Old Man of the Projects | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

Old Man of the Projects 

Wilbur Farley's heart is where his home is, and his home is history.

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By Ben Joravsky

Years ago the courtyard playground at the CHA's ABLA complex used to ring with the laughter of children. At night the older folks gathered on their stoops to talk things over.

But those days are long gone. The playground swings have been ripped away, most of the apartments are boarded up, and everyone old enough to remember how things used to be has left.

Except Wilbur Farley. At age 84, he's no longer able to keep things tidy the way he used to. But he's still outside his Taylor Street town house most days to greet his neighbors as they pass.

In the next few years ABLA probably will disappear, squeezed out of existence after being written off by urban experts as a social experiment that failed. But Farley doesn't see it that way. He thinks society failed ABLA, not the other way around. "They took a good neighborhood and let it die," he says. "You can't call that progress. It's something, but it ain't progress."

Farley's been a fixture at ABLA for so long that most of his neighbors figure he was born there. In fact, he was born in southern Illinois and didn't come to Chicago until after serving in World War II. "I stopped over on my way to Connecticut," he says. "I got a good job working on the north side and stayed. I never did make it to Connecticut."

Within a few years he was working as a distribution clerk for the post office and raising a family on the west side. In the early 1950s he and his wife, Catherine, got a chance to move into ABLA. "It was beautiful," he says, "a step up for me."

The CHA was under the command of Elizabeth Wood, a liberal reformer determined to provide low-income units for all eligible families (black and white) and scatter them throughout the city. But attempts to move black families into all-white neighborhoods were greeted by violence, and eventually the city's Democratic leaders, fearful of a white backlash at the polls, turned against Wood. She was ousted, and the CHA embarked on a strategy more politically acceptable to white voters: the agency began squeezing black families into high-rise projects built in all-black wards.

The ABLA town houses constructed on Taylor near Throop, in the heart of an old Italian neighborhood, were among the last of the CHA's integrated low-rise developments. "They made it special, no building is higher than four stories, and they put some beautiful stone carvings of elephants and lions in the courtyard just to make it look nice," says Farley. "They screened the tenants. You had to show them you would take care of your apartment. They kept up on repairs. It was very neat. When I first got here there were very few blacks. We had to fight to get in after 11 o'clock. The Italians didn't want us here. They used to call ABLA 'little Italy.' After we moved in they called it 'little Africa.'"

According to ABLA residents, Farley was the quintessential good neighbor. Using supplies he bought on his own, he painted doorways, mowed lawns, replaced burned-out bulbs, cleaned up broken glass, and strung Christmas lights in December. For his efforts he was profiled on Harry Porterfield's TV feature "Someone You Should Know."

"He did more than just keep the place clean--he was a father figure to so many single parents and children around here," says Godfrey Bey, a west-side chef who grew up in ABLA. "You could always confide in him. He would lend you money. You could talk to him about your problems and he would give you advice. He kept all his supplies in his basement--hammers and nails and ladders and Christmas lights and paint. He was always challenging the CHA, trying to get them to do their jobs. It got to the point where I guess they felt they didn't have to take care of things because Mr. Farley did it. He was always such a respectful man, always been a good Christian man, always had a smile on his face."

But by the early 1970s he was under pressure to leave, for the community had begun to slide. Old friends and neighbors were moving to new neighborhoods, and the CHA wasn't rigorously screening their replacements. Farley had enough money to buy a house, and under the CHA's sliding rent scale, ABLA wasn't even a bargain. The more you made the more you paid, and as a postal worker Farley made more than most. A rule intended to make sure that everyone paid his or her fair share was driving the working class away from public housing.

"In 1978 I was paying $800 a month in rent," says Farley. "I could have moved. But everyone owes something to society. You can't play if you run. So I don't run. I liked the place, and I figured I was giving something back. That's the trouble--we're producing too many leeches. Everyone wants to take and no one wants to give.

"So what happens when you do leave? I worked with guys running two or three times. Every time they buy a new building it seems like the people they were running from wind up next to them. You can't run from society--you have to live with it. I told my kids when they were growing up that if I thought moving away would make them better, I'd move all the way to China."

Farley kept making repairs at the complex long after he retired from the post office. But more and more he felt he was fighting a losing cause. The CHA had adopted a policy approaching benign neglect. It stopped making repairs and did not attempt to fill vacant apartments. By the early 90s, over half the units were boarded up. The playground fell apart. The famous animal statues started to chip and break.

"It's sad what they let happen to Mr. Farley's community," says Bey. "He paid his rent, he made those repairs, he fought with all his soul to keep it going. And now they're taking his community away from him."

About ten years ago, Bey decided the time had come to honor Farley. He organized a massive celebration, and it has become an annual event. "We get everyone involved--seniors, babies, you name it," says Bey. "We have hot dogs and hamburgers and pie bake-offs and it's all to honor Mr. Farley. We do it every year on the last Saturday in August. This year it will be on August 28. I'd like to have a parade up Taylor from Ashland to Racine--just to let the world know Mr. Farley's still here."

Three years ago Farley had a stroke. He no longer has complete use of his arms and legs, and he moves around with a walker. Most summer days find him sitting beneath the tree in front of his home and sipping a soft drink. There is no air conditioner in his unit.

"I've had a good life--you can't write 84 years of my life on one page," he says. "That's what I told Porterfield when he came here. I told him, 'You can't do years of living in three minutes. He said, 'Well, that's all I got.'"

Bey stopped by to say hello. They sat in the grinding heat, waiting for a breeze that never came, and watched children splash in a plastic pool. "There's not much for me to do," Farley continued. "My kids have grown and moved away. They come back to visit. They say, 'You're going to be proud of us.' I say, 'Don't worry about me. Just be proud for yourself.'"

Not long ago, someone broke into Farley's basement and stole some of his tools and his Christmas lights. "They knew who they were stealing from, but it didn't much matter to them that if they stole those lights there would be no more lights for the community. They don't care. They were being leeches--as long as I can draw blood from you, that's all that matters."

He fanned himself with his hand and eyed some photos his wife was passing around that showed him as a young man. Two teenagers called out as they passed: "Hello, Mr. Farley."

"Hello, young fellows," he responded. He sipped his drink. "Sure, they know me. The average kid around here knows where I live. Ask them, where's that old man? They'll tell you."

CHA officials say there are plans to redevelop the ABLA area, though no one knows exactly when or how. Most residents figure it's only a matter of time before they get moved out. Across Taylor Street is a lot with a big sign that says "For Sale--Prime Vacant Land." To the east and west are some of the city's most fashionable Italian restaurants. Housing prices are soaring. Several ambitious urban renewal projects are already planned for nearby sections of Taylor Street. "They let the place slide and now they're going to move us out," says Farley. "They didn't have to let it go this way--they could have kept it up. If they fought half as hard as I did, it would still be a great place. I figure I'll stay as long as they let me. I've got nowhere in particular I want to go. I've been here for the good times, I'll stay through the bad. Like I told you, I ain't the kind of guy who runs away." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Wilbur Farley, Godfrey Bey photo by Jon Randolph.

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