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Out of House and Home

Chicageo

'I did believe them at one time. Not anymore.'

November 06, 1996|JUDY PASTERNAK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHICAGO — Public housing across the United States is entering a new era.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development wants 100,000 substandard American public units destroyed before century's end. The hope: to end the warehousing and isolation of the poorest poor, while creating mixed-income communities where role models abound and stereotypes explode.

With demolition, reconstruction and remodeling planned, residents are being given the option to move into the private sector through Section 8 housing assistance. Some have seen enough, lost too much, and they will leave. For others, this is home.

Here, reports from Chicago and Boyle Heights.

*

Why would anyone go to federal court to stay at 2245 W. Lake St.?

The building, slated for demolition, rears 14 stories high, with jagged shards and plywood sheets filling at least as many windows as do intact panes. Each brutal winter, the interior north-facing walls don a coat of ice. Spray-painted calling cards of the dreaded Black Disciples blanket the dim corridors and creaky elevators.

Gunshots echo most every night in this living ruin. Later still, bangs and thumps herald squatters and thieves tunneling through the walls in search of a vacant unit. Their purposes may include sleeping, looting, smoking crack or hiding from police.

Don't misunderstand Valerie Cobb or Catherine Christopher. They know the shortcomings of their corner of the Henry Horner Homes. They have each lived in 2245 for more than 35 years, brought to this housing project as toddlers by their parents, rearing their own children through adolescence here.

Val and Kitty, as they fondly call each other, long for someplace peaceful, someplace shiny new, above all someplace private.

They can even see their dream homes rising around the corner, brick by brick, stair by stair, separate entrances to each. They have been promised spots in this development. In a faded red folder, Christopher keeps the certificate, No. 95-0145, that proves she is "guaranteed the right to replacement housing."

Cobb, slight and kindly, and Christopher, broad and sunny, pass the construction site when they walk to Jimmy's Food and Meat. They stop each time to take a look. "Oh, this would be nice, really nice," Cobb says, grabbing onto a moment of bliss.

"Well," she sighs, soon enough. "Pipe dream."

The Chicago Housing Authority is ready to vacate 2245. Right now.

The replacement housing is not ready and won't be for some time.

This presents a problem--a problem repeated all over Chicago, site of the nation's largest cluster of public housing projects and crucible for a grand experiment conducted by the government, which hopes to redefine public housing as we know it.

*

In Chicago, where the federal government has taken over the local housing authority and talk of radical change began early, plans for an overhaul are advancing more rapidly than anywhere else. Already, buildings at three housing projects, including Horner, have come down.

The first signs of dislocation and confusion are setting in as well. Cash flow, slipped schedules and gang turf borders are all cropping up as concerns.

At the least, the transition is bound to be uncomfortable. The complicated logistics mean that scores of public housing families will be swept into a massive shell game, being moved from place to place, while high-rises are dynamited, mid-rises rehabbed, and waiting lists grow for subsidized private apartments.

At worst, Cobb and Christopher and others suspect, another agenda is coming into play. They like the theory behind the changes just fine. But they are starting to believe that they are being ousted, plain and simple, so their community--once the Near West Side, now re-christened West Haven--can be fully gentrified. Despite the CHA's assurances, they wonder if they've been disinvited to the party.

And so, to court. The tenants are trying in effect to hold their building hostage. They don't want to budge until they can go straight to their new units.

"If we go, they will outright take their time" with the new housing, charges Christopher. "You know there's not going to be any more construction till spring, as it is." The first snows will be falling soon.

"This area is a prime area," agrees Mamie Bone, who presides over the Horner tenants' council with a sturdy cane and an endless wardrobe of berets. Nearby is the United Center, home to basketball's world champion Bulls and last summer's Democratic National Convention. A new library, boys' and girls' club, and a park are recent additions. In the end, Bone predicts, "none of us is going to be there. I did believe them at one time. Not anymore."

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