Chicago's red "X": Meaning, myths and limitations

These signs are meant to save lives, but is everyone getting the message?

June 10, 2014

by Chris Bentley, Chris Hagan, Kathy Chaney and Shawn Allee

Editor's note: We have an update to this story, which expands on the red "X" program's lack of funding.

While walking around her Logan Square neighborhood Chicagoan Poppy Coleman noticed something peculiar about two rundown buildings: They bore metal signs emblazoned with a large red "X."

Poppy says she wanted to know more, including: “Who they were for, maybe what department put them up, and if it was something that I should know about.” So, she sent Curious City this question:

What do those red "X" signs mean on buildings?

She’s not the only one who’s confused. Since 2012, red "X" signs have popped up on nearly 2,000 properties around Chicago. It’s not hard to find people posting in online forums, wondering aloud whether the red "X" means a building’s condemned, vacant or for sale.

But in the course of reporting an answer for Poppy, we encountered hard questions about the program that supports red “X” signage, including whether the city’s doing enough to communicate its intentions. We also turned up some surprising news: This program, meant to save the lives of first responders and others, has run out of money.

The sign’s origins: A mayday call

On Dec. 22, 2010, firefighters were searching for squatters inside a burning, long-vacant laundromat on the 1700 block of East 75th Street, in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood. As firefighters continued their sweep of the building, a wall fell and then the roof collapsed, killing firefighters Edward Stringer and Corey Ankum. Nineteen others were injured.

“When I first became alderman, one of the first visits that I paid was to Fire Chief Mark Neilsen,” said 50th Ward Ald. Debra Silverstein, who sponsored two city ordinances in response. The first ordinance, passed in 2011, required the department to catalogue buildings with bowstring truss construction, a variety that’s prone to collapse during fires.

Silverstein’s second ordinance sought to find and mark all of Chicago’s dangerous buildings. For that program they decided on rectangular metal signs displaying a big red "X", a symbol used by fire departments in New York City and other some other cities. That iconography comes from a federal program for marking vacant structures.

Chicago doesn’t assign red "X" signs to just any vacant or abandoned building; a sign is a visual cue that a structure is structurally unsound and that firefighters and other first responders should take precautions when responding to emergencies there. It’s also an extra reminder for anyone who might wander into a vacant building — which is illegal already — that they should stay out.

 

 

Making a list

Since Silverstein’s ordinance passed in June 2012, the Chicago Fire Department has placed red "X" signs on 1,804 buildings. That’s less than half of the more than 5,000 vacant properties registered in the city — itself a fraction of the estimated total of vacant and abandoned buildings in Chicago — but CFD Spokesman Larry Langford says it’s a start.

“We picked 1,800 that we wanted to get marked right away,” he says. When the program started, Chicago’s Department of Buildings sent over a list of structurally unsound properties for CFD to add to as they saw fit. The list from the Department of Buildings included a few hundred properties deemed more than 35 percent deteriorated.

Langford says “It’s based on structural damage rotting in some cases, vandalism, previous fire, the overall integrity of the building, what’s missing from the building, if there are holes in the floor, porch in bad condition, roof about to go — things that might make it difficult for a fireman to work the fire, or for the building to come down quickly during a fire.”

That list quickly grew to 1,800. Firemen took note of vacant buildings as they did their rounds, checking out potentially unsafe structures and adding to the initial list of red "X" candidates.

‘They’re everywhere’

Records obtained by WBEZ show the city often put up dozens of signs at a time in parts of the city with a lot of vacant and structurally unsound buildings.

Poppy Coleman joined Curious City Editor Shawn Allee and reporter Chris Bentley for a short canvas of the South Side’s Englewood neighborhood, which has hundreds of buildings sporting the signs.

(Curious City canvassed portions of the Englewood neighborhood near the intersection of 70th and Normal. There are 55 red "X" signs posted within a half-mile of the intersection. Map: See the signs across the city and search by address)

Most of the residents we talked to around the intersection of 70th and South Normal Avenue described waking up to find several houses on their block marked with red "X" signs. The signs never go unnoticed, but neighbors are often confused about what they mean.

“For some reason the red ‘X’ became something totally different than what we intended it to be,” said Langford. ”I thought they were kidding me when they said it, but some people thought that those were the buildings that were being targeted by the drones when the next war started, and that the red ‘X’ is a drone target.”

The department has largely left it up to aldermen and their offices to publicize the signs’ purpose. Langford says people have called to ask the fire department if red “X” buildings are part of a program by the city to sell distressed property at a discount, or to pillory property owners whose taxes are in arrears.

“It has nothing to do with ownership, it’s not a part of any kind of program to do anything with the buildings. For the most part they’re privately owned,” Langford says. “It’s just a marking for danger. It’s really just that simple.”

