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Building Tension

UIC defended its Maxwell Street land grab by pledging to construct, among other things, student dormitories. But some single parents are being forced to move from this plush new dorm to less desirable housing.



Over a year has passed since the University of Illinois at Chicago had the last of the tenants and property owners evicted from the old open-air market around Maxwell Street. Now, in the latest twist in a land-use struggle that's gone on for almost a decade, the university's evicting some students from a dormitory built on the land--even though it once claimed it had to destroy the Maxwell Street Market for the sake of students.

Eighteen undergraduates, all of them African-American single moms, now live in the relatively luxurious dormitory, the Marie Robinson Residence Hall, at Maxwell and Halsted, but next fall they'll have to move into a high-rise on the west end of the campus. "They used us to justify getting rid of the old market--and then when they didn't need us anymore they just let us go," says Jennifer Smith, a senior who's being moved along with her eight-year-old son. "It's an old game."

To school officials the dormitory, which houses a total of about 330 students, is one step in UIC's transition from a commuter school to a first-class research institution, a process that began in the early 90s when they announced plans to extend the campus south of Roosevelt Road. The descriptions of the plans were never very specific, but the university promised to build new classrooms, research facilities, and student residences, along with all the amenities such an expansion would require.

The property they wanted ran along Halsted, roughly from Roosevelt to 16th Street, an area that encompassed the Maxwell Street Market. Mayor Daley, who made no secret of his disdain for the market or the people who did business there, went along with the university's plan, using the city's power of eminent domain to allow UIC to buy the property and demolish most of the buildings--a $600-million project that wiped out dozens of businesses.

The first phase of construction in the cleared area is now under way, and UIC and private developers have been putting up mostly pricey town houses and condos--eventually 900 units will be built. So far the Robinson dorm, which opened last August, is the only facility to have been built specifically for students, though UIC officials insist it won't be the last. "The exact identity of the new buildings has not yet been determined, but they will be there," says Mark Rosati, associate chancellor for public affairs. "The campus is facing a space need."

Many of the people who fought to save the Maxwell Street Market say they see nothing to justify what was lost. They recall a time when Maxwell Street was a valuable port-of-entry community for immigrant Jews, southern blacks, and Hispanics. "There was a culture to Maxwell Street," says Steve Balkin, an economics professor at Roosevelt University, echoing arguments he made throughout the fight to save the area. "On any block along that stretch there was a valuable piece of history that was well worth preserving, but the university and the city erased all of that."

He says this includes the 1300 block of South Halsted, where the Robinson dorm is located. "Bernard Abrams used to run a radio and TV repair shop there. Blues musicians like Little Walter used to gather on the corner outside Abrams's store and play. Abrams initially recorded Little Walter, before he signed with Chess. It's all part of our blues past. But it's gone now."

Early on university and city officials dismissed Balkin and his allies as gadflies who were interfering with progress, though the university did agree to preserve six or seven old buildings along Halsted. They're now vacant and will eventually be gutted and turned into shops. But Balkin remains bitter. "I don't think the south-campus plan was really about building a dormitory. I think the dorms are a subterfuge, giving [the university and city] a token of academic purpose. In reality, it was an old-fashioned land grab--just like the preservation of those old buildings is a subterfuge. It's not the preservation of the people or the culture or the businesses that made Maxwell Street--they're stripping those buildings of any sign of the real indigenous culture."

Balkin says the university hasn't made good on all that it promised. "I remember when we first had the big fight back in '93 and '94," he says. "The university would always hit us on the head, saying, 'How can you compare the social benefits of an open market with research labs that could find the next cure for cancer?' My question is, 'Where are the research labs?' As far as I can see, there aren't any that are even planned. But they are putting up condos and town houses. Isn't that something? They can't put up research labs, but they can build expensive housing. I can understand building dorms. But what are they doing in the condo business?"

Jennifer Smith didn't know this history when she transferred from Southern Illinois University to UIC in 1998. But she quickly saw that UIC hadn't done much to provide housing for students with children: "SIU was way ahead of UIC on these things."

