A vision for rebuilding Roseland: 'You've got to start somewhere' (photos)

Stephen Henry lives less than three blocks from the small, neighborhood church he oversees at the corner of 109th Place and Princeton Avenue. So there aren't many places where his neighbors can sneak away to do their sinning.

What's surprising is that many don't even bother to try.

Just up the block from the church, young men gangbang and peddle dope openly as Henry, a 46-year-old who always has a bluetooth headset dangling from his ear, passes by. He's watched others slip past him and into vacant homes--some that have been left to rot since the earliest days of the foreclosure crisis--to get high.

Neglect may not be one of the seven deadly sins. But it's killing the neighborhood around Mary Magdalene Missionary Baptist Church, the family business that Henry, a former IT consultant, inherited from his father.

View Larger Map

Henry and I met when I knocked at the door of his red brick church last summer. It sits in the middle of Chicago's most expensive census tract--when it came to boarding up and demolishing vacant, foreclosed homes last year.

The city has spent at least $754,042 in the five-block stretch. Ironically, it cost more to knock down some of the homes than they were worth at the time.

Money to rebuild is still much harder to come by, I learned as Henry and I met up for a walk through the neighborhood this spring. We shot these pictures along the way:

There's only one new home that's been built in the stretch around the church. It's Henry's. He did a gut rehab of the home he grew up in. The two-story, wood-frame house with a fresh paint job and a picket fence looks like the sort of place you'd find in a sprawling suburban subdivision.

Most of the kids Henry and his siblings grew up with are long gone. A few of their parents still live in the neighborhood, which, at times, Henry can't believe is the same middle-class community he grew up in as a kid. We met a few longtime residents on our walk. Among them was a retired pastor whose memory has been robbed by dementia.

"You've got to start somewhere," Henry said of his vision of rebuilding the community.

On one end of Princeton, near 111th Street, he hopes to turn a vacant four flat into an apartment building for seniors. Three blocks north, Henry's congregation has snapped up a couple properties with a plan to create "a model block" that's anchored by the church.

That model block, the 300 block of East 109th Place, trails off with a string of vacant lots and dead ends at the railroad tracks. There's a "no dumping sign" that an elderly woman posted in a futile attempt to scare off fly dumpers.

Homeowners still live in most of the houses. Stephan Williams is one of them. He's the sort of "concerned citizen" that Henry is looking for to help revitalize the neighborhood.

"We try to keep the block safe, No. 1," Williams said. "And to get something for the children to do, 2."

Williams helped kids turn an uneven slab of concrete, the foundation of a demolished home, into a basketball court. Someone stole the nets.

"I want to get more basketball hoops over there," Williams said. He's entertaining the idea of buying hoops that he could lock up in his garage at night. In the day, he'd move them out to the street so the kids could play on an even surface.

Henry is thinking bigger. “The  money that they spend tearing down buildings, why doesn’t the city donate this back to the community for a park?” he said.  “To have a lot like this with all this possibility and the kids are hauling basketball hoops onto the street? I mean, come on.”

Leave a comment