Leaving LeClaire Courts for the last time

WBEZ senior editor Alden Loury reflects on the history of the LeClaire Courts public housing development, his childhood home.

WBEZ senior editor Alden Loury, second from the right, at a party in 1970 in the LeClaire Courts public housing development to celebrate his first birthday. Photos courtesy of Alden Loury/WBEZ, Treatment: Penny Hawthorne/WBEZ
WBEZ senior editor Alden Loury, second from the right, at a party in 1970 in the LeClaire Courts public housing development to celebrate his first birthday. Photos courtesy of Alden Loury/WBEZ, Treatment: Penny Hawthorne/WBEZ
WBEZ senior editor Alden Loury, second from the right, at a party in 1970 in the LeClaire Courts public housing development to celebrate his first birthday. Photos courtesy of Alden Loury/WBEZ, Treatment: Penny Hawthorne/WBEZ

Leaving LeClaire Courts for the last time

WBEZ senior editor Alden Loury reflects on the history of the LeClaire Courts public housing development, his childhood home.

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I was born on Friday, Oct. 17, 1969. When my mother brought me home, she took me to a small, two-bedroom unit in the LeClaire Courts public housing development, tucked neatly in the shadow of Interstate 55 near 43rd Street and Cicero Avenue on Chicago’s Southwest Side.

My mom, who was 21 at that time, lived there with her parents and her two younger sisters. Her older brother had left home a few years earlier to attend college and, later, join the military.

Though my mother and I would leave there around the time I turned 3 years old (we moved to the third-floor of a three-flat in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood in the early 1970s), I would return to LeClaire every summer, every winter break, every spring break and on countless weekends and holidays over the next decade.

I came to love my stays there, visiting my grandparents in the mid- to late-1970s and then my aunt and cousins in the early 1980s. Each time my mother drove me there, my eyes would widen and my heart would leap after we exited the expressway, made a left turn onto Cicero and I could see the development come into view. We’d pass the welcome sign at 43rd and Cicero just before turning into the sprawling complex of two-story row houses with white siding and green trim. Though I don’t remember living my first years there as a small child, I have vivid memories of my visits. I can still envision the manicured lawns, beautiful gardens and flower boxes in the front of the homes and neatly pinned garments flapping in the wind on the clotheslines in the back. I remember tagging along with my grandparents as they visited neighbors. You couldn’t tell from the drab, brick exterior of the units, but inside the apartments were immaculate with decorative tables and lamps, plastic runners on the carpet and plastic coverings for the furniture. I still remember sliding off one neighbor’s couch because the covering was so slick.

LeClaire left an indelible mark on me. So many of my firsts happened there: bike ride, kiss, little league game.

LeClaire also helped shape my view of Chicago. It gave me an up-close and personal look at public housing, an honest and unfettered view free from the stigma that shapes how most people see those communities. Over the years, I’ve heard people talk about “the projects” as dens of gangs, drugs and violence. They were considered places to avoid: too many poor people and too many problems, some would say. They were also intensely Black spaces, which for decades has served as a proverbial “do not enter” sign for many.

Perhaps as a child, I wasn’t terribly aware of LeClaire’s struggles, but my memories are of a warm and inviting community where people kept an eye out for trouble, scolded children when they stepped out of line and defended them when they were threatened by others. It was also a place where people lended a hand when needed — one neighbor watched over me and several other kids while our parents and grandparents were at work; another neighbor carried me to my grandfather after I fell from a clothesline behind his home and hit my head on the ground. People shared food, appliances and vehicles to help neighbors get a meal, get the laundry done or get to work.

I lost touch with LeClaire after my aunt and cousins moved from the development in the early 1980s. Decades went by but my love remained strong. I was saddened to hear news reports of killings in the development during the 1990s. And my heart sank when the Chicago Housing Authority announced in the late 2000s that it would close the development.

Even after LeClaire had been emptied out, I’d still relish opportunities to drive past the development on my way to Midway Airport or some other destination in the area. All of those memories would wash over me every time I’d drive past.

