Ickes' past comes tumbling down

The building at 2350 S. State St. is one of several that will come down by December. | Credit: Adrian G. Uribarri

Gloria Williams remembers the Harold Ickes Homes nostalgically. She recalls the development's trimmed, lush grass, its neat buildings and its families, about 1,000 of them in the development's heyday.

"Ickes used to be the showplace of public housing," Williams says. "It was a vibrant community. It was up and running to full capacity."

That was years ago. Now, the grass is tattered. Some windows in the high-rises are broken, and others are boarded up. Many of the families that once lived there have moved on, and others are making plans to do so.

This month, officials began preparations to tear down six of the original nine structures at the Ickes Homes, opened in the 1950s. They say the buildings are too old to save, and that the residents who stayed now occupy little more than a third of the two structures that will remain standing.

The inescapable reality: Ickes is dying. For residents, the question is why.

Williams, president of Ickes' local advisory council, moved into the homes in 1967, midway through Richard J. Daley's run as mayor. She says that when foreign dignitaries came to town, Ickes was the place Daley would take them to show what he was doing to shelter Chicago's struggling residents.

Zennie Walls, 62, says he moved into the development as a child, on June 20, 1956.

"I'll never forget the day," Walls says. "At one time, it was a helluva place."

He says that when he first lived there, the development was a haven surrounded by perfectly paved streets. Back then, the government screened who could live in the Ickes Homes, and it was a big deal to get in, Walls says.

Then, he says, in obedience to anti-discrimination laws, officials stopped screening residents the way they once did. The change welcomed new, struggling families to the development, but also some undesirable elements of crime.

Walls remembers how, over the next few decades, things changed for the worse at the Ickes Homes. He says first-floor lobbies with glass entrances lost their luster.

"It went from glass, to plexiglass, to bulletproof glass to concrete," Walls says.

Walls says there were home invasions, vandalism and drugs.

His brother also lived in the apartment with their mother, before she moved to a nursing home. Roy Walls says he was cooking one day, when someone broke into his apartment and stole his things. He says he finally moved out about 15 years ago, after the scare.

"I got tired of getting knocked upside the head, and getting hurt all the time," Walls says. "People took everything I had."

By the 1990s, crime and the deteriorating condition of the buildings led to questions about what the Chicago Housing Authority would do with them.

At one point, after the authority adopted its Plan for Transformation in 2000, the development was listed as a property to be rehabilitated. But construction never began, and residents quickly became angry about what they perceived as the CHA's flip-flopping.

In March, officials at the authority announced that they would demolish six of the Ickes buildings. The decision, backed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, has sparked speculation about whether the city will use the soon-vacant land for commercial development or a potential Olympic venue should Chicago win the 2016 bid.

Jadine Chou, director of asset management at the Chicago Housing Authority, says she does not know what will happen with the property. But she says the demolition is part of a carefully considered plan to improve safety and security for the 79 families that remain at three Ickes addresses.

The demolition would also save money, Chou says. According to authority spokesman Matt Aguilar, it costs an average of $110,000 per month to maintain each of the remaining buildings at Ickes.

"Ironically, it costs us more money to manage a building with high vacancy than a building with high occupancy," Chou says. "It is costing us more than the average CHA building."

Realizing this, she says, the CHA began offering residents the chance to leave the Ickes buildings several years ago. Chou says those who raised their hands moved to other public-housing properties or received vouchers to help with rent in the private market.

The plan fit well with Chicago authorities' goal of moving public-housing residents out of traditional CHA developments and into mixed-income communities, she says.

"We want our residents to be integrated into the fabric of their communities by moving them out of the high-rises and into some of the other areas such as the mixed-income," Chou says.

But the plan did not please some long-time residents. Williams, who still lives at one of the Ickes buildings, says the decision to move out residents and vacate several of the buildings was unilateral.

"When they came to the residents, the decision had already been made," she says of CHA officials.

According to Williams, it was obvious since October 1999, a few months before the Plan for Transformation began, that the CHA never planned to fix Ickes.

"They just stopped doing anything," she says. "They stopped renting the apartments. They let it become overrun with vagrants. They stopped doing work on the property. They just let it deteriorate."

Maintenance is an ongoing issue at Ickes. Earlier this year, the authority settled with a family whose little girl was badly burned by an exposed radiator coil in an Ickes apartment. The $225,000 settlement rekindled questions about whether the CHA properly responded to inspections at the apartments.

Rhoda Ludy, the newly elected secretary of Ickes' local advisory council, says it is about time that the buildings come down. She is among the residents who applied for a job working on the demolition, funded with $3.1 million in federal stimulus money.

Ludy sat inside the Ickes office on a recent afternoon, as a gaggle of young men moved furniture outside. She says the development has only declined since she moved there 19 years ago.

"It was more respectable," Ludy says. "They had older people that were here. They had more respect for each other."

Ickes' past is just that, she says, and it is about time people accepted it.

"I don't mind them tearing it down," Ludy says. "Out with the old, in with the new."

Staff Writer Adrian G. Uribarri can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 12, or adrian at chitowndailynews dot org.