Missing a heart at the CHA

November 8, 2010

Rory Fanning reports on a nightmare playing out in Chicago public housing.

STEPPING OUT of the elevator onto the 14th floor of the Richard J. Daley Center in Chicago, Sheriee Woodland was greeted by a world-famous panorama of high-rise architecture.

The Chicago Temple Building, Holabird & Root's 23 story, neo-Gothic masterpiece; Kohn Pederson Fox's "Birthday Cake Building" at 311 S. Wacker; and The Legacy, Solomon Cordwell and Buenz's 72-story condominium tower of ocean-blue glass were a few of the many well-maintained buildings that looked back through the floor-to-ceiling windows.

But Sheriee was at the Daley Center because of a different high-rise. She was on her way to eviction court.

In her early sixties, Sheriee walked into the courtroom with her son Bo to contest her eviction from 1230 Burling, the last crumbling high-rise at the Cabrini-Green housing development on the near north side of Chicago. Sheriee and Bo were accompanied by activists from RUSH (Residents United to Save Housing) and the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign.

Sheriee was in a coma lying on a hospital bed when her nephew, charged with first-degree murder, was found in her apartment. Her daughter Yolanda paid the rent for two years while Sheriee recovered in a nursing home. Yolanda was on file with the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) as having power of attorney for Sheriee; Yolanda was unaware anyone was staying in the unit.

View of the Chicago skyline from the 10th floor of the Cabrini-Green high-rise at 1260 Burling
View of the Chicago skyline from the 10th floor of the Cabrini-Green high-rise at 1260 Burling (Rory Fanning | SW)

Sheriee returned home with documented, severe short-term memory loss. In direct violation of her disability rights, she was served with an eviction notice, citing the discovery of the murder suspect as the cause. She had no idea what this meant--even if she was in her right mind, why would she understand the notice? Due to a prior arrest record, her nephew had long been barred from entering the building. Two armed guards and two Chicago police officers are stationed at the front entrance around the clock to ensure that unauthorized people stay out of the 1230 Burling tower.

But Chalonda McIntosh, a one-time resident of the Cabrini Towers, said, "Despite the guards, it's very common for someone to break into a unit when they know the resident won't be home. CHA is looking for any and all excuses to evict people right now."

Bo did most of the talking before the bench. "Judge, my mom is mentally unsound...We request a 30-day continuance in order to find an attorney."

Judge Orville E. Hambright, seated under the words "In God We Trust," lectured Bo, "I know what it's like when people stand in that spot without a lawyer. It doesn't go well. I know it ain't easy, but you need to have a plan A, B and C for your mother. If it was my Mom, I would make sure all my ducks were in a row...I'll give you 30 days, but you need to get on this."

THE CHA plans to move Miss Woodland to the Cabrini Rowhouses. The 68-year-old housing development is located a short distance from the recently renovated Frank Lloyd Wright Montgomery Ward Complex--a Chicago architectural landmark. Standing atop Wright's prairie-style building and gazing down at the rowhouses is "The Spirit of Progress," an elegant, 9-foot-tall, bronze statue of a woman shrouded in linen and holding a torch.

The unit CHA has reserved for Sheriee is boarded up and has a broken toilet sitting on the balcony. Miss Woodland would be the only person living in the 8-unit low-rise.

Jacqueline Pratt lives in the low-rise next door. "I have been in public housing since 1973," she says. "They moved me into this unit two-and-a-half years ago, and they just gave me a 180-day notice. I have to leave because the building is considered unsafe."

Jacqueline stood in her kitchen, which resembled the inside of a small commercial fishing boat--two cabinets were hung over the sink, a washer-dryer was crammed between a refrigerator and stove, a small table stood in the corner. "When I moved in here, there was black mold covering that wall," she said, pointing to the living room by the TV. "We tried to clean it, but I'm sure it is still growing on the other side of the wall, in the abandoned unit next door. "

She changed the topic: "They call me Mom around here, whether they're my kids or not. I always make sure that freezer is full. I know how it is to go hungry--if someone knocks on my door, I feed them. I went to bed hungry as a kid. I don't want anyone to have to go through that."

She pulled the couch in her living room away from the wall, and revealed a square foot of swelling drywall and said, "It gets real cold come December. They need to start winterizing these places. The temperature swings cause all kinds of damage."

When she learned that Miss Woodland would be moving into the abandoned building next door she said, "What? Now how are they going to tell me to move out of a building because it's unsafe, and move someone into another building worse off than mine. That doesn't make any sense...The left hand doesn't seem to know what the right is doing around here."

CHA CEO Lewis Jordan declared in May: "First and foremost, our job is to put people in better and safer housing." But Cabrini residents, organized through RUSH, aren't buying the "this is for your own good" argument made by Jordon, as he tries to scatter residents to neighborhoods with less economic potential than the Near North Side area where the Cabrini project sits, surrounded by fancy condo buildings and townhouses.

Anti-eviction campaign member Willie "J.R." Fleming and I climbed a blood-red stairwell to the 10th floor of the Burling tower to get a better view of the neighborhood that the residents want to keep. Arriving at the floor, we walked down what some might call an open-air corridor; my shoes stuck to the floor with each step, and my nose was assaulted by the smell of urine and stale grease.

To the west, windows of the units were spray-painted white from the inside. To the east, a hand railing studded in metal teeth divided a dense honeycomb of bars that left just enough space to see the skyline shimmer orange in the setting sun. Starbucks and Dominick's could be seen inching into the neighborhood. Cabrini will be an expensive place to live one day.

We asked a group of kids passing in the hall what they thought of being sent to live in random parts of the city. "We don't like it," said two of the four in unison.

The sun had set as we walked down the stairs--the same metal grates that obstructed the view of the skyline dimmed the yellow light fixtures in the stairwell. I stepped over a puddle of urine on each floor.

In 1891, Louis Sullivan built the Monadnock Building, the world's first skyscraper, on 53 W. Jackson. Chicago has since developed a reputation as one of the architectural capitals of the world. People from all over take architectural tours of the city--where docents explain the form vs. function relationship of Mies van der Rohe's IBM building; the poetic contextualism of 333 W. Wacker; and how Steve McQueen jumped a motorcycle into the Chicago River from the iconic, corn-cob towers of Bertrand Goldberg's Marina City, while filming the movie Hunter in 1980.

A Epstein and Sons, the firm that got the contracts to build Cabrini housing in the 1950s by selling Papa Daley on a "fast-track method" of construction, isn't mentioned on any tours--because Cabrini and Chicago's architectural tradition can't be reconciled.

What good is a city with "big shoulders" if it doesn't have a heart? Miss Woodland, Miss Pratt and the residents of Cabrini deserve and could have had much better.

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