However, as I cruised by the development one day in April 2011, my warm trip down memory lane was abruptly interrupted. It was normally a quiet scene as LeClaire had been dormant for years. But on this day, there was a ton of activity. There were trucks, bulldozers and other equipment. There were construction workers, and all the buildings were fenced off.

It was demolition day.

Something came over me. In that instant, I realized this would be the last time I’d see LeClaire. It would be the last time I’d see my childhood home. I had to stop. I had to say goodbye.

I frantically turned into the development and searched for a safe place to park my car. I got out and walked to where my grandparents lived, 4907 W. 43rd Street, the place where I spent my first three years of life. As I approached, I could see over the top of the fencing that the building was already gone. I was too late. It hurt. At that moment, I wished I would’ve taken the time to take pictures of the building during those previous times when I drove past the development.

I stood on the sidewalk near the entrance to the section of the development where my grandparents lived. There were metal posts with chains between them along the side of the path leading into the development. As a little boy, during my summer visits with my grandparents, I would sit and swing on those chains while I waited for my grandfather to come from his job at the post office. I can still see him strutting down 43rd Street with his shades on, a newspaper under his arm and a cigar in his mouth.

I peered through the fencing and envisioned the space as it existed in the 1970s. There was a wide pathway in the back, which is where I learned how to ride a bike. I can still hear my grandfather barking at me as I crashed my bike into various bushes and other obstacles that just kept getting in my way. Each time, he’d tell me to get up and try again. I remember the exhilaration I felt when I could finally ride smoothly down that path. I can still feel the wind blowing in my face.

And I remember feeding my intense love for the game of baseball during my summers in LeClaire. There were early mornings when I’d entertain myself by throwing a rubber ball against the wall of a building and chasing it down with my glove — over and over again, it never got old. Not far from my grandparents’ place was a community center where I often played games of “strikeout” — a popular form of one-on-one baseball where spray-painted black boxes with Xs inside, which were used by players to call balls and strikes, defaced the sides of hundreds of buildings across the city’s South and West sides.

After realizing that my grandparents’ home had already been torn down, I rushed back to my car and drove to the other side of the development, where my aunt and cousins lived. I breathed a sigh of relief as I drove down 44th Street and I could see that the buildings were still standing. My aunt lived in a row of two-story homes near the western edge of the development just a stone’s throw from the LeClaire Courts-Hearst Park.

I got out and walked through the park looking for a way to get past the fencing so I could walk onto the grounds. As I walked, I saw the baseball diamond where I practiced and played little league games. Attendance was scant at that game and there were no bleachers or announcers. We didn’t even have uniforms, but I remember being so excited to play. We might as well have been at Comiskey Park on national television.

I continued walking. Luckily, the fencing was down in one section, and I crossed over it. I was sure that I’d get in trouble, and maybe even arrested, for trespassing, but I didn’t care. I pulled out my phone and started recording as I walked through that section of the development. I got goosebumps as memories flooded my mind.

I saw the playground where I played with my cousins and friends. I saw the telephone pole that we used as home base for our games of hide-and-go-seek. In the distance, I could see the tree where I had my first kiss. During one of my summers there, I remember meeting a girl who lived near my cousins. One day, while we were playing hide-and-seek, she asked if I wanted a kiss. My heart pounded like crazy as I closed my eyes and leaned in, craning my neck up a little bit since she was taller than me. I remember opening my eyes and feeling like I was floating two feet off the ground. As I walked through the area, my memories came with a soundtrack, as I could hear Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell” playing in my head, along with hits of that time from the Commodores, Teena Marie, A Taste of Honey and other artists.

As I approached my aunt’s building, I came across the intersection of two walkways and my thoughts turned to the day I arrived the first summer I would spend with my aunt. It was 1980, I believe. My mother dropped me off and drove away, assuming my aunt was home. But she was out, and I waited for her to return with my suitcase at her front door.

