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Woman with a scarf stands in front of the yellow brick Altgeld Gardens Memorial Wall

Tracy Goodwin stands in front of the Altgeld Gardens Memorial Wall.

Rich Cahan

Woman with a scarf stands in front of the yellow brick Altgeld Gardens Memorial Wall

Tracy Goodwin stands in front of the Altgeld Gardens Memorial Wall.

Rich Cahan

The Altgeld Gardens Memorial Wall is part of Chicago history. But its future is uncertain.

Tracy Goodwin stands in front of the Altgeld Gardens Memorial Wall.

Rich Cahan

   

A hundred and thirty blocks south of the Chicago Loop, there’s a stretch of brick wall, painted yellow, covered in hundreds and hundreds of hand-lettered names. Some of the bricks are chipped, some of the paint is faded. But to people who live — or once lived —in this public housing community of Altgeld Gardens, this is their Memorial Wall, a place of family record for lost loved ones and a place of history.

A young man stops to scan the names. “This is my grandmama name right here, Leola Lockett," he says. “She was a beautiful lady.” The man doesn’t want to share his name, but he’s glad the wall is here.

"These are all the people who’s raised up out here, who was part of the community. I miss ’em all."



Baron Johnson grew up in Altgeld Gardens and comes back each year for an “old-timers” picnic. Like many others, he gets sentimental recalling his time there: the baseball teams, late night roller-skating in a school gymnasium, the annual flower festival and a village looking out for each other’s kids.

“And everybody, when they come up to visit, they recognize the names and their memories,” he says. “So the wall is kind of like a historic monument for everybody who used to live or still lives in Altgeld Gardens.”

Still, parts of the wall’s history is uncertain, and its future is even more unclear. The Memorial Wall sits in the breezeway of a dilapidated — and privately owned — commercial building at the center of the community. That building has been in demolition court for the last few years, and the wall’s future is tied up with it.



A public housing community on the edge of the city

Altgeld Gardens is the most isolated of Chicago’s public housing communities. Completed in the mid-1940s, the complex was a racially segregated development for African-Americans — both war workers in the nearby armaments industry and returning veterans.

In contrast to the highrises that the Chicago Housing Authority would later build, the original 1,500 units were two-story brick rowhouses laid out on curving streets, each with its own small front yard. The Gardens, as it’s often called, had a suburban feel.

At the heart of the Altgeld development was a privately owned commercial building that for decades housed a collection of Black-owned businesses: a drug store, a shoe repair shop, a lounge called the Funky London, a barber shop, the Garden of Eden beauty shop — and most important: a grocery store.



This unusual building was designed by brothers George and William Keck, the architects who dreamed up the “House of Tomorrow” for Chicago’s 1933 World’s Fair.

Built in the modernist style, this block-long building had a swooping, cantilevered canopy and a gracefully curving, glassy front wall. It served as a kind of town center for the community, where people both shopped and spent social time together.

Residents called the building Up-Top and because it served as a gathering place it’s no surprise that the Memorial Wall took root here in a covered breezeway that runs north to south through the building.



Channeling grief into self-expression

The exact origin of the yellow brick Memorial Wall is difficult to discern. But in its early days it had a different look — and function — tied to an important event in Altgeld Gardens’ history.

Seth Ibrahim served as an imam at the Mosque of Umar on Chicago’s South Side, but back in the late sixties he was a young activist living in Altgeld Gardens.

Today’s wall, he says, started off as a “Wall of Pride” or “Wall of Hope” after a 17-year-old named Sterling “Pinky” Jones was shot and killed on Christmas Day in 1969. That was just three weeks after Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party, was assassinated by police.

It’s always been unclear what happened to Jones, who was a popular and active Black Panther Party member, and the case was never solved.



What is clear is that in the days and months after he died, Altgeld Gardens was a tinderbox. It seemed like violence was about to erupt, Ibrahim recalls, and young people needed somewhere to put their energy and grief.

Ibrahim and his activist friends wanted to direct that energy — and grief — to something positive for the community. They came up with the idea of using Up-Top as a place where people could express their views about the Black Power Movement, post notes of encouragement to their neighbors, write poetry and paint murals.

Jones’ name went up in a prominent spot on the northeast side of Up-Top’s breezeway. And Chicago Housing Authority not only provided paint for the overall mural effort but also sent over a talented employee who painted a large mural of Malcolm X.



