Of Playgrounds, Chicago Housing and Ning

crossposted from As of Yet Untitled

Last Saturday I rode my bicycle out to First Church of the Brethren for meetings. along Van Buren Street. As I biked away from the loop, west along Van Buren St., commercial properties gave way to the brand new condos where young urban professionals have recently arrived from the suburbs. As I went farther west I began to see a mix of older, more run down housing mixed with blocks full of brand new condos, a combination typical of neighborhoods in transition driven by property speculation and developers. I was reminded of the abrupt halt that the economic crisis has brought to the gentrification process. For some this has meant a major loss of invested capital, for others it has meant welcome breathing space on the brink of being pushed out of their homes due to rising rent costs and property taxes.

Just after the last block of new condos, I noticed remnants of an apparently under construction playground abandoned amidst dead tree branches and litter:

Playground at former Rockwell Gardens site

Was this the result of a failed development plan, the only thing left from a grandiose attempt to lure potential buyers to the bleeding edge of new condo complex? In my mind I composed the photo above and titled it “Where the Gentrification Ends.” The next day on the way home I stopped to take the photographs I had imagined the day before. I spent 15 minutes walking around the mass of red posts and blue pastic roofs. The crowding dead branches and mass of litter should have told me this pre-dated the recent economic downturn, but my imagination had already fun off with the post-economic crisis hypothesis, fueled by the nearby piles of gravel which suggested building something.

I stood back and took this panoramic shot of the playground in the center of the abandoned lot from Interstate 290 on my right to the railroad on my left and the playground in the center:

Rockwell Garden Panorama

I began walking back to my car and stopped at the edge of the lot I stopped to take one more photo. As I stood there I heard a voice behind me say, “I grew up there, you know.” I turned around and met Craig, an African-American man who had grown up in the empty city block I had been walking around for the past few minutes.

It turns out I was looking at the former location of one of the towers of Rockwell Gardens. Craig talked warmly about his growing up years in the housing project. He pointed out the two or three houses in the area that dated from his childhood in the 50’s and 60’s. “Back then all my friends had parents and we didn’t know anyone in jail.” he said. “It was nice the train and the bus right here and I could go anywhere in the city.” He pointed to the Western stop on the Blue line clearly visible a block and a half away. “And then there were the riots..” he said and his voice trailed off.

During the late 70’s and 80’s Rockwell Gardens became known for its heavy gang presence. A New York times article from 1989 about Rockwell Gardens tells the story of attempts by the city of Chicago to reduce gang activity in the community. It paints a grim picture of a community dominated by violence. In the article residents talk about being to afraid to leave their homes at times and sleeping on the floor to avoid gunfire at night.

Apparently, “Operation Clean Sweep” wasn’t enough. Wikipedia says, “The ultimate failure of this (and previous) cleanup programs eventually led to the Chicago Housing Authority’s plan in the 1990s to demolish and redevelop city projects.” Two years ago, in 2006 the massive apartment building was demolished. You can see photos of the demolition in progress on Flickr. You can still see the tower itself in the sattelite view on yahoo maps.

The playground pillars I had photographed were all that was left on the vast empty city block. They are an ending rather then a failed beginning. The other remnant is a Ning social network for former Rockwell Garden residents. “Never Forget From Whence You Came” is the slogan of the site.

The condos I had seen one block east are the new face of Rockwell Gardens, an attempt by the city of Chicago to resurrect the community. The Chicago Housing Authority page enthusiastically graphs the redevelopment plans goal for 784 units one third market rate, one third affordable housing and one third public housing. So far they’ve built 212 units.

I’m almost completely ignorant about housing issues in Chicago, but my conversation with Craig and my walk across the vast empty lot of Rockwell Gardens give me a window into the many different facets of a process that is called redevelopment by some and urban removal by others.

P.S. For those interested in more historical information about the area, Craig recommends West-side Historical Society and Dr. Christopher Reeds, professor emeritus of history at Roosevelt University.

Comments (4)

  1. Tim Baer

    In Baltimore they did the same thing, imploded those damned buildings. Those high rises were problematic.

    I support urban renewal. Baltimore’s a city with 30,000 abandoned properties. Let the condos come.


  2. art

    “where the gentrification ends”. i love it. dilapidated playground = signs of hope. urban renewal is coming.

  3. ST

    i find tim baer’s commentary often very callous, and this time racist. shut out from much access to the state as real citizens, sometimes those buildings were the only places black people controlled. some people took advantage of others…some creatively invented new ways of being…anything but damned. (the urban renewal/displacement) happens in the US is like a miniature of what plays out with regards to the West towards Africa especially via colonialization and process of neo- and post-colonial struggles.

    anyway, i find it is hurtful to have to deal with tim and somasoul’s constant rudeness…we as young anabaptists and radicals of all types have to deal with this kind of trivialization and deviation enough each day. on this blog i hoped there would be more of space to go deeper…like connecting people who are thinking creatively about the future of “convivencia” in this world.

    thanks for the window into what’s happening in chicago in light of the economic crisis and displacement of poor peoples. it’s helpful to know because a lot of that happens elsewhere…so relaying this story helps to articulate more of the pattern i am seeing.

  4. Skylark

    Wow. I… don’t seem to have the words to say what I want to say, nor am I sure I have anything to say that would be useful in a discussion of urban renewal, gangs, race, and playgrounds. No, I’m not wowed by my lack of words: It’s the enormity of the situation.

    I went to an urban United Church of Christ this past Sunday for an afternoon service with some folks from the UCC church where I’m currently attending in the small town where I live. The pastor of the small town church was telling me she took the preteens to this urban UCC church for one of their community lunches. The preteens initially saw no differences between this urban setting and the small all-white town in which they live. We were both a bit aghast at their lack of observation. To us it was painfully obvious that our small town has only a few buildings with boarded-over windows, while in this urban neighborhood, boarded-over windows were nearly more common than glass windows. To us it was so obvious the socio-economic and racial makeups of our town and this inner-city were vastly different.

    But for our surface observations, did we really know much more about life for the urban poor than the sheltered preteens did?

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