Altgeld Gardens: Four years later

The place where Barack Obama started as an organizer looks at the man who became president and at itself.

November 5, 2012

By Linda Paul and Richard Cahan

Part II

Altgeld Gardens is a sprawling public housing development, as far south as you can go and still be in Chicago. It’s surrounded by landfills, a sewage treatment plant and the polluted Little Calumet River. It’s home to nearly 4,000 people, and the place where Barack Obama honed his chops as a community organizer. Four years ago today, we drove to Altgeld Gardens to talk with people at dawn--right after the election.  Everyone wanted to talk; there was exuberance, and hope.  We've gone back each year since, and this year, we wanted to hear how people from Altgeld think the president has done, and how the country, and their community, have changed. 

One of the first people we met back in 2008 was 29-year-old Artease Coley. He was in his car, cruising down 131st St, windows down, music blasting.  It's the song "My President" by Lil' Jeezy. 

"We got good schools out here, we got the clinic out here. We got a library out here now."
- Liquita Saulter

COLEY:  Lemme play that again for you. This is my morning anthem. And it should be everybody’s mornin’ anthem. Now listen!

Artease Coley was sipping coffee and short on sleep that morning.

Altgeld Gardens had been lit up with celebratory gun fire into the wee hours, he said. And before that, he was at Obama’s victory rally in Grant Park. The crowd was so diverse, he said, it was, “Almost like being in Martin Luther King days.”

On that historic day, we asked Artease, how might the world change, how might this country change? His answer was matter of fact:

COLEY:  And just because we have a black president, and a new president, doesn’t mean anything’s gonna change over night. I mean, not even in a few years. It’s so much of a big mess, it’s gonna take at least two terms for any president to fix this problem we’re in now.

WOMAN’S VOICE:  Our president ! Barack Obama. He did it !!

Four years ago, Liquita Saulter was bursting with joy when we bumped into her on her way into work. She was then -- and still is today -- the laundry attendant at one of Altgeld’s four laundromats. Residents aren’t allowed to have washers & dryers in their units, so these laundromats are well-used and double as kind of an informal neighborhood meeting spot. Liquita’s place is brightly lit -- and sparkling clean.

SAULTER:  Heyyy !

PAUL:  Li-qu-ita.

SAULTER: Yeeessssss.

PAUL: Your hairstyle is different!

SAULTER: Yes, it’s different. I changed it up a little bit. ( laughs )

Liquita tells us these days she’s on "Team Obama-Biden" and has been registering her neighbors to vote. She makes regular trips downtown, carrying paperwork to the Board of Election Commissioners.

The White House will never be the same, she says, because now it’s full of swag.

SAULTER: I see his swag as he is cool, down-to-earth, he eat collard greens. And he playin’ basketball. It’s not just the golf course up in there, and soccer all and that. We doin’ it! (laughs )

So there’s been change at the White House, but Saulter thinks there’s been change at Altgeld too.

SAULTER: We got good schools out here, we got the clinic out here. We got a library out here now.  You know what I’m sayin’ ?  It’s love out here.  It’s nothing like, ‘Oh the Gardens this, the Gardens bad.’  No, it’s bad everywhere you go in America. But you don’t see Altgeld Gardens on the news, do you?

A patron at the laundromat,  Jerome Williams, has drifted over to join our conversation. I ask if he plans to vote?

WILLIAMS: I’m gonna definitely vote.

PAUL:  And who are you voting for?

WILLIAMS:  Obama, no question.

PAUL: Was that a dumb question on my part ?

WILLIAMS:  (laughs along with Saulter)

PAUL: I mean there might be some people here who aren’t. Is that right?

WILLIAMS: Right. You right about that.

Actually? I wasn’t too right about that. Later I checked the numbers. Turns out that in 2008, there were 5 precincts covering Altgeld Gardens and a little beyond. In those precincts about 19-hundred ballots were cast. And only twelve were for McCain.

JOHNSON: Good boy, good boy.

This is Obama country. Something that Cheryl Johnson knows for sure.

JOHNSON:        Come here! Come here, baby.

Johnson is head of PCR, People for Community Recovery. It’s a 33-year old environmental justice organization that rallies residents around community issues. It could be anything from PCB’S in the soil to the need for a new neighborhood school.

JOHNSON: He’s sick. Look how big his stomach is.

PAUL: Really, what does that mean?

JOHNSON: Starvation.

A forlorn pit bull has been lingering outside Cheryl’s office.  We all start feeding him. Cheryl leans in and points out his bruises.

