Ida B. Wells Revisited


The last two original CHA Ida B. Wells public housing buildings being demolished in August 2011. Photo by Jacqueline Thompson

From 2007 until quite recently in 2011, two residential buildings stood at 3718 S. Vincennes Ave. waiting for a rumored Ida B. Wells museum to be developed inside the walls. But this summer, the buildings were demolished, the rumors dispelled.

The first preparation to demolish began in July 2011 by encasing the interior and windows of the two unoccupied buildings in plastic in order to dismantle the walls, stairwells and the floors, and keep irritating dust from taking over the surrounding area.

Soon it was discovered that asbestos was present and the demolition cranes were parked, awaiting the legally required equipment to come and dispose of it properly. Special heavy duty window and door coverings were put in place to complete the job and make it safer for the community. Then came a special boxcar-like machine to do the job. And so, sadly or gladly depending on your perspective, the last asbestos-infiltrated buildings were demolished.

I reached out to Mrs. Esther Barnett, who lived in that last residential building in Wells Homes back when the development was just opened for occupancy. She was glad to share her experiences with Residents’ Journal, since her time in Wells was very happy. She described the beauty of the grounds in this way: “I thought we had moved in to a rich neighborhood.

The grass lawns were surrounded by beautiful flowers and it was all clean. It was very nice. It helped my mother get over between jobs. She was a graduate of Indiana State University and while living here, she was able to get a job with the Park District. It was three brothers, myself and mother who lived together. To live here, it meant it was a community within a community. There were three entrances. We lived in the middle. The second-floor apartments were duplexes, and we got along with the families on both sides and pretty much looked out for each other. My mother could leave and the neighbor’s mother took care of us, and it was the same way with our mother, she took care of their children.

This last original CHA Ida B. Wells public houisng building just before its demise onsite of the Oakwood Shore mixed-income community on August 22, 2011. Photo by Jacqueline Thompson

“My teenage and young adult years came out of Ida B. Wells. I had a neighbor, Eloise Nethery, who became my spiritual and political mentor and helped me on the path that led to my adult successes in life. All in all, the demolished buildings are another loss in the conservation of Bronzeville that highlights the disappearance of Bronzeville’s institutions. There is nothing there to remind you of the great good that came to the residents because of the decent housing that Ida B. Wells fought for, where families thrived and went on to do greater things in life by using the positive philosophy of individual and family growth and development.

“Even though asbestos was a part of the construction of the building I grew up in and a health hazard, the memories of life inside the Ida B Wells public housing development are well worth keeping.”
There are many former residents of Ida B. Wells Homes who remember their lives in the developments as happily as Barnett. By now, some replacement housing has been built, but there is still a large amount of replacement to be done. It may take years to fulfill the promise of a return for the families whose desire is to live again in the area of their childhood.

Shortly after that, the Madden Park Field House, another remaining community building where many youths learned, played, volunteered and celebrated at holiday gatherings, went down. It was gone in six days, quickly since it held no unexpected surprises to stop demolition.

And while there will be no Ida B. Wells Homes museum, the still-in-development National Public Housing Museum will include photos, artifacts and other memorial content from developments in Chicago and nationally. The museum may feature a special section on Ida B. Wells, since it was the first development in Chicago.
But there is also at least one addition to this story; a brand new senior housing building will open for occupancy this fall on the replacement land.

Now, even persons who reached their Golden Years while living in Ida B. Wells can return, if they hurry. It’s looking pretty good over there.

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