Simple, perhaps, but there’s a lot of confusion in areas where red "X"s are common. If these signs are here to save lives — both those of firefighters and anyone who might think of trespassing on potentially dangerous abandoned properties — is everyone on the same page?

There are several red "X" buildings on the 6900 block of S. Normal, where Maria Johnson lives. But her next door neighbor is an abandoned building that doesn’t have a red "X". She says just because a building’s deemed vacant doesn’t mean it’s unoccupied.

“Homeless people, people with nowhere to stay,” said Johnson, who has lived on this block for three years. “I know they went into the  building next to me and someone set it on fire, it caught onto my crib. So I don’t know if they were living in there, or getting high, or whatever, but I know there were some homeless people going through the back door.”

There’s so signage explaining the red "X" — just the “X” itself — so if you want answers, you have to find them yourself. Most of the people we asked in Englewood thought the red “X” marked buildings for demolition. Earl Liggins was one of the few people who knew what the signs’ real meaning, but that’s only because he took matters into his own hands.

“I called the alderman’s office and I heard it from the alderman people themselves,” he says. “I was just concerned because there are so many of them. I was just wondering what does it mean, are they going to tear this many buildings down? I just wanted to know straight from them, what the situation was.”

Liggins lives in a formerly vacant building on the 7000 block of S. Normal that he fixed up a few years ago. But he says whether they have a red "X" or not, most vacant buildings in his neighborhood stay that way.

“For the most part they stay vacant forever,” he says. “The condition of the building gets worse and worse. That building across the street — I’ve been here 10 years and that building has been vacant for about ten years.”

Removing the red ‘X’

There is a process to rehabilitate vacant and abandoned properties, but the city requires owners to obtain special permission before performing work on red x structures. Two years after the program began, however, only one building has successfully been repaired and had its red "X" legally removed.

The next red "X" property to move off the list might be one of the buildings that originally sparked question asker Poppy Coleman’s curiosity: 2800 W. Logan Blvd. A fire ravaged the three-story building last summer, but owner Darko Tesanovic got a city permit earlier this year to repair the damages and turn a ground-floor dwelling unit into retail space. If he finishes the repairs, Tesanovic could be only the second landlord in Chicago to legally remove a red "X" from his building. In the meantime he says the X isn’t impeding his redevelopment efforts, but it might be adding to neighborhood anxieties about the vacant property.

“I’m not bothered by it,” Tesanovic says. “I think it’s creating more confusion for the neighborhood than myself, because people in the neighborhood don’t know what it means.”

Our question asker was glad to learn what the red "X" means, but she still wonders about its impact. Many of the neighborhoods with high concentrations of red "X" signs are already reeling from a downward spiral of disinvestment, blight and declining property values. She’s worried red "X"s are like scarlet letters — just another obstacle in a rough neighborhood’s struggle to improve its station.

“My disappointment is that once the ‘X’ is up, it doesn’t sound like there’s any support to help move that building to a next phase, either to get it sold, get it taken care of, get it torn down,” Coleman says in the shade beside a boarded-up red "X" building on the 7000 block of South Eggleston Avenue. “Putting the ‘X’ on it seems to be where the program stops.”

Ald. Debra Silverstein, who sponsored the original red "X" ordinance, says she’d be open to the city forming a task force charged with helping city agencies work together to resuscitate ailing properties after the fire department marks them.

“I’m not aware of any talk about the different departments working together specifically on the red "X", but I highly encourage that,” Silverstein says. “I think we’re all better off if all the different departments work together and form a task force to solve some of these issues. That’s really important to get things taken care of.”

Out of money

While in Englewood, we ask the CFD's Larry Langford whether it makes sense to let the public know more about the meaning behind the "X" —maybe by putting up a smaller, less permanent sign explaining it's dangerous to enter such buildings.

“If we expand the program, that’s a suggestion that will be made," he says. "It might cut some of the confusion down. Put a permanent sign up, put an adhesive sign up — could be.” 

Whether they’ll get a chance to do that is an open question, because this program that was meant to save lives has run out of money. The city received $675,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Assistance to Firefighters grant program to fund the red "X" program. Most of that federal grant money went to two local contractors: AGAE Contractors and M-K Signs.

Data obtained by WBEZ show the city spent all of that money over thirteen months starting in June of 2012, and hasn’t put up any new red "X" signs since July 2013.

Ald. Debra Silverstein, who sponsored the original red “X” ordinance, says she’s eager to find more money for the program. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office did not return requests for comment.  

“We wish it would be funded for a longer period of time, but yes we think it was a success,” says the CFD’s Larry Langford. “Are there more than 1,800 that could be marked? Absolutely. But we’re not doing anything until we get more funding.”

Chris Bentley is a reporter for Curious City and a freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter at @Cementley. Shawn Allee is Curious City's editor. Chris Hagan is a WBEZ web producer and data expert, and Kathy Chaney is a WBEZ producer.