"This is not a project!" | Feature | Chicago Reader

"This is not a project!" 

Everyone has an opinion of CHA high rises. Finally here's a program that asks the residents what they think.

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Whatever you do, don't try to tell Peggy Byas that her home is in the projects. She lives on the tenth floor of a CHA high rise at 706 E. 39th St. (officially known as Pershing Road); she might have called it "the projects" when she moved in 22 years ago, but not now.

"Before I moved in, I'd heard a lot about the developments, and I always said I didn't want to live there. But we were living in a furnished hotel [she and her son, five, and daughter, one], and they didn't allow kids"--she had little choice. "But when I got in I found it was better than I thought."

The future of public housing in Chicago may depend on a lot of other people learning what Peggy Byas has learned firsthand. "We--do--not--live--in--projects," she told Columbia College filmmaker Jim Martin in his documentary Fired-Up! "When they say that name," she continued, "it's like it's Vietnam. Or it's the slums. Which it's not. It's a lot of decent people living in public housing. And they care about where they live, and they want to be--equal--as everybody else."

That's a view from the inside. Needless to say, the Chicago Housing Authority looks quite different from the outside. Everyone knows the litany: most of the families living in CHA developments are poor; most are black; most have only one parent on hand. (According to a 1986 survey of Peggy Byas's building, 93 percent of the households were headed by a single parent, and 8 percent of the residents reported being employed.)

Past management of the agency--eight managing directors between 1983 and 1988--has been such that the CHA does not even know how many people live in its 38,685 housing units, but it's safe to say that if they were separately incorporated they would constitute the second largest city in Illinois. Some 15,455 of those units are family apartments in high-rise buildings surrounded by empty plazas; and although they are not the majority of CHA units, they dominate its public image.

Seen from the outside, then, CHA high rises combine the most intractable problems of the underclass, the most inhumane excesses of modern architecture, and (at least until the arrival of current chairman and executive director Vincent Lane) the acme of governmental sloth and sleaze. Could the people who live in them do something to improve them? The idea seems positively martian--but for the past four years it has guided a unique team effort involving a downtown civic group and residents of three CHA high-rise buildings. The Metropolitan Planning Council's Task Force on CHA Rehabilitation and Reinvestment means to empower residents and change the CHA from the inside out.

"There are three gross misconceptions about public housing," says Mary Decker, executive director of the Metropolitan Planning Council. "One is that it can't work--tear it down and forget it. But the CHA was once the finest public-housing provider in the world for people who couldn't afford to compete in the marketplace.

"Another is that the tenants are the problem. But a crime at an address shouldn't taint all residents with that label. Nationally, one in ten public-housing tenants is a problem--one in five at the worst locations."

Last and most popular is the notion that high rises themselves are the problem. "True, we wouldn't build as many now, but they're there. Tearing them down would just create a homelessness problem. No one has suggested any responsible way to replace those housing units. At the present rate, the scattered-site public-housing program will take 600 years to replace the high rises." They have to work, because they can't be replaced.

Decker's group--formerly the Metropolitan Housing and Planning Council, even more formerly the Metropolitan Housing Council--has a better-than-average reason to interest itself in the CHA. Fifty-two years ago, in the depths of the depression, it lobbied to create the public-housing agency, and then gave up its own director, Elizabeth Wood, who ran the CHA until 1953.

But as agency management slid downhill during the 1970s and '80s--aided and abetted by Chicago's virulent white racism--what had been a feather in the MPC's cap became something of an embarrassment instead. The high rises in particular became economically as well as racially segregated. Contrary to its original mandate, CHA tended to become the housing provider of last resort; its admissions focused on the neediest, which in practice and over time came to mean that positive role models were hard to find in CHA buildings or anywhere nearby.

MPC tried teaching public-housing residents "how to run a household, how to prepare meals," recalls board member and IIT architecture professor David Sharpe. During the 1960s and again in the 1970s, writes Ed Marciniak in Reclaiming the Inner City, "a consortium of public and private social agencies . . . targeted the Cabrini-Green area for improvement." But none of the schemes for helping tenants seemed to work for very long.

There is nothing new about downtown do-gooders' finding the CHA a convenient place in which to do good. What is new about MPC's Task Force on CHA Rehabilitation and Reinvestment, according to Patricia Perry, president of the residents' group at 706 E. 39th, is a matter of respect. "Gwen Clemons [MPC's first project director] didn't come to us telling us what we needed. She came and asked."

