Friday, August 05, 2016

(Photos) The abandoned homes of Chicago's violent West Pullman neighborhood (or Roseland part two)

"He used often to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. 'It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,' he used to say. 'You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to." Frodo Baggins about Bilbo in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring.

And so I found that Road again. To Chicago's South Side. To West Pullman and back to Roseland.

First of all, many thanks to all everyone who enjoyed, and related to, the preceding post in my Chicago urban exploration series about Roseland. Sometimes I stare at my desktop screen and wonder if anyone is reading what I write, and if they do, if they even care. Thank you for reading and caring.

Before I proceed I want to address valid complaints I received on Facebook about how I delineated the borders of Roseland, which, if you didn't read by last entry, is where I spent my early childhood. In the 1930s the the Social Science Research Committee of the University of Chicago divided the city into 75 community areas, later expanded to 77. The border between Roseland and West Pullman, according to these long-dead academics, is 115th Street. But many readers objected to my boundary declaration. Community areas are not necessarily neighborhoods, and there are many people who are Old Roseland expatriates but lived south of 115th Street--but north of 119th. And there are many businesses south of 115th with "Roseland" in their name.

Alexander Adduci, who was alderman of the 9th Ward, which encompassed part of Roseland, for most of the 1970s, told an interviewer recently that he was born, "In Roseland, in Chicago, Illinois. Was born on 117th Street, 308 E. 117th Street."

Fair enough.

We'll be hearing from Adduci again.

There is "one Road," Bilbo Baggins says. Here is one road, namely Halsted Street, which takes us over a not-so-great river, the Little Calumet from the suburb of Riverdale into West Pullman.

I didn't have to venture far to find my first abandoned house, a bungalow at 12614 S. Wentworth.

And now let's discuss the boundaries of West Pullman. The northern border is, well, somewhere around 115th Street, the eastern boundary is the Metra Electric line railroad tracks, which used to belong to the old Illinois Central Railroad, to the west the neighborhood ends at Ashland Avenue, while the suburbs of Calumet Park and Riverdale mark the southwest and southern limits of West Pullman.

West Pullman is currently ranked 21st among Chicago's 77 neighborhoods in regards to its violent crime rate.

Moving north I found a group of three apartment buildings on the 12300 block of Lowe. One of them wasn't even secured--anyone could walk in. But abandoned buildings aren't necessarily unoccupied buildings. Homeless people sometimes people live in them. And street gangs sometimes store drugs in vacant structures so these astute but evil merchants can keep their product close to their customers.

I didn't walk inside these buildings--but later I would get another opportunity to yield to temptation.

This eyesore is on the 11700 block of S. Halsted.

Here's a less obvious eyesore. Along this stretch of Halsted are banners that read "The South Halsted Street Corridor Redevelopment, Carrie M. Austin, Alderman, and Richard M. Daley, Mayor." Daley hasn't been mayor for five years, which is a good enough reason to remove the banners, but they are just rags now. On the other hand, they are accurate representations of West Pullman and the rest of Chicago. Stick with me on this point.

A couple of blocks west of here, while driving on Peoria Street, I ran into some trouble. A young man was repeatedly chest-bumping a man in his sixties while a young woman looked on. I thought they were just goofing off, but the old fella's facial expression said otherwise. The tension was as thick as the humidity, and man, it was quite humid that day. I was about to say something, but then I glanced at the other side of the street. Another young guy wearing a cocked baseball cap with a scowl plastered on his face raised both of his hands--and his middle fingers were extended. I drove away.

There is blight--which you've seen several examples so far here--and Detroit-style post blight. This is what you'll find on the southwest corner of 116th Street and Eggleston, a ramshackle shed overgrown with brush and weeds. Nature always finds a way.

Two abandoned homes on the 11800 block of LaSalle Street.

In my preceding post in this series, I discussed blockbusting, which is the use of scare tactics by unscrupulous real estate agents to turn over a neighborhood from white to black, who then make a fortune by collecting copious commissions. The end result is known as white flight. I remarked in that entry that because of the abuse of the FHA loan program, which should really be called the FHA Loan Scandal, many blacks saw their credit ruined when the federal government--these were federally guaranteed loans--took possession of these houses because the mortgage payments weren't made.