Some older boys were playing just outside her house. They were playing baseball with a stick and an aluminum can and asked me if I wanted to play. I never turned down a chance to play baseball, so I joined them. We smacked the aluminum can around pretty good. Once it was too beat up and too sharp to handle, we’d look around to find another empty can and keep playing. During the game, I hit a shot and tried to stretch a single into a double. Second base was at the intersection of two concrete walkways — the same one on which I stood as I reminisced. It was going to be a close play, so I dove into second base to beat the tag. I made it. But the older boys were stunned that I had slid on the concrete. They joked with me, calling me “Dirty Pete, sliding on concrete.” They knew my real name, but from that day forward, they always called me Dirty Pete.

I walked up to my aunt’s front door. The doors on all of the units had been removed. The windows had no glass. Inside the apartments, much of the paint had been stripped from the walls, and even sections of the walls had been removed to allow workers to move through the units without having to go outside.

I stepped into my aunt’s unit and took a second to soak it all in. I could see the corner where she kept her record player and stereo. It was where I discovered Heatwave’s “Too Hot To Handle” LP — one of my favorites as a kid. I walked into the kitchen and looked out the window. I could see where I played with my cousins and friends out in the back. We’d chase each other around playing tag and all other sorts of games. I stepped out back and looked up to see the edge of the roof of the building and remembered climbing up there one summer. It was like Christmas in July, as I found all sorts of lost rubber balls and other things that had been thrown up there. As I looked up and reminisced, I couldn’t quite figure out how I got myself up there and realized I was probably lucky to not have fallen doing something so reckless.

I went back inside and ventured upstairs where I found the two bedrooms. My aunt and her husband stayed in one bedroom, and I stayed in the other bedroom with my four cousins. I never realized how small the rooms were — they seemed roomy enough for us as kids. As I walked around the room, I remembered the fun times we had goofing off and playing board games like Sorry and Pay Day.

I walked back downstairs and back onto the grounds. As I walked around, more memories came to mind: the time I rode off as fast as I could when a boy tried to steal my bike, the many football games I played with friends in the park and the numerous trips I took with my cousins to buy bread and other staples from a nearby corner store.

I found myself standing at the southern edge of the development looking south at “the homes” — it was the neighborhood of single-family homes just south of LeClaire. As a kid, the homes seemed like a magical place. It was where people with money lived — white people with money.

But the homes didn’t evoke the same mystique as they did 40 years ago. The neighborhood is different. The white residents who lived there in the 1980s were long gone. The physical structures seemed aged and worn.

As I walked back to my car, my thoughts shifted. Instead of the memories of my days visiting relatives in LeClaire, my mind was filled with what was left behind. I looked around and took stock of the entire scene. Before me sat an abandoned public housing development that was, at one time, home to hundreds of low-income Black Chicagoans. The hollowed-out structures, with no doors and no windows, didn’t just sit empty; they seemed soulless. It was like something had sucked the very life out of them and they’d been left to die. And dead they were, no longer filled with the vitality and voices that had filled my head that day.

Sure, there were problems — some so severe, there didn’t seem to be a clear path to solve them. As the city’s Plan for Transformation had done with several other public housing developments in Chicago, LeClaire was deemed unsaveable. It was determined that the best path forward was to tear them down and rebuild something better in their place.

I felt sad but not because my childhood home was being razed. It dawned on me that once the buildings were gone, there would be no trace of LeClaire’s existence: no memorials, no tributes, no landmark to recognize all the lives that had passed through there.

Without the buildings, only the memories would remain. But those memories only belong to those who actually lived there or spent a fair amount of time there. For us, LeClaire would live on in our minds as a true community, a place where the resilience and fortitude of real people was on display each and every day. Folks scrapped and fought — leaning on each other for money, resources and support — to make a way out of no way.

But for the rest of Chicago, perhaps LeClaire would only be remembered as a place of poverty and pain. And soon something shiny and new would rise on its foundation and, for most people, LeClaire would soon be forgotten.

And as I drove away, leaving LeClaire for the last time, I thought about the tragedy unfolding. The fact that only a few of us would truly know about all the things that made LeClaire a joyful place to live and grow.

Alden Loury is senior editor of WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities Desk. Follow him @AldenLoury.