First, of course, she had to decide whom to ask. Working through the CHA's residents' advisory groups (Local Advisory Councils), MPC staff selected three buildings from developments in different neighborhoods: 1230 N. Burling (in Cabrini-Green), 4414 S. Cottage Grove (Washington Park), and 706 E. 39th (Ida B. Wells; the street, by the way, is officially designated Pershing Road, but no one in the building seems to call it that). These were "obviously not the worst buildings," says current MPC project director Leroy Kennedy, "but maybe not the best either. The thought was that it's difficult enough dealing with high rises at all, without starting out with the worst, and then having people say it won't work."

At 706 E. 39th, the MPC found that neighbors Patricia Perry and Peggy Byas had long been concerned about the decline of the CHA and of their building. "It wasn't anything that happened all of a sudden," says Byas. "Gradually there'd be no grass planted. Then the playground wasn't kept like it ought to be. Something would break, and they'd take their time about fixing it." Perry: "The service was really good when I moved in [ten years ago]. If you had a plumbing problem, say, the plumbers would be out in a couple of days. About five years ago, it got worse--it'd take maybe three or four weeks for a plumber."

Perry and Byas had revived a dormant residents' council for their building in June of 1984. "The man who had been our president moved, and we had no president," recalls Byas, who became secretary. They didn't even have a room to meet in--"we had to go to the next building over." They put out fliers, got 17 or 18 people out, and established a regular meeting time, which they still have, 6 PM on the third Wednesday of every month. "We had documentation. At every meeting we took attendance, and filed it with the Local Advisory Council." The paperwork may have helped bring them to MPC's attention; at any rate, in December of '84 they learned that their building had been chosen as part of a pilot program, and they were going to get to decide what they were piloting.

"The first thing we did," says Perry, "was a survey. We wanted to know what the residents wanted. We were the building council, but it was not up to us to say."

"For two months, a man from IIT came and trained us in how to give a survey," recalls Byas. Representatives from all three buildings in the pilot program helped draft a questionnaire. The 60 questions they wound up with ranged from the descriptive--" How do you usually get to work?" "Are you satisfied with the way your building is currently managed?"--to forward-looking: "Most communities require services such as day care, care for the elderly, transportation, baby-sitting, adult education, housekeeping, counseling and youth recreation tutoring. Which of these do you think are needed in your community? . . . Do you have skills in any of these areas that you could contribute?"

The survey yielded 246 responses from the three buildings. Not surprisingly, only 13 percent of residents rated their hallways "very safe." But 44 percent said they liked living in high rises and only half expressed willingness to move to a new neighborhood in order to get into a low-rise building. At 706 E. 39th, an amazing 80 percent said they preferred high-rise life.

"Where I live now is my home," says Perry flatly. "My friends are there. We have the most wonderful view of the lake. It's beautiful, to be able to look out and see the sailboats, and see the downtown buildings. . . . I don't feel I should have to move when I can improve where I live." Adds architect Thomas Hickey of Weese Hickey Weese, who consulted with residents on possible redesigns of the building, "They don't even want to move [temporarily] from floor to floor while rehabilitation is going on. It's like living in a neighborhood--you might never get those people back together again." Byas concludes, "I've been here when it was good, and I've been here when it was bad, and now it's going to be good again. I want to be here to see."

From this beginning, the project proceeded in the classical antifrontier style of U.S. community organization--when things get tough, don't get going, stay and fight! A gradually expanding core group of residents from the three pilot buildings met at least weekly with MPC staff and various trainers. They met tenant organizers from Washington, D.C., New Jersey, and Saint Louis before choosing Bertha Gilkey of Saint Louis's Cochran Gardens to train them in how to deal with the housing authority. Gilkey's techniques range from revival-style chants ("I'm fed up! Were tired of it! We ain't takin' it anymore!") to classroom Q & A ("Why do we need a lease and not just a handshake?") to role-playing (a mother brings her recalcitrant daughter before the building council to apologize for misbehaving). In workshops conducted by Theodore Wright, a local human-relations consultant, the residents learned, among other things, how to disagree and still function as a group. They explored management alternatives including watchdogging the CHA, tenant management, private management, tenant ownership, and combinations of the four. (The first and best-known case of tenant management in Chicago is the low-rise LeClaire Courts development, near Midway Airport.) Drawing on the idea of Northwestern University's John McKnight, they took a "capacity inventory," of residents in their buildings, discovering a wealth of unused or underused skills--and then began to see how to match them up with the businesses and services the buildings needed. "We found out a lot of people in here are capable," says Byas. "They have knowledge to do but nobody ever asked or tried to help. We have seamstresses, beauticians, cooks, carpenters, people who've worked in nursing, a lot who've been to college . . ." (They will need them, since it has always been MPC's intention--as organizers often say but don't so often do--to phase itself out of the program after five years and $1.3 million.)

