A Special Tribute

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The last time I saw Izora Davis, a We The People Media board member, neighborhood activist and my good friend, was during a black-out that left much of the South Side without power on the first day of August.

Izora Davis

Izora was leaning on her walker in the heat in front of 3983 S. Lake Park, a high-rise public housing building that she had saved more than a decade before.

When the electricity failed the previous evening, Izora and her neighbors were evacuated from the building by the fire department.

They stood around in the dark for hours until city officials working with Commonwealth Edison decided that repairs would still be going on for some time, and offered to take all the blacked-out South Siders to a hotel where they would be given food and drink.

Izora joined everyone on the buses. But the residents were taken to McCormick Place instead of a downtown hotel. Instead of private rooms and meals, the evacuated building residents were put together in a large room with cots.

The only food available was apple chips and donuts. Izora took a look around and demanded to be taken back to her building. Once she got back, the buildings security guard and manager refused to let her in, saying the building wasnt safe without any power.

They wouldnt give her a chair to sit in either, so Izora leaned on her walker in front of the building throughout the day, eyeing suspiciously the repair workers and police going in and out.

The power came back on a few hours later. Izora called me to report that her door had been broken in, and she was worried that some of her important documents had been taken. For a second, I wondered if she was being paranoid. But Izora Davis was often right when almost everyone else was wrong, and I had learned that when her suspicions were piqued, it was a good thing to check it out.

I never got to find out whether some of her papers were really missing, though. Izora died just three weeks later, on Aug. 21, after suffering an epileptic seizure in her apartment.

The night she died, Beauty Turner, Residents Journals assistant editor and another of Izora’s confidantes, called to let me know. I drove to the South Side and gathered in front of 3983 S. Lake Park among her family members and friends. A few of her neighbors sat on the bench in the lighted bus shelter, trading stories and reminiscences about Izora.

“Now y’all ain’t got nobody to fight for you any more,” came one lament in the darkness. No one responded to that one.

At her funeral on Aug. 28, I got to see first-hand what I always suspected: that I was just one of many people around Chicago that appreciated Izora as a tireless advocate for people who otherwise didn’t have anyone to fight for them. The room was packed with family members, friends, political leaders and scholars.

Many of the people there had been fellow residents of the Lakefront Properties, six high-rise buildings which used to stand on Lake Park Avenue between 39th Street and 45th Street.

In 1983, the Chicago Housing Authority announced that the buildings would be evacuated, rehabbed and reconstituted as a mixed-income community. The plan sounded good to the residents, who had suffered through years of mismanagement, gang warfare and decaying facilities. But the CHA refused to offer the residents a guarantee they would be able to return.

Out of the 700 families who lived in the Lakefront Properties, 160 decided to stay in the development until they had the CHA’s promise in writing. The protesters holed up into one remaining high-rise, 4040 S. Oakenwald Blvd, organized work details and security patrols and prepared for a long struggle.

As the months went on, the numbers of protesters dwindled. In the end, Izora stayed in the building by herself, with no heat, electricity or hot water. After two months, she won a Memorandum of Accord from the CHA. And the CHA, the agency which has kept few promises to its tenants, did rehab two of the high-rises and did open the buildings up to former residents.

Today, Lake Parc Place is CHA’s only successful mixed-income community. Her name does not appear on the buildings‘ bronze dedication plaque, but Lake Parc Place at least as much a product of her ideas and efforts as any of the muckety mucks whose names are engraved there.

Izora’s struggle did not end there. She founded a non-profit organization to represent the rights of the former residents of the Lakefront Properties.

She continued to negotiate with the CHA over the fate of the four empty buildings and agreed in 1995 to allow their demolition in exchange for hundreds of replacement units throughout the neighborhood. When she died, she was still fighting for those replacement units.

She could be hard headed and combative. But she fought so hard for so long because she had a vision for the community. She pushed the CHA to build a community center that was included in the Memorandum of Accord because it would have kept young people off the streets.

The center was never built, and when a fatal car accident in front of her building last summer turned into a fatal confrontation between the drivers and the people who were hanging out, her first thought was “If we had that community center, those kids would’ve never even been there.”

I had followed Izora’s battles for more than 15 years as a reporter, editor and her friend. At her funeral, though, I found out a lot about Izora that I didn’t know. I didn’t know how close she was to her family, or that her nickname was “Gin.”

I didn’t know she liked to gamble on the riverboats. I had known her daughter, Michelle, and knew that she had the same wit and intelligence as her mother. I had never met her son Durelle before, and was moved to discover that he had much of his mother’s passion for justice.

Her brother, the Rev. Marlow Davis, kept the proceedings on track and gave a eulogy that left me with a smile as well as with tears in my eyes.

“A poor woman spread knowledge throughout the whole town,” Davis said in a tone that made his words sound like scripture, even if it wasn’t an exact quote. “Now are you going to use it?”

That question has been on my mind since that day.

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