JOHNSON: That’s probably fighting. He’s scared.                                                                                                                         

Inside Cheryl’s office we see pictures of her mother, Hazel, who’s passed away since we visited the Gardens four years ago. In Hazel Johnson’s day, she met with presidents & governors and led politicians on ‘toxic tours’ of her neighborhood.

When Rich and I talked with her in 2008, she told us about a guy who worked with her on a campaign to get rid of asbestos insulation in the attics at Altgeld. He was a young Barack Obama.

HAZEL JOHNSON:   When I was working with him, I never had no idea. I knew he was an ambitious young man. He was nice, polite, very mannerable.,I know he wanted to go beyond what he was, already. But I had NO IDEA that he would go that far.

Today, Hazel’s daughter Cheryl, has new problems to contend with. She walks us over to what’s called ‘Block 16’ -- 2 minutes from her office.

JOHNSON: You can’t get in front of it, because it’s all gated in. All the vacancies are gated in.

PAUL: I see. That’s some of them right there.

JOHNSON: Right.

Cheryl is pointing to an eerie view of brick row-houses that are boarded up and abandoned. The scene is a little haunting. You can almost feel the presence of the people who used to live there. Altgeld, after all, was originally built to house African-American soldiers returning from World War II.

PAUL: And how many are we talking about?

JOHNSON: 648 units.

In 1999 when the Chicago Housing Authority launched it’s Plan for Transformation – the goal was to rehab ALL 2000 units at Altgeld Gardens.

Eleven years later, by 2010, one thousand, three hundred and twenty three of the units had indeed been rehabbed. That’s 66% of the original goal.

Today there about 3,700 people living in Altgeld, and that's where that number may stay. 

Because in the last few years, all rehab has stopped.  And now the CHA is considering demolition of all those units that are vacant and never got fixed.

I asked Cheryl Johnson what she thinks of that idea?

JOHNSON:   It’s sad because affordable houses for low income, working class, and the poor needs these units.  They need to be back online. 

PAUL: What is the thinking process?

JOHNSON: You know what?  I would like to be that fly on the wall. The only rationale that I can really think of is that they really ran out of money to fix up these units.

In an email to WBEZ, CHA confirms that it’s considering demolition of those 648 vacant units at Altgeld Gardens. In fact this proposal is mentioned as a possibility in CHA’s annual plan that was just sent to the federal agency HUD, a few weeks ago.

CHA says it’s considering this demolition because the agency believes the quality of life for residents can be enhanced through new kinds of development. CHA points out the need for both commercial and institutional services, which, in plain English, means additions like a grocery store and a day-care center.

In the next few weeks CHA will hold a meeting to engage residents in planning  for  their development. First order of business? To hire an urban planner to nudge the process along. One of the ideas being tossed around is to build a new town center, though it isn’t clear what that will include.

I ask Cheryl what will happen if the CHA decides to build a new town center, build other new supports for the community, but also decides to tear down the 648 units.

JOHNSON: With the support of the community, and the external community that we have created, it’s gonna be really hard for them to tear these units down, without a fight.

PAUL: So if it ever came to bulldozers coming out here?

JOHNSON: I’ll be one of the first standing in front of the bulldozer. Because it’s not gonna happen.

We stop by Cheryl Johnson’s office to say goodbye to everyone and end up chatting with Georgia Curtis who does volunteer work at People for Community Recovery.

CURTIS : We have to hustle and get buses for our community to go here, to go there. You know, the whole 9 yards. And I have learnt so much by coming up here, you know.  I’ve learned so many things.  I couldn’t even get on the computer, on and off, couldn’t type, any of that, answer phones --  the whole business.

Much as Georgia embraces her volunteer job, it galls her that she can’t find work that offers a weekly paycheck.

Outsiders don’t much know this, but the CHA has a work requirement. Officials say the agency spends $25 million a year on social services to help adults between the ages of 18 and 54 make the transition to the working world. There are some exemptions, but residents must work or go to school or volunteer for 30 hours a week in order to remain in public housing.

Some residents tell us they’ve seen the CHA’s programs land people in real, paid jobs. Others, like Georgia, find it demeaning that she’s required to work a job that doesn’t pay.

CURTIS: You-all are paying them to ridicule me in a sense. And I end up with the short end of the stick because I don’t have anything.  But you go home and every Friday, or every other Friday, you draw a check down. So come on now. That’s crazy.

The day is starting to get away from us. Rich and I say our goodbyes and start heading towards the center of Altgeld. If the CHA’s  gonna tear stuff down to build a new town center, we wanna see what’s there now.