"We were organized before," says Perry, "but not like we should have been." Knowledge is power. "Before we had the training, we never looked at the lease--which has all the responsibilities of tenants and management spelled out." Now they know how a "work order" for a needed repair wends its way through the CHA bureaucracy, and what to do when one gets stuck.

Three years ago, the building council held a staple community-organizing event--a building cleanup, as many suggested in the survey. "Frank Rodgers [an MPC staffer], Patricia, and I met with the building manager," says Byas, "and we got buckets, mops, cleanser, brooms, rakes, even paint for the hallways, which had not been painted since I was here.

"Emma Price took the younger children and worked on the grounds. The older children and adults--some took the east side, some took the west side, and that first Saturday we washed all the stairwells and mopped every gallery [open-air hallway] from the 14th floor down to the first.

"We put out a flier the next Saturday, and the one after that we painted. We had people who had never come out to a meeting, who saw we were doing something [and came out to help]. By three o'clock we had both sides all painted. It was fun. We worked together as a team. . . . One young man, who doesn't live here and was said to be a bad influence, went to the store and bought hamburger meat and buns, and when we got done, we all had a barbecue! So we agreed then that we'd have a little party after every cleanup."

After that, the president of the building divided the buckets among the floor captains, so that people could mop in front of their doors. "I might say, 'Let's all mop Saturday'"--Byas is floor captain on the tenth floor--"and then if there were three empty apartments on the floor [only 87 of 706's 120 apartments are currently occupied] we'll all go down and wash in front of them. It seems like it gave everyone a spirit to want to do it."

As visitors to 706 can see, a cleanup is not forever. The building has plenty of graffiti and boarded-up windows; here and there an aluminum windowsill has been pried off, probably to be sold for scrap. But the community spirit that cleaning up generates may be as important as the cleanup itself. Now, says Perry, "The little kids will come and knock on your door and say, 'Pat, somebody did so-and-so'"--left a bag of garbage in the gallery, or sprayed some graffiti on a wall. Byas: "Mrs. Price and my daughter painted the elevators that first Saturday. And we have three or four times since then. We will again once it warms up a little." The elevators are dark green now. "They'll stay clean a few days, and then someone will start marking on them again. We're just going to keep painting it over until we show them."

"Before? I thought they should be torn down," says Thomas Hickey, a rehabilitation and renovation veteran who with David Sharpe headed MPC's architecture team for 706 E. 39th. "After the first task force meeting I went to, I wrote a letter saying that families shouldn't live in high rises, that the buildings are 30 years old and rehabilitating them would cost more than it's worth.

"But when the people there say they like to live in high rises, I can't tell them not to. My job is to make it viable. I'm not going to tear down something that has value to people."

The task force's overall philosophy did not change when it came time to talk about ways to redesign the high rises. "In the past, architects and planners went into these buildings and decided what the problems and solutions were. This time, the tenant group was the client, just as if they hired us. I tried not to have a preconceived idea."

Of course, it wasn't exactly the same group of tenants at every meeting, so new grievances would surface as time went on, and it took several meetings before the architects were even in a position to propose alternate solutions.

It was time well spent, because if the redesign doesn't in some sense belong to the residents, they won't take the trouble to preserve it. "All of the solution is not going in and renovating the building," says David Sharpe. "We've seen that done and in a year's time it was back the way it was or even worse."

Sharpe--whose mind was also changed about high rises--notes that if they work on Lake Shore Drive, they ought to be able to work on East 39th Street. "You ask people, 'What do you fear most in a high rise?' You might think it would be a fire, how to escape from it. But on Lake Shore Drive, they'll say, 'I don't want someone knocking on my door when I don't know who they are.' And in public housing, you hear the same thing."

In Hickey's words, it turned out that "90 percent of the problem was security. Everything went back to that." Why fix up the place when tomorrow--tonight--anyone in Chicago could show up to make his mark in spray paint on your work?

