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Renovated Parkway Gardens Still Surrounded By Crime, Disinvestment And Poverty

In 2011, a company called Related Midwest bought and rehabbed the 700-unit Parkway Gardens housing complex on Chicago’s South Side. 

The new owners spent $100 million to restore the low-income apartments to a semblance of their 1950s prestige, when the units were individually owned by middle-class African Americans. The mid-rise brown buildings at 64th Street and King Drive are now rental housing, and most people who live there have little money. 

In recent years, the area has garnered a lot of negative attention because of its historic violence. In 2013, five people were shot on the block – more than any other block in the city. Last year, when Chicago saw a surge in gun violence, nine people were shot outside Parkway.

This month, 11-year-old Takiya Holmes was fatally shot in the head as she sat in a van with her family near the complex.

But Parkway is more than those violence statistics. It’s a community grappling with shuttered businesses and poverty. It’s also a place where residents hate the stigmatization that their whole development is violent because they see people trying to make improvements. 

Crime and disinvestment

“The big problem to me is poverty,” said John Bartlett, executive director of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, a Chicago non-profit that works to organize and educate tenants. “You can’t just fix poverty by only looking at one issue. You can’t look at it by only fixing the housing and then forget about education and jobs. We need to be looking at things a bit more systemically.” 

The Metropolitan Tenants Organization stopped its efforts at Parkway after someone was shot and killed near one of its events last fall at the apartment complex. Bartlett said many of the development’s resident-leaders have moved because of violence.

And there’s been others leaving as well. Walgreens closed on the block last year; the company declined to comment why. Across the street, McDonald’s closed in 2015; company officials declined to comment why. 

Parkway residents said they hate the reputation the complex has gotten from the violence in the surrounding area. 

“It’s the neighborhood. And just because you see a complex doesn’t mean it’s full of violence in the complex,” said resident Lisa Mays as she walked to pick up her kindergartner from Dulles Elementary, which shares a gate with Parkway Gardens. 

A storied past

Parkway was built in the 1950s as cooperative housing, a premier place for black middle-class families. Columnists, judges, lawyers, postal workers and Michelle Obama all lived there.

Dorothy Leavell, editor and publisher of the Chicago Crusader, a black newspaper across the street from Parkway, said the office has been there for 53 years.

“We felt like we (were) moving in an area that spelled success and advancement and Parkway Gardens at that time were apartments that were owned, the forerunner (of) condominiums,” Leavell said. “People who lived there using a term that comes from the South; when you lived in Parkway Gardens you were living in high cotton.”

Dorothy Leavell, editor and publisher of the Chicago Crusader, a black newspaper across the street from Parkway Gardens, in her office on Feb. 27, 2017. (Andrew Gill/WBEZ)

Parkway turned into rentals. Leavell said over the decades she’s seen the area change. The 1990s, when gangs became more splintered and wreaked havoc in the area, was a turning point, she said.

Now, under Related Midwest, the 13-acre property has new landscaping. The kitchens and bathrooms have been updated. But the crime hasn’t stopped, and economic development hasn’t descended on the neighborhood.

'We wait on the next tragic incident'

In 2008, Chicago Police Officer Jennifer Maddox started working a second job as a security guard at Parkway. She noticed children didn’t have an area to play back then. Parkway management provided her a basement, and Maddox started a free after-school program called Future Ties. Now, Parkway youth have a place to play board games, create artwork, socialize and do homework.

Chicago Police Officer Jennifer Maddox, who runs the Future Ties after-school program at Parkway Gardens, poses for a photo on Feb. 27, 2017. (Andrew Gill/WBEZ)

“If it wasn’t for her, a lot of things my kids have encountered, they wouldn’t know,” said Parkway resident Tenesha Payne. “She got them in gymnastics, track, modeling, a peace march. Even the older guys respect her. She’s well respected.” 

Maddox said the Future Ties program only can only accommodate 40 children, and the program is at capacity. She said she needs more space and money. 

“I can’t never seem to get nobody’s attention until something negative happens. Then here comes everyone running for the meantime,” Maddox said. “Next week, two weeks from now, when people think it’s all over, then we wait on the next tragic incident to happen.”

Natalie Moore is WBEZ's South Side Bureau reporter. You can follow her at @natalieymoore.

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