Thursday, July 19, 2007
From The Chicago Sun-Times…
Students, journalists, others get up-close view of CHA’s ‘good, bad, ugly’
BY KATE N. GROSSMAN, Staff Reporter
Beauty Turner, microphone in hand and crowd in tow, climbed off a yellow school bus onto a patch of cracked concrete where one of Chicago’s most notorious public housing projects, the Robert Taylor Homes, once stood.
“Come on,” Turner, a writer and former Taylor resident, beckoned to the tour group assembling at 53rd and State streets last week. “I want you to see what I see.”
“This was a community where people lived, played, stayed and died -- just like your community,” Turner said. “All the horror stories you hear in the newspapers – it’s not like that at all.”
For the next three hours, 40 curious onlookers, who paid $20 each for the privilege, hung on every word of Turner’s decidedly unofficial tour of what’s left of the Chicago Housing Authority’s projects. The CHA has razed most its high-rises and is remaking many into mixed-income communities.
Out with old, in with new
Turner’s “Ghetto Bus Tours” traverse the four-mile stretch of State Street that once housed tens of thousands of public housing families in decaying high-rises. They’re nearly all gone now. What’s left are weed-strewn lots, grassy fields and the early stages of handsome new three-flats and mid-rises where the poor, working class and market-rate tenants are starting to live.
Where CHA leaders see hope blooming, Turner sees communities destroyed and families cheated.
“This is for anyone who wants to know what’s really happening,” said Turner, a magnetic 50-year-old with a preacher’s gift for turning a phrase. “I want people to know what’s going on -- the good, the bad, the ugly.”
Turner has parlayed her oratorical skills and street smarts into a cottage industry. Over the years, Turner, assistant editor of a newspaper written by CHA tenants called Residents’ Journal, has guided scores of journalists into the projects. Cardinal Francis George took a tour; so have classes from Northwestern University.
‘Voices of the voiceless’
They’ve become so popular that We The People Media, the publisher of Residents’ Journal, has invited the general public and started charging to help keep their shoestring operation afloat. Filling seats on last week's tour were college students, a rabbi, journalists, Field Museum staffers and academics.
At 29th and State, the group hiked into the Dearborn Homes, one of a few projects that have yet to be demolished or slated for renovation. After climbing three flights of dirt-smeared concrete stairs, the group stopped at Carol Wallace’s door. She immediately ripped into the police.
Wallace, 63, said police are forcing residents to fill out “contact cards” with names, nicknames, tattoo details, Social Security numbers and more. As for the plan to tear down and rebuild: “I think it’s just a way to get us out of here.”
Back on the bus, Turner nodded approvingly: “I hope that helped you. You’re really listening to the voices of the voiceless,” she said, her vintage microphone and speaker squawking awkwardly.
The aging bus then headed south, stopping at a razed development at 39th and Cottage Grove. It has been replaced by a gleaming mixed community. Residents’ Journal editor-in-chief Mary Johns, a former resident there, said she was stranded when the CHA didn’t assign her a relocation counselor as her building closed.
By day’s end, it was clear Turner would say nothing good about CHA’s redevelopment plans.
Her bus blew by two new mixed communities with nary a comment, except that too few families will get a chance to move in. When asked about families relocated to apartments with vouchers, Turner focused on one forced to move 14 times. She said nothing about the studies that say families feel safer and their kids do better after they’ve left the projects.
Book may help fill a void
The CHA is well-known for squelching bad news. The opposite might be said of Turner.
“This is the anti-tour, in a way,” said Brad Hunt, a Roosevelt University professor on the bus. He’s writing a book on the history of the CHA. “It fills a void for people who don’t necessarily trust the standard line that everything is fine.”
As with the CHA’s word, the passengers didn’t buy everything from Turner. But she sure got them thinking.
“I think they’re saying the plan isn’t fair,” said Sofya Leonova, a University of Chicago student. “I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s definitely a possibility.”