She raised the issue in an E-mail to Anthony Martin, UIC's housing director. "I understand that UIC was originally a commuter institution, but as time has progressed, so has the status of this university," she wrote. "Dorms were erected to house students who elected to live close to campus at an affordable rate. These dormitories accommodate traditional students. What about the nontraditional student?"

Martin wrote back to say that there was a growing demand for on-campus student housing. "Not only do I not have any available space at all (and a substantial waiting list), but the only apartment-style building I have (SSR) is not specifically adapted for the needs of married students or single parents"--a reference to a high-rise dorm called Single Student Residence. He did say that help was on the way: "In our planning for additional student housing here at UIC, I've been working on a fairly detailed plan for apartments as part of the South Campus development--that hopefully will be available in 2001. I recognize that you have expressed an 'immediate need' and are less interested in plans for future students. But I wanted to mention that in my planning for 750 additional student beds, 100 will be earmarked and especially provided for single parents and possibly married students."

And indeed, in 2001 the university began soliciting applications from students with children who might be interested in living in Robinson. That August, Smith and 17 other students with kids moved in.

From the start, they had mixed feelings about their new digs. They recognized that their two-bedroom units were more spacious than most dorm rooms. They also appreciated the playrooms that had been set aside for their children, most of whom were under five. But there were no peepholes in the doors. "You couldn't see who was knocking and wanted to come in," says Erika Finley, who lives in the dorm with her daughter. "There was also a mice problem early on."

It also struck them as odd that the university said they were part of a pilot program. "It was like they weren't really committed to providing permanent housing for students with families," says Smith. "By calling it a pilot program it was more like an experiment that might end any day." And they thought it was curious that all of the women chosen for the program were African-American single moms. "We wondered where the white or Hispanic parents were," says Bonita Harrison, another student in the dorm.

In October, Harrison and some of the other students wrote a letter to Martin stating their concerns, and he came to meet with them. In retrospect, they think the letter may have been a mistake. "I think he took it the wrong way," says Finley. "He took it personally, as though we didn't appreciate everything he was trying to do for us. But really it's not supposed to be personal. It's not supposed to be about him at all."

On April 1, Martin sent the students a form letter telling them that they would have to move out of Robinson. "I would like to continue this pilot program into the 2002-2003 academic year," he wrote. "Only after more cooperation, dialogue and hard work can we assess whether this program can meet its goal of making a real difference in the lives of its participants. However, while I want to continue this program for next year, I would like to relocate it to an area that I feel will be better able to meet the variety of your needs. For the next year, the Family Housing Pilot Program will be housed on the 5th floor of SSR on the west side of campus. This relocation will allow us to better address some of the concerns expressed by many of you."

The students say that SSR raises many more concerns than Robinson. "The rooms are smaller," says Finley. "There's no space for family dining or playrooms for the children to play. The windows extend from the floor to the ceiling, and they open inwards, which allows enough space for a child to fall through. There's no nearby parking. It's an area with more crime, so it's not as safe for the kids. Whatever problems we might have had with this place, we definitely don't want to move there."

Martin referred all questions to Rosati, who says the move was decided on partly in response to the students' complaints about their current dorm. "Robinson is in the middle of the south-campus construction area, so there were concerns about isolation and a lack of good sidewalks," he says. "They are being moved to a more densely populated hall in a more densely populated section of campus. We think it offers them more opportunities. Will the family program be in SSR forever? I don't know. It could be moved back to south campus. We'll evaluate it."

Smith finds it ironic that they're being moved to the very dormitory Martin originally said was inappropriate for students with families. "They say they're looking out for us," she says, "but I don't think this is about our needs at all."

She and her fellow dorm mates suspect the university is simply trying to maximize the fees it charges at Robinson. "The university charges us $833 a month, or about $7,500 for nine months," she says. "A single student without children pays $5,500. If you put two in the rooms--and remember these are two-bedroom units--that's $11,000."

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

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