My city meadow: the future of LeClaire Courts

My city meadow: the future of LeClaire Courts
Photo by Lucio Villa

I cut my teeth as a reporter at LeClaire Courts. It was the location of my first Chicago Housing Authority board meeting. My first complex-wide shouting match between residents and the CEO, and the first time I really got to know public housing residents and see the struggle they faced to save their community.

It was also the first complex I saw shut down. I started reporting on public housing in 2008, long after the concrete towers of the infamous Robert Taylor Homes had been demolished.

I read "There are No Children Here", by Alex Kotlowitz, but Henry Horner Homes wasn't here anymore for reference.

It was a weird time in the Plan for Transformation--so much had been demolished, and a good amount rebuilt. But there were these outliers--communities that were in limbo--and LeClaire was one of them.

I came to LeClaire in its last year. Like many public housing complexes in the city, it was slowly being emptied. At one time, the 600 units sprawled over 40 acres were full.

But after the plan to remake the city's public housing started, once a family moved out, their unit was boarded up and left empty. Some families were in the only occupied unit in their stretch of row houses.

It was a pattern I'd see over and over. At Lathrop, at Cabrini. The Chicago Housing Authority would decide to leave a unit vacant after someone moved out or was evicted. Little by little, the building would empty out, until CHA would declare it to be an "emergency situation," which gave them the authority to close it in 90, 60 or even 30 days.

Families would be offered the chance to relocate to another CHA development or get a Section 8 voucher.

If it didn't involve people's lives and homes, it would have almost been funny. It was like knocking over one domino and claiming to be surprised when they all fell down.

Every story was the same--residents would fight to stay. But slowly, they would move out. The building would be closed, and eventually, demolished.

I don't cover public housing exclusively anymore, but what I saw at places like LeClaire shapes my reporting even now.

I notice the same patterns in other city structures. A plan to let things disintegrate, a plan of intentional neglect, until they become too difficult to maintain and it seems no one can argue against the city's plan to close them. It's the mental health clinics, the public schools.

Even people are treated this way. Citizens are left in poor, resource-less communities for so long that generations of their families can't escape pollution, unemployment, or lack of education. At some point, they're either shipped out to other neighborhoods or left voiceless as people with power decide the future of their communities.

I saw it in the struggle for Whittier parents to save the fieldhouse they wanted to turn into a library. The parents said they'd been asking for the Chicago Public Schools to do something with the building for years, but instead, they waited and wanted to demolish it because they claimed it was in extensive disrepair.

I saw it again illustrated in a recent study on how TIF dollars are distributed to the city's schools, with the least resources going to neighborhood schools, a list of which are slated to close each year for their failure to match the outcomes the wealthier schools report.

A few employees of a mental health clinic told me a story about how, after numerous complaints to the higher-ups, the ceiling fell in at their clinic. The cost of keeping open the clinics, especially with their crumbling infrastructure, was cited as one of the reasons to shut half of them down earlier this year.

With the closure of clinics, advocates say clients have been scattered and left to fend for themselves... much like those at LeClaire.

I wonder what happened to Natalie Saffold, the community president that demanded that the housing authority make a decision about what LeClaire would become before it was closed down.

I remember Michelle, a mother moving her two children from LeClaire to Lawndale, unsure about what the future would hold for them in a new community. Her oldest daughter, I recall, wanted to become a lawyer. Back before the complex closed in 2009, she walked me around the neighborhood and told me how its dwindling population had altered the face of her community.

LeClaire was also the reason I could never watch the cult-favorite "The Wire."

The sprawling low-rise public housing complex in the show reminded me too much of LeClaire, complete with empty units ripe for gang members to use as hideouts and machine-gun armories. Yes, the show was very well-written, but it seemed wrong to be watching something on TV as entertainment when I knew people were living this life for real.

LeClaire was in my mind again after many years when I pulled off the Stevenson at Cicero Avenue to get gas. Memories flooded back. Even the panhandlers that always stand next to the traffic light seemed familiar--a sign that the place hadn't changed much.

But things had changed. LeClaire is nothing now but a fenced-in meadow. Gone were the low-rise buildings, barbeques and offices. The child care center I visited one morning long ago, where I played with preschoolers on playground equipment covered with graffiti, is also gone.

An empty lot of trees and tall grass is all that’s left of a community.

For many residents, LeClaire will always exist--the place where they grew up, raised their kids, or a place they escaped from to hopefully find something better, something safer.

What will become of this city meadow? I asked Matt Aguilar, CHA's spokesman, if any decision had been made about LeClaire's future. He gave me the stereotypically vague response that the housing authority is known for.

"A Working Group composed of stakeholders has determined that the site has mixed-income community potential. Also, a traffic study evaluating the area is being planned through this summer." So, it might become something vaguely described as mixed-income. When? Unknown.

In many ways, the meadow is a symbol of unfinished business in the city’s efforts to provide affordable housing - even if the CHA is promising a new, "re-calibrated" Plan for Transformation, dubbed the Plan for Transformation 2.0.

The Plan for Transformation 2.0 promises to reflect on “lessons learned.” What are those lessons? It doesn't say.

Maybe the scores of residents scattered around the city? Perhaps the thousands of Section 8 tenants who've been sent to neighborhoods just as poor and segregated as the ones they left, without the support of their communities?

Or maybe it's just the unoccupied acres--the ghosts of housing projects long gone, like the empty fields that used to be Robert Taylor, the vacant lots on the Gold Coast that used to be Cabrini, and the fenced-in meadow by Midway, LeClaire Courts.

© Community Renewal Society 2012

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