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Remembering the CHA High-Rises

Wed, Nov 2, 2011

Jim LoBianco

Eleven years ago was I working as Chicago Police Officer on the West Side of Chicago. I had less than a year on the job and was very green. Being assigned to the 11th District (Harrison), which covers Garfield Park and Lawndale, provided me a crash course for learning the in’s and out’s of being a beat cop. What transpired on the property of a Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) development in the Fall of 2000 was a perfect example.

From late October to early November 2000 a gang war raged between the buildings of the Rockwell Gardens public housing project, formerly located at Jackson and Western Avenues. The development has since been torn down in furtherance of the CHA’s Plan for Transformation; however, there were once two high-rises, fronting Van Buren and Jackson respectively, between which stretched a large courtyard. For approximately four to five days rival gangs fired guns at each other between the buildings, making the courtyard a “no man’s land” for the CHA residents. The tenants of Rockwell Gardens were prisoners to the gunfire, pinned down within their own homes.

The Rockwell Gardens high-rises are long gone. So too are the high-rises of the Henry Horner Homes, Robert Taylor Homes, and Cabrini-Green. With those buildings went housing conditions that were the shame of Chicago. Having been in the various CHA high-rises a number of times, I know firsthand the filth and ramshackle conditions that the tenants lived in. Rats roamed the property without fear, graffiti covered the walls and the stench of urine pervaded every public space: hallways, stairwells and most especially the elevators.

The CHA high-rises were a black spot on Chicago’s reputation. Still, as bad as they were, those buildings were erected to serve an important purpose. They were intended as a “housing safety-net” for Chicago’s neediest. Now more than ever that safety-net is critical to the wellbeing of thousands of Chicagoans, and yet it seems to grow smaller every year.

The CHA’s Plan for Transformation has been hotly debated since its inception in 2000. Most everyone agrees that the high-rises should have come down; however, there has been an ongoing argument over whether or not the CHA threw out the baby with the bath water. Naturally, the demolition of the high-rises meant the destruction of hundreds of affordable housing units for families. Unfortunately, a significant portion of those units have yet to be replaced. So, while the problems of the high-rise developments where largely eliminated with the actual buildings, so too was the benefit that those buildings were constructed to provide.

This week’s cover story explores the ongoing struggle between the City and CHA residents as they try establishing a balance between government-provided housing and the personal freedom of residents, all within the current reality of diminishing funding. Although some CHA residents still believe that a happy median has yet to be found, I for one am thankful that the CHA high-rises no longer blight our communities and I hope that government, tenants and all of us who live in this city hold each other accountable to assure that new developments are not allowed to fall into such deplorable conditions again.

I would greatly appreciate your thoughts and suggestions. You are welcome to contact me at either tipline@streetwise.org or (773) 334-6600 (ext. 18).

Jim LoBianco
StreetWise Executive Director

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