So we walk, and, of course, we get side-tracked. We talk to mothers, holding the hands of their young children, and shooing them along.

We talk to a high school girl who dreams of seeing the world.

GIRL: Ooohh, that’s Paris!  That’s the best scenery ever, I guess. It’s just, I would love to go there. That’s my dream!

We pass middle school girls who tell us where they want to attend high school.  

MULTIPLE GIRLS:  I’m goin’ to Carver Military. I’m goin’ to Julian or Carver Military. Gwendolyn Brooks. Minnesota. She ain’t goin’t to no Minnesota. She been sayin’ that since we was in kindergarden and she ain’t never go . I AM goin’.

On our walk we pass a new charter high school, a new charter elementary. And we visit the new public library.

LIBRARIAN: Though we’re a small location, we’re probably one of the few locations that have a plethora of computers.. 

The library, the charter schools --the community fought for those institutions. And won.

We can see the new building that has appeared since 2008.

Now we’re approaching what’s called Up Top, a seedier part of Altgeld. This part of the development looks the same as when we saw it in 2008. Or even worse. The long low buildings look decrepit. Many in the community consider this section of  Altgeld an eyesore. Which could be why CHA is talking about building a new “town center” here.

We’ve come to a long breezeway that adjoins a fast food joint-- and a tiny store that sells liquor, candy and chips.

But there’s also something in this breezeway that has deep significance ..

MAN’S VOICE: LOOK HERE. This is a wall right here that means a lot to us.

That’s our introduction to Joel Johnson. Vietnam vet. 60 years old.

He’s lived at the ‘Gardens’ since 1958. He’s showing Rich and me a brick wall painted yellow. Printed in bold black paint are the names are the names of many of Altgeld’s dead.

JOHNSON: We really don’t want this wall to be ever torn down or destroyed. Because hey! This wall means something to us. You know it’s a lotta brothers, sistas, that died over here. My family!  Lotta their names up here..

I ask how long the wall has been up..

JOHNSON: It’s been up here..WOW! Since  1960’s.. This right here’s the original part, at the top..

Our conversation drifts to the election and I ask Joel Johnson- if Obama is re-elected, what advice would you give him?

JOHNSON:  First thing, Mr. President of the United States should do, is this: You can always tell people, ‘why don’t you stop selling drugs and all that.’  If you don’t have anything to do for these individuals, nothings’s gonna come about it . You hafto have a structured situation wheres the community can have something for the young man, young ladies to do. If they don’t have nothing to do, how can they structure themselves?

PAUL:  Anybody wanna do an interview?

There’s a craps game down at the other end of the breezeway. Edward Johnson, no relation to the Joel Johnson we just talked to, is watching the game but breaks away to talk with us. We’re just getting started, when he interrupts me and calls out to the others:

PAUL: We’ve been coming back one time every year.

JOHNSON: Mavericks, mavericks! That means the po-leece.

PAUL: I’m sorry. What was that about the police?

JOHNSON: They comin!

PAUL: How do you know?

JOHNSON: We know the po-leece.

JOHNSON: He say “break it up.” Okay. Break it up then.

It’s illegal to bet money while shooting dice, so the gaggle of men immediately begins to disperse. And so does the man I’m interviewing -- even though he wasn’t playing.

PAUL: Break it up? Break what up?

JOHNSON: I’m sorry, break it up. 

PAUL:  Don’t go. Oh no. Nothing’s breakin’ up.

PAUL: Excuse me, officer?

OFFICER: Yes ma’am.

PAUL: I’m interviewing this gentleman. He seems to think we can’t do an interview.                                   Why does he think that ?

OFFICER: I don’t know. Ask him.

PAUL: Sir? He said it’s fine!

JOHNSON:Oh! I’m fixin’ to say!

PAUL: This is America, far as I know, last time I checked ..

MAN’S VOICE: Yeah, it’s America.

After the officers have gone, Johnson tells us that sometimes the gambling can escalate. 

JOHNSON: It gets real big

PAUL:  I feel like...

JOHNSON: Then shootin’ might start. Or fightin’ might start. Arguments. You know, they                                   don’t want a crowd around here.

PAUL: Mmm, hhmm.

JOHNSON: You know, they hafto keep it down.

It’s pushing on dusk. We wrap up at the breezeway and head to the home of Tyrone Nelson.

Four years ago when he heard that Obama had won --  he shed some tears of joy. But he was realistic about what he thought Obama could accomplish.

