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The Sun Sets on 660 West Division

Thelma Hicks

Thelma Hicks looks through the gallery at 660 West Division

Thelma Hicks moved into 660 West Division in 1972. Looking around the small white room on the first floor, she remembers almost everyone of the young women here for the meeting being born.

"A lot of these girls sitting here now, I watched them grow up."

But the other side of the room, she says, she doesn't recognize - the wall of Chicago Housing Authority officials who are here to tell her her building will close down in just 30 days.

"All the people that you see here - we never see them until now. The only time we see them is a time like this," says Ms. Hicks.

The three remaining "whites" left at Cabrini-Green are all scheduled to close this year, according to CHA's plans. But 660 is the first to go. CHA officials say there are too few families and too much crime in the building to allow it to stay open. They're doing an "emergency transfer," which means that instead of the usual 180-day notice they give, residents have 30 days to find a new place to live.

It's not how it's supposed to happen.

Green Homes Map.jpg

I made a map for you. It's hand-drawn. Don't make fun :)

Every time a public housing building closes in Chicago, it's governed by a document called the "Relocation Rights Contract" or RRC. Basically, the RRC guarantees that the original residents of public housing get to come back if they want to.

It gives an emergency provision for closing buildings - the 30-day notice Ms. Hicks will receive Friday morning - but the lawyers who worked on the original RRC say it was for things like building fires, basement floods or roof collapses (you know, emergencies...). It wasn't meant for standards like low-occupancy and crime, says Rich Wheelock, attorney at the Legal Assistance Foundation, which creep up slowly and can often be predicted.

In fact the RRC specifically reads: "CHA will not use the emergency transfer provision for the purpose of building consolidation."

And when I talked to residents, they say crime hasn't gone up in the building. In fact, says Carol Steele, president of Cabrini-Green, 660 has a much lower crime rate than the two other buildings.

I went through the crime records for each building on EveryBlock Chicago, and the residents are right.

660 West Division

660 West Division

From January through June of 2009, there were 18 incidents at 660. Compare that with 34 incidents at the Burling building and a whopping 73 incidents at the Larrabee.

And low occupancy isn't a surprise either.

CHA staff has been meeting with residents over the past couple months, offering Section 8 vouchers to those residents who wish to move.

Ms. Hicks already has hers, in fact. But after you get your voucher, then you have to look for a place. And when you find one you like and that falls under the Section 8 guidelines (which isn't easy, especially when you consider schools - Thelma has to figure out where she can live with her grandson), then it has to pass inspection. And then you can move all your stuff out of your life-long home and into another apartment.

None of this was good news to residents last night. The room was packed, and although questions started off quietly enough, it got riled up pretty quickly. I took a little video so you could see just how contentious these meetings can get.

In general, public housing meetings can be loud. When you're talking about people's homes and lives, things get emotional. And most of the time, the questions people ask are unanswerable: why is this happening? how can we stop it? Officials don't have good answers, at least not answers that please anyone at all.


660 West Division - Cabrini-Green from Megan Cottrell on Vimeo.

Making this whole thing even more confusing is a new legal document called the Memorandum of Agreement.

Here's the lowdown: the rest of Cabrini is covered by a consent decree, a legal pronouncement that any demolition and redevelopment has to be carefully negotiated by lawyers, the CHA and Cabrini resident leaders. But the remaining high rises weren't covered, so last month, CHA signed the Memorandum of Agreement saying that if they wanted to do any involuntary relocation (i.e. 30-day notices), they have to negotiate with the local resident council and their lawyers first.

"They haven't followed it which is kind of ironic," says Rich Wheelock. "We just signed the damn thing in July."

According to Wheelock, CHA has said 660 isn't covered by this new agreement because they mentioned it was closing while the agreement was being negotiated. 

CHA officials say they have followed the agreement.

"CHA is confident it has followed an agreed-upon procedure to close 660 West Division and is happy to defend its position in court," says CHA spokesman Matt Aguilar.

I'm still waiting for more answers back from CHA. At the moment, there's no demolition scheduled for 660. Occupancy, they say, is lower at 660 than at the other two buildings, but I haven't gotten the actual numbers yet. 

But to residents of 660, the memoranda, contracts, levels and notices are just details. The long and short of it is that they have to leave home. And many of them don't like their options.

Burling through the glass

1230 Burling viewed through a window inside 660

They can either take a Section 8 voucher or move into the 1230 Burling building. Alther Harris, who's lived in 660 for 29 years, says she can't, she won't move into 1230.

Ms. Harris' son was born in 660 almost exactly 29 years ago - July 28th 1980. A year ago, he was in the 1230 building when he was shot in the leg by someone who ambushed him from behind. He spent 22 days in intensive care and eventually lost his leg.

