Washington Park: The Dying Hope

by Izora Davis 

With redevelopments ongoing in several communities, we thought it would be important to review the history of the four empty Lakefront buildings, which have been waiting for redevelopment for a decade. Using history books and her personal recollections, writer Izora Davis explores the past, present and future of the buildings’ residents.

The history of public housing, as we all have come to know it, has touched each and every one of us in such a way it feels as though we built the buildings ourselves!

I refer to this story as the dying hope because it was a dream for many people to live in subsidized housing. When the buildings were first built, it made the government look as though it really cared about poor people. People felt as if they were a part of a nation that cared. Oh! What a joy. So much happiness thrilled people’s hearts: these were nice houses, not rat infested, and with spacious rooms. But slowly the doom has come. What did we do wrong? Through the years, piece by piece, all that we thought we had was taken away. Even today, when big changes are coming, the hope is dying for residents of Washington Park.

More than half a century of experience with major subsidized housing projects in Chicago should have taught many lessons. The unfortunate fact is, however, that Chicago’s subsidized housing was designed to be temporary, a last resort for people in need. Instead, the decline of public housing has made many of these homes permanent containers of despair.

The first wave of public housing construction activity from 1919 to 1930 saw the construction of the Garden Homes, the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments and the Marshall Field Garden Apartments. To date, they are still standing and provide better housing than the greater majority of public housing that followed. Although the three projects have been successful socially and were well designed, none were viable economically. They showed that the problem of providing adequate housing for poor people could not be solved by philanthropic endeavors.

One of the most controversial and largest developments on the near South Side is Washington Park. Its history extends back to 1957 and is partially the result of demolition of an oddity called the “Sphinx Kiosk” according to “The Poorhouse.” It was built by Washington Porter II to house an art collection said to be worth millions. Porter helped to design the “Sphinx Kiosk,” which he described as “Egyptian with a touch of Italian Renaissance.” A 150-foot tower was also built to observe the Century of Progress Fair which took place in 1933 and 1934 on the lakefront east of the property.

Twenty years later, at the time of demolition, 16 families occupied the adjacent Porter family mansion. The walls of the Kiosk and tower were crumbling, the real estate taxes delinquent. During 1962 and 1963, two projects were completed on the near South Side. The first was the Washington Park Homes. It is made up of 67 buildings on 27 scattered sites in the area bounded by 39th and 63rd Streets, and from Lake Michigan west to Stewart Avenue. Seven of the buildings are 16-story high rises of the same design as Robert Taylor Homes. These buildings contained a total of 1,065 units. On the site of the “Sphinx Kiosk” at 4040 S. Oakenwald Ave., CHA constructed a high-rise that was the first in the complex which became known as the Lakefront Properties. The remaining 378 units of the Washington Park Homes are located in 60 groups of two-story row houses. Designed by Lichtman and Kalischer, these houses are red brick with flat overhanging roofs and aluminum sliding windows. They were well designed and not very much different from some of the inexpensive tract housing in the suburbs.

The Lake Michigan Homes high-rise buildings consisted of 457 units in a cluster of three sixteen-story buildings on Lake Park Avenue between 41st Street and 42nd Place. These buildings also became part of the Lakefront Properties complex.

In the early years, the buildings accomplished their goals of successfully eliminating large slums areas and providing sound, safe and sanitary housing for poor people. It was not an insubstantial accomplishment.

In 1985, CHA secretly decided to renovate the six family high rise buildings located on the lakefront, known as Lake Front Properties. The reason for this was C.H.A. received funding for the modernization of Washington Park but there were not enough dollars to do the entire development. The residents didn’t know anything about the revitalization that would occur where they presently resided.

In 1985, residents of these six buildings found out through a news leak! Their buildings would be emptied and residents would be displaced. To put it lightly, residents were in an uproar! Imagine: to read in a newspaper that your place of dwelling had been selected to be renovated and you would be relocated without the knowledge of where you might go. But as much as being outraged, a common sense came into play as though God had sent an angel to the rescue. Residents came together and strategized how to protect their rights.

