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Basketball star Mickey Johnson returns to North Lawndale: "I'm not looking for glamour. I'm looking for justice."



When the cheering faded, Mickey Johnson was in New Jersey and he decided to go home.

At the time, Johnson was 33 years old and 12 years into a career as a professional basketball player that had taken him to teams in Chicago, San Francisco, and Milwaukee, and finally to the east coast.

"It was simple, really. It was time to come home," says Johnson. "Lots of people feel that way. It's returning to your roots."

Nothing too unusual, except that for Johnson, home is North Lawndale, the heart of the west-side ghetto and one of Chicago's poorest inner-city communities.

Dozens of stars have emerged from North Lawndale's gritty streets. The most famous are basketball greats such as Isiah Thomas, Mark Aguirre, and Johnson, who first burst into fame as the scrappy 6-foot-7 forward on the fabled 1977 Bulls team that fell a couple of jump shots short of upsetting the world champion Portland Trail Blazers.

"A lot of successful people have come out of North Lawndale. You wouldn't know it by reading the newspapers sometimes, but it's true," says Johnson. "The problem is that there's this attitude of once you've made it, you don't come back."

The community is old, tired, and worn. The area once thrived with middle-class blacks and Jews, as well as banks, industries, and jobs. The Jews moved in the 1950s. The middle-class blacks have pulled out as other neighborhoods in Chicago and the suburbs opened up. Now at least half of North Lawndale's residents live under the poverty level. About 13.6 percent of its land is vacant, only 3.3 percent is put to commercial use.

"The underclass" is how the Chicago Tribune categorized most residents here in its "American Millstone," the paper's controversial series on North Lawndale's poor.

And yet Johnson came back. He has no point to prove. It's just that, even with his money and fame, there is no place else he would rather be.

He, his wife Dianna, and his in-laws, Walter and Pandora Matthews, run Concerned Pest Control, an extermination company, out of a storefront that's part of a large terra-cotta building (an old bank) at the corner of Kedzie and Roosevelt Road. Next door, his brother, Linton Johnson Jr., operates a printing business. Around the corner are five residential buildings Johnson and his family own and manage.

His goal, he says, is to offer clean housing and good businesses for Lawndale. That's all. He's not naive. He understands that his contribution will not, suddenly, make North Lawndale rich. Certainly, he and his friends know that his efforts are no substitute for the massive investment, private and public, needed to erase the inequities that have produced North Lawndale's poverty.

"I think it's great that a guy like Mickey Johnson moves back to North Lawndale," says Cecil Butler, president of Pyramidwest Development Corporation, a local redevelopment company that has built thousands of housing units on the west side. "He could move anywhere he wants to, and he's investing in North Lawndale. If there were other people like him the community would be much different."

The praise is repeated to Johnson, and he casually shrugs it off. He's a quiet man. There are no trophies, posters, or mementos of any kind in his storefront office. Self-promotion is not his style.

"My basketball days are part of my past," says Johnson. "I'm proud of it. But there's no need to dwell on it. Reporters are a little mischievous. They take the true meaning out of a story. Or they glamorize it. Well, I'm not looking for glamour. I'm looking for justice.

"There are success stories but the papers don't want to write about it," says Johnson. "And when I ask myself why that is, I begin to think that the papers don't want people out here to know any of that. The Tribune series in particular was intended to make people move out of the area. It was supposed to make people think that they were second-class citizens. They wanted people to think 'Oh, I don't want anyone to know I'm from North Lawndale, so I'll move.'

"But I don't think that it's working. I think most people are saying 'I am from North Lawndale, and I'm not a second-class citizen.' And the problems here are problems that society has to deal with, too."

The community, he insists, is not without hope. It has some resources to develop. His extermination company, for instance, emerged because his brother-in-law was a trained exterminator.

"We get business all over the city," says Johnson. "But we do a lot of the work here in the community. Cecil Butler gave us a contract to exterminate in one of his developments. That was good; we're keeping money in Lawndale. We were able to hire a 19-year-old to work for us. That meant we could put some money in his pocket. It worked out well."

As he talks, he wheels his van down Roosevelt Road, past some vacant lots, churches, and liquor stores. And past other businesses, too, a butcher shop, for instance, as well as outlets for Kentucky Fried Chicken and Church's Fried Chicken.

"See those fast-food joints, they weren't here five years ago," says Johnson. "The fact that they're here is progress, in a way. They serve a purpose. Like wild grass, they grow here first."

In the old days, he says, Roosevelt Road bustled with business. There were hundreds of storefronts, most of them run by Jewish merchants who stayed on even after the original Jewish settlers had moved to the suburbs. But most of the merchants left after the riots of 1968.

"I remember those riots," says Johnson. "It was right after Martin Luther King was shot. Roosevelt Road was in flames. A lot of people say it was people in the area who did the burning. But there are good indications that much of it was arson."

