Chicago kids study public housing's past and future

Chicago's multi-billion dollar Plan For Transformation has been a huge and bittersweet transition for many adults who have called public housing home nearly their whole lives.

But through a child's eyes, tearing down buildings and creating new communites out of thin air can be even more bewildering.

That's what inspired the 3rd and 4th graders at a South Loop school to start a project exploring how their community is changing.

About 60 students at the National Teacher's Academy -- a neighborhood school that also trains educators -- spent yesterday morning taking oral histories from residents and community leaders. Those interviews helped them understand the past, present and possible future of nearby places like Harold Ickes and Dearborn Homes.

Jennifer Cho Magiera, supervising teacher for many of the students, says she hopes the project will help kids process what's going on in their community.

"The transition in the community is an issue that is affecting all of the students, no matter where they call home," says Cho Magiera. "Their friends and families are being relocated, and they are watching their neighborhood change without knowing what the future may hold."

The students will use their oral histories as a part of a museum walk project that will culminate in a event in May where they present what they've learned through art and performance. In past years, they've studied different aspects of African American culture, but this year, Cho Magiera thought it was important for them to focus on something a little closer to home.

"The neighborhood is a closely knit community in which students and families are related by blood, friendships and common experiences," says Cho Magiera. "We wanted to focus on what positive effects they could have on their community."

The students invited three community leaders to answer their questions - Audrey Johnson, a 35 year resident of Harold Ickes, John Pointer, a 40 year resident of Dearborn Homes, and Marilyn Ross, who's lived in Long Grove House for seven years.

The students wrote questions and took diligent notes as the speakers reflected on their own childhoods and what they think of changes in their neighborhoods.

Many of the students' questions focused on the past. Panel members reflected on how different the neighborhood was while they were growing up.

Johnson reflected on the numerous after school activities at the Henry Booth House nearby, where kids could pay one dollar to go every week day.

"We used to have skating in the Booth House - cooking, sewing, modern dance, gym," said Johnson. "We had places to go when you got out of school. It kept a lot of us alive in school and just staying focued. I wish it would come back to give kids something to do every day. "

Pointer talked about the strength of the families that lived in the neighborhood.

"Growing up in the community like I did, I was raised by my parents and friends who I know who I look up to to this day," Pointer said."I played a lot of sports in the community. That kept me out of trouble."

All the panelists reflected on how difficult it was to see families moving away -- particularly those they've known for a lifetime.

"A lot of families have called this home over the years. To know that Ickes wouldn’t be there anymore, that’s where you lose some of your bond with those families," said Pointer. "Those are some of the things that some of us miss because we are used to seeing those families every day and those families will not be around anymore."

Ross said that buildings closing down at Ickes has shifted some of the problems over to Long Grove House, bringing more violence and problems to her building.

"We have to deal with the extras because of the shifting of the people and the stuff that they’re doing over here," she said. "We’ve had to deal with the backlash of what they’re doing over here that’s good. We get the bad part of it."

She also said she's sad about families leaving, but hopes that change will bring something better.

"In order to weed out all that bad, they had to get rid of some of the good. But it’s time for change," said Ross.

But not all the panelists were ready to deal with change. Both Johnson and Pointer expressed their fears and regret that their community won't return to how they knew it as young people.

"I wish they would open every building back up and put every family back in it," says Johnson. "I love the Ickes. If I could be one of the last people to leave out of the Ickes, I’m going to be one of the last people to leave."

Listen to audio from the class at the National Teacher's Academy

Staff Writer Megan Cottrell covers public housing for the Daily News. She can be reached at 773-362-5002, ext. 12.