Security was the first of two major problems identified by the residents. The other problem was that the building--although structurally sound--seems to have been designed for Arizona's climate, not Illinois'. The galleries and elevators are open to the elements both meteorological and criminal; the sophisticated elevator equipment has to work (and mothers with overflowing laundry baskets have to wait) in temperatures ranging from -10 to 100 degrees, sometimes with ice or water blowing in. Gradually it dawned on everyone that the two problems had the same solution. "It was their idea," says Hickey. "All I did was draw it." When he brought back some preliminary sketches, sighs Perry, "They were beautiful. I mean, really beautiful."

In essence, the idea was to break the 14-story, 120-unit building into half-floor neighborhoods, each with four or five apartments opening onto the same gallery. On the ground floor, the building entrance would be enclosed. To get inside in the first place, you would have to be admitted by a security person. Then, coming off the elevator, you would go to one of two locked doors, one for each gallery, and use your key or buzz an apartment on an intercom.

The existing stairwells at the east and west ends of the building would be restricted to emergency use only (with alarms on the doors), and a third stairway would be added at the center of the building, to supplement the elevators. The two elevators--originally designed, for some unfathomable reason, to serve only alternate floors--would both be made to run to all 14 floors.

The key to this design, says Hickey, is that each small "neighborhood" is totally in charge of its gallery--no longer is the often-plausible excuse available that the latest damage must have been done by outsiders.

(The other side of security, of course, is having control over who moves in in the first place--tenant screening. The three buildings' representatives have developed a probing questionnaire to weed out bad apples before they get into the barrel, asking such things as how long applicants plan to live in the building and who takes care of their children during the day. Under resident management, the managers would also have the option of visiting an applicant's current home to see how it is kept.)

If security can be established, says Hickey, "the other things are easy to fix"--replacing the prisonlike metal mesh enclosing the galleries with alternating glass blocks and small open ports; insulating the outside walls and putting wallboard over the ever-present, oppressive, "unfinished" concrete blocks; turning the seven-foot-wide galleries into usable, friendly spaces; adding to the security and illumination of the grounds, for tot lots and garden plots; revamping the leaky heating system, whose metal coils are buried (!) in concrete floors and ceilings; and putting shower heads in the bathrooms and doors on the closets. "The hardest thing is security--making sure that what you're trying to accomplish stays there. That takes the tenants. . . . This whole system can be destroyed if the tenants let it." The design and the process that created it are mutually supportive: community organization won't get far in the long run without some design improvements in the building; likewise the renovations won't last long without good community organization.

Unfortunately, because of federal limitations on grant money, the key security ideas developed at 706 are being tried out this summer several blocks south, in three high rises of the mammoth Robert Taylor Homes complex. "It's ironic that the money is only available for Robert Taylor," says Hickey. "I really hope the next amount can go into Ida B. Wells. Those people are really involved.

"I made it clear to the CHA that the tenants [at Robert Taylor] had to be really a part of it, that they need to educate people about why it's being done and the need to keep it that way. But it worries me--it's not their process."

Another portion of the project reached a climax in September, when the residents of 706 voted on whether to move toward resident management of their building, a course likely to lead to stricter behavior codes and tougher screening of people seeking to move in. Early on, Perry had doubted it would ever pass: "Most people in the building are against tenant management because it's going to make them do right," she said. But after months of training and discussion and a bus trip to the idyllic Cochran Gardens complex in Saint Louis (which got 1970s funds not likely to come around again soon), at least some minds had changed and the vote was set.

"We were so hyper," recalls Byas, "you would have thought it was the main election. We were all down here at 7 AM." A downtown nonprofit organization called the Citizens Information Service helped set up strict voter-registration procedures and careful identification of leaseholders, who were allowed one vote apiece. The building council recruited impartial outsiders to act as election judges. Of 85 occupied households, 78 voted, and 75 of them voted for resident management. "After they counted, we were really happy and amazed. We went outside and just started hollering."

The Metropolitan Planning Council has published several reports on the task force's work (and another on design problems, solutions, and cost estimates is due out soon). The newly elected board members of 706's resident management corporation (RMC)--Perry, Byas, Emma Price, Shirley Norris, and Vanessa Samuels--are in the midst of training for their new (unpaid) responsibilities. (At the other two buildings, Washington Park has also voted in an RMC, and 1230 N. Burling has obtained its own federal grant for more training, leading to resident management.)

