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Breaking the mold: why Lathrop residents say their home is destined for something different

Cynthia Scott

Lathrop resident Cynthia Scott speaks in front of the CHA Board of Commissioners Tuesday.

A quiet battle is being waged near the intersection of Diversey and Clyborn.

It's a battle for the future of a neighborhood. A battle over whether the wrecking ball will have free reign. A fight to see who will be able to afford to live in a community.

Yesterday, community members threw down the gauntlet.

One by one, people interested in the future of Lathrop Homes let the Chicago Housing Authority know that they were watching, that they were engaged, and that they were willing to fight to keep their community as it is.

Usually, one or two people comment at a CHA board meeting. Yesterday, there were nine. Seven of them were Lathrop representatives, staging a bit of a demonstration.  One after another, they used their two minute time allowance to passionately piece together their vision for their homes.

The demonstration was unusual. The fight is unusual. But then, Lathrop is unusual.

To tell you why, I want to take you there with someone I recently met, Perry Parsino. Perry, who grew up in Lathrop is one of those fighting for its future.

Last Saturday, Perry and his older brother Vince, took me to their childhood home and showed me what makes Lathrop different - what makes it worth fighting for.

Unlike the giant high rises most people think of when you say "public housing," Lathrop Homes was built in an entirely different era. It was a WPA project in the depression, built in the late 30s across 35 acres along the Chicago river. Instead of high-rise, high-density buildings, Lathrop has low-rise row houses and walk ups. Instead of mass produced, cookie-cutter buildings, Lathrop is red brick edged and scalloped with finials, round windows, archways and stone medallions. It's on the preservation list of Landmarks Illinois for its beauty and history.

And unlike much of public housing's segregated past, Lathrop has always been more integrated. For much of the 50s and 60s, Lathrop was an all white housing development. Slowly, black and Hispanic families were allowed in. Even today, Lathrop remains a mix of races and ethnicities and has a high number of working families. 

Lathrop was a place where many families succeeded and still succeed. One of the speakers at Tuesday's meeting, Sandra Cornwell, spoke about coming to Lathrop as a single mother and how the affordability and good environment helped her raise her son well and get involved in her community.

Lathrop was important for Perry and Vince too. As we walked through the development, they spoke of memory after memory. Each one included families and kids they knew, organizations that helped them grow, and adults that cared about them.

Exploring their old building was one of my favorite parts of the day. The hallways echo with their memories as we took a look inside and even knocked on the door to their old unit.


And picket they will if that's what it takes to get their vision across.

Because Lathrop is so different, its leadership says, it doesn't need to be razed and made into one of CHA's mixed-income communities.  It can, and should be preserved, says Perry. 

"Mixed-income" usually means 1/3 market rate housing, 1/3 affordable housing and 1/3 public housing. But Perry and the Lathrop Leadership Team say market rate housing isn't needed in Roscoe Village and Lakeview, the communities that surround Lathrop. They're already teeming with condos going unsold in this recession.

Instead, they're asking for half of Lathrop to remain public housing. The other half would be split between affordable rental and affordable homeownership.

And while the buildings would have to be rehabbed and the units resized for modern standards, they say that can all be done without tearing the original structures down because of the way the buildings were built in the first place.

All in all, they want a say in what happens to the home that they love.

How will it be decided?

Well, CHA operates a "working group" that consists of staff, housing leaders, lawyers, city officials and residents. That's where the real fight is taking place.

I asked CHA what their plans are for Lathrop. They say nothing's set in stone yet.

"A working group composed  of key stakeholders - including the City of Chicago, elected officials, community organizations and residents - has been assembled to determine the future of Lathrop Homes, and will meet to make a recommendation for the future of the development," said Matt Aguilar, CHA spokesman, in a statement.

"Lathrop remains an important component of the CHA's historic 'Plan for Transformation,' and is committed to moving forward with a design that best serves the community. Further, CHA will undertake a community planning process in FY 2010 to try and develop Lathrop into a 'Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Neighborhood Development' (LEED-ND) certified community."

So, to translate: TBD.

For years, the property has been deteriorating. Families have been given the option to move out, and many have done so, not knowing what will become of Lathrop. Many units are boarded up, and some tenants live in the only open unit in their building. 

But one of Tuesday's demonstrators, Pastor Liala Beukema of Lakeview Lutheran Church, says TBD means something else in the eyes of those who love Lathrop Homes: too beautiful to be demolished.



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Betty Howard said:


Thank you for your work to help preserve Lathrop. As an alumni of the projects who grew up in the 60's, I can tell you that the experience of living in a neighborhood as beautiful and diverse as Lathrop helped to shape my life. There are many of us who might have turned out quite differently had it not been for the opportunity to live in a safe and supportive environment with the Boys & Girls Club just down the street. I hope that those who have the power to make decisions on the future of Lathrop will choose to preserve this lifestyle for all families that need a helping hand.

Boyee1 said:

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This area of Lincoln Park in the West DePaul Neighborhood, especially west of Ashland and north of Fullerton is not held to the same high standard as the rest of the great neighborhood. Making the Lathrop Homes full market rate would be best for Lincoln Park and could help revitalize the area between Ashland and the River which is currently the least desirable area in Lincoln Park. Full market rate for the Lathrop Homes could make this area eventually as nice as the rest of LP. There is already too much public housing in Chicago and having public housing in Lincoln Park is a blight on this historic and great neighborhood.

jhouse said:

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Doesn't it's membership in the "preservation list of Landmarks Illinois" give it any protection? What a shame to lose an historical landmark, especially when it's use would be so beneficial to families in need in the area. And what a shame to see it go to those whose only interest is in how much profit it will bring them. I guess it's a "sign of the times", isn't it . . . They'll all be cheering at the fact that it will be "green" though, won't they. Help the environment; forget the people. Sorry to be so cynical. Hopefully they'll prove me wrong.

Boyee1 said:

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The southern half of the Lathrop Homes is in the West DePaul neighborhood of Lincoln Park and the northern half is in the Hamlin Park neighborhood of North Center. They should have the Lincoln Park half market rate and the Hamlin Park half affordable and public housing. This would match the neighborhoods better.

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