NELSON:  I think some things are gonna change, but I don’t think it’s gonna be overnight. We’d be fooling ourselves if we thought that.

When we met Tyrone back in 2008, he was living with his mother who was 94.  Flash forward four years and he’s still caring for her. She turns 99 next week and her blood pressure is lower than his.

NELSON:  I took her this morning and it was 118 over 70. 

When the conversation turns to Obama, he says he’d give him a “B”

NELSON:  I think we’re mature enough now to know that one person can’t do it by himself. Or even one party for that matter. We have seen that some of the programs that Obama tried to put forward was fought, you know, tooth & nail in the Congress.. Some of his programs didn’t get through.  Because we had some people that just wanted him to be a one-term president.. They had no other reason but, they just wanted him to fail..

Some time during our conversations today, I received a text from Artease Coley. Remember him? He’s the guy who was blasting music from his car, the morning after Obama was elected. He’s been out of town and we didn’t think we’d be able to meet up with him. But he tells us to wait at the Laundromat and that his bus will arrive around 6.

It’s fully dark now & we’re just sort of hanging out in front of Tyrone’s place, which just happens to be across the street from the Laundromat where we need to be.

And while we’re waiting for Artease’s bus to arrive, the very officers we’d seen earlier in the day, pull up alongside us to ask, where we’re from, what we’re doing.

So we make some introductions and it turns out these guys are with Maverick Security.. One of the officers -- JC Hill  -- knows Altgeld very well. As a boy, he spent 15 summers out here, living with his uncle..

HILL:     When I was assigned out here, I was only glad to come out here you know. Because I know these people. These are my people.

Hill’s partner, Eric Davis, retired after 27 years with the Chicago Police.

DAVIS: And I come and work my community. So I’m not just talking the talk, I’m walking the walk. 

Officer Davis confirms what we’ve been told, that Altgeld is a somewhat isolated community. But in some ways, he says it’s not so different from the North Shore.

DAVIS:  I would guess that 80% of the folks that live here in Altgeld don’t know anyone white. Don’t know anyone white.  But.. to be fair-- I bet if I went to Winnetka, maybe 70% of the white people there don’t know anyone black. So. Is that something that’s really crazy in America?  Absolutely, that is crazy.  There are people that travel the world to come to cities like Chicago and New York because they want to see our diversity. We live here and we don’t want to see diversity.  

Both these officers seem to know a lotta people around here and one lady who’s walking by, stops to give an unsolicited testimonial:

WOMAN: These guys are as cool as hell. Because they’re still guard enforcement officers. But they’re respecting us in a different manner. They’re not bo-gardin’ us.

Some time in the middle of all this, there’s a little do-si-do.

Officer Davis leaves and Artease Coley has joined Officer Hill & us. We ask how people at Altgeld make it? How do they survive in these crazy economic times?

Census Bureau numbers say that median household income at Altgeld is about 13-thousand dollars. And most everyone we’ve talked to today has estimated that 60 to 70 % of the adult community here is unemployed.

HILL: Well, I’m gonna say this. Blacks are really resourceful. (Laughs)

COLEY: We can make something outta nothing. See for those that was already wealthy and rich and not used to living in poverty -- it was a big deal to them. Nothing really changed to us. We been living in this and experiencing this since I was young. Since government cheese programs.

I tell them that we heard from a woman who sells some of her food stamps in order to scrape together enough rent money to keep her unit at CHA. 

COLEY:  I wouldn’t incriminate myself like that. Because that’s a crime.

There are lots of people in America on food stamps. 46 million in fact. And Artease asks?

COLEY:  You think she’s the only one doin’ that to get by? All race. All color. All nationality.

We stand out here on the sidewalk, talking for like an hour. We talk about Obama, the election --and these guys keep circling back to Altgeld itself.

HILL:  You should see’ em in the summer time. It’s beautiful. A cook-out on every block. There’s a jumping jack thing on every block.

COLEY:  And he actually brings them and don’t let us hafto pay for ‘em.

HILL:  It’s beautiful. It’s a community thing. I’ve worked all 4th of July’s cause I wanna be out here.

This talk can go on & on. So we make an informal pact.  Meet up again for the next election.

CAHAN:  Okay, four years. And we’re gonna make a pact now that we’re gonna do this in four years.

PAUL: So we’re meeting up in four years, right?

Who knows? After all, we met Artease four years ago, when he rolled down 131st St., blasting Lil Jeezy’s song, “My President.” Who’s to say we may not meet here again, four years from now?

Audio production by Ken Davis