Here's what Ald. Adduci said in 2014 about blockbusting from his home in Mount Greenwood on Chicago's Southwest Side, which was a common resettling location of the Roseland and West Pullman diaspora, particularly those who worked in municipal government and were compelled to live in Chicago:
We were trying to outlaw blockbusting by the real estate men from coming in and trying to go through a whole neighborhood. At that time, my understanding was you could buy any home in Roseland, you didn't have to have a credit rating, you did not have to have a down payment, all you needed was closing costs. If you came up with closing costs, $250 to $350, that home was sold anywhere from 18 to 20, to 25 to $30,000 in the greater Roseland area, and West Pullman.
You got that? Some people with horrid credit, courtesy of the FHA, were still able to buy homes. And the US Department of Housing and Urban Development found itself in the blight management business for a few years.

But, again I know I'm repeating myself, the end, no matter how awful it is, always justifies the means with liberal social engineers, and so it was with the Federal Housing Administration in the late 1960s and the early 1970s.

Adduci certainly discovered that outside of the blatantly unconstitutional law that banned "For Sale" signs for a while, local officials were powerless to prevent panic peddling.

Although the liberals that run west suburban Oak Park somehow manage to keep their ban on "For Sale" signs in place.

Around the corner from the forsaken houses in the previous photo is a tiny bungalow with an abandoned home on each side of it. To the left of the "red X" house is yet another abandoned dwelling.

What's at the end of this overgrown vacant lot? An abandoned home, what else did you expect?

Aducci was born in Kensington, the heart of Italian Roseland, but it had another name, Bumtown. That's because the Dutch Reformed residents, who literally looked down on this area, dismissed those who lived there as "bums" because there were taverns there serving alcohol. Michigan Avenue sits on the high point of a ridge, to the east of that incline is Kensington. Although Adduci says that Bumtown got its name from hobos who would ride the rails and disembark at the Kensington I.C. station.

The focal point for the Italians in Kensington was of course a church, in this case St. Anthony of Padua Roman Catholic Church on Prairie Street.

That's Kensington Park. The basketball backboard is bent forward. Who did that? Godzilla? Who is going to repair it? Probably no one. Neither backboard has nets.There are two baseball diamonds with what seems to be a major league quality clay infield mix, but the diamond in the background is becoming overgrown with weeds. There's an overhead sprinkler type of shower in the park; I decided to take the plunge because as I mentioned earlier it was a muggy day. But I nearly broke my neck because a moss slime had developed on the concrete below it, I came dangerously close to falling. Who maintains this park? Well, the Chicago Park District is supposed to, but because of unfunded pension obligations it is broke--its bonds are rated as junk. And so are those of Chicago proper. As are those of Chicago Public Schools.

What you are seeing is the death of a city.

On 118th Place across from the former St. Salomea Catholic School, which is now a charter school, is this crackbrained street gang memorial, an unsecured vacant home. Unlike the third-picture-down apartment building, this dwelling I walked into. It seemed safe, but so did the Mexicantown house I strolled into in Detroit last summer, where a prostitute had just finished entertaining a trick. Lust was in the Motor City air. She asked, "Are you game?" I wasn't--and since then I've been lucky and not found anyone inside any of the abandoned homes I've dared to enter elsewhere in Detroit, or in Chicago, or the depressed suburbs of Harvey and Dixmoor.

The graffiti next to where the door used to be reads, "RIP Roc Block," and as far as I can gather Roc Block is a South Chicago faction of the notorious Black P Stone Nation gang.

In the 1960s Kensington had a gang, the Bumtown Gents, which were probably comprised of Fonzie-type street toughs, nothing like today's hoodlums who are destroying most of America's cities.

"Wakie, wakie, wakie" I hollered as I walked into the criminals' temple. I figured if someone was inside, they'd yell, "Get the fuck out of here," back at me. But no one answered. My good luck continued. Inside was pleasant, as far as abandoned homes go, the smell of urine and feces was absent. Roc Block is surely smiling back from hell.