He turns the corner, and continues to Grenshaw--the 3600 block of Grenshaw, to be exact. At first glance, it looks like any one of a hundred blocks in neighborhoods throughout the city--rows of bungalows and three-flats fronted by small plots of grass. You see that building over there? Johnson asks, pointing to a yellow-brick three-flat. That's where I grew up. His wife was raised in the bungalow one house down. They had been friends since they were children; they met in 1957.

"The block is really maintained," he says. "Look at it, you can see. There isn't much trash or garbage blowing around. People take care of their property.

"We only have one abandoned building on the block. Unfortunately, it's owned by the CHA. We tried to buy it, but the CHA wouldn't let us. We asked them if they would rehabilitate it. They would not give us the word. It was occupied when they bought it, and then the CHA turned all the tenants out. They said they were going to rehab it, and then rent it out to people as part of their scattered-site public-housing program.

"But, you know bureaucracies. They never got around to rehabbing it. So it just sits there vacant. Kids get in. For a while, someone was keeping pit bulls in there. I called the CHA, and they boarded the building up. But that doesn't make sense. That won't solve the problem. To solve the problem, you have to put people there."

Johnson hops out of his van and enters a two-flat near the end of the block. It's his latest effort.

"We're still working on it," he says, sweeping open the front door and leading the way down a darkened hallway. A pile of wood rests on a floor that is streaked with paint. Most of the walls are freshly plastered; the cabinets, toilets, and bathroom sink are new. Johnson figures the unit still needs some last-minute fixing before tenants can move in.

"I want to sand the floors and varnish them. In some cases, I'll do the work; in others, I hire out. The biggest job is finding the right tenant. We screen our tenants. You've got to. We don't let just anybody in. This is a two-bedroom. So our policy is no more than four people can live here: a husband, a wife, and two kids of the same sex.

"A building is like any other business. It has its function. You can abuse it by putting too many people into it. Or you can underuse it by not putting enough people in. You're always looking for an equilibrium.

"Could I do this in Lincoln Park? No. It's not financially feasible. I paid $6,000 for this building. I figure I put about $15,000 in. Once I'm done I would sell it for about $40,000. Before that, we could get most of the money back from the rent.

"But on the north side? In Lincoln Park this building would cost me $100,000. At least. Rents here aren't as high. But you can make things work here. The big problem here is control. You have to have control. In managing a building, your biggest problem is the tenant. We check where they come from. It's my business to know where they are living. I won't look at the structure of their building--that the tenant can't control. But I will see how they take care of their unit.

"We lay down the rules up front. We tell our tenants that if our maintenance goes up, their rent rises, too. It's fair. We do our best for them. They deserve as much. It's their money that they're paying for rent. My point is that you can make money providing decent housing for poor people in North Lawndale. You can't make as much money as you would in Lincoln Park. But you will be taking care of greater needs."

He snaps off the light and ambles out to his van, directing it down a side street that leads past a complex of enormous buildings that seems to run for miles.

It's the old Sears headquarters, Johnson explains. It's abandoned today. At one point, however, Sears claimed to have the largest commercial building in the world. As a teen, Johnson worked in the mail room here. It seems that almost everyone in North Lawndale was touched by Sears. They operated several banks and a YMCA. In many ways, North Lawndale was a company town. Only now the company is gone.

"Originally, Sears wasn't going to build a big tower downtown," says Johnson. "They wanted to build a corporate center right here. It was going to be one of those sprawling complexes, like you see out in the suburbs. That was in the 60s. I remember seeing the floor models on display in a bank. They were going to have golf courses and everything. Can you imagine that? Right here in North Lawndale.

"But Mayor Daley didn't want it. He didn't want to displace all the people. He had had so many problems with the Italians and Greeks [in Little Italy] who were moved for Circle Campus. Daley didn't want to have to go through all of that again. So he stopped the project, and Sears built downtown."

He falls silent and weaves his van down a side street, past another vacant weed-filled lot, and an old factory, whose walls have caved in. The sidewalks around the factory are cluttered with the rotting remains of dozens of tires.

Do you think, Johnson is asked, that the Sears complex would have made a difference? Would it have transformed North Lawndale? He shakes his head.

"What good is development if you're only moving people?" Johnson says. "It's like the Bears' stadium. What's the point of building it if the poor people aren't going to be around to get some of the benefits? I'm for the Bears' stadium, but only if they let the revenue pour westward. You can't choke the profits. Let them flow. But all too often, they just use development to move people out. Like the people are the problem, and not the fact that they don't have jobs or money. North Lawndale needs an investment. But the people of North Lawndale have to be here to control that investment.

"That's the key--control. It's like the Pinocchio story I like to tell the kids. Most people think that Pinocchio is about telling the truth. You know, how his nose got long whenever he told a lie.

"But I tell the kids that the story of Pinocchio is about getting educated so you can lose the strings that control you. It's all about learning to control your own life. And that's what we have to do here in North Lawndale, too."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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