working for over a month or so. The residents of 3544 S. State have to walk up and down the stairs every time we need to go out for groceries, doing our laundry, walking children to school, etc.

As for myself, I am on my feet five (5) hours a day when I’m at work. I am very tired when I get home. I do not appreciate having to walk up to the eighth floor after a hard day’s work. My neighbors do not appreciate having to walk up and down stairs either. We have reported the elevator being broken many times to Stateway Management numerous times.

Sometimes the elevator gets repaired, it works, and then breaks down again .We are not happy with the situation. I have documentation (enclosed) of every time that I had to walk up and down the stairs. The residents of 3544 S. State would appreciate your help in getting our elevator working. Thank you very much.


Gloria Dickson

April 18, 2001

Elevator not working, Stuck on 5th floor with door pushed in.

April 19, 2001

Elevator not working I called Stateway Management office and reported that the elevator was not working. Ms. Hollis took the call; she said that she would report it.

April 20, 2001

The elevator wasn’t working when I left for work. I saw two elevator repairmen. I asked if they were going to repair the elevator. They said ‘yes’. The elevator was working when I returned home.

April 21, 2001 to April 22, 2001

The elevator worked for one day!

April 23, 2001

The elevator was not working when I returned home. I waited about 5 minutes before walking upstairs; I didn’t bother to wait for the elevator when I left home.

Sample letter text

April 24, 2001

Elevator not working this morning I saw a maintenance worker. I asked her about the elevator, she said she reported that the elevator was not working. When I got home this evening the elevator was still out of order!

April 25, 2001 to May 6, 2001

I don’t remember if the elevator was working during this period of time. I was too tired to document it! It probably was not working!

May 7, 2001

Elevator not working.

May 8, 2001

Elevator not working.

May 9, 2001

Elevator not working.

May 10, 2001

Elevator not working.

May 11, 2001

Elevator not working. I reported it to Ms. Hollis.

May 12, 2001

Elevator not working.

Sample letter text

May 13, 2001

Elevator not working.

May 14, 2001

Elevator not working.

May 15, 2001

Elevator not working.

May 16, 2001

Elevator not working.

May 17, 2001

Elevator not working.

May 18, 2001

Elevator not working.

May 19, 2001

Elevator not working.

May 20, 2001

Elevator not working.

May 21, 2001

Elevator not working.

May 22, 2001

Elevator not working.

3615 S. Federal

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3615 S. Federal partially demolished.

Portrait of a child.

“This was a harmonized building.”

Antoinette Anderson
3615 S. Federal, #207

Close-up photograph of the demolished building.

“This is where I come from. It’s part of me. When they take this, they taking a whole lot from me.”

Jill Williams
3617 S. Federal, #1410

Residents of 3615 S, Federal standing in front of the ruins of their building.

The CHA Plan: A Defining Moment

Introducing The View From The Ground

The View From the Ground is an occasional publication of the Invisible Institute–a set of relationships and ongoing conversations grounded at the Stateway Gardens public housing development on Chicago’s South Side. In the tradition of human rights monitoring, our aim is to deepen public discourse about “the transformation of public housing” by providing reliable information about conditions on the ground. We hope you will find The View useful. Please spread the word to otherswho might be interested.

Building being demolished

The demolition of a public housing high-rise is a dramatic process that unfolds over several months. It begins slowly. The building, at once monumental and doomed, resists the first blows from the wrecking ball. It doesn’t give way easily. Then, gradually it is laid open, exposing the intimate domestic spaces of the families that once lived there. At a certain point in the process, as rebar breaks through concrete like bones through flesh, the scene evokes images of Beirut and Oklahoma City. Toward the end, oddly shaped remnants stand like the ruins of a dead civilization. They mean something, but what? Finally, the rich, intricate weave of a singular community is reduced to several piles of materials: concrete to be recycled, metal with salvage value, a miscellany destined for the dump. Its work done, the demolition crew departs, leaving behind an expanse of urban prairie. New perspectives open up. The city appears in a different light. And, if we don’t avert our eyes, absence begs questions about the fate of fellow citizens for whom this place was home. Where did they go? How are they faring? This scene has been repeated many times in Chicago neighborhoods over the last few years. And it will be repeated many more, as the Chicago Housing Authority moves forward with its “Plan for Transformation.” Under the Plan, all 55 high-rises in family developments across the city are to be demolished. Thus far, some 30 have been razed. And developers have been selected to transform various developments into mixed income communities. This restructuring of the city dwarfs the urban renewal of the 1950s and 60s. It can only be compared to the period after the Great Fire of 1871. It will entail the relocation–in many instances the forced relocation–of as many as 14,000 families, some of whom will be called upon to move at least twice. It has profound implications not only for public housing residents but for all Chicagoans. Yet we do not begin to have a public discourse commensurate with its importance.

