LeClaire Courts

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Once the crown jewel of the nation’s resident-managed public housing developments, LeClaire Courts was recently taken over by CHA. Agency officials accused employees of the resident managers of taking advantage of a new board. While the fall-out of that action continues, writer Andre Robinson recalls the LeClaire Courts of his youth.

The year is 1950. World War 11 is five years out of our system. The Korean War is building, Harry S. Truman is serving his first full term as President of the United States. Martin Kennelly is Mayor of Chicago and Chicago’s Midway Airport is the world’s busiest airport. One and one half miles north on Cicero Avenue from Midway Airport, between 42nd and 44th streets in a heavy-industrial area, is a patch of land that is causing controversy at City Hall between the mayor and aldermen of that district. The reason is the Chicago Housing Authority purchased that land to build low-income housing.

LeClaire Courts consists of two-story row houses with horizontal siding over the top floor of the units. The roofs slope from the outside of the houses toward the center to interior downspouts. The development started with 316 units but was expanded in 1954 when the federal government financed an additional 300 units. The LeClaire Courts Extensions brought the development south to 45th Street.

LeClaire Courts was a stable community, rich in neighborhood pride back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when most households consisted of two-parent families. The majority of the community’s children attended the same grammar school, Hearst, and the same high school, John Kennedy H.S. In the mid ‘70s, many of the students started attending Marie Curie H.S. Everyone shopped at the same grocery stores – Jewel’s, High/Low, Franks, Bill’s and Simmons – the same discount store – Community – the same shopping mall – Ford City – and the same restaurants – Brown’s Chicken, Home Run Inn Pizza, Vienna, Church’s Chicken, Scotchell’s and McDonald’s.

At one point, there was a chance that LeClaire Courts would be demolished by the proposed Cross-Town Expressway. The idea was for the city to revive Midway Airport by making it accessible to other parts of the city; which meant tearing down LeClaire and surrounding homes in the area. This met with a large protest from the entire community and when Mayor Richard J. Daley died in 1977, the idea died along with him.

In the late ‘70s and early to mid ‘80s, LeClaire’s community started changing. Families started moving out and single mothers began moving in. No longer could you identify a apartment by the family that stayed there but by the woman that lived there. The community that I once knew was no more.

In 1987, the CHA made a major change by hiring Vince Lane as its chairman. It was Chairman Lane who put LeClaire Courts on the map. In 1989, he made LeClaire Courts the first resident-managed development in the United States. LeClaire Courts’ success inspired changes throughout the nation’s public housing. The little community hidden on the outskirts of town was now a national leader.

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