Although her son is doing better, Ms. Harris isn't. The stress has caused health problems. She can't eat or sleep. Her heart races whenever she thinks about that day.

"I look over at that building and I get weak all over. What is I gonna do? I'm going to die. What on earth am I going to do?" 

Thelma Hicks understands that 660 will have to close. She's not bothered by the Plan for Transformation in general. She says she was here when Cabrini was really bad, and she always knew it would come down. For her, it's not the what, but the how that she can't stand.

"I can't understand it because I know by law we're supposed to have 180 days," she says. "I don't know why they're doing us like this. It might not be that we're right, but they should not do it this way."

Thumbnail image for closed will return

Just kidding.

Note: If you saw my note yesterday that I was on vacation, it's alright to be confused. The exact minute I posted that, I got an email from one of my sources, telling me about this meeting. So, yesterday, I went with my sister and her boys to the Sears Tower, a boat ride on Navy Pier, over to Cabrini, and back to Navy Pier for the ferris wheel, Cirque Shanghai and fireworks. Yes, I am a bit bizarre.



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Marian Wang said:


So impressed with how much you dug up--way to go with the RRC and crime stats. I am proud to call you Twinsie.

Tony said:


The crime stats are only "reported" crimes..which are significantly different than actual crimes.

Also - If she already has her voucher, I'm curious how many apartments she's actually attempted to move into. The process of moving isn't fun for anyone, but if I were given the chance to get out of Cabrini, I'm pretty sure I'd dedicate my efforts to do so -- rather than sit around and give excuses about schools, as though they're leaving fantastic area schools.

Megan Cottrell said:


If more crimes happen than are reported, it stands to reason that they would happen in proportion. So if 20% of crimes go unreported, it means that that much more is happening at each building, still making 660 lower than the other two. I doubt 660's crime stats and the residents - the actual people who live there - are that off.

In addition, Ms. Hicks didn't complain or give excuses about her voucher. You don't just "attempt to move into" an apartment with a voucher. It's a long process where you go through a lot of bureaucracy. Ms. Hicks just got her voucher last week.

In addition, her grandson goes to Jenner, which is a good school, and she'd like him to be able to stay there if possible. I think that's a reasonable concern.

feliciacago said:


Reminds me of eminent domain abuse such as Kelo vs. City of New London which broadened the Constitution's meaning of "public use" allowing government seizures of private property. Originally used only for highway construction or railroads, eminent domain has been used to throw people out of their homes because the land can be developed to build a mall.

Ryan Flynn said:


I have a friend who lives in 660 W. Division and I talk to him regularly. In the spring he told me that he and the other residents there had received the 180 day notices that this article says didn't go out. Either way, I don't think anyone should be surprised about these buildings coming down, it's been happening in the neighborhood for the past ten years. These are the last three out of 20 or so that used to be there. Not to totally defend the CHA, but they can't physically pick people up and move them into action. It takes work on both sides.

Megan Cottrell said:


I asked, and 180 notices didn't go out. They only issue one notice, and the 30 day emergency transfer was issued that Friday after the meeting. I understand they have to move people to action, but I think it would have been a little more fair and organized if they had given out 180 day notices. At least people would have had a definite date then.

OLDTOWN213 said:

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I find that hard to believe that no one was aware. If you read the CHA plan for 2009 called "FY2009, Moving to Work" all three buildings were expected to be closed for a long time. This document was released in October 2008. Just because everyone involved is dragging their feet does not mean that is has not been on the docket for a long time. Too many progressive development projects and too much valuable money that the city does not have are wasted on these buildings. I feel bad for those who acted in a civilized manner and were not involved with the crime and wish the best for them. I believe they will also be happier. Change is hard, but I find it hard to believe that a better situation can’t be found.

Renee said:

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Cabrini has been on it's last leg for a long time. There were rumors in the 89's that Cabrini would be gone by the new millenium. I feel sad for Ms. Harris and many of the other residents but time is moving on.

Renee said:

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Cabrini has been on it's last leg for a long time. There were rumors in the 80's that Cabrini would be gone by the new millenium. I feel sad for Ms. Harris and many of the other residents but time is moving on.

Mike2010 said:

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I was raised in Chicago and lived in the building 660 W. Division on the tenth floor during the sixties. I lived there when the back of the building facing Schiller School was green and lush until they black top it. I have good and bad thoughts about Cabrini Green but overall they are good. We left Cabrini Greens in 1968 and was the first black family to live in that community. Between those two places, my best memories are from CG. I wept when I visited my old building in 2006 and I can vividly remember how well kept the place was. Although I no longer live in Chicago, hundreds of my family members are there. I am very fortunate and blessed to have lived in Cabrini Green. It gave me great young life experiences that I will take to my grave. With all my accomplishments, I feel as though we have a third world country existing right in the heart of a great city, and very few people even care.

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