In May of 1985, the Lake Front Community Organization was formed by residents of the targeted buildings and I joined right away. We worked feverishly into the night hours, planning, contacting officials, getting information out to all the residents. Once the organization was organized, meetings were held with a task force that was formed by the city, H.U.D. and C.H.A. The task force met with residents and negotiated a fair number of options as to what would occur as part of the relocation. Most of the residents would get Section 8 certificates or transfers into other developments. C.H.A. would pay for all the moves and utilities and residents would get either 24 months of rent or $4,000 to buy a home. To buy a home, however, a resident had to have half of the money and an inconvenience fee. These were the options the task force felt would best suit the residents.

A Memorandum of Accord was signed between the Lake Front Community Organization, the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago and CHA in May of 1986. This agreement secured the rights of residents to move back to the Lake Front once they were renovated.

The phased renovation that was to take place under CHA Chairman Renault Robinson never happened. Residents never knew what hit them! Instead of implementing the agreement, CHA began a secret campaign to force residents to leave. The heat was turned off. Elevators wouldn’t work. Electricity was also turned off after a point. Water froze the stairwells. Pipes were busted and electrical meters were stolen. Last but not least, the water was turned off. This was the last straw! CHA had won and everyone moved like a herd of cattle running to save their lives from lions.

Only a few of us refused to go. Eleven families refused to leave 4040 S. Oakenwald and the building became an oddity of a different manner. We called it the “holding building.”

From 1986, residents and board members worked together as a family trying to make ends meet and they did! A new administration had taken over things began to look up. The new regional administrator from H.U.D. had come in. Her name was Gertrude Jordan. She was a spicy, intelligent young middle-aged lady and also very straightforward. She helped the remaining Lake Front residents help themselves by providing equipment for cleaning the buildings, security, self-sufficient jobs. The remaining residents cleaned all vacant apartments of the six high rises and even started a summer job program for the youths that stayed in the holding building 4040 S. Oakenwald.

In 1987, a new chairman of C.H.A. had arrived. He took the residents by storm! Vincent Lane was young, charming and ever-so-intelligent. We wondered aloud, “Where did this man come from?” He won the residents’ hearts. He made the residents feel a part of the program. He challenged our intelligence. He made the residents feel there was hope!

In 1989, renovation was started in 3939 and 3983 South Lake Park. I thought it was an effort to make people think CHA might not be so bad. This would show that Vince Lane’s CHA would be different from past administrations. The two buildings were finished in July 1991. They were renamed Lake Parc Place.

At the same time, Vincent Lane had secretly signed these two buildings off to be the first mixed income housing in the United States. This would consist of a 50/50 mix of families earning 50 to 80 percent of the median income along with relocatees, who would be admitted regardless of their incomes. The buildings had become icons! Was it possible for residents to live in the same buildings with people who had never dwelled in public housing before? Yes, it was evident!

Now that Lake Parc had become such a hit, Vincent Lane decided all public housing in Chicago should be mixed income. But only one thing was wrong—How would he be able to keep the agreement with Lake Front residents and still have his mixed income that had become so popular now? And at the same time, we who remained in 4040 had been told that our building would be next in line.

The ordeal that the residents went through in 1985 and 1986 arose again after Lake Parc Place was completed. In 1991, we were facing the same pain again that had destroyed families in the past years.

After a few years of hope, that horrible time suddenly seemed like yesterday. The relocation took place a second time for the Lake Front residents who stayed in the 4040 S. Oakenwald building in 1991. We were convinced to leave with the promise that 4040 would be renovated. CHA threatened many residents with eviction, claiming that we had not paid rent for our crumbling building. The sad past became the present again. The hope had begun to diminish in a way only God could stop this type of apartheid! I stayed in the building by myself to secure a new home for the other residents. When I felt confident that everyone had been placed, I accepted my own Section 8 certificate as a temporary solution. When the replacement housing was built in North Kenwood-Oakland, I knew I would be back.