That mural was so good, Ibrahim says, that it spurred others into action. And over time the murals, political statements, poetry and words of encouragement spilled beyond the breezeway and onto the exterior walls of Up-Top.

The names memorializing people who’d lived and died at Altgeld became concentrated in the breezeway.

And those are the names that still remain on Altgeld’s yellow brick Memorial Wall today — some 50 years later.



A legacy of environmental racism

Altgeld Gardens has been home to a lot of larger-than-life figures over the years. One in particular was the late Hazel Johnson, often called the “Mother of the Environmental Justice Movement.”

 After her husband died of cancer at a young age, Hazel Johnson went out to fight. She confronted government officials and local industries about hazardous waste that was dumped near low-income and minority communities like her own. She founded the environmental justice organization People for Community Recovery (PCR), now run out of Altgeld by her daughter Cheryl Johnson.

“The majority of those people on that wall died from cancer,” Johnson says. “And we still have a higher incidence of cancer in this area than any other. And now we have a lot of cardiovascular problems in the area, and that signifies something from breathing this polluted air in our community.”

“That’s what that wall defines to me — that environmental racism was heavily practiced in Chicago.”

Cheryl Johnson

Altgeld Gardens was built on the edge of what was once a dump for the town of Pullman. In 1892 alone, almost 700 million pounds of human waste and liquid sludge was dumped into the Pullman “sewage farm,” just west of what today is Altgeld Gardens.

For Johnson, the wall is proof of the many people whose lives were shortened because of exposure to hazardous waste and pollution. And it's a reminder of why her mother’s work was so important.

“That’s what that wall defines to me — that environmental racism was heavily practiced in Chicago,” Johnson says.

“That’s what that wall is to me.”



If Up-Top is demolished, what happens to the wall?

Last April, the entire Altgeld Gardens complex was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. That led some to believe that the Memorial Wall would be preserved.

But the City of Chicago is in demolition court with the private owner of the Up-Top building at Altgeld Gardens, so that building is endangered — which means the Memorial Wall is endangered as well.

Though there are workarounds, of course.

It’s possible, for instance, that the wall could be taken down and then reassembled someplace else. Or preserved in some other form, through detailed photographs, for instance.

But if the Altgeld community wants to keep the Memorial Wall intact and in its current location, that means saving the building it sits in.

“The only way to protect a building in the City of Chicago,” says Ward Miller, Executive Director of Preservation Chicago, “is by having it made a designated Chicago landmark — which is protecting the building by ordinance.”



That means a vote of the City Council. The first step in that process, which anyone can take, is completing a “Suggestion for Chicago Landmark” form. It lists seven criteria that could make a nomination worthy — including important history, cultural significance and unique architecture — but only any two of the seven need to be met.

(The Chicago Landmark Designation Process site provides more information on what may happen with individual suggestions. Organizations like Preservation Chicago or Landmarks Illinois may be able to help with research needed for the suggestion form.)

Typically, Miller says, the City doesn’t like to landmark buildings that are in demolition court, so it could be a tough road ahead for the Memorial Wall at Altgeld Gardens.

“At the end of the day,” Miller says, “we rely on the Altgeld community to tell us if this is important to them.”

“This is the core of Altgeld. So why don’t we rebuild instead of tear it down?”

Marguerite Jacobs, Altgeld Gardens resident

To many residents, the wall is a link to their past, to history and the fight for environmental justice. But to others, like Belinda McGrew, the priority for the community must be bringing back essential businesses — even if it means tearing down the wall.

“Most of the people that’s on the wall are not here, the family is not here anymore,” she explains. “We need grocery stores out here — we don’t have that anymore.”

“If you give me a magic wand, what I’m going to do is create a new wall and put all the names of the people who passed away and then tear down the entire building and create a store for the community,” echoes another Altgeld Gardens resident.

For resident Marguerite Jacobs, the idea of losing the Memorial Wall is painful.

“I would hate it. I would hate it,” she insists. “I mean, this is the core of Altgeld. So why don’t we rebuild instead of tear it down?”

Thank you to Jed Dulanas who submitted the question about mural preservation that inspired this story.

Special thanks to Loisteen Walker for help with this story, including providing crucial sources and background information about life in Altgeld Gardens and the Memorial Wall itself.

Linda Paul is a reporter living in Chicago.

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