The half-mile on either side of Michigan from 101st up to 119th is what I call the "Bloody Wedge" of Roseland and West Pullman, and yes, of the Wild 100s. Cool term, Bloody Wedge, which I lifted not from Charles Dickens, but a Car 54 Where Are You? episode.

I only steal from the greats.

St. Salomea is now Salem Baptist Church. In 1998 the church led a drive--wouldn't that have jeopardized their tax exempt status?--to vote Kensington precincts dry. It succeeded. Where do the "bums" drink now?

Kensington has a noticeable Hispanic population. This family is walking down Kensington Avenue after departing from the #34 Michigan Avenue bus. Roseland and West Pullman are not exclusively African American neighborhoods. Oh, note the sliding chain link gate behind them.

The aforementioned St. Anthony of Padua has a Spanish language mass every Sunday.

There's an Hispanic grocer, El Porvenir Ogo, at 150 E. Kensington Avenue. El Porvenir translates into English as "the Future." Is a majority Hispanic Roseland and West Pullman in the future? Possibly, because there is an ongoing black exodus from Chicago and even its suburbs by those looking for a better life.

But there is probably a more ominous future in store for those who remain.

What's in the picture? A whole lot of nothing. To be more specific, that's the southwest corner of 115th and Michigan, once the heart of one of Chicago's most vibrant shopping districts. According to friend-of-the-blog Kathy Pesavento Kraus, who supplied invaluable documents for researching this post, a large pharmacy stood at that corner. But not Walgreens, that was on 111th. In the distance is the Curtis School of Excellence, which based on its anemic test scores, this Chicago Public Schools turnaround school is anything but that. Most Chicago public schools have "Academy of Higher Learning" or "College Prep" or some other empty boast in their titles, but these schools for the most part serve as proof that spray-painting a turd gold does not transform it into a precious metal. Chicago children desperately need school choice.

The type of stores that existed in Old Roseland were mainly family-owned operations, the type where the owner, or perhaps another family member, dutifully swept the sidewalks in front of their establishments each morning and afternoon, and shoveled snow when needed. That Car 54 Where Are You? episode I mentioned a few paragraphs earlier captures an accurate feel of a typical 1960s urban retail strip.

But 21st-century Michigan Avenue on the Far South Side needs much more than a broom and a snow shovel.

This architectural gem, which is graced by a witches hat turret, sits on the corner of 115th and State Street, that not-so-great street. Is this what building owners do in Syria to protect their property? Walling off front doors with bricks?

The S. Cohen Building at 11526 S. Front Avenue, built in 1894, is another bricked off eyesore. One half-mile away is the Pullman National Monument. The tourists will just adore the S. Cohen Building, dontcha think?

But how 'bout that shrubbery!

Do you remember those tattered Mayor Richard M. Daley--Alderman. Carrie M. Austin banners several photos up? This pile of rubbish lays a minute's walk away from them.

Who is going to clean this mess up? Probably no one.

Here's an all-too-common sight in Chicago's distressed neighborhoods. Metal thieves have scavenged the aluminum siding from this Michigan Avenue abandoned dwelling, exposing asphalt brick which may contain asbestos.

"Decline and fall, fall down baby,
Decline and fall, said fall way down now,
Decline and fall, fall down little mama."
The Rainmakers, Government Cheese.

So what's next for Roseland, West Pullman, and the rest of Chicago?

More empty homes. More blight. More post-blight. And fewer people. The city's population is already at its lowest level in nearly a century. Chicagoans just got slugged with a massive property tax increase to pay for unfunded generous pensions for municipal workers. Democratic politicians such Mayor Richard M. Daley made deals with public-sector unions in exchange for votes and campaign contributions. But Daley and the compliant and useless City Council didn't properly fund these promises and now the bill is due. And as the roll of city worker retirees grows that bill is going to get much higher.

"Sure was a good idea, 'til greed got in the way."
Bob Dylan, Union Sundown.

Just two days ago Daley's successor, Rahm Emanuel, proposed a higher water and sewer tax to assist in the pension bailout. What's next? A sales tax increase? A municipal income tax? A commuter tax? Ask Detroit how those last two have worked out for it.