As it turned out, the debate wasn’t over the renovation of 4040. Vince actually wanted to stall, manipulate and force the residents into another agreement in which a renovation would never take place. Vince simply wanted the now-empty buildings to be demolished and he sought a revised agreement. The revised agreement with the Lakefront residents did not occur, however, and Lane moved on another development in the same area. Residents of the Washington Park row houses and a mid high rise located at 41st Cottage Grove to Drexel south on 42nd Street to Bowen between 700 to 733 East were moved out of their homes.

Lane also demolished a smaller building located at 900 East 40th. All the residents of these buildings were notified spontaneously that a meeting would be held at the King Center, located at 43rd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue. Without anyone to help them, one of the residents contacted me. I was one of the board members of the Lake Front Community Organization and the Washington Park residents asked if I would meet with them. The residents were afraid and had good reason to be.

I agreed to meet with the residents but told them it would have to be after 4 p.m. because I had an early meeting with her relocatees from Lake Parc Place. In turn, I had already spoken to two of the other board members of LCO, Clara Dixon and John Williams. I asked if they wanted to join me at this meeting to talk with the residents to see if help was possible. When the three of us met with the Washington park residents, we quickly realized that they didn’t think they had a chance. They thought that the C.H.A. would put them anywhere without their input. I guaranteed them they would have input and that I would help them in any way possible. I explained it would not be easy and there would be rough times.

Everyone said they would fight, but as time went by, residents were pressured hard. The buildings were unlivable and the majority moved out of fear! The brave ones who stayed were moved into other developments, except for one woman! She stayed in an apartment with her daughter until her Section 8 came through from HUD’s new regional director, Edwin Eisendrath.

In 1994, the 187 units of Washington Park were demolished. This, too, would be a mixed income development. But in another secret move, Vince Lane made a deal with the alderman of the 4th ward. Even though the residents were told they would be able to return to the newly constructed homes, Vince promised that the replacement units would not be built in North Kenwood/Oakland.

It seemed that no one would be safe any more, that we would never be able to say, “I have a place to live” or “This is my home.” But the Lake Front Community organization stood strong and negotiated with C.H.A. a new, revised agreement.

The agreement entailed the demolition of the four high rises, newly constructed and rehabbed housing, a community center, resident management training as well as training and jobs. Most of all, the new agreement gave us the right to live in the new housing as well as priority for the new housing and Section 8 certificates. The replacement housing had to be unit for unit. On Sept. 22, 1995, a revised agreement was signed by the Lake Front Community Organization, their counsels William P. Wilen, Michael Pardys and the C.H.A.’s new executive director, Joseph Shuldiner. The plans for a mixed income community seem to be part of a trend for new housing developments and in Lakefront, it is well on its way.

As I reflect on this partial history, I realize that the hope poor people once had will never be again. It will always be a praying moment, wondering how we will have to adapt or adjust just to survive. Despite the agreements, we are still facing racism, classisism and discrimination. After the years of discrimination, now we have hit a new form of hatred. It’s complicated to some because our race has learned how to be racist within itself against “low income people,” meaning CHA residents. This will also run its course and hopefully, soon, the movers of this trend will remember that Omega always has the first and the last word, Even though our eyes have surely opened to a knowledge, it will surely make us poor people think twice.

We have come to know that hope does die.

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One Response to “Washington Park: The Dying Hope”

  1. Eileen Duignan-Woods,P.E. Says:

    When I was little (a very long time ago) I looked forward to seeing the Kiosk as my mother and I traveled downtown Chicago on the Illinois Central.It was exciting.
    What a wonderful building—–with it’s glass roof (over a ballroom) and its tower that looked over the Lake. It’s a memory that will stay with me forever.

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