When HUD approved the Plan for Transformation, it granted a series of waivers from federal regulation that, taken together, give the City substantial local control. With local control comes local accountability. There are, however, few mechanisms in place to enforce that accountability. No elected official consistently speaks on behalf of public housing residents. Press coverage is, at best, intermittent. Academics have shown little interest. Non-profits and philanthropies have been largely ineffectual in deepening public understanding of what is at stake.The upshot is that the most marginalized, disenfranchised citizens in the city confront great concentrated political and economic power with virtually no mediating structures. At the same time, the absence of vigorous democratic discourse also handicaps honorable public officials within the CHA. It is one of the ironies of democratic practice that public officials, who often go to great lengths to deflect public scrutiny, are among its greatest beneficiaries. Sustained public debate provides them with information they would not otherwise have and can serve to enlarge as well as constrict their freedom of action. Our present discourse about public housing, by contrast, is largely innocent of facts. It is governed by a crude symbolic equation: CHA high-rises represent assorted urban evils, and the wrecking ball represents “progress.” This symbolism eclipses a series of questions about the implementation of the Plan for Transformation–about the facts on the ground–that demand sustained public inquiry and discussion:

  • Insofar as the Plan involves dispersal of CHA residents through the Section 8 program, does the private real estate market have the capacity to absorb those who exercise this option? How is the Section 8 program being monitored to avoid abuses at both the individual and community level?
  • Insofar as the Plan involves redevelopment on site, does the CHA have a viable financing strategy to insure that the promised redevelopment takes place? It has demonstrated that it can raze buildings, but can it rebuild on the scale required?
  • The relocation process is procedurally complex. It demands high levels of competence and care in implementation. Will the private management companies and CHA asset managers charged with implementing the process honor these standards? If they don’t, how will we know?
  • Is there an adequate infrastructure of supportive services in place to meet the needs of the thousands of families affected by the Plan? If not, how can CHA justify going forward with the relocation process until there is?
  • Does CHA have the capacity to keep track of those who are relocated? One measure of this capacity is past performance. The benefits of the Plan for Transformation are available to those who were lease compliant as of October 1,1999. Does CHA know the whereabouts of those who satisfy these requirements and have moved out of CHA developments since October 1, 1999?
  • As the CHA diverts funds to redevelopment, can it provide sufficient resources to maintain safe, decent living conditions for residents in currently occupied buildings?

There has been much debate over the last few years about the merits of the Plan. Some have argued that it is a land grab disguised as enlightened social policy. It is, they claim, less a strategy for addressing the consequences of failed policies than for disappearing the victims of those policies. Others have argued that it is a pragmatic, well-conceived effort, necessarily limited in scope, to transform public housing in ways that will benefit current residents as well as other interests. After extended negotiations, the resident leadership of CHA, Congressional representatives, and various civic organizations supported the Plan on the condition that it be implemented in a manner consistent with its stated goals.This is a defining moment. If the CHA goes forward with the relocation and redevelopment processes without having put in place adequate procedural safeguards, supportive services and capacity to track residents, it will have disclosed something essential about the character of the Plan. Whatever its stated goals, the operational meaning of the Plan will be clear: the replacement of high-rise ghettoes of concentrated public housing with an invisible ghetto of vulnerable, inadequately housed families conveniently relocated outside our field of vision. This need not be the outcome. But hope is a strenuous discipline. It demands that we acknowledge the history of abandonment that created present conditions and that we openly confront present realities. In the end, the greatest danger posed by our impoverished discourse about public housing is that we will fail to see and so will waste opportunities for humane, pragmatic strategies that are well within our reach.

Eerie image of partially demolished building