In a Forbes column published this week, John Mauldin explains the Detroit-style downward spiral that faces Chicago. Fed-up homeowners and business operators who pay higher taxes for fewer municipal services will scream "Enough!" and move away. But when these taxpayers sell their property they will find few takers. Real estate, as with any commodity, is all about supply-and-demand. And potential buyers will look at the property tax burden they'll face and propose fair, but lowball offers. If Chicago's financial situation continues to decline, which I strongly believe it will, the next time these properties are for sale those old lowball offers will appear quite generous.

Roman Gribbs, who was mayor of Detroit in the early 1970s, hiked real estate taxes by 30 percent. And revenue--wait for it--declined.

Decline and fall.

I spoke of white flight earlier in this entry. Taxpayer flight is coming soon to Chicago. Maybe it has already arrived.

Three bullet holes in a window--I guess the alarm system doesn't work--at a West Pullman bungalow on the 800 block of West Vermont Street.

Chicago's soaring murder rate gives residents another reason to flee.

Changing state law so municipalities and government agencies can declare bankruptcy is Chicago's only way out of this catastrophe. It will be painful and it will punish pensioners, taxpayers themselves, whose promises from the government will go partially unfulfilled. And the public-sector unions, who really are nothing more than an arm of the Democratic Party, will howl so loud the few people left in Detroit will hear it.

Chicago's future, or if you prefer its porvenir, is bleak.

Thanks for this post also goes out to Cal Skinner of the McHenry County Blog.

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Next: Chatham

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Kathy Kraus said...

Amazing article once again, John. I will be posting it on my Facebook page for all my fellow Roseland friends to read, as well as, forwarding it to my 7 siblings. Such a sad, but oh so true, story of a once family orientated and ethnic community. Ask anyone who lived in the ROSELAND, Kensington and Pullman area, before 1970, of-course, and I can guarantee they will say that it was the best place to grow up. We were all heart broken when we had no other choice than to move to the suburbs. I had just graduated from Fenger High School in 1969. We moved the following year. I am the fourth oldest of 7 siblings. We first moved to Midlothian and then neighboring Oak Forest. My parents had finally convinced Grandma and Grandpa to leave Roseland and move in with us because it was no longer safe for them to remain. They used to be able to walk everywhere and they loved that and now you couldn't walk around the block! So we needed a bigger house. They bought a bi-level home and converted the lower level into living quarters for them. Now in their seventies they had no choice but to leave their home at 11428 South Yale where they had lived for so many years. They had lived in that house since surviving the Great Depression. They had already lost their beautiful 3 story brick home on 95th and Edbrooke during the depression. My mother told me about how devastated and heartbroken grandma was when they lost that house. My Italian ancestors settled in Kensington in the early 1900's. My grandfather, James "Tippy Basile, first arrived here through Ellis Island with his mother from Italy to join his father who came to America after Grandpa was born to pursue a better life for his family. When his dad saved up enough money working on the railroad, he sent for them. They were finally a family again. He lived on the same street as Alderman Alex Adducci's parents. This is just the "short" story of one of ROSELAND'S many families. Many thanks and appreciation to you, John, for the photos and the "trip down memory lane" as I won't be visiting Roseland anytime soon, only in my dreams! Kathy (Pesavento) Kraus

Cal Skinner said...


No photo of the shower?

Anonymous said...

Who can resist the temptation of buying a home with no money down?
Who can resist the temptation of a well-paying job, when one is out of work, as a mortgage loan originator or home appraiser?
Who should be expected to resist temptation of millions in profits generated by parceling then bundling discrete aspects of financial lending instruments?
Who must be expected to resist the temptation of arguments (accompanied by enormous sums of money/and/or/threat of enormous sums of money for political opponents) that if rules are not structured to benefit such a financial system then life as we know it will cease to exist?

If we know our own tendencies to repeat this cycle, we should want to devise a system which will protect us all from our own natures in the future.
But whose job is it to devise and execute this new system?
I think all of us have to decide we are not adversarial to fellow humans, and recognize common benefits that come with governing our own individual behavior with that factor in mind.

Anonymous said...

Wow! Good story about the area I grew up in! Thank you to everyone that contributed!