By June 1990 MPC's task force will be shut down, and that particular connection to the Loop and the rest of the city will be cut off. That doesn't worry Byas: "They've trained us well. The other day I had to write a letter. I said to Leroy [Kennedy, the MPC's current project director], 'Leroy, I've never written a business letter.' He said to write it and then let him look it over afterward, which he did and made a few changes. And the same way when we had to write a proposal. They're giving us responsibility while they're still there as a resource."

"What makes me keep on is I have this vision of what this building is going to look like in two or three years," says Byas. But already the building activists have done much of what they can do without major money and major support from the CHA itself. The new resident management corporation, says Kennedy, may apply for some rehabilitation funds available direct from HUD, and he hopes that it will be able to tap other governmental and nonprofit resources. As for the CHA's role, the residents may be in luck. Since June 1988, its chairman and executive director has been Vincent Lane--who before his elevation chaired the management subcommittee of MPC's task force, and who grew up in a cold-water flat circa 1950, envying the residents of Wentworth Gardens across the street.

CHA residents involved in the MPC project lobbied the City Council housing committee for Lane's confirmation. "We knew Vince," says Byas, "even before he was considered for this position. We knew he was concerned about the residents, and about low-income housing. He's really proven he's trying to help residents ha ve a decent, safe, sanitary place to live."

Lane is happy to return the compliments. He says he probably would have turned down the CHA job--"Why would I put my head in that noose?"--if he had not been involved with the MPC task force, "working with those women for three years and seeing the dramatic change from being introverted and not understanding tenants' responsibilities and management's responsibilities to being a core group who can serve as real role models." Lane says as CHA boss he will encourage resident management--he has to: "There is not enough money, not enough policemen, not enough social workers in the world to impose change on the 250,000 people in public housing. They have to want change, to throw the bullies out, and I want to give them the management support to do that."

Many of those involved in the MPC task force have also acquired another CHA connection--a job. According to Kennedy, at least eight staff and board members and seven residents involved in the task force project have gone to work for the agency, among them Lane himself and original project director Gwen Clemons.

"People from other buildings want to come to our meetings," says Byas. "We've even had people from the row houses want to move in." Adds Perry, "They say, 'What's changed? What's different about your building?' The people have changed. They're concerned about where they live." In the summer of '87 they held a successful "Taste of 706" party for neighboring buildings as well as their own. (Another one, with a "Stand Up and Be Counted" theme preparing for the 1990 census, is set for the third Saturday in July.) In March of last year, the residents organized a recognition reception, where certificates were awarded to all married couples in the building (4), to all those who'd lived there over 20 years (18), and to everyone who had volunteered in any way (50 or 60). They've held bake sales, two Halloween parties, and a Thanksgiving dinner for residents. The building has a newsletter that comes out every three months or so, with meeting announcements and Emma Price's poetry, and it has to be one of the few high rises anywhere with its own fight song ("We're on the battlefield for 706").

Another high point was the release of Jim Martin's rousing one-hour documentary, Fired-Up! '. . . Public Housing Is My Home' (available on VHS for $35 through the Urban Culture and Documentary Program at Columbia College) and its broadcast on Channel 11 last December. Says Byas, "One young man on the first floor told me, 'I saw the film, this is beautiful. I saw you going out to meetings and I never knew what it was about.' Now he wants to start a softball team. . . . All my husband knew was that I was running to meetings all the time. When he saw the film was when he realized what we were trying to do."

Ed Marciniak, whose experience on the near north side dates back to before the construction of high rises there, and who has served on MPC's advisory committee to the task force, remains skeptical. "I don't think high rises are good for families with kids. If you're going to rehab them for that purpose, count me out." And he wonders if the buildings involved in MPC's project have shown any great improvements (for instance, lower vacancy rates).

The answer seems to be no, not great ones, and not improvements that would necessarily make a big impression on people accustomed to showers and railings in their stairwells and doors on their closets. But the people at 706 know the difference, and so do their neighbors. Railings are being put in the stairwells. The grounds are being prepared for grass seed. A floor is being laid in the new first-floor community room.

And the floor captains' regular survey of maintenance is paying off. "In other buildings," says Perry, "maybe you'll see one light on in the gallery on one floor, and one more a couple of floors above it," because the bulbs have burned out or the fixtures broken, and no one has pressured the CHA to replace them. "But if you drive down 39th Street at night, you can tell our building. 706 is the one that is all lit up."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Loren Santow.

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